Science fiction is exactly as old as the human intellect. Obviously it wasn’t always called that; even as recently as the 1950s, it was yoked with the unwieldy moniker of “scientifiction.” But whether our ancestors lived naked in a garden, as in the Eden tale, or hunched shivering in caves awaiting a messianic monolith, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one thing we absolutely know they did, from whenever they first became true human beings right up to this very zeptosecond, is tell stories. Because if they were human at all, they were us, and stories are how we define ourselves.
There is certainly a strong tendency in contemporary culture to assume that our ancestors were idiots. I can hardly even think of a movie that depicts a time traveler appearing in the Early Modern period without having to escape would-be witch-burners, for example. This is, quite frankly and simply, bosh. People are people, and always have been. The ancient Greeks told of mechanical men fashioned by Hephaistos, God of Fire and Smithcraft: that’s a robot myth. They didn’t use that word, but it’s a robot myth. No, the ancient storytelling techniques were different than the ones we use now, but the tropes have never changed. Man against Nature, Man against Man, Man against God.
Why do we keep telling the same stories? Why do echoes of the same things appear in every myth and legend, from every culture, from around the world? Because we remember these things. Not precisely, mind you. But they stir some reptilian memory in the long-lost Eden of our brainstems, where the racial myths whisper in the shadow of the Collective Unconscious, the Zeitgeist, the psychospiritual Internet into which our species has never not been plugged. They make us say, “Hmm, yes, I can almost remember,” and so we mumble them to ourselves, over and over, down through the ages, as we sit beside the fire. Never quite right. The details always changing. Who hurls the thunderbolts, Zeus or Thor? Well—we can’t recall, exactly. Let’s keep telling that story. Ah, here’s Thor again: he’s popped up in movies now! Again, the storytelling techniques have changed, but the tropes remain the same. Because people are people, and always have been, you see.
C.S. Lewis once said the real value of science fiction was the ability it gave the writer to explore other spiritual realities in the guise of other planets. In his prototypically titled Space Trilogy (somebody got in on the ground floor of that trend!), the hero Ransom travels to Mars and Venus, also called Malacandra and Perelandra, and encounters creatures which are essentially Christian angels, thinly veiled. In the second book, he reenacts the mythic Fall of Man, as a demonic tempter tries to corrupt a brand-new sentient race on Venus with Ransom desperately struggling to prevent the repetition of what happened on Earth long ago. Lewis’ friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien did him one better with his simple yet all-encompassing quip: “Every story is, ultimately, about the Fall.”
Science fiction, like science, is forever ramifying: branching out in new directions, forking, unfurling, dividing and multiplying into new specializations, as our knowledge continues to grow. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. Some readers may recollect the old Choose Your Own Adventure books—what an anguish to jump to page 79, knowing we’d forget where we left off even if we wanted to come back! I used to try to leave myself a breadcrumb trail by using bookmarks; but when a book has two dozen marks in it, they cease to be of use. You can’t take every path, any more than no path at all. Sooner or later, you have to pick a lane.
But here’s the paradox: as we’ve said, people are people and always have been. Yes, knowledge accumulates at an accelerating, exponentiating rate, and the roads continue to fork; but, at the same time, all roads lead to Rome—or, as Isaac Asimov paraphrased: “All roads lead to Trantor, and there all stars end.” We needn’t panic at the endless branching of the branches, because the branches will converge. Where, and when?
Well—I don’t know, exactly. But let me tell you a story. . .