Thursday, September 07, 2006

Formative Reading

When I was perhaps eight or nine years old, I happened onto a battered copy of Theodore Sturgeon's collection of short stories, E Pluribus Unicorn, and promptly read it from cover to cover--then immediately went right back to the first page and read it all again.

Now, I don't know as I could comfortably recommend Sturgeon to the parents of most pre-teens, but I don't know as I wouldn't, either. They're sort of disturbing, odd, and discomfiting pieces of writing. I remember one story about a teddy bear that was really a sort of vampire alien, for instance, and I've never looked at stuffed animals quite the same way, since. On the other hand, how scarring can that be, really, if it makes a kid look out beyond her own window and really start to wonder about things? Certainly, I wasn't the only kid that Sturgeon's stories had a huge impact on--nor the only one who would grow up and write about it.

They were all stories written before I'd even been born, and originally published in Weird Tales, and F&SF, and the like. (There are Weird Tales covers posted online, by the way, which are great fun to examine and deconstruct, if you're into that sort of thing...and who isn't, really?)

Of science fiction, Sturgeon said in an interview:
I believe it is the wrong name for the field. It should have been called a number of other things - speculative fiction, for example. In many people's minds, science fiction is girls in brass brassieres about to be raped by a slimy monster, and being rescued by some guy fully dressed in a space suit with a zap gun. It is all in the future, all in space, it is all Star Wars and Buck Rogers.

Science fiction, outside of poetry, is the only literary field which has no limits, no parameters whatsoever. You can go not only into the future, but into that wonderful place called "other", which is simply another universe, another planet, another species.

It's things that happen inside your head. I've always said that there's more in inner space than in outer space. Inner space is so much more interesting, because outer space is so empty.

That really sums up the lure of specfic for me; first as a small, over-imaginative girl in eastern Montana in the 70s, then through college and grad school, and now.

So what's it mean, though, really? To some extent, shouldn't fiction explore inner space in general? Probably, yes. That doesn't mean it actually happens that way, though. The forced, artificial resemblance of some kind of objective, recognizable reality creates constraints restricting the territory explored by more mainstream genres.

As soon as a story departs those constraints, as soon as the internal reality of the story makes a leap into the unfamiliar and takes the reader with it, a panoramic view opens up, revealing just how big a place all that inner space really is. Immediately thereafter, we ghettoize that story into a niche called science fiction. Or horror. Or fantasy.

What else is one to do with, for example, a gender-bending story about characters who actually change sex midway through the story--a problem as true for the reader of Woolf's Orlando as of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness? Because really, isn't the crux of the problem a sort of magical thinking? That if we can be persuaded to imagine something, to believe it, perhaps it becomes real in increments? And if that's so, then suddenly the horizon of our described reality seems quite distant, indeed. So literature that knocks walls out of those careful boxes--not in a humorous manner, but in a way that's direct, straightforward, and matter-of-fact--presents a quandary that may be a challenge, a promise, or a threat, depending on the reader's perspective.

Ursula Le Guin said, in "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?":
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and even trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom. (Le Guin, The Language of the Night, Berkley 1985, p44--I looked for the essay online for you guys, but no such luck. Buy the book. Really. It's worth every cent, and then some.)

So what of those Weird Tales covers, then? Is there something intrinsically true about those bug-eyed monsters slavering over helpless virgins? What of that vampire teddy bear? What are we to make of the need to examine the awful, alongside those ideas that are expanding and uplifting? What's that about, that need to embody our worst fears, and stand them up in the light where, yep, sometimes they really are that scary and disgusting?

More on this, I'm sure, as I poke through it. There's been so much terrific stuff written about it, and I believe more to do, still, especially as we move deeper into a seriously scary time in our country and our world.

The most important thing, of course, is that spec fic must stay true, else it loses its potency.


DD said...

I read the story with the vampire teddy bear at about that age and remember it to this day. I did not remember where I read it. Scared me to death - but I think it was other things that 'scarred me'

Unknown said...

Beautifully written, Mac.

I'd almost forgotten about the Teddy. :)

Unknown said...

I vaguely remember reading Sturgeon. I remember scifi short stories, however. There was one about some space trevellers exploring an ancient civ on a planet and finding some kind of film. They viewed it and took it as a record of the civilization. Last words on the film: A walt Disney Production. Anyone remember that one or who wrote it?

Then there was Helbent IV...