Sunday, January 23, 2011


You know the phenomenon of having a tune stuck in your head, going round and round? I have a version of that, except it’s an idea and not a tune, and it’s been an occasional mental tic in my brain for years. Here’s the idea: “What are those things that we live with that if they didn’t exist, science fiction writers would certainly invent them?”

I think the reason this is a mental game for me is that there’s some subtlety to it. Of course my question, above, could be answered with “anything, or everything:” If we didn’t have… paper towels, or … running water, or… the iPad, science fiction would come up with it. But it’s more subtle than that. It has to do with those things that would give the reader a kind of “gee whiz” response – a sense that these things, if we didn’t know them so casually, would be considered fantastic, or wonderful.

The “mental tic” part is that I wonder to what degree this concept makes sense to anyone else – or would we each come up with such an idiosyncratic list that it would be meaningless to anyone else.

Anyway, here’s my partial list: If These Things Didn’t Exist, Would Science Fiction Writers Invent Them?:

Snow. Ephemeral white stuff falling from the sky and piling up all around us

Sleep. The most powerful of beings are so vulnerable for long periods of time.

Music. Especially classical music. What the heck good is it? How frivolous! Who would ever think of such a thing?

The kiss. I can imagine a reader saying, “You know how we greet each other with a knee in the back? Well, in this book I’m reading, people actually use their lips to…”

Trees. Especially tall trees. It’s like we’re living among botanical dinosaurs and we don’t even notice it.

Friendship. It’s easy to imagine a world in which sentient beings merely co-existed, and all meaning in life was found in the material, the sensual, and the personal. What a fantasy it would be to imagine two of these beings relating to one another and opening life to a new dimension. (Wait a minute... Isn't this the theme of Woody Allen's "Sleeper"?)

So, am I completely bonkers? (At least perhaps I’ve exorcised my tic.) If I’m not, what would be on your list? (And don’t say, “The thermos bottle, because it keeps the hot things hot and the cold things cold, but how does it know?!”)


Jeffrey Dean said...

Far be it from me to be critical of anything you do, let alone these marvelous musings that you regularly come up with. They are usually quite thoughtful and well written. But this latest one seems a bit odd to me for a reason I will have a hard time putting into words. But I'll give it a shot.

Maybe the thing I have trouble with is your set up. You lead us to your main point by bringing up science fiction and use as your examples, just to get us thinking, some modern conveniences (paper towels, running water, iPads). And so already I am trying to think of what I would list -- turning on room lights remotely using switches, a fireplace that bursts into flame with a remote control, cars that can be set to go a certain speed even when we take our foot off the pedal -- that sort of thing.

Then you shirt gears, without the slightest hint of what direction you are really going, and bring up things that are not only not the stuff of science fiction, but are the very essence of what it means to be human -- sleep, music, life, relationships, nature itself (snow). These are all wonderful things, but not the kinds of things that "if they didn’t exist, science fiction writers would certainly invent them.”

Yes, you are completely bonkers.

Your brother-in-law

Richard Jorgensen said...

Jeff: I think I didn't state my main theme all that well. Let me try again. The kind of things you mentioned (remote light switches, etc.), even if we didn't have them, could be thought up by any self-respecting sci-fi writer before breakfast. But if something like "sleep" didn't exist in our experience or our observation -- if we were beings who did not sleep and did not observe any organic entity doing anything like "sleeping," would we be imaginative enough to come up with it?

Jeffrey Dean said...

We would come up with it in our dreams, if we could just fall asleep.