WHEN people sometimes ask me why I write science fiction, I know there is a question behind the question. Often it is, ``Why are you engaged in such a trivial occupation?'' Of course, much science fiction is trivial, just as much of any art form is, popular or not. But as books like ``1984'' indicate, science fiction is one of the central means by which our dynamic culture examines its present directions and the implications of its rush of changes. I can remember, some years ago now, when the mainstream fiction caused real excitement. A wide spectrum of people looked forward to the latest Hemingway or Faulkner novel, read it, and discussed it. Television has much dampened that enthusiasm. But it truly still exists in science fiction, which has a lively readership as well as a great many fans.
There is a difference between readers and fans. The former may read science fiction occasionally or voraciously, but their interest is chiefly in reading. The fans form societies, dress as characters from their reading, hold lively conventions, and use the literature as a social focus. They invite writers to their gatherings regularly, not as exalted persons, but as people with whom they want to mingle. In fact, science fiction is the only branch of the arts today that behaves this way.
Frederick Pohl, a current science fiction great, once remarked that science fiction readers can take anything. This is true. That means, of course, that they accept a lot of inferior writing, the kind present in any genre, especially a popular one. But they are also willing to entertain any idea -- at least to squint at it with verve and intelligence. This un-limitedness of science fiction is one of its main attractions.
Time travel, space travel, mul-tidimensional universes; the implications of organ transplanta-tion, genetic modification, further evolution of human kind; studies of various social and religious schemes, of utopias, and dystopias, of life after industry or nuclear war has laid waste to the environment, of energy loss or the results of unlimited energy; encounters with the alien, both humanoid and unimaginable -- all these subjects come into discussion in dramatic, human terms, with their human impact examined.
Kurt Vonnegut's ``chrono-synclastic infundibulum'' enabled him to examine, in his novel ``The Sirens of Titan,'' the concept of simultaneity, that is, the notion that all events, past, present, and future, are going on now. It is an old idea. But Vonnegut's treatment of it makes many of its implications vivid and immediate.
In writing science fiction, one is liberated from the need to make one's characters talk accurately as they would have in Brooklyn in 1920 or London in 1720. At its best it is a literature of ideas, more abstracted than mainstream fiction, more focused on a philosophical design or the implication of some human practice.
The real problems of real space travel -- something we as a society are beginning to undertake -- are understood much more clearly because of many stories inquiring into them than would otherwise be the case.
Curiously enough, though, much science fiction is about things very close to home. For a long time I congratulated myself that my fiction lay far in the future and interested me as stories and ideas. Then I discovered to my amazement it was really a metaphorical discussion of things very immediate.
By means of science fiction, it is easy to abstract any problem or interest for discussion. Planets make nice microcosms. Aliens enable us to discuss encounters with otherness. Through dys-topias we can examine the government of our own cities. Robots and other devices tell us much about the machines with which we interface daily -- and about our friends.
For my part, I think I understand many things much better from having written the Pelbar novels, concepts about patterns of social organization and their consequences, about the way our societies can entrap us into modes of thought unnatural to us, as well as enhancing other kinds of thinking. I understand more clearly the forces that create an arms race and the qualities of forgiveness and forbearance that alone can halt it. The human dimension of the future is much richer to me, and individual people far more precious, each one more obviously a unique jewel.
Of course, many such insights can be gained from writing any kind of fiction. But science fiction has the advantage of being popular, that is, allowing one to speak to many people. And it bristles with ideas. It allows one to be recklessly responsible, wildly sober, to sit at home in one's study among the planets, to converse with the future, to domesticate the extravagant thought. All of those things are really an educative pleasure.