By Lisabet Sarai
Almost as soon as I could read, I started reading science fiction. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight when I discovered Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet books. At this point I don't remember the plots at all, only my emotional reactions – an overwhelming sense of wonder and excitement. (It's fascinating to read adult reviews of these books on Amazon. Clearly I wasn't the only child thus affected.)
Then came Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. When I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, Asimov was a guest on a local radio talk show, and I called in to ask him some question about the relationship between modern politics and the world of the Foundation trilogy. This might not seem surprising unless you knew that I was the shyest child in the world, absolutely terrified of making telephone calls.
Meanwhile, I suspect that Stranger in a Strange Land, which I devoured when I was fifteen or so, may be partially responsible for my personal attraction to polyamory.
My husband introduced me to Philip K. Dick. I started with The Man in the High Castle, Dick's subtle exploration of an alternative world in which the Japanese and the Germans won WWII. I used to think I'd read everything Dick ever wrote, but new titles keep coming to light. Just a few months ago I finished the weird, apocalyptic and sexually charged Dr. Blood money. (I supposed I could have omitted the adjectives “weird” and “apocalyptic”, since they apply to most of Dick's oeuvre...)
In the eighties we joined a science fiction reading group. Every month a dozen of us would get together for wine, potluck, desserts and discussion. We read Sheri S. Tepper, Olivia Butler, Greg Bear, Harry Harrison, John Barnes, Pat Cadigan... a whole new universe of authors. After a year or so, the group fizzled, but not before it had rekindled my early love of the genre.
Recently I discovered Jonathan Lethem. He might not characterize his own work as science fiction, but Gun, With Occasional Music, in which farm animals have achieved a near-human level of intelligence and individuals require custom blended drugs to survive, certainly fits my criteria for the genre.
I'll read almost anything that calls itself scifi, but my favorite tales focus more on people than technology – so-called “soft science fiction”. The best books, in my opinion, start with a relatively simple premise and then explore its societal implications. I read a book in the eighties by Kate Wilhelm, which is an ideal example. (Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the title. Sometimes things that predated the Internet seem to drop into a black hole.) The world passes through a cloud of interstellar dust. At first it appears that there are no negative effects, but soon people begin to die. It turns out that the dust causes water to become more viscous. Since humans are mostly composed of water, exposure to the dust is fatal – and the thickening produces a variety of other consequences as well. Society begins to fall apart, in a most convincing way
As you might expect, I also have a particular fondness for speculative fiction that plays with changes in gender and sexuality. The 1997 Circlet Press anthology Genderflex is my touchstone in this area.
So, now I'm a writer. Given my love of science fiction, one might ask why I don't write some sci fi of my own.
Well, I'll be honest. With all the fantastic models from a lifetime of reading the genre, I'm just plain intimidated. Science fiction demands a level of imagination that I'm not sure I can deliver. I've read so much scifi that all my own ideas feel stale or derivative.
Furthermore, it's not enough to create a vivid, surprising, different alternative universe. Your fictional world must also be at least somewhat plausible, and internally consistent. In science fiction, details matter almost as much as they do in historical fiction. Indeed, writing historical fiction might be easier, because you can consult external sources when you get stuck.
Writing sci fi is hard. I know because, finally, I just finished my first science fiction novel, and it required a level of pain far beyond anything I've experienced with any other book.
Actually, I'm cheating a bit here. Quarantine is sci fi erotic romance, not “pure” science fiction. It will be judged as much on its sex scenes and the bond between its heroes as for the dystoptic future it presents. So in fact, it doesn't feel quite real. Nevertheless, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat proud of the book. For one thing, it focuses on changes in society and their implications for the characters – the sort of soft sci fi that I personally enjoy.
Quarantine is set some thirty years in the future, after a plague has decimated the population of America. The epidemic had its start in the gay community before spreading to heterosexuals, and thus gays are blamed. All surviving men with a genetic marker for homosexuality have been rounded up and sent to remote quarantine camps in places like eastern Oregon. (If you've never been through eastern Oregon – it's flat, empty, dry and desolate – and that's before the effects of global warming.) One of the heroes is an inmate who has been imprisoned in the camp for seven years. The other is a camp guard, an ex-gang member sent to work at the camp in lieu of a prison term. The inmate seduces the guard, who helps him escape. They both end up as fugitives, hiding in Plague-ravaged San Francisco where they are forced to help the queer underground in its battle against the homophobic, nationalistic Guardians of American Greatness.
Ugh. When I describe the book, it sounds like a million other stories. And indeed, it's not such a stretch of the imagination to move from today to my imagined future, which seems all too plausible. Oh well. I suspect that my erotic romance readership will enjoy it anyway. It's likely that most of them did not cut their reading teeth on Bradbury and Heinlein.
I had planned to conclude with a brief excerpt – but I couldn't find one that was obviously science fiction. My fictional world is too much like our own. Instead, I'll give you a snippet from the only other sci fi I've published, a novella called Bodies of Light. This is a bit of space opera (with plenty of sex thrown in), but even so, it's no more than half a century in the future. I guess I don't dare boldly go where no one has gone before!
The bridge was as silent as the suspension bay. However, a survey of the blinking panels and rotating 3D displays revealed that the ship still had power. The pods had been some kind of anomaly. Relieved, Christine settled into the pilot’s chair (Sven Harlsson, gone like all the rest) and searched the cluttered controls until she found the viewport activation button. The curved shields slid open, revealing a hemisphere of blackness. For the first time, Christine gazed out into the emptiness of interstellar space.
Terror tightened her throat. She was falling into the immense void before her, drowning in the utter absence of light or form. She closed her eyes, trying to summon the scientist within her. No one had seen this before, the vast reaches of the universe outside Earth’s solar system. She was the first.
She forced herself to peer into the darkness, pressing against the transparent carbon-crystal of the viewport. As her vision adapted, she found she could see faint glowing clouds that must be galaxies and pinpricks of light that were distant stars. The universe was not totally empty, after all. She swallowed her fear and tried to speak.
“Request interstellar coordinates.” Her long-unused voice came out as a croak, but Archimedes understood her command.
“359˚ 56’ 39.5’’ galactic latitude, -2˚ 42’ 46.3’’ galactic longitude,” the ship replied crisply.
“Request distance from Sirius cluster.”
“Approximately thirty-four-point-seven light years.”
“What?” That was farther away than they’d been when they started! “There must be a mistake! Recheck your calculations.”
The ship’s computer hesitated for a fraction of a second—almost as though it were offended, Christine thought. “There is no error. Current position is 34.68643 light years from Sirius, 41.321966 light years from Terra. Current speed is .917 c. Heading is 22˚ 13’ b by 9˚ 2’ l.”
Forty-one light years from Earth! Had they overshot their goal? Of course, a tiny miscalculation in their initial trajectory would be magnified into an increasingly large discrepancy the farther the ship travelled from its starting point. “How long has it been since departure?”
“Four years, sixty-two days, four hours and twenty-two minutes,” the ship intoned.
Only four years? “That’s not possible,” Christine objected. Given their maximum velocity, they could not have travelled anywhere near this far. Something was very wrong.
“Run full self-diagnostics,” she ordered. “Report any faults.”
The computer was silent for about ten seconds. Christine stared out of the viewport, wondering whether any of the faint, flickering points of brightness might be Sol.
“Self-diagnostics completed,” Archimedes announced. “No faults detected.”
Christine leaned back in the padded chair with a weary sigh. Pain pounded in her temples. Her usually nimble mind felt stiff and rusty. She had to figure this out.
Once again, she saw Ravin’s blank, lifeless face. She had not loved him, but she had respected him, and he had given her pleasure during their pre-launch familiarisation exercises. She found that she missed him. “The crew are all dead,” she murmured to herself. “I’m the only one left, and I’m lost in space, billions of kilometres off course.”
“All suspension pod power was terminated,” the ship commented. “A collision with unidentified debris damaged the electrical distribution cables in the hull. Backup systems failed to engage.”
“What? How long ago did this happen?”
“Sixty-two hours and seventeen minutes ago.” Less than three days! If she had awakened a bit sooner, she might have saved them. The impact must have triggered the reactivation sequence in her own pod. Or perhaps the backup had kicked in to handle the life support for her pod alone.
“EVA is recommended to repair the breach,” Archimedes added. “Probability of atmospheric loss over the next twenty-four hours is point-four-six.”
Christine collapsed on to the control panel, her face buried in her hands, squeezing her eyes tight to hold back the tears. The ship wanted her to risk her life, venturing outside to patch the hole before the air escaped. But why should she bother? She was dead one way or the other.
The vastness of space weighed on her, even when she was not looking at it. The unending blackness threatened to smother her. She felt as empty and hollow as the universe stretching into infinity on every side.