Call to Arms:
Crusading for Tomorrow Beneath the SF Banner Today
(Or, How You can Save the World, Build Utopias, Make Children
Smarter, and Maybe Plant a Few Trees)
by Christopher McKitterick

Originally published in ANALOG magazine, January 1996.

THE PROBLEM; THE SOLUTION

Science fiction's readers take the long view. We picture the human animal as part of a species whose skin is multicolored, whose voice is multilingual, whose home is multinational, whose future is unified. On the other hand, traditional (mundane) culture -- usually in power -- sees those borders and tongues and hues as signs of difference, and it sees difference as dangerous. David Hartwell defines science fiction readers as having "an impatience with the way things are, an ironic, sometimes sarcastic attitude toward everyday things... a desire for change" (Age of Wonders 3). Traditional culture sees change as dangerous, and also the future, because tomorrow's world will, without doubt, be different from now. Look at the changes today's oldsters have seen in the past decades.

Not only is traditional culture afraid of change, but it also searches for ways to avoid it and, thus, maintain the status quo indefinitely. Keep in mind that the first definition of "tradition" in Webster's New World Dictionary is "a surrender or betrayal." By shunning creative uses of technology, by failing to seize upon opportunities that paradigm shifts provide such as solar power and daily life on the moon or asteroids, by imposing yesterday's values and traditions where they are inappropriate--on the future--mundane culture is assuring humanity's collapse. They are betraying our children's children.

Tomorrow as utopia faces an even greater bugaboo. Today, we bear the crushing weight of our past forays into violence against ourselves and our world, the legacy our fathers and our fathers' fathers ad infinitum left us. We, every one of us, need to unshackle ourselves from the fears imposed by tradition and think like SF readers in our everyday affairs. That is, we need to use the illumination provided by our rational minds and our creativity to light the rough, branching path to tomorrow. Science fiction does this best:

...perhaps the most important function of science fiction is to neutralize the future, to remove the natural fear that humanity feels for the unknown, to present the alien as at least endurable and perhaps even acceptable. (James Gunn, Inside Science Fiction 152)

In one sentence, Gunn sums up the nature of SF. Our fiction takes away fear of the future, the unknown, and the other, and replaces the vacuum left behind with visions.

True, not much of today's SF is laden with hopeful visions, though the balance is not necessarily unhopeful -- rather, most contemporary SF is about people facing difficulties they need to overcome. But even someone reading a dystopic story about the year 2294 is reading a story that assumes we have, at least, survived until 2294 -- no small feat. In addition, reading a dystopic story might prod someone to say, "It doesn't have to be that way," or "Dammit! I won't let that happen. What can I do?"

There is something we can do, and it involves leading every possible young person into the fold of SF and SF-thinking. More on one way to do that a little later.

THE SCIENCE FICTION MENTALITY

"If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing that the future did not exist."

That's C.P. Snow, from his "The Two Cultures" lectures. Here, Snow touches on the danger of allowing the traditional culture to mold our children, of ignoring SF's messages and warnings.

If scientists and SF fans have the future in our bones, then mundanes must be anemic. For it is surely the hope of unlimited frontiers, of lands where we can grow and prosper, that gives the species its red-blooded vigor. "[SF's] philosophy is optimistic and scientific," (Inside Science Fiction 46) writes James Gunn. What kind of future lies in wait for a species that is pessimistic and irrational?

Clearly, this is why the mundanes have such an anemic view of the future, why books like On the Beach, The Handmaid's Tale, and 1984 were written not by SF people but by those steeped in the mundane world. All three of these posit dreadful futures in which people are irrational and hopeless--in fact, these are unlikely futures wherein science only ruins life and change only damages our present-day "accomplishments." Moreover, the futures in these books seem unlikely and unrealistic, the products of mundane minds. --Or, more to the point, the products of minds squelched by mundane vision. Traditional mundane thought tends to assume the future will be like the past, and new problems can only be solved using old solutions. Science-fiction thought, however, is forward-looking, and even our dystopias show creativity--SF is unafraid to see every possibility, grand or gutter.

The Foundation Trilogy gives humanity a galactic empire, and though the empire collapses, humanity reclaims it and creates something even greater. The Helliconia trilogy deposits humanity on a horrible world where the future means assured suffering and likely collapse. But--being humans--the people break that cycle. In The Puppet Masters, Heinlein curses the world with an awful invasion. But--always but!--we emerge victorious through human inventiveness and even stretch our already-expanded frontiers. Joan Vinge sets The Snow Queen amid a future society where people are still people--good or sinful, self-sacrificing or decadent, damaged or hurtful--but she gives humanity a number of worlds and captures that so-important element in all of us, the sense of wonder. Even in The Forever War, a book with a powerfully critical view of our species, Joe Haldeman shows humanity overcoming great and innumerable obstacles and, at long last, developing something like utopia.

Perhaps SF's purpose is to urge us on toward important things, toward a future in which we can survive; it certainly urges us toward the stars. SF, as functional art, helps men and women dream great dreams--and recognize great nightmares before they happen, so we can stop them. "Nothing is impossible if man wants to do it" (Gunn, ISF 140). But without dreams, there is no future.

So what gives today's youth dreams of a positive future? The space program was important to us as a species, but now it has lapsed--mostly because of an unfortunate coupling of politics and mundane fears. SF reminds us what the space program's true goals ought to be; SF stirs our souls to see solutions while helping us to shape and attain our dreams. Indeed, SF gives us our dreams. And SF promises that dreams will, one day, return to us the reality of space.

Yet.... Will we become spacemen, spread our seed throughout the stars? We have a long way to go, many obstacles to cross on our dimly illuminated path into the future. Gunn has this to say:

I don't have a great deal of confidence in that future because there are so many things that could go wrong--a final war, a natural catastrophe, a major depression, or, most of all, a terminal energy shortage that would drop the level of our technological civilization below the point necessary to support space colonization. Perhaps most important is a failure of will, a loss of faith in human possibilities, a disappearance of the spirit to take risks, to adventure, that sent the Pilgrims west across the Atlantic and the pioneers west across this continent. (ISF 132)

Clearly, we face a crisis. There is little need to debate this; one need only watch the nightly news or take a close look at our cities. The need to orchestrate change is urgent. We must spread the SF way of thought because SF offers choices and alternative futures; it encourages the adventurous spirit and faith in human nature. Science fiction offers, or at least illuminates, hope. At the same time that it provides excitement and an escape from a life that sometimes feels unendurable, SF also replaces despair with dreams, and dreams offer hope.

Even if tomorrow will be bad, at least there will be a tomorrow, SF says, and if there is a tomorrow, there will be one after that--and that time's inhabitants will have the opportunity to change their tomorrow's tomorrow....

Robert Heinlein, in a speech to the Third Annual World SF Convention at Denver in 1941, said, "Science fiction fans differ from most of the rest of the race by thinking in terms of racial magnitude--not even centuries but thousands of years." SF eyesight is never myopic; indeed, it often watches its individuals through a telescope, and that telescope happens to be able to see light not only from the past but also the light of the future. Extending our sights so far necessarily makes us recognize problems we won't even come across for millennia, though it also forces us to face them and, therefore, plan long-term.

A taste of the dream, as served up by James Gunn:

...the effort to settle space would re-invigorate our society, turn us outward rather than inward against ourselves, give us new confidence in ourselves as a people, be a moral substitute for war and other aggressions... it may reduce the psychological pressures that make groups focus on small differences between them rather than the great, common human experience that unites them, and it will certainly mean that all of humanity's future will not be tied to one fragile world capable of being destroyed by accident or rash decision...

...the benefits [of settling space] for the human spirit may be incalculable... we should dream great dreams and plan great deeds. What we do in this world is not always for ourselves. Occasionally--not often enough, to be sure--we think of others, of our children or our grandchildren or the children of the species to which we belong. We should do one magnificent thing for them every generation. (ISF 132, my emphasis)

That last sentence remains brightly framed in my mind: "We should do one magnificent thing for [the children] every generation." This is why I'm writing, and why I hope you will join me in doing one thing--one thing which may very well give today's youth the tools to do a magnificent thing. And, having been part of that process, we will have participated in a magnificent thing, as the man who tightens a bolt on a rocket booster's fuel pump is part of the Lunar Colony's great discoveries.

SF AS EDUCATIONAL TOOL

"[SF] offers the opportunity to stretch the imagination as well as exercise the mind; it can dramatize contemporary problems and consider other ways of existing, behaving, organizing, perceiving, thinking. It is a literature of ideas and a literature of change--it can be a literature of education." (ISF 14)

Didn't I mention earlier that we can change the world through SF? Here's a hint: Do you remember when you first began reading those wonderful, imaginative works? "Immersed in it. Bathing in it, drowning in it; for the adolescent who leans this way [SF] can be better than sex. More accessible, more compelling" (Hartwell, Age of Wonders 3). Hartwell goes on to state that "the real golden age of science fiction is twelve" (AoW 3). However, "most new readers have to go through a process of SF education and familiarization before they can love it" (AoW 7).

Well, I don't intend to try to convert every SF fan into a junior-high school teacher. I have a much more modest proposal.

TOMORROW AND WHAT YOU CAN DO

H.G. Wells, from his 1902 speech, "The Discovery of the Future":

All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the succession of days, when beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this Earth as one stands upon a footstool and shall laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars.

We can stimulate the SF mind that dwells within all humans, that is our natural expression once we rid ourselves of the poison of the past, of the heavy and obsolete traditions that weigh us down and make us fearful of the magnificence that sleeps hidden in the blankets of tomorrow, and the other unimaginables in tomorrows after that. Because SF takes us to the future, tomorrow is no longer the unknown. Once it is no longer unknown, tomorrow can be seen as the place where dreams come true.

So we must reach out our hands toward the future--toward the youth of today who will be the policy-makers of that approaching time. In our hands we must bear the literature of enlightenment, a searchlight to show them glimpses of the hazy future. Today's youth must pick up that light and use it to illuminate problems hidden in mundane shadows. Dark ages fall very quickly, yet can last eternally.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

I won't suggest we eat the children of mundanes. Nor should we even eat the mundanes. Chances are, we would be destroyed soon after the first banquet.

SF fandom possesses a vast, untapped potential. You, who count yourself among its numbers, already know this and may even be frustrated. Perhaps you wish you could do something to save the world, but you haven't yet invented a replicator or sustainable fusion reactor. So what can we do? Certainly, a group of people who consider their brains their most important feature can do something.

I propose something very simple, something that could be put fully into effect in days or--at most--months. It would cost virtually nothing, require very little effort (or as much as you are willing), and reap great rewards: Picture a future where spaceship exhausts seam the sky, their miniature stars reflected off the gleaming domes of cities-cum-utopias, clean water flowing in the rivers that link the cities, and cheap, safe power for everyone; the planets invisible to the eye but metaphorically in our societal backyard. The whole race cooperates on building all this--and it never would have happened without that cooperation. The stars lie nearly within our grasp as mighty interstellar craft fuel up near Jupiter....

How? Here's a start:

  1. Participate in the Center for the Study of Science Fiction SF-donation program. See this page for more information. The following items, 2-8, are from the original essay; I foresee using the Center to help coordinate efforts as described below, as well.
  2. Local fan groups (or individuals) collect used SF magazines and books. Perhaps we can convince editors to donate their returns, or bookstores to hand over returns to these groups.
  3. Sort (as much as is reasonable) into age groups: SF suitable for children, SF suitable for adolescents. Be careful about sex and language, because most mundanes are uptight in these arenas. But do not censor, because the idea here is to cause change, to subvert what is wrong with today's world.
  4. Pick someone from your group who is diplomatic and can speak the language of the mundanes. Remember that many of us scare the most conservative mundanes, and we will be dealing in large part with those entrenched in institutions: e.g., conservatives. But also remember that many teachers--at least the young ones--desire change and wish to have a part and place in it.
  5. Contact local schools and/or youth organizations and tell them you are willing to set up an SF distribution time/place- likely they will be pleased, because any reading is an improvement for many kids these days. Ask about procedures, what's allowed, etc. Poke around among people you know in these organizations until you find someone fired up about saving the world. (A fan would be most excellent here.) I suggest working through institutions because they are where we'll find concentrations of young minds.
  6. Regularly provide kids with SF. Note that I mean written SF, because, as Robert Scholes argues, "language is as swift as thought itself and can reach beyond what is, or seems, to what may or may not be, with the speed of a synapse. Until the mind can speak in its own tongueless images, the word will be its fleetest and most delicate instrument of communication" (Structural Fabulation 38). (Also consider that Scholes calls fiction "a shaping force" [SF 33], and that he re-names SF "didactic romance" [SF 28]--in fact, it would seem that he identifies SF's most important function as teaching medium from which readers draw moral lessons.)
  7. Discuss their readings and ideas with the kids, informally, perhaps wherever the fan group meets. Schools or youth clubs might reserve a room for this. Don't talk down to them--remember how adult you felt at their age. Also remember that these are the people who will run the world in a few short years.
  8. If you're willing to spend the time, be the kind of mentor you wish you had had then. Just meeting with a boy or girl once or twice a month to talk about the exciting ideas s/he found in the novel by Vinge, or the story by Sturgeon, will stamp an indelible impression on her/him.

Remember, most of us were first consumed with the idea-fire SF fuels while still young, usually between 10-16 years old: "As is the way with addictions, this one is mostly contracted in adolescence or not at all," writes Kingsley Amis (New Maps of Hell 246). Elsewhere in his book, Amis argues that SF (and I propose it is the best at this) enables society to criticize itself; SF treats elements of society as variables, not constants. And SF is more than a tool for social criticism; in his April 1926 Amazing Stories editorial, Hugo Gernsback wrote, "the very best of these modern writers of scientifiction have the knack of imparting knowledge, and even inspiration, without once making us aware that we are being taught" ("A New Sort of Magazine," p.3).

Why embark on this plan? Gunn answers best:

"Let us consider what we do and why we do it, and whether, in the final analysis, we have made our world--our science fiction world--better for having lived in it." (ISF 160)

Because SF makes its readers look at the world in new ways, it sets the stage for change. Because SF requires knowledge of certain things to either fully understand or get the most out of the work, it prompts its readers to seek out more information.... Say, doesn't that sound familiar? This is what our schools are supposed to do.

We must do one magnificent thing for the children of our species every generation, else we risk slow or fast extinction. Will tomorrow's adults be capable of doing something magnificent for their children, even imagining it? Or will they simply continue to ensure the downfall of our civilization and ecosystem? We can teach them to use the tools of SF to unshackle themselves from their burdensome legacies.

It is up to us, today, to ensure tomorrow.


-wait-

Do you have more (or better) ideas? Comments, suggestions? Would you like support or rapport in starting a program to save the world through science fiction? Write me and Ill share your ideas on this web site:

I also plan to go around to cons and maybe even set up some panels where we can discuss this plan in more detail--or come up with others, because I cannot say this is the only way. I am willing to work for this because tomorrow matters to me. Does the future matter enough to work for it?

From the viewpoint of our distant descendants, no matter what their alien forms, ways, beliefs, the ultimate crime is not murder, but stupidity, as pollution, global war, civil strife, and other contemporary carelessnesses that threaten racial survival are stupid. In a metaphorical sense, science fiction might be considered letters from the future, from our children, urging us to be careful of their world. (ISF 42)

Do you want to be part of doing one magnificent thing? Will you pass on those letters from the future, or will you allow the mundanes to go one mucking things up and poisoning tomorrow's minds? A possible you, 20 years from now, might have two responses:

"I could have done something magnificent," or--as you attach your rebreather to walk to the market--"I should have..."

WORKS CITED

Amis, Kingsley. New Maps of Hell. New York: Ballantine Books, 1960.

Gernsback, Hugo. "A New Sort of Magazine." Amazing Stories, April 1926.

Gunn, James. Inside Science Fiction: Essays on Fantastic Literature. San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1992.

Guralnik, David B. Webster's New World Dictionary. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Hartwell, David. Age of Wonders. New York: Walker & Co., 1984.

Heinlein, Robert A. "Third Annual World Science Fiction Convention Address." Denver, 1941.

Scholes, Robert. Structural Fabulation. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

Snow, C.P. "The Two Cultures." London, 1962.

Wells, H.G. "The Discovery of the Future." New York, 1902.


Home | A Basic SF Library | Staff | AboutSF.com | Educational Program | Films and Online Videos | SF News | SF Youth Program
CSSF Awards | Campbell Conference | James Gunn Essays | SF Hall of Fame | CSSF Blog | Resources | Donate