For the past few weeks, on my way to the office, I’ve been passing the San Francisco theater where George Lucas’ remarkable movie Star Wars is being shown. By 11 a.m. every day, the line for the one o’clock show has already started to form. And one morning, two weeks into the film’s run, when I drove by just after ten, there was already a handful of hardy souls on line.
The enthusiastic – if not altogether hysterical – public reception of Star Wars is, of course, not news. Neither is the information that the theater in my neighborhood, during those early weeks, was grossing over $10,000 a day – approximately double that tallied during the opening weeks of Jaws. But five-figure daily grosses were not, in the end, what occupied my mind each time I passed that theater.
During my last two years in college, I fell in with a set of graduate students in creative writing. As the certified squirt among those dedicated elders, I tended to take their opinions to heart. And the one opinion that struck deepest and stayed longest was the notion that science fiction is not really fit or dignified work for any serious practitioner of the art of storytelling.
On the surface that may sound like an arbitrary and stuffy prejudice. But some of my friends in the writing seminar managed to develop what seemed a convincing case. Fiction, they argued, is concerned with the stuff of human life: how we react and change in the face of crisis and conflict, and whether that reaction is noble or mean.
Science fiction, however, allows one to arbitrarily establish and then alter the environment of one’s characters – to change, on command, the very nature of their reality. So when one’s character is stuck in a terrible bind, instead of doing the hard and honorable thing, i.e., showing how that terrible bind alters the character, one will instead (writers being the lazy creatures we are) change the ground rules of the surrounding reality. Suddenly there will be a new invention, a new weapon, a previously unrevealed characteristic of the alien ecology, one or all of which promptly acts to save the endangered character’s bacon, at no cost to the character itself.
In short, for writers, science fiction is cheating – the easy way out of facing real human dilemmas. That contention most likely wouldn’t have impressed me much (after all, even then most of the writers I knew were already trying to get themselves out of various human dilemmas) except for the fact that I was already midway through my first novel, an incontrovertibly science-fictionish story in which the protagonist was, on several occasions, plucked from disaster by the unexpected intervention of dubious and nonexistent technology.
I completed the novel with a new overlay of guilt. When it was published, and the local library bought two copies – one for the science fiction shelves and the other for general fiction – I felt partially redeemed. But then the paperback publisher issued an edition indelibly branded “SF” right there on the spine. I felt branded also, although it helped some when I learned that such a designation actually affords the average paperback a longer and livelier shelf life than the more mundane classification of general fiction.
When the book appeared, I told everyone that it wasn’t really science fiction. I preferred, I said, to call it “future fiction.” And since then I’ve noticed that more than a few other writers share my ambivalence. A number of experienced sci-fi authors abruptly began to call science fiction “speculative fiction” when they thought they were addressing intellectuals. And even George Lucas, according to the newspapers, would rather have Star Wars called “space fantasy” than “science fiction.”
Well. The fact is it’s all science fiction, and there’s really no reason to be ashamed of it at all. I’m not convinced that science fiction as a genre has really introduced any fundamentally new elements into the business of storytelling. Deus ex machina existed, after all, well before anyone had the technical vocabulary to describe antigravity. And, to return to Star Wars, its characters certainly change in the course of the story: Luke Skywalker becomes a man, Ben Kenobi displays selfless wisdom, Han Solo grows from solitary cynic to hero. None of that narrative may be precisely of the subtlety that deserves a National Book Award nomination, but neither does it merit exclusion from the ancient circle of legitimate storytelling.
Clearly not, in fact. Each day I drive past the Star Wars theater, and as I wait at the stoplight I’m starting to recognize some of the faces; something’s bringing them back, and I’ll be damned if I know whether it’s science fiction or story. In the end, I suspect, it really doesn’t make any difference. These days, if it feels like science fiction, it probably is – and it most likely won’t remain science fiction for long. But if it’s really a story, then chances are good that it will last just as long as anyone continues to care about it.
This story is from the July 28th, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.