Science Fiction Repair Shop: Here, Now, Nowhere

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-06-08 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

One of the single weirdest things about Zen Buddhism is its idea of time. Past and future are speculation of different sorts, and the only thing we can say really exists is action in the present moment. Doubly weird if you call yourself an SF author, because a big part of SF is making guesses about what the future could be like and writing interesting stories about those guesses. Is there a contradiction here, then? I don't think so.

For one, speculating about the future isn't the same thing as believing that any of those speculations are certain. Most SF doesn't speculate because it wants to predict things, but because it wants to use future possibilities as alternate ways to think about what we have right here and now. The future in SF is an "alienation effect" device, to use a term from Brecht. It helps us see the present through a glass darkly, and free ourselves a little bit of the unquestioned assumptions we have about it.

Over time I've drifted away from writing what could be called "hard" SF -- Flight Of The Vajra was probably the last thing I could slot into that category — and more towards what's covered by the more generic label "speculative fiction". Some of that was a disinhibition exercise, as I had tons of ideas that seemed lively and intriguing, and I didn't want to shoehorn them into a category. I just wanted to follow them where they went, and assign a label to them after the fact. They were nominally spec-fic, and whether they deserved the harder label of SF or the softer label of fantasy was not something I lost sleep over.

Zen teaches you the importance of paying attention to what's actually in front of you, not what you think is in front of you or what you want to believe is in front of you. This makes it seem like it would be antithetical to fiction and especially SF&F, but it isn't. It's just against the idea of comfortless delusions, of taking wrongminded refuge in fantasy. The way I put it is, I don't want to write something that people will just lie down and go to sleep in. Zen's the same way: it's not about what you believe or don't believe, but about training yourself to notice what actually is. Prepare to be shocked at how difficult this is, because you've spent you whole life not doing it.

SF takes what's going on around us and presents it to us in this exaggerated, fantastic form, the better to get us to actually notice it. It's actually quite hard for SF to be about anything but what's going on around us, for the simple reason that it's quite hard to be genuinely inventive about the future. Of all the SF out there, only a tiny handful of it seems truly oracular. But to my mind that's not what makes it work best; that's one way it can work well, although not the way. What works best is when it takes the present moment we don't really notice and gives it back to us in a way we can't ignore. (Alan Vega, of Suicide: "They came off the street [to our shows], and I gave them the street right back.")

There are days when I hate the future. I look at the present moment, and I can't imagine any future that I would want to inhabit that stems from this one. (Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned was in big part about this idea.) In such moments I think: maybe there is no future, in the truly negative sense of such a concept. Then I replace it with the Zen notion of no-future: the idea that we are only ever guaranteed the moment we have right now, and that we must devote ourselves to it wholeheartedly or not at all, because we have no choice. Don't confuse this with not bothering to make plans, though: it's just that, as Dean Sluyter pointed out, we can only ever make plans about the future in the present moment. They can't help but be provisional.

In light of all this, SF&F make the most sense to me when they are not about trying to reinvent what was, or speculate about what's to come. They can use elements of the past and the future, and they ought to do so in ways that feel true to their origins (e.g., you don't have Frodo & Co. saying "Bummer!"). But whatever they do is always going to be about holding a mirror up to the here-and-now, and asking us: what do you really want from this burning split second you're in?

Tags: Buddhism Science Fiction Repair Shop Zen fantasy science fiction