I don’t know a great deal, I’ll admit, about science fiction. As a kid, at the point where I would have got into it if I was going to get into it, fate directed me towards eight-inch-thick swords-and-sandals fantasy epics instead (it was my brother that took care of the eight-inch-thick Asimov trilogies).
But I’ve read a little Lem, and some William Gibson, and a lot of Vonnegut, and a couple of other things here and there, and when (as related, grippingly, in the Clutterbuck of the tenth) I came across Connoisseur’s SF in a secondhand bookshop I felt a hankering too powerful to resist. Kind chance saw to it that I had the necessary £1.50 in my pocket, too, so there we were.
Most of the stories in the book take what you might call a scientific approach to science fiction – not in that they’re technically very involved (they aren’t – they’re all from 1965 or earlier, which helps in that regard), but in that they ask a question and then want, immediately, with no shilly-shallying or literary faffing about, to answer it.
The premise of each of these stories could be summed up in a single ‘what if…?’ sentence, which makes them what I think of as being a very pure sort of sci-fi. Maybe, indeed, this is what makes them connoisseur’s sci-fi.
So here are the authors (in order of appearance), and here are their questions.
1. Alfred Bester: all right, a tough one to begin with, but something like – what if people could travel not through actual history but through history as they imagine it?
2.Frederik Pohl: what if advertising became the most powerful and dangerous force in the world?
3. Kurt Vonnegut: what if an effective anti-ageing serum existed?
4. Theodore Sturgeon: what if it were considered deviant and criminal to want to be alone?
5. Jack Finney: um… what if, during the US Civil War, two men travelled into the future to steal an aeroplane from the Smithsonian?…
6. JG Ballard: what if a city were so overcrowded that people actually had no concept of what ‘open space’ was?
7. Isaac Asimov: what if schoolchildren were taught by machines instead of human teachers?
8. Eric Frank Russell: what if humans conquered new worlds not by using logic but by being deliberately irrational?
9. JT McIntosh: what if cloned humans acquired equal legal rights?
10. Fredric Brown: what if the world were suddenly and irreversibly deprived of electricity?
One of the answers Brown gives to that last question, incidentally, is that some of us would miss the lightning.
What was the point of this little exercise? I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m being reductionist for the sake of it; I do think that the genius of these stories is in the formulation of the question and in the desire to answer the question rather than in the answering of the question.
While we’re on the subject of the future, here’s one more line from Nabokov’s The Eye that I’d like to note down:
What did I care if this letter would indeed travel across a remote mountain pass into the next century, whose very designation – a two and three zeros – is so fantastic as to seem absurd?
The Eye was written (in Russian) in 1930.