June 30, 2017
Science fiction possesses several advantages over competing genres. I'm not much interested in crime fiction, though I've been a lifetime fan of Sherlock Holmes. But it's Doyle's handling of the interaction between the prime characters rather than watching them chase down murderers that has always captured my attention. It's not the pursuits but rather the conversations between Holmes and Watson at 221b Baker Street that embody the magic.
The supernatural also tends to get old fairly quickly. When the zombies come to town, the only real issue devolves into finding a way to kill them off (again). I can't think of a single vampire story, e.g., that has ever caught my attention. All you can do with a vampire is figure out how to get rid of it. Bram Stoker became famous with Dracula because, as far as I know, he strolled onto new ground with his creation. That was in 1897. By the time I got around to reading it, a half century later, I'd seen so many Dracula movies, including one with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, that most of the impact had been lost. I could see why it had worked with readers, and to an extent it still does, but for me Bela Lugosi had taken it over, and the only issue had to do with who was going to come up with the stake.
Science fiction, on the other hand, can (as somebody once said) go places where no one has gone before. For example, it can provide a glimpse of the immediate future. Ray Bradbury did that with "The Pedestrian" in a very real way. I grew up in a row home in South Philadelphia, where, on summer evenings, we all sat outside on porches and concrete steps. Everybody did. Bradbury foresaw, with the arrival of TV, that we'd all go inside and close our doors. The streets would become empty. And we would lose touch with our neighbors.
SF also provides a capability to look back from the future at our own time and discover things we might have missed. How many of us recognize Vasili Arkhipov's name? In Alex Benedict's universe, a starship has been named for him, and he is remembered as the guy who saved the world.
At the heart of the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. tactic was to embargo a Soviet fleet transporting missiles and other armaments to Cuba. That fleet included three submarines, with four commanders. (I don't recall why the numbers don't seem to match up, but that was the reality.) The subs were armed with nuclear weapons. And the decision to use them lay with the commanders, not with the Kremlin. But the call had to be unanimous. When the two forces confronted one another, three of the sub commanders wanted to use the nukes, an action which would almost certainly have provoked an all-out war. Arkhipov was the guy who said no. He is probably the reason I'm able to write this, and you are here to celebrate the Fourth next week.
Incidentally, to avoid anyone's trying to find a reference to Arkhipov in one of the Benedict novels, it hasn't appeared yet. But it's coming.
And then there's alternate history, which also serves as a way we can reinterpret the past. What would have happened had the Greeks been able to maintain their scientific view of the world from the classical age? Would we have long since left Alpha Centauri behind? What if Caesar had avoided the assassination? If Winston Churchill had died when he was hit by a car in New York in 1931? Gregory Benford has just published The Berlin Project, which looks at how events might have transpired had the atom bomb become available only a year earlier, in 1944.
I should add that, if I were to put together a list of the five most memorable science fiction novels I've read, The Berlin Project would have no trouble making the list.