Talking Shop: Are You Predicting the Automobile or the Traffic Jam?

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If there’s any guilty pleasure that I indulge, it’s a great sci-fi story.

While works such as those that belong to Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and Heinein’s Stranger in a Strange Land may be classified as “high literature,” the vast majority of sci-fi is considered genre fiction–often eschewed by academia as being of a lower-tier than literary fiction.

Maybe it’s because of the pulpy background. after all, most speculative fiction (whether sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or noir) comes from pulp magazines that could be purchased for a dime. Maybe it’s because they were originally marketed toward children alongside comics and superhero stories. Or maybe it’s just plain, intellectual snobbery.

In any event, despite its tendency to explore deep themes of philosophy (a la Ubik by Philip K. Dick or The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin,) politics (i.e. 1984 by George Orwell and the Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin,) and religion (A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, “Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke, and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis) this genre is often eschewed by more literary-minded readers.

But it shouldn’t be. 

Because if there’s one thing that well-written sci-fi does well, it’s to take a deep look into the softer sciences–those of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Ushered in by “New Wave” sci-fi authors, the genre’s themes deepened. The style became more subtle. The prose improved. Rather than asking questions pertaining to hard sci-fi–“What might first contact with an alien civilization look like?” or “What sort of technology could get us out of our solar system?”–this New Wave asked the deeper questions. It asked questions more likely relegated to theology, philosophy, and sociology textbooks, such as “Would an advance in technology fundamentally change human nature?” and “What exactly constitutes ‘human nature’ and can it be recreated through artificial intelligence?” and “Is ‘the Singularity’ an actual possibility?” and “What social conventions, folkways, and mores do humans exhibit as a species?”

Perhaps the main thrust of intellectual science fiction was best summarized by Frederick Pohl, who stated “A good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

What about your own writing? Is it superficial, or does it ask the hard questions? Does it predict the automobile, or the traffic jam?

It’s the latter that I prefer to write, and it’s the latter I prefer to read. 

As a reminder, I’m currently on the lookout for short stories of the speculative fiction variety done well. Sci-fi, Fantasy, Flash Fiction; you name it. If you think your story might fit the bill, check out the submission guidelines and send it my way. 

Book Recommendation: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, is a decidedly peculiar book.

The children’s fantasy novel is Victorian through-and-through: it makes use of goblins, a good-natured monarchy, and a heroic working-class protagonist: Curdie, the miner.

It was published only seven years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and certainly a reader can easily draw comparisons between the two. Both appeal to the same demographic: middle-aged children who  find the miraculous amidst the tedium of every-day life. Both stories involve a heroine who is swept into serendipitous adventure. Neither girl was looking for said adventure.

As you progress through MacDonald’s story, however, you begin to notice some pronounced allusions to the spiritual world. Princess Irene stumbles upon her great-great (etc.) grandmother while exploring the labyrinthine passageways of her castle. Irene’s great grandmother seems to have a touch of the Divine–only some characters can see her, if they’re ready–but who or what she is exactly, remains undiscovered.

The Grandmother-figure gifts Princess Irene with a magic ring (fantasy readers may see parallels to the One Ring in Tolkien’s work) which is attached to a string that always leads Irene back to her Grandmother (and safety.)

What I love about MacDonald’s novel is that it is anything but heavy-handed. There are spiritual applications to be made, but he eschews allegory at every turn. Even for a book 147-years old, the tale took unpredictable twists.

Perhaps the best summation of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is told right from the get-go: “Every little girl is a princess,” he tells us, meaning that she’s a daughter of a King. He adds: “She’s always in danger of forgetting her rank.”

One can easily surmise that the string attached to Irene’s magical ring represents the spiritual life: sometimes it defies our understanding of the natural world. It is all but invisible. But if the wayfarer, and indeed the reader, walk by faith and not by sight, she’s sure to find her way.

Thank you, George MacDonald, for keeping us from forgetting our rank.