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EVEN TODAY, people still occasionally ask, “Why do you read science fiction?” This is not always an easy question to answer in an increasingly time-clocked, think-tanked, buttoned-down world. After all, SF won’t help you balance your budget, lose weight, attain nirvana, play the stock market, find a Perfect Mate, or get an exciting, high-paying job as a computer programmer.

So why read the stuff?

Let’s attack that hairy old animal from the flank, obliquely, and see if we can pull it down.

I grew up in New England, an odd corner of the country where cultural dinosaurs linger on long after they’ve died everywhere else, and as a result my childhood is filled with memories that a person of my generation shouldn’t have: working steam trains in operation along the North Shore, scissor-grinder men on bicycle carts, stealing slivers of ice from trucks in the summer, televisionless houses, automobiles that did not fall apart immediately after purchase.

It’s possible that I may also be one of the last people to have undergone the scorn and opprobrium traditionally heaped on people who read science fiction. That doesn’t happen much today, especially not among young people. An SF writer going onto a college campus today is greeted as a celebrity, or at least as a curiosity. He or she is invited into the faculty lounge for bad coffee and surrounded by kids who are actually encouraged by their teachers to read SF, and they ask him some pretty intelligent questions. The same thing applies when an SF writer visits a high school, except that the kids are even more avid and the questions even more intelligent. But when I was a boy, admitting that you read SF was tantamount to admitting that you had lice or ringworm. It took real devotion to keep reading the stuff in the face of constant adverse pressure from parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, from the whole community, in fact. But I did. I ate it up in ton lots with no discrimination whatsoever. And when I started trying to write, SF stories were what I scribbled in my dime-store notebook at night, sometimes writing with a flashlight under the covers, ducking everything and pretending to be asleep when I heard my parents coming. They did not approve of me wasting my time writing, and they especially did not approve of my reading SF, that “mind-rotting junk.” But I kept reading SF. The ban slowed my consumption of it not at all, even if I had to smuggle it into the house and hide it the way kids hide grass today. And it made me high in an oddly similar way.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, H. Rider Haggard, Doc Smith, H.G. Wells! Boy, did I love it! The wind that whistled across the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom blew also through my bedroom, although the roses on the wallpaper did not stir as it passed. The molten sunlight of enchanted Africa shone upon my room throughout the New England winter; Tharks and dinosaurs came to call; Lemuria rose again in the aspect of our weed-overgrown backyard. I flew the Skylark. I was the Invisible Man. And the key and the conduit for all this magic were the lurid paperbacks that were sold to me like contraband by disdainful drugstore proprietors.

It was the magic that drew me first, the lure of fantastic places and heroic deeds, the dark thrill of Mystery and Distance. Eventually I learned that the best SF was also full of ideas, concepts, codifications, insights into the workings of the world, and that, far from being dry or boring, it was even more exciting, more magical, more full of the “sense of wonder.” I came eventually to agree with Vonnegut’s Mr. Rosewater that SF writers were almost the only ones who “really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us . . . the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distances without limit.”

And yet, for all of that, SF has kept its magic. The best SF is seldom stuffy or pretentious or arrogant in that particularly purblind way that excludes automatically the validity of ideas and viewpoints other than your own. SF is one of the few remaining forms of literature—perhaps the only remaining form—that is entertaining in the full sense of the word, producing both intellectual and emotional excitement, molding magic and rationality, producing healthy hybrids of “escapist entertainment” and “relevancy” that satisfy both the emotions and the mind. The most profound and mind-stretching of stories are apt to be full of excitement, mystery, action, humor. The most lighthearted of romps or the most fast-paced adventure tale is still likely to contain something to make you think, to wonder, to reconsider your values and ideas, to make you suddenly sit bolt upright, covered in cold sweat.

This anthology demonstrates the full range of modern SF, its strength, its eclecticism, its vitality, its ability to conjure up new worlds and new lives, and, more importantly, to make us live in those worlds and through those lives as naturally as if they were our own, without losing any of the wonder, joy, terror, or beauty of the experience. Here is life on another world, in another place, another time. Here is what it is like to wear an alien skin. Here are new concepts, new vistas, magic: a far future society conjures up all the gods and devils and heroes of the distant past with disastrous results; a young semaphore Signalman faces elves, isolation, and a lonely winter death in a twentieth-century England that never was; a self-styled coward, inadvertently caught up in a universe-wide time war, must match wills with a monster in nighttime Chicago; a persecuted astronomer looks into his soul to find wonders as vast as the stars; a barbarian adventuress has a deadly battle of wits with a seemingly omnipotent time-traveler; an intelligent sloth and a mutated baluchitherium roam a haunted future Earth from which humans have forever departed; a boy keeps a lifelong secret that he hopes will take him to the stars; in an alternate Dark-Age Europe, sword-wielding mercenaries travel the countryside in hot-air balloons seeking war and employment; an alien bellhop must deal with his most deadly customer; children from the stars assume human form and play at war and statesmanship with real nations for pawns; an interplanetary wanderer, with his own life at stake, must decide the fate of an immortal horse on a world where precious gems are more common than dirt.

SF is alive—still growing, still changing, still vital. That’s the answer to the question, “Why read science fiction?” It’s alive in a world of dead art, dead minds, dead institutions; it’s a bright-eyed, irreverent little animal scurrying through a petrified landscape of old dead trees; it’s unashamedly potent and prolific in a world that grows increasingly weary and sterile; it dares to raise its voice in boisterous joy, sorrow, and anger in a place full of sour silence and dead echoes.

Gardner Dozois

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