The Walls Are Falling Down

Well, it finally happened. For decades—and I do mean decades—I have wondered why science fiction hasn't received the respect it deserves. Science fiction fans, in self defense, created a ghetto and then closed the walls of that ghetto so that anyone new who wanted to arrive via movies or television couldn't get in.

Science fiction itself became exclusive, rather than inclusive, the way that put-upon groups often do. But as things evolved, the culture adopted more and more of science fiction's tropes. I kept arguing that both sides could meet on common ground and have not just something to talk about, but a whole heck of a lot in common.

I made those arguments as recently as five years ago, in an essay titled “Barbarian Confessions.” [http://www.smartpopbooks.com/730] That essay, which was also published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, got me a lot of angry e-mail. Not from the folks who wanted to get into science fiction's inner circle, but from the folks who ran that inner circle.

But now the barriers have lifted. Some of the old timers guarding the fort have died. Some of the publications that once comprised the center of the field have folded. Worldcon, once the most important science fiction convention in the world (quite literally), got overshadowed by two upstarts—Dragoncon, and Comic-Con. In fact in the battle for attendees, Worldcon lost. Dragoncon took over Worldcon's traditional weekend—Labor Day—and Worldcon eventually threw in the towel, losing so spectacularly that it now gets held (most of the time) in mid-August.

But what I'm talking about here really wasn't a battle royale. It wasn't even really a battle. No one stormed the walls. No one forced themselves on the folks in the ghetto.

What happened, really, was that the wall crumbled. For years, everyone operated as if there was a wall. In fact, some people still do. But if you go looking for a wall, you won't find one. It's not there.

The analogy is more akin to that classic science experiment every biology student hears about at the beginning of their college career. Fruit flies have an accelerated lifecycle, so fast that we can study generations over the space of weeks.

The study places fruit flies in a large clear jar with a lid. The fruit flies try mightily to get out. But after a few generations, they realize that the jar is their world and there is no getting out. So they stop trying. Then a few generations after that, the scientist removes the lid of the jar.

And the fruit flies don't notice.

They no longer test the limits of their world. They believe that the lid is there, and act accordingly.

Now, I've never seen a version of the study in which someone puts a new subgroup of fruit flies into the jar, introducing them into the mix, teaching the existing fruit flies that they can leave.

But that's what happened in science fiction. The walls ceased to have importance somewhere around the late 1960s, but the people living inside that wall defended their fortification against the newcomers for decades. Eventually, however, a lot of us bullied our way inside anyhow. We were raised on Heinlein and Star Trek, Niven and Star Wars. We read The Sword of Shannara as well as The Lord of the Rings, and enjoyed both, even when we knew that Shannara was just Lord of the Rings retold. We played video games and Dungeons & Dragons. We were the generation that combined them into Worlds of Warcraft. In fact, my generation was the one that developed the flip cell phone because we wanted a phone that looked like a Star Trek communicator.

Some of us realized the walls were there and breached them. But the rest of us just continued to live our lives, enjoying our geekiness and our cultural savvy, reading Bill Gibson and Sandman as well as watching both versions of Battlestar Galactica.

My generation didn't understand why we had to divide into the True Fan and the casual fan. Many folks in my generation got mad at the distinction and started making fun of the folks behind the walls. That William Shatner Saturday Night Live routine, in which he told sf fans to move out of their basement, came from this anger. In the movies and on TV, geeks got portrayed as surly, churlish smart people whom no one liked and no one wanted to hang out with anyway. So there.

But even as that stereotypical geek image pervaded the culture, so did another. The geek as unconventional hero. Real Genius made an entire movie about them—and it became a cult favorite. Back To The Future gave our somewhat cool hero a geek mentor, Doc Brown, who could marshal the forces of space and time (and in Back To The Future III, even gets the girl).

By the time Galaxy Quest came along, the tables got turned on their head. Now the character worth ridiculing was the blow-hard Captain Kirk standing, played by Tim Allen. And the person who saves the day, who truly saves the day? A geek kid in his basement, and all his cool geeky friends.

Now the number one comedy in America is a show about four geeks who are not creatures of ridicule, but the actual stars of the show itself. The Big Bang Theory expects us to sympathize and understand our four heroes, all of whom are brilliant scientists. They collect science fiction paraphernalia, quote Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics as if they are canon, talk about everything from the physics of Superman to the actual physics of the Big Bang, and—here's the key—expect the audience to keep up.

Early in the first season, the fifth star of the show, an “average” girl named Penny was supposed to act as our conduit to this geeky world. She would ask what the Big Bang was or why anyone would care about Star Trek. But by the third season, she understood and gained some geek cred herself. She ceased being our conduit, and became a foil for another character, Sheldon, not to make fun of her per se, but to show that intelligence takes different forms. Hers is a version of street smart that most geeks don't have, and his is a version of intellect that grasps the entire universe but misses the grain of sand.

But it isn't just in the media that this change has occurred. Harry Potter isn't quite a nerd—he's too good at sports, for one thing—but his friends are, particularly Hermione Granger. Hermione likes studying. She enjoys being smart and, as the series has gone on, Hermione's intelligence and knowledge has become part of her physical beauty.

Everyone, it seems, has read Harry Potter, from kids to teens to adults. As I write this, the penultimate Harry Potter movie is opening nationwide to long lines. The people in line are wearing costumes or clutching their Potter books. They are, in fact, behaving like science fiction fans on Saturday night at a science fiction convention.

If it was just Harry Potter, I would say that the change hasn't happened yet. But Twilight invokes discussions—sponsored by Burger King of all places—as to whether you're on “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.” (Me, I go for the age-appropriate werewolf.) Those books are also an international phenomenon.

And the only other international phenomenon in the book side in the past five years isn't science fiction or fantasy, but it might as well have been. Stieg Larsson's trilogy that begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is ostensibly a mystery series, but everything about it screams sf. Lizbeth Salander, the “girl” of the title, is brilliant and independent. If she had a functional family, she would live in their basement. Instead, she's alone in the classic science fiction way—the alone, misunderstood kid who is smarter than anyone else although no one knows it.

Salander is a mathematical genius. She's also spectacularly good with computers. She can outthink everyone. And she's physically strong in a way you wouldn't expect from a woman of her size. When she takes on a “giant” who feels no pain in the second book and beats him, she goes from being a realistic (kinda) character into being a superhero. No one can best Lizbeth Salander, and the neat thing is that by the end of the three books, no one tries.

Even if the three top-selling book series of the past five years hadn't had the sf elements, I still would write this essay. And not because of the games that you can download everywhere from your Wii to your iPhone. But because of young adult fiction. From Scott Westerfeld's The Uglies series to Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, young adult fiction is full of true science fiction, the kind an editor friend of mine calls “pure quill science fiction.” Romance lines from Bantam to Sourcebooks have “futuristic” romance subgenres. Bestselling author Jayne Anne Krentz, whose futuristic romance pen name, Jayne Castle, nearly disappeared several years ago due to lack of sales, has published new Castle books in the past few years. I just sold some futuristic romances as well, under a pen name that I might or might not reveal.

Futuristic romance is mostly space opera—the whooshing-in-space kind that true blue science fiction fans would turn their noses up at if they weren't secretly reading those books. Nora Roberts helped readers develop a taste for this genre when she started publishing her J.D. Robb books, which are mysteries set in the future, starring Eve Dallas and her husband Roarke, a couple who manage—in between solving serious crimes—to have hot hot hot sex at least four or five times a book.

Then, of course, there's steampunk. Steampunk, which started twenty-five years ago as a sub-subgenre of science fiction, has become so cool that in large cities, entrepreneurs have opened bars that cater to the steampunk crowd. Even that bastion of insular science fiction, Locus Magazine, has published a steampunk issue. Now that Charles N. Brown is gone, Locus has moved into the 21st century, taking on not just steampunk but urban fantasy and all of those things that are both popular and have science fiction/fantasy ties.

I think the thing that clenched the changes for me is a book signing held at Powell's Books in Beaverton, Oregon, in November. Held after Orycon, Oregon's premiere science fiction convention, the signing had thirty authors from all over the region. Some were pure quill science fiction people, some had written Star Wars novels. Others wrote steampunk and showed up in costume, and still others signed their paranormal romances. No one dissed anyone else, at least that I could tell. Readers came by my table carrying hard science fiction and a futuristic romance novel, steampunk novels and Star Trek books.

The walls are down. People are walking back and forth across that ruined barrier and not even noticing they're doing so.

And that's a good thing—which will take us forward, into an even better future.

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