This summer we decided to break from our usual fare of mainstream literature and take a little tour through space and time. So get ready for lift-off—we’re going to travel to some different worlds, meet an alien or two, and just basically revel in general weirdness. Yep, it’s the Whistling Shade Science Fiction Issue!
As a genre, science fiction is defined by setting—typically in the future, somewhere off in the stars. In this it is similar to fantasy and historical fiction, the only difference being that with historical fiction the setting is in the past and with fantasy in a never-never land. Because science fiction relies upon setting rather than characters or narrative, it can accommodate the whole gamut of writing styles. Most readers associate sci-fi with slapdash adventure tales involving space ships and aliens, and most novels are in fact written in the classic "pulp" formula that emerged in the 1940s and 50s. Yet 1984 is as much science fiction as War of the Worlds or the bar scene in Star Wars. Many of our most talented contemporary writers, such as Jeffrey Ford and Ursula K. LeGuin, work in a science fiction medium, and books like Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz are considered by some to be literary classics on the same par with The Naked and the Dead and Humbolt’s Gift. And they deserve to be.
For all that, however, science fiction is oddly lacking in a definitive masterpiece, something that both encompasses and transcends the genre, as Dracula does for horror, The Lord of the Rings for fantasy, or Sherlock Holmes for mysteries. At the beginning of the 20th century H.G. Wells published several well-crafted and pioneering science fiction tales, but his writing lacks the verve and discernment of his Fabian Society rival George Bernard Shaw. H.P. Lovecraft wrote in a darker vein than Wells, but his fiction was more mannered, and often stilted. Asimov’s endless parade of novels all read rather like elaborate science experiments. Robert Heinlein was a master of the narrative but wrote at a 6th grade reading level, while with Frank Herbert the reverse is true, and William Gibson’s "cyber fiction" buries remarkable ideas in vague plots and over-descriptive prose. If there is a reigning master of science fiction, it would probably be Bradbury, at least with short stories. I remember, about a decade ago, reading Bradbury’s story "The Wilderness". There are no dark prophesies or laser guns to be found here, and very little science at all—just two friends spending their last night on Earth before they take a rocket to meet their husbands on Mars. Yet the story has the ring of truth about it, and that certain magical quality that Bradbury casts over all his writing. After all it is quite probable that we will some day establish colonies and send civilians into space, and their last night on Earth might be very much like what Bradbury describes. But Bradbury has only staked the territory, briefly showing us the possibilities of a literary, "domestic" science fiction as opposed to the "set phasers for stun" variety. It’s up to another generation to fill that void. Indeed, I have the suspicion that the best science fiction writers are, along with their subject matter, awaiting us somewhere in the future.
- Joel Van Valin