Thursday, April 19, 2007

Call it Sci Fi or Phi Fi it should be provocative

Science fiction is provocative fiction, says Canadian author Robert Sawyer. It’s fiction that explores current, relevant issues of importance, both today and tomorrow.

Sawyer is currently in the midst of a book tour, promoting his new novel, Rollback. Today he appeared at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. as part of the “What If ... Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum.” He spoke on "Science Fiction as a Mirror for Reality"

From its beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through H.G. Wells to today’s writers science fiction has fearlessly delved into social commentary, Sawyer said, exploring topical issues of great importance. Frankenstein was an exploration of women’s reproductive rights. Wells exmained British imperialism (The War of the Worlds) and that country’s class system (The Time Machine) as well as variety of other pressing issue of the time.

Among hot button issues of our day, Sawyer has explored abortion rights and the existence of God. In Rollback, he looks an aging. The rollback refers to am expensive experimental procedure that “rolls back” the effects of aging – but it doesn’t work for everyone and everyone can’t afford it.

Even science fiction movies of the not too distant past had a social conscience, Sawyer said. There is, of course, The Day the Earth Stood Still (my all-time favorite movie), which wasn’t really about aliens from outer space, but the Cold War or Planet of the Apes, which waded into the dicey topic of race relations.

Sadly, science fiction drifted away from social commentary with the appearance of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Sawyer said. To be fair, space operas existed well before Lucas, but it was the rousing popular success of his movies that led science fiction away from its roots as the literature (and film) of provocation.

Sawyer noted that Lucas blatantly ignored some important issues that surfaced in his film. When we first meet Han Solo, for example, he’s a drug runner. There’s nothing said about the ethics of his actions. Nor are the ethics of Luke Skywalker examined. In the movie, Luke is a slave owner. Those two cute ‘droids aren’t free to follow the dictates of their own will, they’re slaves. Here’s assignment for you: compare and contrast the treatment of the ‘droids with that of their human (and alien) companions in the film.

Much of science fiction literature and film drifted away from any serious exploration of social issues after Star Wars, Sawyer contends. And, as a result of the film, the public perception of science fiction is that the genre was only about entertainment. That, Sawyer makes clear, was unfortunate.

Even as he exmaines controversial social issues in his writing, Sawyer said, he isn’t interested in swaying readers to his point of view. He believes this is true of most sci fi writers as well. Instead, he said, writers of science fiction want people to think about an issue – perhaps in a way they haven’t thought about it before – and develop their own viewpoint.

At its best, Sawyer said science fiction is really philosophical fiction. Yes, that makes him a “phi fi” writer.


One other note: Sawyer had an intriguing (OK, provocative) take on why Canada boasts so many excellent writers. A quick shortlist includes Sawyer, William Gibson, Robert Charles Wilson, Alice Munro (arguably the greatest short story writer today) and Margaret Atwood. Sawyer believes Canada produces so many talented writers because of socialized medicine. It’s not that writers in Canada are healthier than Americans, but that they have more time to write; they begin earlier and can writer longer. It makes sense. Many American authors write only as a sideline. They have to have a real “job” to secure health insurance. It’s an intriguing idea. Exactly what you’d expect from Rob Sawyer.

1 comment:

  1. I have two favorite authors who happen to be Canadian: Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker. Both are fantasy authors.