Science fiction--let us now refer to it as speculative fiction--meaning the small, solid kernel of excellent writing--encompasses exercises in both literary style and innovation, such as Ursula Le Guin's prose and music combination, Always Coming Home, and more traditionally plotted contemplations of today and tomorrow, exemplified by Vonda McIntyre's strongly character-driven works. This has always been speculative fiction's strong suit--the function of the genre as lens, allowing us a look at a possible tomorrow, and more recently, providing a new look at today and ourselves, as well. We live in a time of change, and that change is accelerating at a dizzying rate. As we clone animals and wonder uncomfortably who might already be cloning humans, as we insert human genes into mice and sheep, we stand on the edge of a bewildering bioethical jungle. We are running out of water, of trees, of personal privacy. The planet is shrinking into a global village, even as I write this. One can purchase books on the Net and search any number of information warehouses. It is perhaps easier to become intimately acquainted with a like-minded person in Sao Paulo via the internet than to get to know one's next door neighbor in person. What does this mean? What do we face tomorrow, and what choices must we make today? The news media offers a limited forum for these contemplations and considerations. But it is the imaginations of thoughtful and contemporary writers such as Maureen McHugh, Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, Nicola Griffith, and the like that open that forum up and stretch it in all directions. These writers and others ask a variety of questions about our present and future, and suppose a variety of answers. Where once science fiction tended to concern itself with issues of technology and both positive and negative implications of its advance, writers of speculative fiction may contemplate the evolution of humanity and society--who we are and who we might become in the near future. Sage Walker, for example, in her novel Whiteout, explores the evolution of human tribalism and commerce in the information age. What will have true value in the future, and how will we live in a Web universe? William Gibson, of course, gave us our first glimpse into the networked world and provided us with much of our cyberspace vocabulary through works such as Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Nicola Griffith looks at human relationships and gender as well as the politics and economics of pollution in her recent Nebula Award-winning novel Slow River. I myself have dealt with evolving technology and its pressures on our changing society, and the environment.
By no means is speculative fiction an exercise of ideas without literary merit. There are a number of writers who combine an imaginative contemplation of tomorrow with a literary style and technique that easily equals some of the best efforts of mainstream writers. Greg Bear's Queen of Angels takes a look at a high tech future in a stylistic and powerful manner. And Lucius Shepherd's works, such as Life During Wartime, have a dark and potent style that is compelling and highly contemporary. The quality core of the genre include works with strong, vibrant characters and a literary power that could easily have attained them recognition in a more general market. They go beyond mere fascination with cool new science or special-effect aliens. They are thought-provoking. They are powerful. They are a solid, worthwhile read.
They are the epitome of speculative fiction's strength. Yes, entertainment plays a role in every one of them. Isn't that part of fiction's purpose? But in addition to entertaining us, these writers pull the reader gently--or not so gently--aside from everyday reality. They let us peek through a window of future to look at the familiar world from a fresh new perspective. Suddenly the mundane and expected landscape of everyday life is different. Strange. But startlingly--at times chillingly--familiar, too.