In a sulfurous chasm beneath Reality, lit by the orange glow from what appears to be a river of molten Time, the serpent and the eagle have reached their moment of final reckoning. The eagle swoops in for the kill with talons extended, each mighty feather a-bristle with fury. The serpent marshals what’s left of its coiled strength and turns its fanged and slavering maw to meet the eagle’s gaping beak in a cosmic kiss of death that will obliterate countless worlds, if not, in fact, all of them.
Other than this, however—the design on the back of the Hawaiian-cut shirt of a very old man investigating the bean dip over at the buffet table—this gathering of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is palpably low on excitement. We’re on the 38th floor of a Marriott hotel in Lower Manhattan, in a poky beige suite filled with the same cheap, gestural furniture you find in those fake rooms that get set fire to in fire-safety videos. And with the exception, obviously, of this correspondent, we’re a fairly drab and subdued sort of bunch. The demographic is middle-aged to old. The median shirt type is sweat-. And there are several grown men apparently untroubled by the fact that they’re wearing backpacks to a social event, yet troubled to the point of madness and eczema by pretty much everything else.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is, after all, a gathering of fiction writers, and if fiction writers were good at going to parties, well, most of them wouldn’t be fiction writers. Fiction is a job for people with Big Ideas, not a flair for small talk—and with the exception of Tom Wolfe, they’re generally too concerned with topics like the human condition and the fate of the world to worry about their appearance.
But this is science fiction, which I thought was supposed to be different. I wasn’t hoping for Naomi Campbell in Vera Wang, just a few people dressed as Klingons, perhaps, or painted green, even very faintly, or even just in a nice houndstooth jacket or something, wildly gesticulating with the stem of an unlit pipe. Energy is what I’m missing, that raw, spittly, unsocialized fizz that only an overexcited nerd can produce.
I suppose they may all be fatigued. After all, this is only Night One of their annual Nebula Awards Weekend, and apparently many have driven all the way across the country to be here.
Then again, it could also be the other thing—the thing that nobody’s quite bringing up over the plastic cups of Yellowtail Merlot. Which is that science fiction, the genre that lit the way for a nervous mankind as it crept through the shadows of the 20th century, has suddenly and entirely ceased to matter.
Granted, the ways in which it once did matter were never obvious. The early days of science fiction, much like all its later days, found its exponents bickering about what the genre was, what it should be, and what its relationship was—if indeed it had one—with the more established human pursuit known as Science.
One view, subscribed to by the towering French figure of Jules Gabriel Verne, a man with a better claim to being the Father of Science Fiction than anyone else, was that the genre should consider itself almost a legitimate field of science proper, or at least should try to hold itself to an analogous code of rigor. Verne conjured up imaginary futures, and he sent his heroes on adventures armed with as-yet-uninvented technologies. But he didn’t like to make scientific leaps of faith just for the sake of the story. If Verne had his heroes travel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a pimped-out luxury submarine, his personal code required him to explain how such a contraption could be built according to the principles of physics as they were understood at the time of writing: 1870. When he wanted to send protagonists From the Earth to the Moon, he first had to figure out how to get them there. It was rocket science, literally, but the poor sap muddled through, eventually dispatching a three-man crew from a space center in Florida riding a rocket made of newly discovered aluminum at a speed of 12,000 yards per second. Fortunately, Verne had been dead for 64 years by the time of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and was thus spared the embarrassment of knowing the actual launch speed of the aluminum craft that would carry the three men would be 11,424 yards per second, and that part of the rocket would be named “Columbia,” not his own ludicrously off-base suggestion, “Columbiad.”
The other view of science fiction, figureheaded in retrospect by one Herbert George Wells—“H. G.” to pretty much everyone—was that actual science was best left to actual scientists and science-themed novelists should feel free to make stuff up if it helped uncover the social and philosophical pitfalls in humanity’s road ahead. The Time Machine does not contain a blueprint for a working time machine, but it does contain a fairly rigorous and careful projection of where early-20th-century capitalist society, and science itself, might leave the species if certain changes weren’t made. In due course, this approach would be given the label “soft science fiction,” as opposed to the “hard,” nuts-and-bolts approach of Jules Verne, but the schism was palpable even back then. According to lore, Verne publicly accused Wells of “scientifically implausible ideas,” and Wells, firing back in fittingly less forensic language, went public with the observation that “Jules Verne can’t write his way out of a paper sack,” further twisting the knife by failing to provide any details as how such a large sack would be constructed or how Jules Verne might find himself trapped within it.
Seems petty now, especially if one forgets that Verne and Wells were fighting for the soul of an art form that would frame the great debates of the modern age. It is hard to imagine how opponents of genetic engineering would function without the noun-turned-prefix “Frankenstein,” coined and imbued with dreadful power by Mary Shelley’s 1818 soft SF classic. As for “Orwellian,” where does one even begin? It seems safe to say that the book 1984 is more an expression of George Orwell’s revulsion with the actual totalitarian societies of 1948 than a warning for future generations about the dangers of interactive television, but the Soviet Union has collapsed and the meme of Orwellianism lives on. Would we even be bothered by the proliferation of surveillance cameras if we didn’t recognize the phenomenon as “Orwellian” and know, therefore, that it is bad? Probably, but I think you see my point.