Had an interesting conversation with my brother recently about Sci-Fi. I’d been complaining about the new Stuart MacBride book, which is set in a futuristic Glasgow. MacBride is known to me as the author of a series of gruesome but funny (and oddly rather wholesome) serial killer novels set in Aberdeen and i’d snapped this book up assuming it was more of the same. Fool! Did i not see the initial “B” inserted into his name? “Stuart B. MacBride”, evidently his Sci-Fi alter ego.
Well no, i didn’t and i can’t help thinking that it wasn’t much of a difference to notice. In other words, i feel resentful. Sci-Fi is one genre that leaves me cold. But why is this? Well, this is what i ended up discussing with my brother. We were both big fans of it as kids so why aren’t we now? My brother said it’s because although Sci-Fi suggests that it’s “reality plus”, an advance on the reality we know today, it’s really “reality minus”.
As soon as he said this i realised he’d hit the nail on the head. On the face of it Sci-Fi presents us with things above and beyond what we already know: futuristic technology (spaceships!), other worlds, other species. It allows writers to depict people in roles not yet open to them. It allows them to describe societies where norms differ wildly from ours. Sci-Fi can be used to explore ideas of social progress and equally it can be used to explore fears of social disintegration.
Yet, yet… something is always missing. In part this stems from the fact that the stories take place in worlds that the reader has never experienced*. Things need to be explained and described in a way that is unnecessary in a book set in the world where we actually live. And even after all that extra information, which is often laborious to read, we still never quite have the same vivid sense of reality**. MacBride’s Sci-Fi book, “Halfhead”, features lobotomised criminals and a killer missing half her face, yet it’s curiously unfrightening and uninvolving. Of course it’s not just the reader who lacks experience of the future; the author’s in the same boat. So the characters are never quite convincing, never quite complete people. Think about it: how many Sci-Fi characters can you imagine on the toilet?
We’re less bothered by these things when we’re kids because our experience of the world is shallower and our ability to imagine on the basis of minimal material much greater. We understand so little about other people – their motivations and inner worlds – that we don’t notice the lack of depth. And spaceships are cool. Really cool.
(Actually, Stuart “B” MacBride’s book is affected by another problem, one which is specific to it being futuristic crime fiction, and that’s that the less we identify/connect with the victims of crime, the less power the story of the crime has for us. )
* Even by proxy: television, the internet, etc.
** Historical fiction has a similar problem, but to a lesser extent because our current world has its roots in earlier ones. And at least there are records, evidence, artefacts, memories.