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[whitespace] Hard-core Speculation

Enter the faraway worlds of science fiction, and you just may learn something

By Annalee Newitz

Mutants: Eleven Stories of Science Fiction
Edited by Robert Silverberg; currently out of print

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
By Philip K. Dick; Del Rey; 244 pages; $13 paper

THE VERY FIRST SF book I ever read was a collection of short stories called Mutants, edited by Robert Silverberg, which I checked out of the local public library. It was the summer between fifth and sixth grades. In one of those metaphorical moments, I had found the book on a shelf halfway between the adolescent fiction section--where I still found all my reading materials at that point--and the adult section, whose maze of stacks I considered simultaneously bewildering and boring.

After devouring the book, I found myself considering questions I never imagined I'd ask myself. What would happen to the human race if it were headed for extinction? What would it be like in America if a totalitarian government took over and force-fed its citizens on pop culture until they were brainwashed into mental oblivion? Why were mutants automatically considered "bad?" Was being different a terrible but rewarding gift? And if a group of outcast mutants banded together, could their solidarity change the "normals" of our species?

Dimly, I realized that I was a kind of mutant, and that my experiences being tormented by other kids in school and punished by my parents were a real-life version of what SF mutants suffered in outlandish worlds of rampant speculation. I had stumbled across one of the most basic tenets of good SF writing: even the most fantastically, wildly fictional stories are always, at bottom, commenting on everyday reality.

Passionately, I began to tear through every science fiction book I could. Some, like Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, were too difficult for me to understand completely--they were distorted versions of adult realities I simply didn't have the experience to fathom. But other authors, like Robert Silverberg, Ray Bradbury, Clifford Simac, Vonda McIntyre, John Varley, created hard-core speculative worlds whose social and geographical boundaries were different enough from my own (yet oddly recognizable) to sustain me in my mutant ways throughout junior high and high school.

The irony of SF, especially for people like my younger self who read it as an anodyne for painful or dreary lives, is that it offers social commentary which can be as incisive as the great realist novels of Henry James and Frank Norris. And yet SF is generally as far from realism as you can get. Stories about sentient robots or aliens at war can literally transport their readers into other worlds which, even if they are as depressing as cyberpunk futures, offer a way to escape real-life political issues and personal problems.

I think this is perhaps why people who appreciate "literature" often scoff at science fiction. It isn't real; it's too easy. It's mind candy that makes us mentally fat and lazy.

And yet science fiction is the genre which taught me how to think like an adult, and gave me an early, crude sense of the difference between social injustice and its opposite. My reality was bad enough that the subtleties of literary realism and postmodernism were lost on me. I needed something that would kick my imagination in the ass, something that would jumpstart my philosophical engines. In the hard-core speculative worlds of SF, I found that something, and it's stuck with me ever since.

And it's been as entertaining as hell.

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From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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