An SF Moderate Climbs Cautiously Onto the Barricades

Nancy Kress
Keynote Address Given at Alaskon '91 and Balticon 25.

In the years since I've been a science fiction writer, I've been to a lot of conventions. That means I've heard a lot of my colleagues give speeches. When I started to think about what kind of keynote address I wanted to give here today, I realized that I'm laboring under a great handicap. The most memorable GoH speeches I've heard have been either wildly funny or radically provocative, boldly announcing something like where science fiction should be headed for the next twenty-five years, or what's wrong with everything that's ever been written up till this point, or what's wrong with everyone who's written it, read it, published it, or walked past it in a book store. Some speeches managed to do both these things -- be wildly funny about blowing up entire populations. Sort of like Darth Vader on nitrous oxide.

The handicap I'm laboring under, therefore, is two-fold. First, and minorly, that I'm not going to be wildly funny. (Sorry.) Second, and majorly, that my opinions tend to be moderate, not radical. Who wants to hear moderate, reasoned, balanced opinions from someone giving a speech? No one. That's how we end up with the presidential candidates we do.

But then I decided, in a moderate sort of way, to give the matter another think-through. Surely I could manage to be wildly radical on some topic? Surely I could take a bold, non-conventional stand on some aspect of writing SF? Surely I could trash somebody -- writers or fans or publishers or cover artists or copyeditors or the people who glue paperback bindings together -- in a moderate sort of way?

And then it came to me.

Within SF speechifying, to be moderate is radical. To say that some SF is pretty good, some average, and some dreadful is such a rare stand that it becomes radical. To discuss, mildly, why I think this is so, is to qualify me for the SF equivalent of the Weathermen, the IRA, or the Black Panthers. To express middle-of-the-road opinions is to stand on flaming barricades that are practically deserted. It's windy up here, but pretty peaceful. The rest of my fellow writers are crammed together in the Crisis Cafe down the road.

Actually, however, I do think there's a crisis going on with regard to SF. I'm just not convinced yet that it's ours -- ''ours'' meaning the people here in this room, gathered to talk about science fiction rather than, say, to play another game of Dungeons & Dragons or watch another invasion of the killer tomatoes. So whose crisis is it?

There's a complex, suitably qualified answer to that. To start giving it, I'd like to refer to an anecdote from my graduate school days.

In the late 1970's, I was taking a Master's degree in education at an undistinguished state university system in the northeastern United States. The reason I was doing this was that I had been a fourth-grade teacher before my children were born, thought I wished to return to this profession, and was required by New York State to earn a Master's degree before I could go on teaching. I was also required to take some pretty dumb courses, one of which has remained vivid in my memory, although not in the way the professor intended.

I've forgotten the name of the course. One section of it focused on ''values clarification,'' a very popular teaching concept in the 1970's. In values clarification, the teacher was supposed to set up various role-playing scenarios, during which students would have to make various choices, and then afterwards everybody would discuss the values implied in these choices. The trick was that when doing it with very young children, you were supposed to lead them to examine their values without leading them in the direction of any of your own values whatsoever. You were also supposed to lead them to examine their values without implying that any set of values their various parents held were in any way better than any other set. That would have been indoctrination. Carrying out this assignment in an actual classroom was sort of like brushing your teeth without smearing any of them with any specific brand of toothpaste.

At any rate, the instructor of the graduate course approached values clarification technique by having us actually do it. He set up a hypothetical scenario for us to ''act out'' through discussion. He asked us to pretend that the eleven of us graduate students were all teachers in an elementary school, to pretend that a new kind of bomb was dropped all over the world, and to pretend that no one survived except the people in this school, which were we eleven adults and a hundred children from six to twelve years old. He also asked us to imagine that although the rest of the city was rubble, there was no radiation and none of us was hurt at all. Our task was to design a way to structure our post-disaster days that would reflect our values.

The graduate class, most of them already practicing elementary teachers, glanced at each other sideways, and then set to discussing. The course, after all, was three credits. On New York State's scale of compensation for public-school teachers, this meant a pay hike of x number of dollars even before the Master's degree was finished. If this guy wanted the aftermath of a clean holocaust, we'd design him the aftermath of a clean holocaust.

After twenty minutes of discussion, here is what the class said their post-nuclear-war day would look like:

The children would all wake up in the gym, where they'd been sleeping on wrestling mats, and would eat breakfast, prepared by the adults and the older children from canned goods scavenged from the rubble and food grown fresh on the athletic field. After breakfast there would be an hour of reading, an hour of math, forty-five minutes of history, twenty minutes of spelling, lunch, recess, half an hour of art or music, half an hour of science, and story time, after which the older children should help out in the scavage-and-farming efforts. As adults came to marry each other or the older girls, after several years, these newly formed married units would move to nearby houses they would rebuild, taking with them whichever of the other children they'd become especially attached to, leaving the unmarried adults to care for the rest of the presumably-less-appealing children in the school. The adults who moved away would, however, continue to report in each weekday morning for an hour of math, twenty minutes of spelling, etc.

They meant all this.

No amount of appalled arguing -- not moderately -- on my part that maybe it would be a good idea to learn everything about existing technology while it still existed, changed my classmates' minds. No argument that a hundred traumatized children to eleven traumatized adults might call for a social structure different from the traditional nuclear family augmented by adoption. No argument even that some sort of crash apprentice program in canning food, or constructing latrines, or building watermills for power, should replace spelling. What my classmates -- teachers of children, all -- were assuming was that even after the collapse of civilization, nothing essential would really change.

Now flash-forward fifteen years, to the New York Times for March 10, 1991. The Book Review section contained a review by Robert J. Samuelson, the economics columnist at Newsweek. Mr. Samuelson was reviewing a book called The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for Twenty-First Century Capitalism, by Robert B. Reich. The book, in the words of its author, ''examines the social and political consequences of the global forces now acting upon us.'' The point of Mr. Samuelson's review was that these forces have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, says Mr. Samuelson, the global economy has very little to do with the actual jobs of most Americans, and the entire issue of global economic forces has been overblown, a trendy panic mostly generated by the media.

Mr. Samuelson didn't mention in his review that by the end of the 1980's, our trade deficit was nearly 500 billion dollars. The United States imported one-third of its cars, half of its machine tools, and 65% of its radios, TV's, and stereos. Foreign companies owned 10% of our manufacturing assets, 20% of our banking assets, huge chunks of commercial real estate. Your Apple computer may have been built in Apple's Singapore plant. Your GE microwave, if you acquired it after 1985, was built in Korea, by Samsung. Your Chevy, like mine, may have an Isuzu engine. On the other side of the ledger, the Arnold Schwarznegger movie you saw last week was also enjoyed on five other continents, as part of the five billion dollars trade surplus generated by the American entertainment industry.

How, then, could anyone ignore the fact that we have a global economy? Mr. Samuelson, like my classmates in graduate school, prefers to think that nothing important in the economic structure can really change. Perhaps it would help for him to read some Bruce Sterling.

People who do read science fiction -- and that's us, here, now -- know better. Change -- dizzying, rapid, and unexpected -- is integral to both science fiction and fantasy. By definition, when you enter a science fictional or fantasy world, it is changed from this one. The Sprawl is not New York, although it may share some features in common with New York. Middle Earth is not Kent or Devonshire, although it has moors. Annarres is not Iowa, Rama is not the Queen Elizabeth II, and not even Xanth is Florida. SF readers expect changes from the world as we know it now, and are not daunted by the unfamiliar. Consider, for instance, the Nebula awards given this spring in New York. The ballot included an orbital habitat full of Africans who hunt hyena, a spaceship in which visible light (and hence time) are warped into weird relativistic effects, a stepsister for Jesus Christ, a bunch of bears who have discovered fire, and a genetically engineered woman in the shape of a 42-meter-high Statue of Liberty. If SF readers had been sitting in my graduate class on values clarification, I don't think these hypothetical children of a destroyed future would be bending over their spelling workbooks while what was left of the world rusted quietly around them.

HOWEVER -- and you knew this was coming, or else this speech would be over already -- SF readers and writers often have a different kind of problem with change. And one equally troubling.

Consider again that graduate class. This time, imagine that the class is made up of SF readers, addressing the same improbable hypothetical scenario. They fall to enthusiastically. After fifteen minutes of discussion, this is the future they've designed for our school full of survivors: Three of the hypothetical adults have assassinated each other during a struggle for a software cartridge that provides the key to controlling the school's electric generator, the last source of power in the entire world. Another two have discovered how to use unseen radiation to focus their unsuspected psi powers and have translated their minds to a parallel realm in which they are trying to defeat Lord Nasty Guy, the embodiment of all evil. Ten of the children have mutated into quasi-plants who soak up sunlight and commune telepathically with whales three thousand miles away at the bottom of the Mariana trench. Another twenty kids have discovered a pile of leather-and-brass costumes in what was once the kindergarten dress-up trunk and are now wandering around the halls looking like Roman gladiators on speed. The former school principal has discovered signs of alien contact in the Title I reading room and is bravely fighting off skeptics as he attempts to establish peaceful relations with these beings from beyond the stars, whom the gym teacher wishes to blow to kingdom come, sight unseen, in the name of the survival of humanity. The gym teacher won't succeed, however, because the former third-grade teacher, who can fight as well as any man, has organized the Girls' Soccer League into a secret society dedicated to stopping male oppression whenever and wherever it occurs, a goal aided by the discovery of different alien artifacts hidden decades ago beneath the floor of the faculty lunchroom.

You see my point. SF certainly can't be accused of shying away from changes to mundane reality. But SF has a different kind of problem with change. Our stories, some of them -- a lot of them -- so often seem to ignore the fact that change must happen to real human beings. Change is only half the equation. We in the SF community are only permitted to pat ourselves on the back for our willingness to embrace change if we also are willing to embrace the reality of that change happening to real people. Not cardboard constructs, but genuine characters with all the complex motivations, reactions, confusions, and shades of morality that real people in the real world exhibit. Otherwise, we're doing no better than my graduate class did, that class at which you laughed so heartily a few minutes ago. My fellow students were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic; much of SF devises tremendously wonderful ways to keep the Titanic afloat and never notices that the passengers they've created are indistinguishable from the deck chairs.

Let me be more specific here. Not by discussing specific current SF books, because it doesn't seem to me that the function of a keynote speech at a writers' conference should be to trash other writers. Rather, let me be specific by raising some questions and issues -- inseparably tied to reality -- that SF very often ignores. By ignoring these issues, we weaken belief in the applicability of SF to real, genuine human life.

First is the question of human reproduction. Not sex -- SF has no shortage of sex. But sex frequently yields children. In fact, 90% of the human race eventually reproduces itself. But scan a rack of SF or fantasy novels at Walden's or B. Dalton, and you will get the impression that nearly everyone doing anything of remote interest, including the man who runs the ship's communicator and the female warrior who slays barbarians, is on birth control. You will also get the impression that all these societies have invented the ideal day care. Enough children to reproduce the population are apparently all raised in one creche or nursery or something conveniently located off to the side of the action, and so well run that except for the occasional abducted heir to a magical bloodline, no parents have to interrupt their quests or their starship careers to raise their kids. No one is distracted from intersolar espionage because little Johnny is sick that day. No reluctant hero has a conflict between seeking the lost magical sword of Happenstance and staying in his current job because little Glenora is going to need a dowry pretty soon. No starship commander is torn up in his guts about his teen-age son who's doing three-to-six for a bungled software theft on Debula Omicron Six. It just doesn't happen. Much of SF paints a picture of a reality sanitized of the emotional and physical demands children present in the real reality.

''Well, so what?'' I hear some of you say. Hold onto that skeptical thought. I want to come back to it in a few minutes.

Before I do, let me raise another objection to SF's portrayal of people, and an even more serious one. Often our characters are devoid of moral complexity. This is, in fact, where my long-ago graduate class should have focused on values, and didn't.

Every human being, in the course of a week, makes multiple decisions about values, especially in a world as complex as this one. What makes our world complex isn't the presence of computers and cellular phones and virtual reality devices. It's the myriad ways these things can be used, which in turn implies myriad activities which often come into conflict with each other.

A ''value'' can be described as ''something you work to gain or keep.'' If you value money -- and we pretty much have to, at least a little bit, to survive -- we work to earn some. If we value our child, we work to keep him fed and warm and safe. If we value Victorian lace underwear, we expend time and effort and money gaining a pair of Princess Alice's bloomers. The range of things the human mind can act to gain and keep, and hence can value, is enormous. The range becomes even greater when we add the fact that what we act to gain and keep can be a value not just for itself, but because it symbolically represents to us some other value we're after. Otherwise why would all those people out there spend 55 for an Elvis Presley commemorative plate?

Another aspect of this reality is that these values are all shoved into our consciousness without much innate structure. Our moral minds have sloppy housekeeping, with values shoved in up against each other in no particular hierarchy. Thus, when a situation comes along that activates two different values, we have a moral conflict. Consider some mundane examples:

You have an important reason to be at your job today, and you value doing your job well. Your daughter says she has a sore throat, and you certainly value your daughter. Do you put the work-ethic value first and send her to school, or the parenting value first and stay home to take her to the doctor? And within the parenting value, you believe in getting your child medical attention when she needs it, but you also believe in teaching your daughter not to give in to every tiny ache and pain as a way of avoiding school. Which value do you go with?

Another example. You learn that a close friend has stolen money from the company he works for, an action of which you strongly disapprove. Do you go with the friendship value, saying nothing, or the honesty value, and take some action? If so, what action?

Another example: You believe in freedom of the press. You also believe in racial equality. Does a college newspaper have the right to print editorials or letters that imply that one racial group is inferior to another? The two values come into conflict.

These are mundane examples, not SF ones. But they are real, with a reality that is an inescapable part of being human. Too much science fiction and fantasy ignores that inescapable connection. Instead it gives us characters with their values all arranged in neat hierarchies, untroubled by values colliding with each other. Characters who always know what to do, right away. Characters who are totally good, or sometimes totally evil. Characters unacquainted with the basic human reality that we all carry conflicting values within us, and that change can only intensify those conflicts.

All of this was brought home to me forcibly when I attended a science fiction convention in New York State about a year ago. In the audience at a well-attended panel was a young man who had essentially the same question that some of you did a few minutes ago: ''So what?'' This young man, who had a genuine and appealing love for fantasy, was arguing amiably with panel members. He said, ''Well, supposing I just want to read a book where the guys in the white hats get to mow down the guys in the black hats? That's very satisfying sometimes. What's wrong with that? What's wrong with just sheer entertainment in SF?''

Put that way, the answer to the question almost has to be ''nothing.'' There's nothing wrong with ''just sheer entertainment,'' just as there's nothing ''wrong'' with jellybeans, Barbie dolls, pet rocks, and television game shows. The young man was asking me the wrong question, in view of everything else that had been said on that panel -- and in view of everything else I've said here today. There's nothing wrong with jellybeans, pet rocks, TV game shows, or SF/fantasy unconnected to the complexities of human reality. What is wrong is to eat jellybeans and call it steak; to buy a pet rock and announce you're nurturing a pet; to watch TV game shows and think you're receiving intellectual stimulation; and to write or read SF with simplistic characters and then claim superiority over those poor benighted fools who read Harlequin romances or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books or ''artsy fartsy literary trash.'' So often in SF, that's what we do. We claim superiority to the world of mundane literature because we're willing to address technological, scientific, and social change -- and then we make that change happen to characters so unconnected to real human beings that it might as well be happening to rutabagas. We embrace technological versimilitude or magic-system consistency -- and reject human versimilitude and consistency with the complex minds of men and women. We love complicated plots -- and settle for simplistic actors within those plots. We howl if some scientific principle is ignored, or some fictional society is not depicted in every important dimension -- and then consider it irrelevant if another book is complete in its science and world-building but its scientists are not depicted as anything but -- pick a or b -- immoral tools of the military-industrial complex or rational men who never falter in Doing What's Best For Humanity In The Long Run.

Of course, not all SF or fantasy has these failings. Our field includes fiction with complex portrayals of mature, believable human beings coping with difficult decisions in well-depicted alternate societies. But the question I'm raising -- the question that young man at I-CON wasn't asking but perhaps should have been -- is why does SF so often praise its worst instead of its best? Why are we so often so loud in praise of the simplistic, the crudely-rendered in terms of human complexity, the jingoistic, instead of praising science fiction that actually relates its ability to depict change to real people caught in the complexities of that change? Why?

I think there are several answers to that question. One answer is, ''mainstream does that. We do something else. If you want real people, go read mainstream.'' No less a dean of SF than Isaac Asimov has espoused this view. A few years ago Asimov wrote an essay titled ''The Little Tin God of Characterization.'' In it he said, and I quote,

''To invent a society that is not ours and yet that is plausible and is internally consistent is, in itself, a very difficult thing to do well, as anyone knows who has tried it. To produce that background and, at the same time, to invent an interesting story that can be played against it is even more difficult ... suppose that we are made to see that human reactions to unfamiliar stimuli under unfamiliar conditions somehow brings a fresh illumination to matters of interest in our own society? Would it not seem to you that a science fiction story was justifying its existence, even though it might be deficient in characterization? ... If someone is going to take the trouble to write science fiction, why should he feel he must bow down to the little tin god of characterization?''Isaac Asimov, ''The Little Tin God Of Characterization,'' Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, May, 1985.

In my view, this won't wash. The argument contains its own self-destructing contradiction. How is it possible for ''human reactions to unfamiliar stimuli'' to bring us any ''fresh illumination to matters of interest in our own society'' if we have no belief in the human characters having those reactions? How can anything about our own society be illuminated by characters too simplistic to represent real members of our society? What happens to amoebas might be interesting, but it doesn't illuminate what happens to human beings on any but the grossest physical level.

There are other reasons why SF so often neglects characterization. Like Asimov, some science fiction and fantasy writers -- respected writers, good writers -- think that SF has a different primary agenda from creating believable and complex human beings. Joanna Russ, for example, has argued that science fiction cannot and should not be judged by the usual literary criteria. Russ says that because SF, like medieval literature, is primarily didactic, ordinary critical standards are inadequate to deal with it. SF is ''fundamentally a drastically different form of literary art'' in which ''tradionally human concerns will be absent; protagonists will be all but unrecognizable as such.'' Instead of individual characters, SF protagonists stand for ''Everyman.''Joanna Russ, ''Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction,'' Science Fiction Studies, July, 1975.

My dictionary defines ''didactic'' as ''intended to instruct,'' and certainly SF has served that purpose on occasion. A whole class of SF stories is based on the premise ''If this goes on ...'' with ''this'' being some negative trend in the society and the story being a graphic illustration of the kind of dire consequences that will occur if we don't immediately stop doing whatever it is we're doing. This large group of cautionary tales includes warnings about the bomb, from Nevil Shute's On The Beach to Frederik Pohl's fine story of nuclear winter, ''Fermi and Frost.'' It includes warnings about environmental abuse, sexual oppression, over-population, unrestricted technology, too-restricted technology, the decline of education, the decline of compassion, and the decline of TV programming. You could build a plausible argument that the first modern SF tale, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, is a cautionary didactic story: See what happens if you fool around with technology and the soul?

Another group of writers see SF's major purpose not as warning us about present trends but as a sort of map, a literary Mobil guide, to a new and improved future. Chief in this group is probably Bruce Sterling, thoughtful creator of some of the most convincing societal infrastructures in science fiction. Sterling has written the following about standards for judging SF:

Writers of serious science fiction need to plunge out there into the bustle and come up with some futures people can believe in. We need to address a new audience: not just the usual SF faithful, but the real no-kidding folks out there, the global populace, who can see an old world order disintegrating every time they turn on the TV, but have no idea what to make of it, what to think about it, what to do ... If we don't do something, some ernest attempt to understand and explicate and shape the future -- the real future, everybody's future, starting now -- then in all honesty we should abandon ''science fiction'' as a genre. We shouldn't keep the rags and tatters of the thing, while abandoning its birthright and its best native claim to intellectual legitimacy. There are many worthy ways to write fiction ... but this genre ought to stand for something.Bruce Sterling, ''Catscan: Shinkansen,'' Science Fiction Eye, February, 1990.

Another writer who thinks SF ought to ''stand for something,'' but not the same something as Sterling, is Orson Scott Card. According to Card, the first task of science fiction and fantasy, as of all fiction, is moral transformation. Along with the late John Gardner, who wrote On Moral Fiction, Card argues that science fiction has an obligation to exercise what he calls its ''transforming power to the moral and the good.'' Since we are shaped by the stories we read, hear, and remember, Card argues in his frequent addresses on this topic, an SF story is a success to the degree that it creates a positive ''push'' toward values that are moral and life-affirming, either by praising that which contributes to the community or exposing that which does not.

All three of these writers -- Russ, Sterling, and Card -- are arguing in favor of judging SF by didactic standards derived at least in part from the world outside the book. Other writers disagree. Richard Grant, for example, contends that the most important aspect of an SF story is not how it relates to change in the real world but rather how well it relates to other stories. He says:

I no longer believe that the characters in my fiction have anything to do with people in real life. I believe they are the descendants of other characters in other books ... Nor do I believe anymore that the imagined worlds of my fiction are ''extrapolations'' of any real world, nor that they ought to be. To the extent that they exist in an imaginary future, in a place that bears some resemblance to North America, they are not historical descendants of our world, but literary descendants of our culture. I am not particularly interested in exploring future politics, or economics, and above all not in technology. In fact, it is my belief that neither hardware nor software nor wetware nor ware of any kind will have an importance in the daily lives of our grandchildren that is at all comparable to that of other, softer things: their feelings, their taste in music, the contents of their gardens. Why should we imagine how we are going to interact with the household computer, or what kind of vehicle we drive to the store, or what we will buy there? Who gives a fuck? Objects, in general, occupy little of my attention at present, and I suspect they will hold no more fascination for my grandchildren.Richard Grant, ''The Exile's Paradigm,'' Science Fiction Eye, February, 1990.

Why do I get the feeling that Bruce Sterling and Richard Grant would not like each other's science fiction?

Four different writers -- Russ, Sterling, Card, Grant -- four different ideas about what is most important in science fiction. It's important to note that, unlike Asimov, none of these four say complex and real characters are not important. They merely indicate that something else outranks characterization, and that presumably it is by this something else that SF should be judged.

Again, I disagree. Of what interest is didactic instruction to me -- or to you -- if it's applied to people we can't recognize as fully as human -- as complicated, as contradictory, sometimes as confused -- as we are ourselves? How can we learn anything from how they function, when it's not how we recognize human beings as functioning? How can we believe in visions of the future if we can't believe in the people residing there? How can we be transformed morally by the behavior of people who seem to occupy a less morally complex world than ours? And, finally, how can we possibly believe in characters -- or in an author -- who doesn't understand that politics and economics and technology are powerful forces that shape the contents of his garden, his music, and, yes, even his feelings?

The answer is simple: We can't. Without real characters to illustrate instruction or vision or moral transformation or whatever, they're no more relevant to us than are medieval descriptions of how the angelic choirs of heaven are organized for the singing of hosannas. I'm not going there -- I don't presume to speak for each of you -- and angels don't share the same needs and questions we mortals do on Earth.

There's one more possible answer the question, ''So what if there's a relative dearth of credible characters in SF?'' It's the answer given by the young fan I mentioned at the New York convention last year. He said it was ''satisfying to just see the good guys mow down the bad guys.'' Well, perhaps it is. I have no quarrel with his view of ''satisfying,'' since that word is purely subjective, and who can say what is or isn't satisfying to somebody else? However, I did have a quarrel, loudly expressed, when he added that he wouldn't read anything with complicated characters in it ''because SF shouldn't be work.'' At that point, he had crossed the line from subjective reaction to evaluation of a genre. And evaluation implies the existence of some sort of standard against which one is measuring. He was saying that reality, in all its conflict of values and obligations and desires and needs, is not an appropriate standard for SF. Technological plausibility is an appropriate standard; magical inventiveness is an appropriate standard; societal consistency is an appropriate standard. But plausibility of characters, inventiveness of the amazing facets of human personality, consistency with human diversity and even sheer human cussedness -- those are standards for mainstream, not for us.

I couldn't disagree more. I disagreed so hard in fact, at the expense of some of my fellow panelists, that I noticed I wasn't asked back to that same convention this year. No matter. What does matter is that somehow a call for realistic characterization in SF became a radical stand.

How can this be? To say, as I am -- moderately, I'm sure you've all noticed the moderation here -- that the people in SF ought to be at least as plausible and as interesting as the gadgets, is hardly a startling manifesto. It's not new, it's not bold, it's not going to start a new fictional movement that Gardner Dozois will have to find a name for. Some writers have striven to do it all along. Some have succeeded, admirably. The point is, to say that a fictional form should be judged partially by its ability to put believable humans into its supposedly human plots -- is not startling.

What is startling is that this moderate request is so often disputed, dismissed as irrelevant, or proclaimed to be the death of SF. It seems to me a basic evaluative standard -- and one SF is capable of meeting. SF and fantasy at their best are capable of complex characterization grounded in the realities of human interaction. SF and fantasy are capable of worldviews that take into account fairly-rendered value conflicts. SF and fantasy are capable of graceful prose. SF and fantasy are also capable of more than conventional literature, through depiction of changes rung on the world as we think we know it. We are capable of all these things. No one need make excuses why we can't do them. SF is not, after all, a literary Special Olympics, handicapped from the beginning and in need of special rules. We don't require arguments that lesser complexity, lesser fidelity to human reality, actually represent some sort of greater achievement. They do not. SF can be everything mainstream literature is -- plus.

But only if we want it to be.

Do we want it to be?

I hope so. Because -- to repeat myself -- at its best, SF does justice to both change and the characters who make change mean something.

I want to thank you for giving me the chance to stand up here and argue this startling manifesto. It's not often that a moderate gets to feel like a radical for saying something that ought to be obvious from the beginning. I therefore thank you for the chance to feel so daring. When I go home tomorrow I'm going to invest in a bunch of torn T-shirts, some partisan leaflets, and a little contraband software, after which you're all invited for chablis and cheese up here on the barricades.

Thank you.

LSFF:s hemsida