Alt Title: Where Has All the Wonder Gone?
Long before my father read me The Hobbit as a bedtime story, long before I ever read The Lord of the Rings, I was a fan of science fiction. The local public broadcast station used to show a four-hour marathon of Star Trek: The Original Series every day around noon, and considering it was one of only two channels I was allowed to watch as a wee little one, as far back as I can remember, from the time I could reliably operate a remote, I would tune in every noon to watch Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise explore the universe and encounter aliens.
To this day, the one scene where a shirtless Sulu goes fiendishly fencing through the corridors of the Enterprise remains forever engraved upon my mind as pure awesome.
From there, it was but a happy skip to the movies, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and the entire book franchise. Any time there was any news of a new Star Trek something, I was on it like a Ferengi on a pyramid scheme.
I’m still waiting for a decent Star Trek series starring a captain who just happens to be a woman, by the way.
In any case, by then, my repertoire of watchable channels had expanded to include1 Sci-Fi2, TNN3, and USA4, and it was on one fateful day in 1994 that I watched my first episode of Babylon 5. It is such a shame that series never caught on with a wider audience because it is better than Star Trek. “Lightyears ahead of anything else on television!” indeed.
Stargate: SG1 followed shortly after and quickly added itself to the list of “Shows I shall follow to the very bitter end”. And I did.
Now, you can’t claim to be a sci-fi fan without mentioning Star Wars somewhere, and for a good while, I was a happy little Star Wars fan in spite of being a Trekkie at the same time5. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have read every single novel set in the Star Wars universe that was written before 2005, and that the only reason I stopped was because college tends to eat up all of one’s free reading time.
Which brings me to the written side of the sci-fi genre. There was a time when I practically lived in libraries. I had books stashed everywhere, even under my pillow, and every night, I and my finely-honed secret undetectable flashlighting skills6 would stay up into the wee hours of the morning reading. And read I did: Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, Douglas Adams, K. A. Applegate7, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard8, Octavia E. Butler, Glen Cook, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Anne McCaffrey… the list goes on and on, and while not all of them were great or even good, most of them were enjoyable enough to keep me reading their works. And of them all, I would have to say that Asimov and Verne have remained the favorites, as far as science fiction goes.
Sadly, I don’t have the time to read as much or as widely as I would like, and as a result, I’ve only read one book that can be considered science fiction in the past three years.
This brings me, after much long-winded rambling in which I establish my credentials as a fan of sci-fi, to the subject stated in the title.
I’ve noticed a trend for a couple of years now, especially among aspiring science fiction writers. Rather than set out to tell a story, every piece of science fiction they write must be Meaningful, a scathing Commentary About the Foibles of Current Society, else so chock full of technobabble that any plot or characterization that existed has been buried beneath the long-winded and entirely out-of-place explanations of every little *DETAIL* of the technology being employed. Which would be fine if you had a bunch of scientists, engineers, or technicians that have fangasming over every aspect of technology they encounter as established aspects of their character, but when you’ve got ordinary, non-technically-inclined characters and the narration doing the technology infodumping, we have a problem for rarely, if ever, is all the techdump scientifically accurate or plausible.
Perhaps I like my hard science fiction to be as hard as fiction can get without being real, but still, if one is going to go to such lengths as to techdump in practically every paragraph, the least one could do is ensure that they at least have a decent grasp of the principles of physics and biology, at the least. Or not try so hard to turn a story into something that it is not, namely, a work of hard sci-fi when it would work better and be all the stronger for being that much softer.
You see, in all the rush to incorporate all the technobabble, Meaning, and/or Commentary, most science fiction works neglect or outright sabotage the other elements essential for a truly engaging story, such as plot, characterization, premise, and/or tone/atmosphere. Most of the science fiction works I’ve encountered recently have been of the premise variety with very little substance outside it.
“This would be AWESOME!” goes the writer as he proudly displays his frankenstein of a premise, slavishly draped in the trappings of what science fiction “should be”.
“It would be, if the AWESOME were actually explored instead of buried under so many layers of technobabble,” says I.
The AWESOME has been lost in translation, you see, the wonder drowned out by bad technique and sabotaged by a lack of substance.
Then there’s the message science fiction in which the creator has a Message and it is Important and Must Be Heard. Their work has Meaning, or it Comments upon something most Profound about our society and/or the human condition.
“Look at me!” says these writers. “I’m so creative and clever in using a story as a vehicle for my Message!”
“Write a pamphlet,” says I. “It would make for better reading.”
Science fiction, to me, has always been a genre of wonder. As such, I tend to judge works by how much wonder (noun) they instil in me, or how much they make me wonder (verb). And it’s been so long, too, too long, since I’ve felt wonder or spent hours wondering about a story after reading it. And so I’m left asking myself, “Where has all the wonder gone?”
Where has it gone?
From what I can see, in the push to make sci-fi a credible genre, especially in the literary realm, in the push to make it more serious and scientific, the wondrous and speculative aspects have been left by the wayside.
When was the last time you encountered a work of sci-fi that made you laugh or made you cry? A work with characters that were alive and whose moral conundrums wrenched your heart because they were genuine and not just some convenient plot device or vehicle for a Message? When was the last time you encountered a work with a truly revolutionary premise? A work that made you marvel at the workings of the universe? A work that made you think and challenged your long- and strongly-held preconceptions?
When was the last time a work of science fiction made you truly wonder?
Despite all the possibilities that science fiction could explore, despite all the amazing discoveries made in recent years within the sciences, very little is being done with science fiction. I’m sick and tired of seeing dystopias; those ceased being effective or interesting more than a decade ago. I’m sick and tired of seeing social commentaries; they’re more often than not a thinly-veiled rant by the creator about silly things, or issues that have been beaten to death already. And I’m sick and tired of seeing pointless technobabble about yet another space-faring civilization that’s space-faring just because.
It’s maddeningly saddening how narrow science fiction as a genre has become nowadays, and it’s the main reason why Asimov and Verne remain (and likely will forever so) my all-time favorite science fiction authors. It’s also why I enjoyed (and still do) shows like Star Trek: The Original Series, Babylon 5, Stargate: SG1, Warehouse 13, Eureka, and Doctor Who. The wonder within and/or the wondering inspired by these shows is what makes them worth watching, and that all the shows have characters and a decent, actual story to them makes them all the more enjoyable and memorable.
I can only hope that writers of and readers within the genre realize this before all the wonder is lost.
This article wound up far more personal that I’d intended. XD
1 With parental supervision.
2 Now SyFy.
3 Now Spike.
4 Still USA.
5 “It is possible for a person to belong to both fandoms!” says the living proof. Never mind that said living proof would have likely been (violently) disowned by both fandoms had said living proof ever come out of the closet.
6 They’re more impressive if you consider that my room was pitch black and I had no nightlight. And that my parents liked to occasionally rip my covers off me in the middle of the night to make sure I wasn’t reading.
7 Animorphs was one of the few complete fiction series in my school library.
8 I’ve got a soft spot for pulp fiction. I refuse to apologize.
9 Review pending.