The most colorful province

Science fiction, that hurly-burly, often bizarre, sometimes speculative, irrepressible, muscular, barrier-removing form of literature, has recently been extending its influence from the newsstand to the university, the low budget monster movie to the special-effects extravaganza.

This gives some people pause. Are we really vulgarizing our popular literature as well as the university classroom? Is the ''significant'' science fiction novel likely to be, as Jeff McNeally's cartoon series, ''Shoe,'' has it, about ''creatures made out of meat loaf that eat Toledo?''

One way to look at that question is to ask if this form of literature is any more a metaphor than the fiction we know as conventional. Does Bellow write about real people and Heinlein about false ones? Some would have us believe that , but when we turn from LeGuin's lucid examination of social systems in The Dispossessed to the ''conventional'' work of Faulkner or Updike, in which a character may confuse gull wings with watch hands or may be unsure whether he is a centaur or a human, we wonder.

Such comparisons tell us that science fiction is a province of the nation of fiction, wholly within its borders, subject to the same forces, using the same conventions, deeply concerned in its own way with human experience and its possibilities. Surely Henry James' comment about fictional types is apt here: ''The novel and the romance, the novel of incident and that of character - these clumsy separations appear to me to have been made by critics and readers for their own convenience, and to help them out of their occasional queer predicaments, but to have little reality or interest for the producer.''

I agree. In writing science fiction I never thought I was writing something other than a novel nor that the success of the effort would be something besides its success as a novel - that is, as an elaborate metaphor for certain kinds of human concerns told in a story.

If one can agree that we are in the right nation, perhaps it might be of use to examine a couple of the principal geographical features of the province of science fiction. In its center surely is a range of mountains called the future - high, massive, shrouded in mists, rumored to contain storms and avalanches, inviting to the eager, frightening to the contented. In a future-concerned culture like ours, it is inevitable that attempts should be made to map this future, not only statistically, but humanly, to discover what it might be like to live there.

This tendency is one of the core efforts of science fiction. A reasonably responsible way of doing this is by extrapolation, extending present trends into the future to discover how life will be if they continue. While meat loaf monsters may never eat Toledo, acid rain is doing it this minute. Such creeping changes need examination. The world population passed three billion in 1960 and four billion in 1975. Five billion are expected in 1990. These changes are potentially catastrophic, but we seem to yawn and shrug at them. Science fiction calls them to real notice.

Those venturing into mountains always see vistas which permanently expand their concepts of the lay of things. It is commonplace for science fiction to contemplate the fates of whole continents, whole planets. A sensitive reader of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy will find his sense of space and time grown vast. It will not easily shrink again. If he is a member of a labor union, it may well be easier for him to understand better how his wage demands relate to manufacturing occurring halfway around the world. Management may gain new elasticity in planning. We all may cease thinking of a hundred years as forever, as many do. Such expansions of thought do happen. The founder of Unimation, which sells more robots to Japanese manufacturers than any other company, readily admits his fascination with robots began from reading Asimov's robot novels.

Certainly one of our present problems is that we try to solve global issues with village mentalities, supporting tribal squabblings in the Middle East with the vast resources of superpowers, or making corporate decisions in Switzerland without regard to the infant deaths these choices will cause in the third world. Expansiveness of thought - certainly any resource which aids that process - is precious to us.

Deep in the province of science fiction is also a vast plain known as speculation, the horizons of which seem always to recede ahead of us. Reading Clifford Simak's Waystation tends to change one's definition of man. Ursala LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness helps us see human gender differently. We all merge our efforts with machines when we drive cars, but implications of this fact are not generally evident - except to readers of authors like Cordwainer Smith or Arthur C. Clarke.

While one may sketch in some features of the science fiction landscape, the borders of the province surely remain vague. There are no guards. One wanders into it from adjacent fictional regions without knowing when. The vegetation looks the same. The principal inhabitant of the whole nation of fiction is mankind. While he may play strange games in one province and not in another, he is still the central concern of all fiction, and the vividness with which we meet him in any province depends on the skills of the writer. These skills are universal ones, played well or poorly in all the provinces of fiction. In science fiction, they are surely played with verve and panache. As Frederick Pohl says, ''Science fiction readers can take anything.''

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