>Small steps

>Why do I like speculative fiction? Am I hard-wired that way? Is there a gene? Was I abducted by aliens as a small child and infused with an urge to read about strangers in strange lands? In short, was it nature or nurture?

I don’t recall any incidents with aliens (although if they used mind-altering drugs to adjust my memory I wouldn’t, would I?). However, I do have a vivid memory of creeping down the stairs at the age of four and peeping through the bannisters to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing on the late evening news. Even now, whenever I see that ghostly black-and-white footage of Neil Armstrong taking his one small step into the Sea of Tranquility, I see it through the eyes of that small boy. Some moments are pivotal in history. I think that one was for me.

So much for science fact. What about science fiction? I’m fairly confident my first experience of it came thanks to Roald Dahl. Yes, I know he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Clarke and Heinlein and PKD but stick with me on this.

Dahl wrote a very famous book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which practically everyone on the planet has heard of. He followed it up with the rather less famous Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. The story of C&TGGE involves a giant orbiting space hotel, an invasion of agressive aliens called Vermicious Knids and a pair of new drugs that make you respectively older or younger. Over-use of the former makes one of the charactes hundreds of years old and suddenly able to remember the voyage of the Mayflower. Abusing the latter results in someone achieving a negative age. The resulting trip to Minus-land – a dark, disturbing realm full of flesh-eating monsters – was, as far as I recall, terrifying.

Pretty heady stuff for a kids’ book? Not really, especially when you consider Dahl’s famously fertile imagination. C&TGGE is a great example of big SF ideas being slipped in under the radar. Many of the ideas it plays with have now become so familiar through movies, TV shows and – god help us – adverts, that it’s easy to forget their raw power. We’re blase to the idea we could go back in time and kill our own grandparents. We’ve seen so many monsters on telly that we’ve forgotten how scary they really are. It’s like the scene at the end of Joe Dante’s The Howling, when Dee Wallace’s news anchor character goes public by transforming into a (rather cute) werewolf on live TV. A couple of old geezers watching the programme in a bar remark to each other that “it’s amazing what they can do with special effects these days”.

So next time you pick up a story about alien invasion or time travel, don’t be cynical, or even worldly. Instead, try considering it from the point of view of a four year-old child. I guess I’m talking about good old sense-of-wonder here, but I can’t help trotting out my favourite ever SF quote. It’s from Philip K Dick and it points out where speculative fiction differs from its mainstream counterpart, and it goes something like:

“(Science fiction) is not just ‘What if?’. It’s ‘MY GOD, WHAT IF?!!'”

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