October 15, 2015
We attended Necronomicon this weekend. It's routinely held in Tampa, which provides beaches, sailboats, exquisite cafes, and oceanic vistas. Guests this year included Eric Flint, Joe Haldeman, and Timothy Zahn. The highlight of the weekend for us happened Saturday evening when Craig Caldwell treated Maureen and me, Ben and Rashida Bova, and Joe and Gay Haldeman to an evening at Armani's, the lush Italian restaurant with a piano and floor-to-ceiling windows atop the Hyatt. I think we all sat there for an hour or so realizing how fortunate we've been.
During the course of the con, I served on five panels, one of which was "Space Opera Then/Military SF Now." Also on board for that one were Eric Flint, Chris Berman, and Jeff Carroll, while Christopher Helton moderated. I've never been happy with the term 'space opera.' It's derived from the old radio shows like "Our Gal Sunday," "Lorenzo Jones," "Ma Perkins," and "Just Plain Bill." The sense of it was that the shows were designed exclusively for women, who were expected to be at home cleaning house and taking care of the kids while their husbands did the serious lifting. Consequently the sponsors were predominantly soap manufacturers.
The term did not have a positive context. This was an era when women were perceived as not quite able to operate at the same level as men. No male would ever have admitted to being a fan of a soap opera. I was aware of this from about the age of seven. Consequently, when the term was hijacked for use by the general media and applied to science fiction, I got vaguely annoyed. Today, in an age when SF has become a dominant form of entertainment and thoughtful literature, many of the more influential media still do not review its written work. They are happy to treat fiction about serial killers or lascivious college professors as serious material, but a novel that takes the reader to Mars or uses a time machine to visit Nero isn't likely to get much attention, unless the author has a reputation that does not label him as a regular SF writer.
This recalls the attitudes toward women that were common when I was growing up. The radio shows that ran in the evening, "Campbell Playhouse," "Sherlock Holmes," "Radio City Playhouse," "Dragnet," were considered adult programs, aimed at a more mature audience. I can't resist mentioning that I don't ever recall my mom listening to a soap opera. And I suspect if she'd been known that her kid would produce books with a soapy label, she wouldn't have been happy.
The quality that has always entranced me about science fiction is that it could take me to places I could only dream about. That it can take the reader to the stars and let him, or her, interact with whatever's out there. And I don't mean necessarily to get into a fight with it. That's an easy way to set up the conflict that is an essential part of any drama. As is creating a villainous character that the good guys can chase around. But I'd much rather see them confront nature. Let's put a few explorers in orbit on a world that's about to get sucked into a gas giant. And have them notice there are ruins on that world. Going down to take a closer look involves a risk, because the approaching catastrophe is already causing storms and earthquakes. Do we make the effort?
Or maybe they can confront themselves. Do we colonize a living world even though it will destroy the life forms already present?
The most memorable science fiction I've come across has been in the short form. And, curiously, the stories that have stayed with me have often completely lacked conflict. Arthur Clarke's "The Star" is a prime example. Ray Bradbury's "The Million-Year Picnic" is another. And Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth."
There are a lot of very intelligent people out there who, somehow, have never discovered the field. I don't know how that happened. But they have my sympathy. I can't imagine my life without Isaac Asimov and his friends.