MICHAEL JEWELL A&E Editor
Maybe the next time I’m in Seattle I’ll skip the International Beer Festival before I see the Science Fiction Museum. I’m happy enough to pay a visit to a nerdy billionaire’s private collection of memorabilia on public display in a small building grafted onto the gaudy monstrosity known as the Experience Music Project, but after a few pints of the good old black stuff I tend to affect a vulnerable mood. I’ve since learned to fill in a pat answer for curious friends who ask “how was it?” “Oh, it was great” is a more appropriate response than explaining how I had to force back drunken tears as I passed the Gene Roddenberry display. This stuff gets to me. Resistance is futile.
I don’t really go for the lasers and costumes and ship schematics and robots and alien anatomy and buxom space vixens, all the marginalia that has over time come to define the genre. The blending over time of the stylistic trappings of outer-space living with what is really mere fantasy gives us Buck Rogers-inspired media empires like Star Wars, which are fun and imaginative in their own right but really have nothing to do with science. The true meat of the genre that I so love has more to do with speculation and inspiration than interstellar adaptations of The Hidden Fortress. Science fiction is about being conscious of where we are and where we are going and using your imaginative vision of the future to say something about life on earth now.
The first sci-fi book ever was a cautionary tale of human arrogance, when the impulse to heal is taken over the line. Shelley’s Frankenstein was perhaps blemished by a dualist perspective, but its chilling message persists in inspiring other authors to put the brakes on the path society’s feet are taking us. The expressionistic tradition has found renewed life in the 20th century within the dystopian parameters of sci-fi speculation. This platform is still a viable vessel for social critique and satire, and reaches beyond the plurality of space-based warfare to address broad concerns. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a group of dedicated scientists essentially save intergalactic civilization with incredibly complicated math problems. Samuel Delaney and Ursula LeGuin imagine a universe where people live outside the bounds of traditional sexual and gender roles. Robert Heinlein dissects all manner of governmental and societal constructs against the backdrop of exploration and conflict.
The best science fiction authors share a spirit of collaboration and progress that is manifest in the scientific method. They are characterized by their urge to explore, question and challenge old ways of thinking through the lens of fiction, rollicking adventurous fiction. It is that impulse that brings tears to my eyes as I pass the yellow and black Starfleet uniform and am reminded by Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future pipe dream that the spirit of inquiry is very nearly dead on its feet. Somehow America’s scientists remain on the cutting edge while its population has never been more hostile to them. Here I am standing in this temple of nerd-culture nostalgia, mourning the intrepid love of exploration and progress that so informed our culture as politicians receive cheers for saying incredibly stupid things about the necessity of fruit fly research. With our science standards in the trash and our culture on the paper-back wrack, my forecast for the future looks pretty grim.