Friday, May 19, 2017

Thought Provokers

An Expostulation

Against too many writers of science fiction 

Why did you lure us on like this,
Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,
Building (as though we cared for size!)
Empires that cover galaxies
If at the journey's end we find
The same old stuff we left behind,
Well-worn Tellurian stories of
Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,
Whose setting might as well have been
The Bronx, Montmartre, or Bedinal Green?

Why should I leave this green-floored cell,
Roofed with blue air, in which we dwell,
Unless, outside its guarded gates,
Long, long desired, the Unearthly waits
Strangeness that moves us more than fear,
Beauty that stabs with tingling spear,
Or Wonder, laying on one's heart
That finger-tip at which we start
As if some thought too swift and shy
For reason's grasp had just gone by?

– C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Ross Wilson
's statue of C. S. Lewis in front of the wardrobe from his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in East Belfast. Reproduced here under Freedom of Panorama.

Yes,  the famous C.S. Lewis is one of our 'living dead', but I felt this poem belonged in our Thought Provokers series, for the questions it raises. As soon as I read it, I wanted to discuss it with him. As he's not available, let me discuss it with you.

He has a point! SF can be too much like real life. I loved  the first StarWars movies (those which later became Episodes 4, 5 and 6) and also the return to form which was Episode 7. But I was very disappointed by the spin-off Rogue One. To me it was just a lot of war stuff, and there was far too much of that going on in the real world at the time; why should I wish to see more? My adult son, however, loved it and saw it as a modern version of  the Western. Well, I never was keen on Westerns either – except for High Noon, and Rawhide on TV. Depends what floats your boat (or powers your space-ship or something).

And we do like the fantastical; some of us anyway. There are those who like their speculative fiction scientific, within the bounds of belief even if what is described hasn't been invented yet. It's fascinating that life sometimes follows art, and things that were first written as science fiction have since been invented, from sliding doors to flat-screen TVs and of course the moon landing. (Yes I know, some people think that one is still fictional, but let's not get into that.)

Others of us prefer the fantastic to be, indeed, fantasy – beyond belief. Dragons, werewolves, time travellers, witches and wizards.... They are fairy stories for grown-ups. (Well, witches might be true, lol.)

On the other hand, it is still the human characters in these stories who interest us; or, occasionally, non-human characters who nevertheless have humanistic qualities of personality and emotion. We like to imagine ourselves in their situations, I think. We want them to have adventures, and we still want them to do normal things, particularly to make connections, fall in love, and have relationships.

I have known SF writers to object to being regarded as lesser authors because they write genre fiction, and to claim that important human truths can be conveyed equally well that way as through more 'literary' novels. I agree. (Fahrenheit 451. I rest my case.)

So I would take issue with Lewis. I think we do want 'the same old stuff', albeit in a new setting. We want to imagine new worlds, whether in outer space or a different dimension or some magical dream-space, but we want to find ourselves there.

Lewis's vision of the 'Unearthly' is very particular, though. It's well-known that he was a devout mystical Christian. His longing is really for the spiritual connection. He wants a sci-fi that puts us even more in touch with the wonders of creation, and therefore the wondrousness of the Creator. Maybe he really wants stories about Heaven.

It's interesting that he himself is best-known now for fairy stories in which children are transported from everyday reality into another world where they get to be heroic, and where they meet a lion whom all the critics identify as a Christ figure. Is that, indeed, what people are truly seeking from tales of other worlds – that connection to the divine which human beings seem to yearn for? (Well, perhaps not the atheists.)

I'm not an atheist, yet I don't know that I want my SF to be overtly spiritual like that. I think most good fiction IS spiritual in fact, though not necessarily overtly, because humans are spiritual beings; and that the true subject of most fiction, speculative or otherwise, is the development of the characters' souls. I don't want that to mean getting all churchy, though.

And then there are people who don't want to read speculative fiction at all, because it's too unrealistic.

What about you?

Good poem anyway, isn't it? Persuasive almost by virtue of its poetic accomplishment alone.


  1. Thanks Rosemary. I quickly read the post, and will come back for more!

  2. Where is everyone?

    1. Well, for one thing I had an old friend arrive for a few days' visit yesterday, so got distracted and am only just about to advertise this post on fb. Maybe that makes a difference.

  3. It certainly is a good poem. Thank you for publishing it here.
    I'm not a sci-fi aficionado. Each time I get into a sci-fi movie there's a part of me that wants revelations about what is unknown. If the movie captures my attention, for a moment I am fooled into thinking the writer knows something I don't, something yet undiscovered. Then I'm let down, when the ending is full of questions, so much like real life. I get disappointed too because so many sci-fi movies depict warrior societies, a bleak future. But, I suppose a movie wouldn't sell if the author dreamed of a peaceful, resolved evolution of humanity and other beings. It would be deemed boring. I can't comment much on sci-fi literature or poetry since I haven't read much. I tend to agree with Lewis: Why take me away if all there is is the same old thing.

    1. Yes, it was my main gripe about the much-touted 'Avatar' – in the end this wonderful, peaceful, enlightened society had to resort to same-old war and military victory. :(

  4. Wow! This is a fascinating post. I've never actually considered that most good fiction is spiritual - but you make a very good case for that. I find that quite an intriguing position and will ponder on it a little more, I think. Thanks for this, Rosemary.

    1. I don't think one can write about human beings without raising spiritual issues as part of the package, irrespective of point of view, and even if not paramount. Even crime fiction automatically raises questions of morality.

  5. Whoa, how could I have forgotten it is Friday? It has happened twice this week that I lost track of the days. This is an interesting discussion, Rosemary. I tend to favor - these days - nonfiction/memoir. But I admire the imagination and the craft of those who create other worlds for our minds to inhabit. I would LOVE to read about a peaceful, enlightened society, even though it would lack credibility, it would offer hope. Smiles. I love C.S. Lewis, most for Shadowlands, the story of his love for his wife who died. Anthony Hopkins played him so well in the movie.

    1. If you are losing track of the days, it means your life is full and busy in your new, beloved home. Hooray!

  6. A very good poem and thought provoking discussion - I think magic belongs in all writing.. escaping in words is like a life raft

    1. Thank you, Jae. Yes, that's true; it's often been a life raft for me.

  7. Sorry to be late to the party. I actually got very excited by your post and have been waiting for free moment.

    Way back in the 1970s, I taught a course in HS English called Utopian and Dystopian Literature and it contained all the usual subjects. Then I started reading only books by women and I had two bright stars: Sheri Tepper and Kate Wilhelm and Starhawk. Then I became Quaker and added to that Judith Moffitt and Joan Slonczewski. Then I started on my PhD in theatre and added Margorie Kellog. Then started a fantasy reading group at my Quaker Meeting, starting with Tepper's GRASS to start a discussion of the Peace testimony. There others introduced me to writers like Jane Yolen and Orson Scott Card. And then I fell in love with Black SciFi like Octavia Butler and others. Need I say that I am first and foremost a fan?

    I love how SciFi and Fantasy illustrate "what if?" with a Brechtian distance. I too love the magic and hate the wars--imagine when I reread Tolkien after the series of movies and realized it was indeed full of war. I hadn't remembered that! Yet, given the nature and history of humanity, I have seldom felt that the crushing of the good for profit or for a greater good was out of line with the what if.
    What if we were better? What if we could solve the problems?

    I could say a lot more. I urge writers to use the form like scientists to move us forward. Someday, maybe, I'll contribute to the field. Until then, I'm just a fan.

    1. Yet I've only read one Harry Potter! Never drawn to it.

    2. Did you know that Marge Piercy also wrote scifi?

    3. Marge Piercy is one of my favourite writers, both as poet and novelist – so yes, I did know. (Smile.) Wonderful stuff!

      The Harry Potter books got better and better as to the writing. In the first one, she was starting out, and I didn't think it even warmed up properly until about half way through. Jane Yolen, Orson Scott Card, YES! Some of the others you mention I don't know; I prefer Starhawk's non-fiction. The Tolkien books also include things that didn't make it into the movies, so there was perhaps more of a balance (so long since I read them, though, I wouldn't say for sure). Like you before re-reading, I remember those other things more.


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