STRANGE INTENSITY: science fiction and the shape of a life

Is there something special about reading science fiction? does it require a special mindset? does reading science fiction over a long period of time, or over a whole life, change you in any way? Any long-time reader of science fiction may want to ask themselves these questions, with the feeling that it may give some insight into our life and our approach to life.

Over at the excellent blog Classics of Science Fiction, Jim Harris discusses the long-term evolution of his “changing attitude to science fiction over a lifetime“. He inventories and analyses his thoughts and experiences, many of which I share, so it may be worth summarising and commenting on them from a different point of view here.

Harris lists some very general motifs in the lifelong passion that one may have for science fiction: marvels and magic, sense of wonder, intellectual stimulation, love of science (sometimes combined with scientism), escape, virtual reality, dreams of metaphysical adventure, scepticism and nostalgia, aesthetic perspective, historical approach, in depth study, admiration of the fictional embedding of speculative ideas.

All of these aspects of a life immersed in science fiction have been phases of my own life, and I repeatedly cycle through many of them still today, in no particular order any more. They are no longer “phases” to go through and to leave behind, but rather multiple lenses I may use to enjoy or to think about the stories I read.

I am no collector or completist, but I think my very sensibility is irrevocably “science fictional”, and this conditions my whole approach to life, to people, to conversation, to teaching, to philosophy and religion, to current events (such as the corona virus). There is always mentally near at hand, or below the surface, a story, an image, an idea, an extrapolation that comes to me from reading SF.

Over and above the specific content I read there is this “form” of sensibility or speculative field of force that accompanies and englobes me.

There is no one science fiction sensibility that could be defined, but there is a loosely knit patchwork (with four dimensional bends and loops and folds back on itself, of sensibilities, approaches, and perspectives with enough of a family resemblance to recognise and to resonate with each other.

Science fiction is such an influence that for many people once in it they can’t leave it, even if with time they can no longer enthuse over its more literal-minded action stereotypes.

Science fiction can be compared to a religion, and it certainly can mobilise the religious attitude, but it is far vaster in its multiplicity than any religion, and you don’t have to “believe” it. It is perhaps closer to mythology, in the sense of myth as good to think, i.e. not just good to think about but also good to think with.

Science fiction is art and philosophy and entertainment all rolled into one. It helps us to think and to see things differently, and so has as much impact on our lives as we are willing to give to our thoughts and our dreams, to our feelings and visions, although not in a one-to-one correspondence sort of way.

Jim Harris’s whole essay shows this possible “practical”, even existential, effect of science fiction, a sort of mutation or conversion that can happen, that gives us not just the pleasure of reading, but also the strange intensity of a life lived in and with science fiction.