The dreams our stuff is made of

Gautham Shenoy July 1, 2016 8 min

The first of a series on science fiction, speculative fiction, the best sci-fi reading around, the most impressive authors, the not-so-well-known kickass stuff, and other such geekery. 

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who like science fiction and those who like science fiction2 .

The second group just doesn’t know it yet.

It’s a bit like finding out that a tomato is in fact, a fruit, and not a vegetable. Or that the Beatles were the original bestselling ‘Boy Band’ (and the best by far!).

Science fiction. A genre we’re surrounded with, grew up with and have grown to love. That’s what New Worlds Weekly 3 will be all about. To explore the many faces of science fiction and the role it plays, has played, and will play in our lives. And the way it has influenced and changed our world.

I say this because 69% of the people4 I randomly asked, ‘Do you read science fiction?’ ‘Do you watch science fiction?’ more or less replied in the negative. Perhaps because of the term ‘science fiction’. Because you see, we’ve all read science fiction, we’ve all watched sci-fi movies; we are surrounded by it. We’ve grown up loving science fiction, though maybe we didn’t think of it as “science fiction”.

Science-Fiction

Science fiction is nothing but the genre:

…that’s in the movies we watch:

mr.india-robo

…in the music we listen to:

music

…that describes so many TV shows:

tvshows

…comics:

comics

…video games

Games

… anime

Anime

Science Fiction is in the stories that were part of our childhood…

…in the books we read growing up:

hg-wells

…and in the books we read as we grew older.

raybradbury

Heck, there’s science fiction galore in our mythology, and the mythologies of every other early civilisation (think flying vehicles, heavenly cities, gods and monsters).

Science fiction is in the stuff we would think is furthest from elements like fancy weapons and future worlds, which so (limitedly) typify the genre. Never thought Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is science fiction, did you? Thomas More’s Utopia. The latest novel from Kannada litterateur SL Bhyrappa, Yaana. Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Amitav Ghosh’s Calcutta ChromosomeYou can find science fiction in fairy tales, in art, all over the place (except perhaps in cookbooks). I believe science fiction has existed as long as human imagination has existed. Science fiction was born with the birth of the human capacity to imagine, to dream, to wonder, to create new worlds and ask ‘what if…?’.

buzzlightyear

Many may not be acknowledged or popularly considered as science fiction, but if it is tropes that define a genre (more on this below) then science fiction it is. The aim is to tell a good story. And good stories are what great science fiction is all about. A note of caution here. Just because it’s science fiction doesn’t make it great. Sturgeon’s Law applies here: “Ninety percent of everything is crap”5.

By the end of this sentence, the phrase ‘science fiction’ has been used 25 times in this column. So unless you’ve actually been playing the New Worlds Weekly drinking game, you know that the elephant in the room is the question, ‘What is Science Fiction?’. Well, depending on who you ask, there are either one too many definitions or none at all. Science fiction simply refuses to be pigeonholed into a T-shirt slogan-style definition. Many have tried and they have all fallen short (to the extent that Damon Knight, a sci-fi author and influential editor remarked, ‘Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.’)

‘Tedious’ and ‘thankless’ are the words most often used to describe the attempts at defining this genre. Take the example of the British academic, critic and writer of awesome novels, Adam Roberts. He devotes 40-odd pages to arrive at a definition of science fiction in his book, Science Fiction: the New Critical Idiom. Or, as the author Norman Spinrad, said, ‘Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.’ There is no conclusive or a universally agreed upon definition and IMHO, I don’t think there ever will be.

Leave alone defining it, what do we call this genre or refer to it as? Sci-fi as in sigh-fie? Sky fi? Skiffy? SF? WTF? ‘Speculative Fiction’ is a term that has gained traction in the recent past, even though it has been around since the 40s. But ‘Spec Fic’ encompasses not just science fiction and fantasy, but horror and magic realism as well. Well, without getting ahead of ourselves, let’s just say that for our purposes, we’ll just keep it simple and call it science fiction or simply ‘sci-fi’. And spotting it is easy. If you’ve ever wondered (I know I did) what are the tropes and themes that you can look for, to know if it is science fiction, here you go.

The handy ‘Is it Science Fiction?’ checklist:

  • Is it set in outer space or other planets?
  • Is it set in a future time?
  • Does it feature as-yet-uninvented technology?
  • Does it have time travel, space travel or faster-than-light travel?
  • Does it feature an alternate timeline to recorded history?
  • Is it set in or feature other dimensions and parallel universes?
  • Does it have non-human characters – aliens, robots, androids and sentient AI?
  • Are meta-human characters like superheroes and mutants in the story?
  • Does it detail out utopias, dystopias, or new/different political or social systems?

If you’ve ticked at least one box from this short, incomplete list, rest assured, it qualifies as science fiction6 (yes, Krisshhh is science fiction. Or is it Kkrish?)

Well, all of these themes are what we shall explore together in New Worlds Weekly. Because there’s something in science fiction for everyone. Whether you’re a hardcore sci fi geek, or a person interested in good stories and great ideas, there are so many dimensions of science fiction to dive into that keep you coming back for more. And it’s fun if we do it together. The more the merrier.

New Worlds Weekly has no specific format and definitely no hard and fast rules, and never will. The questions that you, dear reader, ask, or the gaps in my knowledge that you fill in, or any requests you make, is what will guide New Worlds Weekly. One week we could be focusing on an author, or a post-apocalyptic theme. A movie or a series of books. Maybe a whole article dedicated to stupid superpowers. The only thing I can say for sure that the words ‘science fiction’ will get used a lot!

The spirit encapsulated in the last panel ever drawn by Bill Watterson for our collective favourite, Calvin & Hobbes, is the spirit that will drive New Worlds Weekly on FactorDaily.

Last Strip

So join me, as we explore the many worlds of science fiction, one theme, one topic, one subject, one week at a time. And on that note, I bid you to…

LiveLong

One last thing before I sign off. When someone says ‘Live Long and Prosper’7 to you, what should your reply be? If you don’t know, we’ve got you covered. Just raise your hand, make the same gesture, and say ‘Peace and Long Life’. Which is what I wish all of you.

Catch y’all next week!

Footnotes:

1. The title of this post is a shameless appropriation of the title of the book, ‘The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World’ by Thomas M. Disch, who in turn was punning on the quote by Dashiel Hammet’s immortal hard-boiled detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, who in the 1941 classic Maltese Falcon, described the titular statuette as, ‘The stuff that dreams are made of’, which again, in turn was riffing on a phrase from Shakespeare’s Tempest, where Prospero says, ‘We are such stuff; As dreams are made on’. And so we are. So we are.

2. The column’s name ‘New Worlds Weekly’ is a tip of the hat to the British science fiction magazine that began life in the late 30s, New Worlds; now sadly no longer in publication, but whose influence helped shape science fiction as a genre, especially in the 1960s under its then-editor, the author Michael Moorcock.


3. Play the New Worlds Weekly drinking game! Have a shot every time you see the term, ‘Science Fiction’ in the post. Starting with adequate stock is highly recommended.


4. 79% of all statistics are made up on the spot. Including this one. (Hashtag: Meta)


5. Named for the science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who in the late 50s – when science fiction was often derided for its supposedly low quality by critics – admitted it, noting that, “90% of science fiction is crap. That’s because 90% of everything is crap”.


6. One of the most notable exceptions to this is Margaret Atwood. Her books can have all of these elements and then some, and it would still not be ‘science fiction’. Why? Because she says so.


7. This is, of course, the Vulcan greeting from Star Trek (even WhatsApp has an emoji for it now!). The words ‘Live Long and Prosper’ though, were first uttered only in the second season of The Original Series, in the episode ‘Amok Time’ scripted by none other than the aforementioned Theodore Sturgeon.