A little over a month ago, one of my professors asked me a question that, at the time, I was unable to answer. That question has haunted me since, largely because I really should have had a good answer at the time. The question was:
Why do you think science fiction and other “fantastic” literary forms are important in the third world?
A simple enough question, don’t you think? Or is it?
Questions like this are rarely applied to other forms of literature, specifically those works which are published as “general” or “literary” fiction. Only fantastic forms of literature seem to have to defend themselves in an academic context. I doubt my professor meant it as an attack,
but it’s something that genre readers and writers have had to deal with in attack form before, which means that asking the question, regardless of the intentions, always stings a bit of the past. The question equally applies to literature as a whole, though, since literature has had to defend itself from the anti-library crowd, the anti-English-department crowd, and so on (all of which are the embodiment of evil, if you ask me). But the point of this post, and the posts that will follow it, is to address the question thrown at science fiction.
One reason that I think science fiction is an important literary genre, particularly in the third world, is that it is a safe genre. It is the only genre that allows us to see the darkness of our past in way that also allows us to disengage from it. Science fiction deals with both the present and the past without actually being there, which means that we, as readers, can choose to remove ourselves from the present (as influenced by the past) and “escape” into an unknown future. Yes, science fiction is often allegorical, but it doesn’t have to be read as such; there’s no requirement to put the pieces of the past together. With general literature, there is, since it is often planted immediately in the moment, whether that be in the present, or the past. Reading general literature is like reading about ourselves as we are now; it’s reading about people that weren’t in situations that were. Science fiction is the antithesis to this because it allows readers to get away.
From a critical perspective, this means that readers are able to see the light and dark of the human soul, but from the perspective of a place that does not necessarily conjure feelings of regret or shame. Since it is not about something that has actually happened–in the sense that the events in a science fiction story, outside of allegory, are entirely fictional–readers have no reason to face “reality.” It becomes a safe zone in which to experience our weakness and faults and to experience the conditions that make all of us different and the same at the same time (different cultures of human beings). That’s not to say that it has to be this way, or that it always is. People read science fiction in very different ways. To pretend that there is a set reading practice for SF is ridiculous at best. But what is different, in my opinion, between SF and general literature is that SF doesn’t demand that you read it in a certain way. It doesn’t make it a requirement for you to feel the regret or shame of the past. When people call SF an “escapist” genre, we should be quite pleased with that, since it is one of the few genres that is both an “escape” and a “reflection”–fantasy, in contrast, is usually only the first (“escape”), since it is rarely about the past or present (though New Weird might have changed that somewhat).
That’s what, to me, is one of the most important aspects of science fiction in a third world context. Third world writers can use the furniture of science fiction to tell stories about their present and past without actually writing about either. The genre represents a gateway for third world writers to expose readers of SF to the themes, problems, and issues that plague third world nations without forcing people to deal with the immediacy of the moment. Perhaps it is naive of me to say, but I think this makes it possible for us to avoid repeating our past mistakes. Whether we’ll actually pay attention well enough to make that happen is the real issue (history, sadly, suggests that we won’t).
Science fiction’s “safe” status isn’t a perfect one, though. Yes, there are texts that inject science fiction elements into the present (or the very near future), and the alternate history genre, which many consider to be science fiction, even though I do not, is littered with examples that contradict the safeness of the genre. But, generally speaking, I think I’m right here. Science fiction is disconnected from the past and present in a direct sense; it is the ultimate form of cognitive estrangement–the ultimate novum.