Is sci-fi relevant to our lives? And if so, how?

Came across this in a recent Canadian Press story on sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer:

The worst thing that ever happened to science fiction occurred in May 1977 when Star Wars premiered, says Toronto science fiction author Rob Sawyer.

“Because it started with these words ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ George Lucas established indelibly in the public consciousness that science fiction was at a discontinuity from our reality,” Sawyer says during a discussion about references to current pop culture in his latest novel, Mindscan, which is set 50 years in the future.

“The general public still thinks that science fiction has nothing to do with their day-to-day lives.”

I think I would blame the general public more than George Lucas in this regard, myself. Lucas has always been up-front about the fact that Star Wars was inspired by the Vietnam War — the lo-tech Ewoks are the Viet Cong to the hi-tech American Empire — and the prequels have included some not-so-subtle references to current politics, too (e.g. the villainous Nute Gunray appears to be named after Newt Gingrich and Ronald Raygun … er, Reagan).

Of course, as myth, Star Wars is open to multiple readings; hence, despite Lucas’s evident disapproval of Republican politics, Republicans seized upon his “evil empire” rhetoric and directed it at the Soviet Union during the last stages of the Cold War.

So Sawyer may have a point when he says that the applicability of Star Wars to current political realities is not as obvious or direct or didactic as the applicability of his own current novel (of which I know nothing beyond the description in the CP story) seems to be. But I’m not so sure that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The stories that last, after all, are the ones that transcend their origins.

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  • I agree that fiction – sci or otherwise – which identifies very strongly with individuals, events or movements from a particular time in real-world history, may run a greater risk of dating itself out of relevancy to people beyond the immediate generation. This does have to be evaluated on a case by case basis – a film like All Quiet On The Western Front (based on a book), made in the 30s, is very specific to a certain event and period, but its thematic treatment is fairly universal and still has resonance today. In contrast, something like Tora! Tora! Tora!, a more stright-ahead, string-pulling action drama, feels much more dated to this viewer a scant 30 years or so on.

    By attempting to elevate his version of sci fi to an archetypal level, Lucas is going down a well-trodden path; Northrop Frye suggested that sci fi is “…a mode of romance with a strong tendency to myth,” and pioneer sci fi publisher Lester Del Ray is quoted as pegging sci fi as “…the myth-making principle of human nature today.”

    Isaac Asimov believed that modern sci fi “…consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions,” a definition which transcends the arguments between hard-core and soft-core sci fi enthusiasts (simplistically: the former being more into the sci, the latter more so the fi).

    Philip K. Dick went even further by suggesting that one of the essential qualities of sci fi was not so much the presence of specific scientific, technological or futuristic content, but its ability to present a coherent idea that generates a “shock of dysrecognition” in a reader’s mind, leading to a “chain-reaction of ramification, ideas in the mind of the reader…the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create – and enjoy doing it, [experiencing] the joy of discovery of newness.”

    Yes, these folks were probably referring to sci fi in a purely written medium. And I’m not commenting on whether Lucas has successfully managed to elevate the Star Wars saga to mythical levels. But I do know that my favourite movies in the saga continue to inspire “the joy of discovery of newness” with each re-viewing, although since it’s only been a quarter century or so since I first watched Episode IV, I’ll have to post back in about another 25 years – when I can more accurately judge whether good old Star Wars is an enduring myth for me. Or SO not, as some of my acquaintances already seem to have discovered.