Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hanging on to wonder

I've been sitting on my butt, as the no-longer-working class is wont, reading the first few stories in the latest issue of "Asimov's Science Fiction." And I've been thinking about a question some of my head-scratching friends have asked me over the years: "What's with science fiction? Why not read something real?"

I've just read four short stories, each completely different from the others. They all have three things in common. They are technically competent: pacing, tone, plot, all work together in a brief but satisfying way. They have that all-important "idea" - the new little twist on SF tropes that tweaks a "sense of wonder." And they feature people who, in a few short pages, the reader come to care about.

(SF is the preferred term. "Sci-Fi" ((some sort of bastardization of "Hi-Fi?)) makes no sense. Who abbreviates "fiction" as "fi?" Those of us who as grade schoolers in the 1950s scoured the children's library section for "young adult" SF ((and, heh, heh, snuck into the adult section)) know this.)

The first tale involves a man 100 years in the future living in an unfortunate world in which the ecology is so damaged that even books are banned as a waste of resources. He cheats on his wife, who demands he use his (equally illegal) time machine to retrieve for her an exquisite leather purse she saw in a store-front-window photo from 1900. (Use of any animal products also is illegal now.) To prove his love, he does so, sending the purse back and waiting for her to retrieve him as well. She dithers, waiting too long, and he zooms off back in time toward the Big Bang, happy, enjoying a new and expanding sense of existence. She's sad, but gets over it. She fingers her illegal but beautiful purse, amazed how "the past could still surprise the present with its riches."

I guess I don't want to even try to do justice to the other three tales. There is "The Lovely Ugly," in which dog-like animals far superior to humans come to understand that people really are (sort of) worthy, a post-apocalypse story in which a young grandmother who deeply loved her dead father must decide whether to unearth his corpse to cut a "life-recorder" out of his head, and a story by a Native American author about an Indian scientist fighting for funding so she can create a "history viewer" to reveal Indian life prior to the white conquest.

The point of this, I guess, is to stress the variety. A tiny, tiny sample. But, says the 1950s grade schooler so glad he can read, addressing the 63-year-old in 2010 via his time machine, "don't let the sense of wonder go away."

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