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Sci-fi: the why

There was a time, not so long ago, when our family used to drive regularly between the midwest and the east coast. Like bookends bracketing the ordered weeks of the summer, the three-day trips stood firmly at either end of our holiday.I remember one evening, to stave off their dullness, I climbed into the back of our station wagon with our daughters and began reading aloud to them.

The book we had chosen was one over which my students generally raved. They wore tee-shirts in its honor, made punch and cookies in imitation of its cuisine , and salted their conversations with allusions to its characters. Some of my fellow faculty members even swore it was fine fare for all ages. It was, as you may have guessed, J. R. R. Tolkein's The Hobbit.

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So with great expectation (perhaps that was our mistake) we plunged in. And pretty soon I noticed that the girls were less than wholly attentive. As chapter wore into chapter, a certain fidgetiness crept in. We stopped, I think for gas; and when we got back in, I asked them whether I should go on.

''Well . . . ,'' the six-year-old ventured, feeling the waters.

''A bit heavy?'' I proposed, trying to sound neutral.

There was a pause, as the eleven-year-old read the situation and summoned her courage.

''It's kind of . . . well, boring,'' she said.

And so ended The Hobbit.

Now, I don't mean this to be a statement of weighed and balanced judgment. I recognize how heretical, in some circles, such views will be. I simply report in all honesty, that I agreed with them.

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And that troubles me. Am I in some way deficient, incapable of the delight many take in such books? I've been examining my response, trying to see whether it is something I ought to rectify. And in so doing I have uncovered an even more discomforting fact: I have found (though The Hobbit does not fall squarely into this category) that I don't much like anything that borders on science fiction.

Goodness knows I've tried. These are the days, after all, of Star Wars and Star Trek, of paperbacks with pictures of three-eyed dinosaurs and buildings shaped like telephone-pole insulators on the front, of toys modeled on strange spider-legged vehicles and on swords that slice by laser light. It is a vast and popular phenomenon, in fact and I feel I must explain what surely appears my perverse and backward dislike.

The most ready excuse, I suppose, would have to do with the quality of the writing. It is said that most ''sci-fi'' writing does not stack up with Jane Austen or Henry James. But honesty compels me to demur. As makers of sentences, the writers of science fiction seem to know their craft. They are no novices, these fellows, and some of them compose admirably.

Nor am I really concerned, I guess, with the deus ex machina syndrome - the sense that in sci-fi the human bounds of probability are so entirely ignored that the logic of the plot can be overturned at any moment by some new invention never before known to man, which either liberates or ensnares the characters at the drop of a quark. That, too, is part of a writer's stock-in-trade - and if you doubt it, go back and reread Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights.

No, what I most miss in science fiction is a very simple, utterly prosaic quality: a sense of history. For the genre is essentially ahistorical. It neither presumes nor inculcates a knowledge of culture or the past. Instead, the genre sets up its own history - made doubly troublesome by the fact that each author invents a different chronology. The more one reads, the less one arrives at a coherent picture of humanity. The genre is essentially devoid of any sense of an age or a place. It has no local habitation in which to place the meaningful relations of men and women in a context that includes, by a kind of universal heritage, the reader.

Why should it be, then, that the genre is so terrifically popular?

I posit the following - though not without some trepidation. Perhaps its appeal arises because the teaching of history is falling increasingly into disrepair. To read Tom Jones or Moby Dick without a rudimentary feel for English class structure or the traditions of the sea is to drift helplessly across the surface of a glorious depth. That is not so in sci-fi. An innocence about the past is no detriment to the enjoyment of Buck Rogers.

I suppose I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that the shrivelling of our historical sense is a grave loss. For we live, after all, in a particular age and culture. So do the characters in most novels. We knock up against our time in all sorts of ways.So do they. And the characters in sci-fi? They wander, quite literally, in space. They live outside the riches of the humanities as we know them.

Looking over what I've said, though, I wonder whether even that is right. Am I, in fact, guilty of the final arrogance - that of believing in the superiority of my own time? The reader of history, after all, always has a last recourse - that of shutting the book and saying, ''Ah, that was olden times - we've progressed since then.'' But the challenge of sci-fi is that it puts our own proud age into the past. Taking the reader into the future, it makes the present appear obsolete. To close the book is to return to olden times. Sci-fi says, quite bluntly, ''Yours are not the best of times. You do not know it all. I will show you more.''

Is it humility, then, or naivete, that makes one a reader of sci-fi? Is it a willingness to escape the boundary of the present, or an inability to feel the value of tradition?

Perhaps these two things, if not identical, are dangerously close. But I do not think we will discover the difference by reading about pointy-eared heroes and weird machines. I suspect we shall find it in the rich tradition of philosophy, mined from the lodes of history and refined by time.

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