Getting Into Death
Here were Joshie's beginnings. A dystopian upper-class childhood in several elite American suburbs. Total immersion in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. The twelve-year-old's first cognition of mortality, for the true subject of science fiction is death, not life. It will end. The totality of it. The self-love. Not wanting to die. Wanting to live, but not sure why. Looking up at the nighttime sky, at the black eternity of outer space, amazed.Which set me to thinking about my own long-ago self, when he was at that golden age. Was he really getting into death, back then, when he got hooked into the mainline of SF? I don't think that he thought that he did. He was a bright, disorganised kid living in a small town, and like many such he wanted to get out. SF opened up new worlds to him. America. The future. Easy travel to other planets. And some of his favourite stories - Theodore Sturgeon's 'The Way Home', Tiptree's 'Beam Me Home' - were about about ways of escape. When he looked up at the stars in the summer nights sky, he wasn't thinking about eternity. He was wondering if someone like him was up there on a warm wet blue planet circling a yellow star, looking up at their night sky and thinking what he was thinking. He was projecting. He wanted out bad, and SF was balm to that ache.
Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
Well I got out, and I became a scientist, which is what I wanted to be, and then I became an SF writer, which I also wanted to be, and how cool is that? And now I think, about the SF I read and the SF I write: yeah, in one way or another, it's all about death. I'm just starting in on the editing process of a novel about avoiding the inevitable and the costs this could incur, which is one reason the quote caught my interest. It's something I've been thinking about. Also, when I tweeted part of the quote at the head of this, my friend Andrew McKie tweeted back 'I have long maintained the death thing. There's audio somewhere of me droning on to Kincaid about it at a BSFA thing.' Hard to argue about this with Mr McKie: he once worked for the best bit of the Telegraph - the obits department. To borrow a line from Michael Connelly, death is his beat.
I used to think SF was all about change, but all change means leaving something behind. I left behind my childhood when I quit that little town for university, and never really came all the way back. Death is a more permanent kind of change. And if you avoid it somehow, that will change you too. You won't be some eternal extropian twentysomething, planning to turn a galaxy into beer and pizza. You'll be something so deeply weird the future equivalent of all the world's armies would try to take you down if you ever returned to Earth.
But we're not just talking about childhood's end, or the all-too-brief span of human life, in SF. We're talking about the end of everything. The end of the universe, maybe flattening out forever, maybe crunching back down into the Singularity of a new universe, maybe giving birth to hundreds of new universes. We're talking about the end of reality. We're talking about hard, important questions. If everything is in flux, what is useful and what isn't? What do we do with our knowledge about the immensity of the universe and the seemingly microscopic size of our place within it? How can we make sense of that, and learn to live with it? Is it really possible to develop strategies to avoid the heatdeath of the Universe or surfing the wave of a new Big Bang? And what then? And what then...