One of the issues that was discussed at last weekend’s SciFi convention was the nature of the genre. What makes SciFi a unique genre and why has it always been my favorite?
One panelist (and unfortunately I cannot remember exactly who) said it well by stating that Science Fiction allows us to speculate on alternative road maps for humanity’s future. It allows an author to stretch and play with social norms and ethics in a way that other genres never can. Ursala LeGuin’s Dispossessed was able to examine the concept of anarchy while Frank Herbert’s Dune examined the problems of a resource dependent economy in an inter-stellar setting, complete with jihadists and powerful religious institutions.
Also, Science Fiction allows analogies which explore the acceptance of non-traditional roles. In First Blood, the tell-tale sign in the opening which says “God Hates Fangs” tips us off to the fact that the show is just an extended metaphor for our society’s existing conflicts, and only peripherally about vampires. Certainly the vamps allow for lots of blood and some interesting conflict, adding lots of plot and action value, but the social commentary which clearly runs through this and many other SciFi productions and books is a strong central feature of the genre. Star Trek not only had one of the first black characters, but offered the first inter-racial kiss on TV.
In worlds where social and sexual relationships might easily cross species lines, inter-racial or even same-sex relationships almost seem more traditional.
SciFi allows the exploration of concepts that would be very difficult for main stream fiction to tackle. In Sawyer’s latest work, the Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, he explores the nature of emerging consciousness, and reexamines the stereotype of the malevolent AI from the standpoint of human fear. To my mind, these are the interesting questions of our time; cutting edge questions and speculative answers.
So, REAMDE by Neal Stephenson is a welcome change from what he’s been doing for the past few novels. I reviewed Anathem a few months ago after finding it unreadable after three attempts. It just wasn’t accessable. But REAMDE is set in a modern world and deals with accessible themes. The premise is that an exciting role playing computer game is sweeping the world and that your ability to gain money in the game can be cashed in for real money in the real world. This leads to all kinds of intreague involving hackers, terrorists and computer nerds who all of a sudden find that their decisions have real-life consequences of international proportions. Stephenson’s style here is more like Snow Crash than like his more recent works, although he still has a pension for slightly excessive description.
As a study of the potential which may be contained in the current on line computer gaming craze, this novel examines some interesting possibilities. Will computer games eventually have an impact on international politics and the world economy? It’s not so far fetched when seen through Stephenson’s eyes.
I would give this book an A-.