Weird guy doesn’t like science fiction

I once happened across an essay by a Hank Parnell (“The Inadequacy of Science Fiction,” 5/05/02, The Texas Mercury)), who took the delightfully weird position of being against science fiction. Imagine having a position one way or the other on science fiction; it’s like being pro-Wednesday or anti-beige. Parnell’s strange piece inspires a few remarks.

One, he’s upset that SF isn’t obsessed with death:

“Life, as the ancients knew, is inherently tragic, for we all must suffer and inevitably die. Yet death in science fiction is invariably a sort of martyrdom, when it is not cheated outright: an ersatz immortality. Science fiction is preoccupied with things that ‘are not and work not’…”

Jeez, Parnell, if you’re obsessed with death, er, have fun with that. Most of us aren’t, and most literature, SF or otherwise, isn’t.

Two, Parnell gets his own analytical perspective, Christianity, wrong. He says that the goal of Christians is to be sinless: “To a Christian, a life without sin grants the believer a moral superiority.” Say what? The point of Christianity is that you can’t avoid being sinful and you need God and/or Jesus to bail your ass out. Just FYI. If you weren’t copied on the memo please contact the system administrator; she’ll put you on the list.

Three, he buys into the common and oft-refuted error that the purpose of SF is to predict the future; he slags it for rarely accurately doing so:

“The second greatest inadequacy of science fiction is the limitations of human imagination and knowledge; and to state that human imagination and knowledge have no limits, as most SF writers/readers will [HUH?]… is to reference my first objection to science fiction. In truth, we don’t know what alien beings, if there are such, would really be like, no more than we can know what our own world will be like 10 years from now, to say nothing of a hundred.”

Of course. That’s why it’s called science fiction.

“…the flux of human culture and technological innovation is such that the world of tomorrow would bear little resemblance to the world of today.”

Quite. That’s the entire point of SF.

“A related inadequacy is science fiction’s reliance on gimmicks. A traditional SF story is a gimmick story. Roads that roll, humans that change sex from male to female and back, robots with ‘positronic brains’ – the heart of the story is the exploitation of a gimmick.”

Parnell, you can’t really slag SF writers for not paying enough attention to technological change, and then slag them for writing stories that assume technological change. And if you’re going to be wrong, at least be original. SF authors don’t try to predict the future, as many people outside SF have mistakenly thought. The point is to explore a large set of possible futures. And cultures, human and alien. And political changes associated with technological changes. Etc. A good example of this last appears in Larry Niven’s Known Space setting: organ donor technology is so cheap and reliable that voters have an incentive to implement the death penalty for, e.g., jaywalking… so they can harvest the jaywalker’s organs and thus potentially extend their own lives.

But after all this it occurred to me that maybe Parnell isn’t serious. Perhaps this essay is just an act of semantic Da-Daism. Lord knows it’s weird enough. If so, I like it. In fact I wish I’d thought of it first, and I’m joining in now. I’m hereby making it known that I’m against A-flat. Join me, brothers, in the struggle against this imperialist, high-calorie musical note! Down with A-flat!! Down with A-flat!!