Science Fiction/ Fantasy- the coat everyone wears these days.

I am not sure where I was when I saw it, in the cinema or on the television, the shattering climax to the 1968 movie ‘The Planet of the Apes’. The American astronaut George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) rides along a beach and comes across the Statue of Liberty smashed in the surf. From wondering whether he is on a different planet where monkeys rule he realises he is on a version of Earth and his final line of dialogue is something like “they blew it up”. In this age of CGI it looks like a fairly tame image but its effect on me was shattering. The breadth of narrative vision and speculative power that I had found in my juvenile reading of science fiction and fantasy had made onto the big screen.

I was 15 when that movie came out and by then I was already a seasoned reader of science fiction. I had read my way through the giants; Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Philip Jose Farmer, and the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock and all the lesser known masters like Cordwainer Smith, Samuel R. Delany and Kurt Vonnegut and I enjoyed them all. I was also enchanted by the extraordinary visions of Ray Bradbury, particularly his book ‘The Silver Locusts’ also known as ‘The Martian Chronicles’- in fact Bradbury remains one of my favourite writers. As does Ursula le Guin who I came to through her ‘Hainish’ novels like ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ and ‘The Dispossessed’- in fact ‘Darkness’ remains one of the best explorations of sexuality in any genre- and a recent collection of her early work called ‘Worlds of Exile and Illusion’ is well worth reading. Science fiction and fantasy was, and remains, a real passion and I have continued to read it through the years, not only does it contain multitudes as a literary genre but it has also exerted an extraordinary grip on contemporary culture.

 This influence is not just in media that looks like science fiction, for example there is that television institution ‘Doctor Who’, and ‘Star Trek’ in its many incarnations (the original of which was described by its creator Gene Roddenberry as ‘Wagon Train’ in space’). There are also programmes like ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Twin Peaks’, both of which have recently been rebooted. But I find that this trend is also reflected in many modern writers; Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell have written excellent novels which explore the tropes of SF, Kazuo Ishiguro has written a fantasy novel called ‘The Buried Giant’ and Jasper Fforde’s ‘Bookworld’ novels playfully explore SF themes. This phenomenon leads to an inevitable question ‘what is science fiction?’- in this age of increasing cross fertilization in popular media it is clearly not just space opera, or military SF or what used to be called ‘sword and sorcery’ it is all of these things and more. Purists may wonder whether ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ or even that ‘holy grail’ of current television the HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s novel cycle ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ are ‘true’ SF/ fantasy or are merely clever stories that use SF/ fantasy themes in their execution, but they surely cannot deny that such popular entertainment has brought speculative fiction and fantasy into the mainstream. My own opinion is that science fiction (or as I prefer to call it ‘speculative fiction’) and fantasy should be read and your own imagination should provide the pictures. I am sure I remember the late Terry Pratchett suggesting that “the best ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie is the one playing in my head”.

 So what is science fiction/ fantasy? Perhaps can be anything that simulates and entertains, anything that reminds you that as J.G. Ballard once suggested “the only truly alien planet is Earth” but may take you to other planets to remind you of that. In my opinion it should be disturbing and should make the reader think, and good SF movies should do likewise- think of what the director Stanley Kubrick described as “the proverbial really good science fiction movie” ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ (made before CGI!) or the first (and best) of the ‘Matrix’ movies- or think of the original ‘Blade Runner’, or the original ‘Alien’ movie. For me these films convey the strangeness and alien-ness of good SF, they are also disturbing in that they make the viewer question their humanity and what the future may hold for that humanity. It was precisely those qualities that I found, and continue to find, in my reading of science fiction and fantasy in all its forms.

 Maybe I should let a thousand flowers bloom and content myself with the fact that as speculative fiction and fantasy contain such profitable themes it will continue to be used by film makers and novelists in search of fertile ground for their imaginations. And that that process will in turn renew the genre. The classics remain classics and I take comfort from the fact that somewhere in the world someone is discovering ‘The Martian Chronicles’ or ‘Fahrenheit 451’, ‘Dune’ or Michael Moorcock’s ‘Eternal Champion’ cycle for the first time, and if you feel that SF has lost its bite you could do no worse than try Becky Chambers’ excellent books ‘A Long Journey to a Small Angry Planet’ and ‘A Closed and Common Orbit’ or any of Ann Leckie’s ‘Imperial Radch’ series, or Neil Gaiman’s many stories, or Michael Moorcock, or Stephen Baxter or…………….I haven’t even mentioned the late great Iain M. Banks and his ‘Culture’ novels , oh dear, this list, like the universes it describes, is without end!

Bruce Cockburn- songs for troubled pilgrims.

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Bruce Cockburn- songs for troubled pilgrims.

Although popular music has always had that knack of identifying with those who hear it, it can still be a rare thing to find a singer or musician whose music strikes a direct resonance with your life and times. In the early 1970’s I was working out the consequences of a religious experience that had taken me from my childhood Catholicism into Methodism (don’t ask!!). I was also an avid listener to all sorts of music- the record player we used in the church youth club rang with everything from Grand Funk Railroad to Bob Dylan and what came to called ‘Christian rock’ was in its infancy. Far from feeling that ‘the devil had all the best tunes’ some musicians were writing and singing spiritual songs in a contemporary style- the fact that Dylan had been doing it for years did not seem to matter, although some of these singers were following in his abstract footsteps. It was the American singer Larry Norman who started this for me; here was a rock singer/ songwriter who articulated the journey of faith in a way that wasn’t an embarrassment and which spoke to my fledgling faith in a powerful way. Cliff Richard was too show business, and Dylan sometimes too wilfully obscure (my journey back to his ‘wild mercury sound’ needs another post!!) but Larry Norman was the business. He possessed a voice that moved from a fragile, almost childlike falsetto to a bluesy roar. His album ‘Upon this Rock’ was feted as the beginning of Christian rock. I remember best songs like ‘The Outlaw’ from his 1972 album ‘Only Visiting This Planet’ (which still sends shivers up my spine!), or ‘Why Don’t You Look into Jesus’ from the same record, or ‘Nightmare #71’ from 1973’s ‘So Long Ago The Garden’ where an avalanche of startlingly apocalyptic images collides with a bluesy rock backing. It is still exhilarating stuff! Fast forward a few years to the late Seventies and early Eighties and I am discovering that faith is not the easy thing that some suggest and that far from Jesus having all the answers, following Jesus was producing more questions than answers. Larry Norman seemed to have disappeared, his gift seemingly diminished by illness and personal problems. Continue reading