30 September 2013

Who mourns for science fiction?

Not me, although there was a time when I took the respect for the genre more to heart. I think there are still followers who keep that fervour. Veteran readers who have invested years reading science fiction and nowadays they find that there's a sort of widespread shame to call it by its name. Now what it's used are descendents or substitutes: all are distopian fantasies, paranormal romances, urban uchronies or any other fancy term invented by marketing. Is what happens in the age of political correctness, hollow but twisted language and the scorn to arts. Maybe François Baranger won't have any qualms to qualify the illustration topping this article —his work Dominium ready to cast off— as what it looks like. On my behalf, perhaps I'm not very worried about the preservation and correct use of the tag science fiction, but I can afford myself to talk about the matter.

I've made a little experiment. I've checked how many of the books (spanish editions, mind you) of the genre that I have in my negligible collection bear, in any part of their covers, the shunned words. I've been surprised at finding more than I expected, although there are many which doesn't have them. For instance, none of the volumes of the Foundation saga by Isaac Asimov have the pair "science fiction" highlighted. The same happens with the three titles I own written by Stanislav Lem, two of them published by a specialized brand. I don't care about how specialized is the publisher: most people don't know at all which brands are centered just in a few genres. Where I've seen it pointed out is in the cover of Doomsday book by Connie Willis, this case being part of a specialized collection called by the suggestive name Nova. I have too the Hyperion saga, written by Dan Simmons. In the lower part of each backcover, the words "science fiction" show up —in a rather small font— builted into the collection's logo (called Byblos by the way).

The first conclusion I can extract from such a limited sample is that the term has been used, until a quite recent date, by relevant —spanish— publishers. The second is that it's not something too important; someone who looks for science fiction knows how to identify it quite easily without the need of being guided by neon lights. This is true for any other genre, no matter the form. We know how to distinguish the products we want to get, no matter if they're in the shape of books, videogames or films. We don't recognize them just as science fiction, but by being written by some author or being part of sagas or known franchises. I think few people go into a bookstore and asks the clerk half a kilo of "science fiction", sliced if possible. We search for concrete titles, recommended writers, famed series.

It would appear that the term could be retired already, that the readers search and find science fiction narrative —and of any other kind— without mattering much how it's tagged. So nowadays we have such abundance of futuristic dystopias, a branch that got separated from the trunk in which it grew. What's the problem? Just a marketing issue, a trend? Yes, but I see something more than that. An evolution, as much inside the genre as to the societies that generated it, and a down-to-earth matter.

This is a good moment to mention the article (in spanish) that inspired me to write this lengthy text: El nombre de la cosa. Its title can be translated literally as The name of the thing. For the author, someone identified as Kaplan in that blog, science fiction is at risk of dissapearing by slackness when categorizing this genre's works. To prove that he gives a good example: in the obituary published by one important spanish newspaper about Richard Matheson, they referred the book I am legend as dystopian fantasy. The first word is okay, but the second is a painful sight. Later in his text, Kaplan talks about the abuse done nowadays to the term dystopia (it seems that almost any scifi thing done is a dystopia now), point where he's quite right. But there are more things that make a hundred-years-old genre being assimilated by its many children and its cousin the fantasy. The very societies where science fiction grew have changed, a lot.

These days the western countries house very technified cultures, something that really exploded in the decade of the 1980. You know, the first personal computers, the walkman, the CDs, the first cell phones, internet. Scientific progress has made us change in a way that the generations born in the 21th century are not able to appreciate if it's not explained to them. It's not like that with we people born in that very particular decade. We've lived the transition from seeing technologies just shown in films to use them in our everyday. Even worse, we even watch how they're eliminated by more advanced others in a matter of years. We've become used to updates, we are certain that science —filtered by the interests of the evil private macrocorporations, clearly— will bring us something new in a few years. Scientifical advance is not that impressive as it was eigthy years ago, although surprises always arise in diverse fields. In many aspects, we live science fiction and some doesn't notice at all. Therefore, using the term to talk about what's yet to come doesn't make much sense. Reality is surpassing, sometimes in unexpected ways, science fiction frequently. Maybe this explains too the boom of fantasy in the last decades: extraordinary things must be out and far away from the human science's limits.

I'm aware that this reasoning could seem outlandish, so here's another: language economy. Some subgenres have been born in science fiction and its known when hearing their names what they are about. If I say "space opera" or "time travel", in general its understood that their base is THE genre. It's unnecessary to specify "this work is a science fictional space opera", is redundant. So science fiction becomes more a concept, a basic idea assumed like water in a soup. You ask for soup, not for a dish of water with pasta grains and additives. Can we forget then about using the term to classify? Well no, we can't.

To make soup you need water, is not negotiable. The instructions on the envelope even tells you how much water you need. The same happens when doing a story where its used with some accuracy spaceships, robots or strange biologies: science fiction is the key component. And it's right to point out this, specially with all the thematic blends done nowadays —in fact it has been like this always—. The matter is how. Luckily, the technique already exists: I'm talking about tagging.

Born in the internet, it's the best method to ensure the survival of the term science fiction. Besides it allows the mixed classification of a work. For instance, how I would classify the first book of the Hyperion saga using tags. It would be something like this: science fiction, mistery, teleport, cruciform. Excuse me if I haven't done it very well, it has been a while since I read it, but I think you get the idea. This is usual on the web nowadays, a simple technological but smart trick to classify contents of all kind. Now then, how to translate it into physical books (or any other tangible mean). I don't think you'll be surprised to know that a way exists too.

Videogames in Europe are classified with the PEGI system, a set of marks which indicate what an entertainment product offers. Beware, they don't point out the genre, just if it's violent, online, and things like that. But this idea could be spreaded out to show what the content of a book or film is. I believe too that the only complicated thing of this question would be deciding the symbol that could represent best the science fiction concept (and the one for religion maybe). It could end being a hot debate, a digital battle.

Assuming we had ready that method of classification, another problem would remain: its use. To be successful and work as it should depends completely on us. We have to tag with good judgement and some caution even. Just the most relevant aspects have to be highlighted, without excesses; a policy used all over internet too. Among three and five tags are usually enough, putting more ends being disproportionate.

I want the term "science fiction" to last, I feel that it's still necessary. It's a so particular concept that we cannot afford losing it. In another article I'll talk about its definition, I'll even dare to give mine (something I already did, maybe not very well, at the end of this old post —in spanish—). So no mournings, science fiction is a hard bone to bite. It just needs us not to forget it and to vindicate it with no zealousness or fears from what anyone could say.

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