Strangers In A Strange Land

EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO, MY HEART TRIED TO KILL ME. Before I could die, doctors cracked my chest open and performed a quadruple bypass. But for an instant I came close to the end, and I know that in the Rancho Santa Fe cultists' last moments, as they were descending into their death sleep, they were thinking, "Please help me; I'm going into the darkness, and I need to know."

We all want to know. Traditionally, we have sought answers in philosophy, religion or mysticism, even in the concepts that you find in fantastic literature. These images have the magical capacity to inspire dreams, to enrich reality. At best, the literary genre called science fiction tells us we must be responsible for one another and for the common good. That's the work of writers like J. G. Ballard or Thomas Disch.

At worst, it's merely "Sci-Fi," which holds that the world is full of monsters and conspiracies and that logic is beyond us. That's what leads people to kill themselves to get on board a mythical flying saucer. Twisted and corrupted, it can turn life into a nightmare from which one escapes by eating applesauce and phenobarbital, or downing a slug of grape Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

"Sci-Fi" is what the Rancho Santa Fe sleepers bought. It's a simplistic, pulp-fiction view of the world exemplified by the movie "Independence Day," which warps our curiosity about the possibility of other life in the universe into an apocalyptic Saturday-morning cartoon. For the cultists, like so many Americans, standard religions and belief systems no longer cut it. We live in a time when science and technology have out-raced our capacity to understand them--cloning, computers and genetic engineering complicate lives that are increasingly given to loneliness. If the answer isn't here. . .maybe it's out there, in the infinite darkness. Most people who watch "The X-Files" or "Star Trek" or saw the rerelease of "Star Wars" are simply looking for escapism. But in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, it went dramatically farther. They turned away from the wonders of the real world and embraced recastings of Jesus as a deep-space navigator.

It wasn't always this way. Fantasy, after all, is the oldest form of literature there is. "Sci-Fi," though, is a product of the last two or three decades. The intent was good: the 1960s and 1970s were a time of chaos, and "Sci-Fi" may have addressed the fears those social changes inspired. People don't understand the wonders of real science--they don't know what a gravity well is or what RNA does. And they don't want to know, because they have spaceships, flying saucers and aliens. It's a popular fad, like the dancing sickness of the Middle Ages. Most of us go to see "Independence Day" and then come out into the light and have a pizza. We go on with our lives.

But there are some who go to see "Independence Day" and believe it. People believe that which is presented to them in the most palatable form, and that's partly what this "Sci-Fi" nonsense is. People go for it. They immerse themselves in subcultures--from Trekkie conventions to the far gossiping corners of the Internet. At the most extreme, they might join a cult, find a charismatic nut-case and go into a closed society, a rigid family in which a peculiar mythology is set forth as the norm.

As the millennium approaches, this will only get worse. More and more people may fall for a tabloid mentality of UFO abductions, triangular-headed aliens and reinterpreted Biblical apocrypha. This kind of thinking provides an emotional venue where people can believe crazy things--and even do themselves serious harm.

I don't write that stuff at all. I may use these elements as furniture, but science fiction is less concerned with fairy tales like flying saucers and more concerned with eternal questions. What is the place of human beings in the universe? How do we fulfill our potential in a way that benefits us and our children? How do we use these advances in ways that benefit humanity as a whole? Technology is not the important thing: the effect of technology on human beings is. But where science fiction asks the important questions, "Sci-Fi" answers them, and does it poorly. It preys on the desire for wish fulfillment and the gullibility of people longing for an explanation of what their lives will mean in the 21st century. Yes, it's understandable--we all want answers--but that's an explanation, and not an excuse. The Promised Land does not lie in the tail of a comet.

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