I’ve been reading of other worlds for the last two weeks, dipping into The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 15. For those in the know, that means I’ve actually been looking back, as the fifteenth Annual Collection was published in 2002.
It was a second-hand impulse buy that I regretted as soon as I got home, because there was no shelf space for it – at 702 pages, this really is a mammoth book. Something needed to be read if I wasn’t going to start heaping books on the floor.
Given the technological advances of the last eleven years, I assumed that most of the twenty-six stories would seem dated. This meant firstly, that my new book was not something to leave sitting around on a shelf much longer, and secondly, that it would probably mean a speedy skim reading, so I could recycle it straight back to the bookshop and solve my space dilemma.
What was I thinking? Well probably of something much simpler than this selection of writing. Stories, perhaps, predicting how science will advance.
Remember 1983? No, that’s not a typo, I mean the year. I’m thinking back to how we anticipated the convergence of reality with the fictional world George Orwell created for Nineteen eighty-four. There was even a new film of the book made, released in 1984. As we headed for December 31st 1983, didn’t we get a little bit caught-up in that analysis of what had come true and how far from an Orwellian world we were? Phew, we thought, at least we haven’t turned out like that: at least we still have some freedoms, and aren’t we lucky, really?
Because the thing I always forget about sci-fi, is that the science is just the icing. The real body, the ingredients of the cake, are the characters we identify with. A science fiction does not necessarily need masses of technology. What most of the stories in my Mammoth book offered were the eternal stories of love, loss and hope. They came in unfamiliar shapes and often bleak landscapes but they played out familiar human scenarios.
So were they dated? No. Perhaps in another ten years some of the ideas will seem far-fetched, but I’m not sure that matters. I’m still re-reading HG Wells and John Wyndam, and they’re playing on our TVs and radios every so often, despite having been overtaken by many advances.
So what makes a successful Science Fiction story? Perhaps it would pay us to remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory about the suspension of disbelief. He suggested two key ingredients for tellers of fantastic tales, ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’. It seems to me that most of the stories in my Mammoth book were about semblances of truth, most of them hard, and dark. Warnings perhaps not of the dangers of technology, but of our own natures.
These are not just stories for teenage geeks, they’re something we might all benefit from trying out once in a while, as readers and as writers, because they epitomize that fundamental question of the fiction writer, What if..? Perhaps, for those who long to write of injustices, social or otherwise, it might be worth thinking about describing the world to come if you really want us to notice the here and now.
As to the Mammoth book, I think I will pass it on, but I’m going to look out for another one, so I’d better get reading a space onto my shelf after-all. It’s just one difficult decision after another here.