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We're all science fiction fans here, right? We all read this weird literature that the highbrow look down on, the lowbrow sneer at, and the middlebrow (is there a middlebrow?) feel superior to with their Jeffrey Archers and Jackie Collinses on the beach. (Or is that just my prejudice showing?)
Whatever, we all - yes, even me - read science fiction, at least sometimes. But what about the rest of the time? What about those deep, dark secrets tucked away at the far ends of shelves, the books that people will think of you as Really Weird for reading - the stuff that's even stranger than science fiction...
I have one bookcase full of cookery books (and overflowing; I must have well over 200 by now), and another devoted to what I fondly term my 'nut books'. These are examples of the stuff that would send Joseph Nicholas running for cover, with titles like Love is Letting Go of Fear, A Course in Miracles, Women Who Love Too Much, and You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought. Books about positive thinking, controlling anger, creative visualisation; you name it.
In a certain frame of mind, I devour my 'nut books' as if they were novels. Perhaps there's a part of me that believes all the promises made by these books, and that simply by reading them, I'll somehow be transformed into a more 'normal', 'rational' and 'well-balanced' human being. It sometimes feels as though the act of reading ought to be enough, and any wilful act of behavioural transformation is just for sissies.
I guess that one of the most impressive books I've read recently qualifies as a 'nut book'. It's called Irrationality, it's by Stuart Sutherland, and it's an embarrassingly long list of the different ways in which the human mind can go wrong. Not in big ways - it's not a book about madness - but the practical day-by-day ways in which we all go wrong. Find out about the availability error (plane travel is thought of as more dangerous than road travel because plane crashes are bigger news), why committees really are more stupid than any one person in them (bad news for Worldcons), how hard it is to make a judgement from conflicting evidence, and, of course, a lot of ways to misunderstand statistics.
I wish this book were famous. I wish it were so well known that people could just refer to its ideas, and everyone would know what they meant. I suppose I'm just a dreamer. Which isn't irrational at all, by the way.
There's a lot of stuff that I'd class as 'SF', which wasn't published as such: Doc and Fluff, a lesbian dystopian biker novel? The Memoirs of Satan, a first-person account of history as seen by the devil. Gordon Liddy is my Muse, by Tommy 'Tip' Paine, a book by John Calvin Bachelor about a writer inspired by a Watergate conspirator. I read these as if they were SF - the same way that Dave Langford says he reads G K Chesterton - and their authors might admit that they were skiffy-ish, but no publisher would call them that. I do pick up books about weird cults and pseudo-science; it's part of the weirdness and the speed of change in the 20th century that SF encapsulates and makes palatable, but other folk get overwhelmed by.
Let's get radical. UFOs, surrealism, cults, Monty Python, weird religions, Twin Peaks-ish stuff, paranormal belief, everything like that, have happened because the old ways to cope with the world stopped working, and no one has found the new one yet. SF is a method that manages to fit things into our lives, but doesn't work for everyone. Who was it who claimed that the world could be saved through SF? Some old-time fan, back in the '40s. Maybe he'd found a palliative for the 20th century, without understanding the disease.
This is where I wish that the letters 'SF' stood for 'speculative fiction' rather than 'science fiction'. The former is something that's capable of filling me with a sense of wonder; the latter is something that I feel excluded by. You see, I'm a girly, and girlies aren't much cop at science. Well, OK, I wasn't exactly bad at science; I just never really understood it, never really thought about things in that way. My forté was languages: words, ideas, imagination. In fact, I leaned towards the arts subjects generally (history, music; anything except yer actual painting-and- drawing art, which I was always crap at). The only science subjects I had any time for at all were the 'woolly' sciences: psychology, sociology, all the sciences my Dad told me weren't 'proper' sciences (and he was an industrial chemist, so he should know, right?).
The world can be saved through SF? Well, I suppose it's just as daft as any other proffered simplistic 'save the world' solution. Though I suspect that Michael's Stuart Sutherland has more of an idea about how to save the world - stop farting around on stupid committees, to pick just one example...
So, like the Monty Python Gumbies, I stand in a bucket of water with my knotted hankie on my head, fidget with my tight-fitting Seventies tank top, stare at my oversized wellington boots, and say: 'I think that people who publish fanzines and organise conventions in committees are stupid...'. As I raise my eyes to see my similarly-attired co-editors and fellow committee members, I continue... 'Oh!'
The question that comes to my mind is, who says people can't deal with the world? Some people can't, obviously, but, just as obviously, for many people the quality of life is good today. Perhaps the world is more complex than it was, but perhaps it's just been stirred up by communication and travel: so the different cultures that used to be found in different areas are being replaced by new cultures, each of which is spread over a wider area and interwoven with others. The old idea of a global village can have a rather sterile feel to it, if it really does mean one village, but it seems to mean any number of villages within easy reach, and that's exciting. The people who have most of my sympathy aren't the ones who feel overwhelmed by choice - they've got the power to change their situation - it's the ones being marginalised by the technology and cost of the 'global village', the people who have been deemed unnecessary to the future.
I've read a lot of Martin Millar's books just lately, and I read them as if they're SF, in the same way as John reads some of his books. They're set in urban squats occupied by drop-outs, and the characters all share a common view of the world. It doesn't stop them arguing, or fighting, or being funny, or feeling desolate, but it means that as well as the story you get a view of another culture. If you want to find a believable alien, go to Brixton, or Regency England. Martin Millar and Jane Austen both have the clear observation that enables them to make their world visible to the reader.
I think old-fashioned pulp science fiction is just a look at another alien worldview: one where technology was the solution, and we were all going to the stars. Take it on board if you can, but if you can't, don't worry: there are other alien worlds all around us, and we just need to be familiar with change. Oh, I make it sound so easy...
I'll go for 'speculative fiction' on occasion, and 'soft sciences' are certainly valid material for that. You gotta remember that the outside world's view of SF hasn't caught up with recent developments like the '50s and '60s yet, and neither have some of its fans and practitioners.
Living in the world... Well, the physical quality of life is good, but how long will that last? How do you compare your new computer with the loss of a park for the factory to build it? Why is it that the countries which still have the metals and oil for that factory are the ones whose populations seem to be 'deemed unnecessary to the future'? The black arts of economics are beyond me, and they don't seem to have been part of the old pulp SF worldview either.
Well, I've got an A-level in 'the black arts of economics' - OK, the certificate doesn't actually mention the 'black arts' part, but you know what I mean - though that certainly hasn't qualified me to understand the world any better than the next person. I think it's a real bummer that we have to live in the 'real world' - at least for those parts of our lives that equip us, financially and in countless other ways, to get through the more 'interesting' times.
Which brings me back to why I'm so fond of my 'nut books'. They tell you things like 'love can be achieved through the wilful, determined and systematic rejection of fear', to take just one example. No one has managed to prove that to me yet, but it's such a simplistic and harmless concept... zillions of times more appealing than the complexities of working, commuting and arguing with the bosses. This book is just as much 'escapism' for me as, say, High Fantasy, Hard SF, or Mills and Boon is for the next person. I read it; I marvel in its internal consistency (though the outbreaks of naivety don't go unnoticed); I live the book as thoroughly as any good novel. But I don't just 'buy in' to whichever particular brand of solution is being sold as an appropriate panacea, just as I can never really be a Georgette Heyer heroine...
But escapism is a powerful urge.
The very fact that there is a whole industry based on soothing music, prettily-scented products in ornate glass bottles, medicines without doctors, therapies without scientific validation, all kinds of activities that appeal to a certain type of person on an intuitive, inner-person level - well, that's as good an argument for living outside the real world as I know.
Fluff. A vital way of coping. I may be the 'next person' Pam mentioned, because a lot of my fluff is standard fantasy: interesting characters, exciting plot, but nothing too demanding. I have another set of books that qualifies as fluff in this way as well, and oddly enough it's my games/puzzles/chess books. My most prized book in this set is the Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, which I spent three months trying to get hold of early this year (from a small publisher with poor distribution). My favourite variant in it is Watergate Chess, in which the rules are withheld for reasons of national security. Understanding one of these variants, or working through a crossword puzzle, gives my mind something to do, but without any kudos or self-esteem being invested in the outcome. If I don't solve a puzzle, nothing is lost, so nothing has been risked. It may not be intellectual fluff, but emotionally it's as fluffy as anything. And if you do solve a puzzle, you can congratulate yourself on your cleverness and get that warm smug feeling inside.
I used to read some fiction in this spirit as well: I would read the 'right authors' because I wanted to feel clever, and - less excusably - look clever, too. It's something that SF fandom often encourages (as Steve Brewster points out in Dr Beeching's Cold Fusion Tramway), but I don't think I do it as much as I used to. I still read some of these books, but I make sure it's only because I want to, not because I feel I should.
I also want to mention my Dictionary of Names For Your Baby , a book that has confused some people. More than one person has noticed it and said 'Are you pregnant, then, Michael?', under the mistaken impression that they're making a joke. The reason I have it is that it explains the original meanings of a lot of given names. When I'm writing a story or RPG scenario, I like to choose appropriate names for the characters - more puzzle-playing, I suppose. And there's something neat about knowing that I'm really named 'Who-is-like-the-Lord Rule-hard Monk-leader'. (Though my friends still call me Michael, if they want to stay that way...)
Fluff? For me, that tends to be non-fiction - like an incomplete encyclopedia of warships - or historical fiction. Or re-reading - there's something less demanding about reading a book for the sixth or eighth time, even if it was a reasonably 'hard' one to start with. Of course, it needs to be interesting, or I'll just get bored. I broke off reading the 'right' books when faced with Remembrances of Things Past - I promised I'd try to read that within the next, uh, six years, three months and 21 days, and I ain't rushing.
Given what we've been saying... I think if we'd been born ten years earlier we'd have tuned in, turned on and dropped out. That way died of its own essential pointlessness, and its replacements seem to glorify that aspect. Sigh. I guess, for me, it's back to books and trying to communicate with other book-people.
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