Wednesday, June 06, 2012

In Memory of Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury died yesterday. As far as I know, he was the last surviving member of the "old sci-fi" club: the writers who came from the same wellspring of wonder that birthed Wells and Verne. I don't know what resulted in the eventual... corruption? No. Corruption isn't quite the correct word. Cynicizing. Is that word? I just made it one.

I don't know what resulted in the eventual cynicizing of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Perhaps it was the Vietnam War and rising social inequality. Perhaps it was increasing cynicism in politics and the rise of the conservative parties. Perhaps it was the discovery of the real world by the idealistic hippies. Whatever it was, science fiction and fantasy have, by and large, rejected wonder and hope in favor of cynical depression.

"The universe is a little emptier right now," Texas A&M Commerce English Professor Robin Ann Reid told Yahoo News. She wrote a book about Bradbury's works and sits on the board of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies.  "There's less of that sense of joy and exulation that he was writing in his works all the way to the end."

Instead of wonder, we get gritty pessimism and are told that it is adult. That old Sci-Fi was kid's stuff. You know what? Screw that. How many hard science writers do we have operating today? How many writers write with cold, exacting knowledge of the science that is in their work? Damn few.

That's not to say that there aren't any out there. They continue to bubble underneath the churn. One can only hope that we will look back upon this has an era in sci-fi and fantasy, and that we will eventually move on to another era.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Bradbury wrote about discovering science fiction stories as a child growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, and his love for his grandfather. "I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, "Take me home!" I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities," he wrote.

Where is the next generation of wide-eyed dreamers? That's what I want. I don't want Blade Runner redux. I don't want another William Gibson.

One must wonder why Sci-Fi is so pessimistic. Science Fiction was at its most optimistic during the freaking Cold War. There was very good reason to be angry and cynical, and yet some of the most hopeful works ever written were done during that time. Times are economically a bit pissy, right now, but aside from that, times are great!

We are more aware of the ethical and ecological problems of progress than ever before. Equality is rising. Women are nearing pay parity with men in the Western World. Gay marriage is just around the corner. Disregarding the American extremist movement, religion is dying. This is a great time to be alive. And yet, Sci-Fi thinks that we are one step away from global apocalypse.

Perhaps that's it. Perhaps when things are actually rather good, a book that just tells you how good things are isn't very interesting. It's not novel. Truly, the very word "novel" stems from the word for "new." Sci-Fi, perhaps more so than any other genre, must be new to be captivating.

But I don't care about that. I care about what I want. And I want the old stuff. I want wonder, and magic, and hope. Because I can't buy distopia. It's just too damned improbable. We could have blown ourselves up... and yet we didn't. That is as near a miracle as has ever happened in history. How can I not be optimistic after that?

Mike Labossiere said it well over at io9.

As a science fiction fan (and a very, very minor writer), I am somewhat inclined to agree with this. In my own case, I find myself loading my Kindle with science fiction from the early to mid twentieth century and ignoring the new novels. In part, this is pure thrift — I can, for example, get H. Beam Piper's works for free. However, part of it is because the new stuff seems to lack something possessed by the good old stuff. While I have thought about this for some time, I am beginning to suspect that my experience seems to match Stephenson's: the new stuff generally seems to lack a certain thread of optimism that ran through the good old stuff — even the old dystopian stuff.

I will miss Bradbury. He was a bit silly in some ways, but he was optimistic and idealistic. He had wonder. He had hope. He had dreams of a better world. Where is that, today?

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