DUSK IN THE ROBOT MUSEUMS: THE REBIRTH OF IMAGINATION
For some ten years now, I have been writing a long narrative poem about a small boy in the near future who runs into an audio-animatronic museum, veers away from the right portico marked Rome, passes a door marked Alexandria, and enters across a sill where a sign lettered Greece points in across a meadow.
The boy runs over the artificial grass and comes upon Plato, Socrates and perhaps Euripides seated at high noon under an olive tree sipping wine and eating bread and honey and speaking truths.
The boy hesitates and then addresses Plato:
"How goes it with the Republic?"
"Sit down, boy," says Plato, "and I'll tell you."
The boy sits. Plato tells. Socrates steps in from time to time. Euripides does a scene from one of his plays.
Along the way, the boy might well ask a question which hovered in all of our minds the past few decades:
"How come the United States, the country of Ideas on the March, for so long neglected fantasy and science fiction? Why is it that only during the past thirty years attention is being paid?"
Another question from the boy might well be:
"Who is responsible for the change?
"Who has taught the teachers and the librarians to pull up their socks, sit straight, and take notice?
"Simultaneously, which group in our country has backed off from abstraction and moved art back in the direction of pure illustration?"
Since I am neither dead nor a robot, and Plato-as-audioanimatronic lecturer might not be programmed to respond, let me answer as best I can.
The answer is: the students. The young people. The children.
They have led the revolution in reading and painting.
For the first time in the history of art and teaching, the children have become the teachers. Before our time, knowledge came down from the top of the pyramid to the broad base where the students survived as best they could. The gods spoke and the children listened.
But, lo! gravity reverses itself. The massive pyramid turns like a melting iceberg, until the boys and girls are on top. The base of the pyramid now teaches.
How did it happen? After all, back in the twenties and thirties, there were no science-fiction books in the curricula of schools anywhere. There were few in the libraries. Only once or twice a year did a responsible publisher dare to publish one or two books which could be designated as speculative fiction.
If you went into the average library as you motored across America in 1932, 1945, or 1953 you would have found:
No Edgar Rice Burroughs.
No L. Frank Baum and no Oz.
In 1958 or 1962 you would have found no Asimov, no Heinlein, no Van Vogt, and, er, no Bradbury.
Here and there, perhaps one book or two by the above. For the rest: a desert.
What were the reasons for this?
Among librarians and teachers there was then, and there still somewhat dimly persists, an idea, a notion, a concept that only Fact should be eaten with your Wheaties. Fantasy? That's for the Fire Birds. Fantasy, even when it takes science-fictional forms, which it often does, is dangerous. It is escapist. It is daydreaming. It has nothing to do with the world and the world's problems.
So said the snobs who did not know themselves as snobs.
So the shelves lay empty, the books untouched in publishers' bins, the subject untaught.
Comes the Evolution. The survival of that species called Child. The children, dying of starvation, hungry for ideas which lay all about in this fabulous land, locked into machines and architecture, struck out on their own. What did they do?
They walked into classrooms in Waukesha and Peoria and Neepawa and Cheyenne and Moose Jaw and Redwood City and placed a gentle bomb on teacher's desk. Instead of an apple it was Asimov.
"What's that?" the teacher asked, suspiciously.
"Try it. It's good for you," said the students.
"Try it," said the students. "Read the first page. If you don't like it, stop." And the clever students turned and went away.
The teachers (and the librarians, later) put off reading, kept the book around the house for a few weeks and then, late one night, tried the first paragraph.
And the bomb exploded.
They not only read the first but the second paragraph, the second and third pages, the fourth and fifth chapters.
"My God!" they cried, almost in unison, "these damned books are about something!"
"Good Lord!" they cried, reading a second book, "there are Ideas here!"
"Holy Smoke!" they babbled, on their way through Clarke, heading into Heinlein, emerging from Sturgeon, "these books are-ugly word-relevant!"
"Yes!" shouted the chorus of kids starving in the yard. "Oh, my, yes!"
And the teachers began to teach, and discovered an amazing thing:
Students who had never wanted to read before suddenly were galvanized, pulled up their socks, and began to read and quote Ursula Le Guin. Kids who had never read so much as one pirate's obituary in their lives were suddenly turning pages with their tongues, ravening for more.
Librarians were stunned to find that science-fiction books were not only being borrowed in the tens of thousands, but stolen and never returned!
"Where have we been?" the librarians and the teachers asked each other, as the Prince kissed them awake. "What's in these books that makes them as irresistible as Cracker Jack?"
The History of Ideas.
The children wouldn't have said it in so many words. They only sensed it and read it and loved it. The kids sensed, if they could not speak it, that the first science-fiction writers were cavemen who were trying to figure out the first sciences-which were what? How to capture fire. What to do about that lout of a mammoth hanging around outside the cave. How to play dentist to the sabre-tooth tiger and turn him into a house-cat.
Pondering those problems and possible sciences, the first cavemen and women drew science-fiction dreams on the cave walls. Scribbles in soot blueprinting possible strategies. Illustrations of mammoths, tigers, fires: how to solve? How to turn sciencefiction (problem solving) into science-fact (problem solved).
Some few brave ones ran out of the cave to be stomped by the mammoth, toothed by the tiger, scorched by the bestial fire that lived on trees and devoured wood. Some few finally returned to draw on the walls the triumph of the mammoth knocked like a hairy cathedral to earth, the tiger toothless, and the fire tamed and brought within the cave to light their nightmares and warm their souls.
The children sensed, if they could not speak, that the entire history of mankind is problem solving, or science fiction swallowing ideas, digesting them, and excreting formulas for survival. You can't have one without the other. No fantasy, no reality. No studies concerning loss, no gain. No imagination, no will. No impossible dreams: No possible solutions.
The children sensed, if they could not say, that fantasy, and its robot child science fiction, is not escape at all. But a circling round of reality to enchant it and make it behave. What is an airplane, after all, but a circling of reality, an approach to gravity which says: Look, with my magic machine, I defy you. Gravity be gone. Distance, stand aside. Time, stand still, or reverse, as I finally outrace the sun around the world in, by God! look! plane/ jet/rocket-80 minutes!
The children guessed, if they did not whisper it, that all science fiction is an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.
In another place I have described this literary process as Perseus confronted by Medusa. Gazing at Medusa's image in his bronze shield, pretending to look one way, Perseus reaches back over his shoulder and severs Medusa's head. So science fiction pretends at futures in order to cure sick dogs lying in today's road. Indirection is everything. Metaphor is the medicine.
Children love cataphracts, though do not name them thusly. A cataphract is only a special Persian on a specially bred horse, the combination of which threw back the Roman legions some long while ago. Problem solving. Problem: massive Roman armies on foot. Science fiction dreams: cataphract/man-on-horseback. Romans dispersed. Problem solved. Science fiction becomes scientific fact.
Problem: botulism. Science fiction dreams: to someday produce a container which would preserve food, prevent death. Science-fictional dreamers: Napoleon and his technicians. Dream become fact: the invention of the Tin Can. Outcome: millions alive today who would have otherwise writhed and died.
So, it seems, we are all science-fictional children dreaming ourselves into new ways of survival. We are the reliquaries of all time. Instead of putting saints' bones by in crystal and gold jars, to be touched by the faithful in the following centuries, we put by voices and faces, dreams and impossible dreams on tape, on records, in books, on tv, in films. Man the problem solver is that only because he is the Idea Keeper. Only by finding technological ways to save time, keep time, learn from time, and grow into solutions, have we survived into and through this age toward even better ones. Are we polluted? We can unpollute ourselves. Are we crowded? We can de-mob ourselves. Are we alone? Are we sick? The hospitals of the world are better places since TV came to visit, hold hands, take away half the curse of illness and isolation.
Do we want the stars? We can have them. Can we borrow cups of fire from the sun? We can and must and light the world.
Everywhere we look: problems. Everywhere we further deeply look: solutions. The children of men, the children of time, how can they not be fascinated with these challenges? Thus: science fiction and its recent history.
On top of which, as mentioned earlier on, the young people have tossed bombs into your nearest corner art gallery, your downtown art museum.
They have walked through the halls and dozed off at the modern scene as represented by sixty-odd years of abstraction super-abstracting itself until it vanished up its own backside. Empty canvases. Empty minds. No concepts. Sometimes no color. No ideas that would interest a performing flea at a dog circus.
"Enough!" cried the children. "Let there be fantasy. Let there be science-fiction light." Let illustration be reborn.
Let the Pre-Raphaelites re-clone themselves and proliferate!
And it was so.
And because the children of the Space Age, and the sons and daughters of Tolkien wanted their fictional dreams sketched and painted in illustrative terms, the ancient art of story-telling, as acted out by your caveman or your Fra Angelico or your Dante Gabriel Rossetti was reinvented as yet the second giant pyramid turned end for end, and education ran from the base into the apex, and the old order was reversed.
Hence your Double Revolution in reading, in teaching Literature and pictorial Art.
Hence, by osmosis, the Industrial Revolution and the Electronic and Space Ages have finally seeped into the blood, bone, marrow, heart, flesh and mind of the young, who as teachers teach us what we should have known all along.
That Truth again: the History of Ideas, which is all that science fiction ever has been. Ideas birthing themselves into fact, dying, only to reinvent new dreams and ideas to be reborn in yet more fascinating shapes and forms, some of them permanent, all of them promising Survival.
I hope we will not get too serious here, for seriousness is the Red Death if we let it move too freely amongst us. Its freedom is our prison and our defeat and death. A good idea should worry us like a dog. We should not, in turn, worry it into the grave, smother it with intellect, pontificate it into snoozing, kill it with the death of a thousand analytical slices.
Let us remain childlike and not childish in our 20-20 vision, borrowing such telescopes, rockets, or magic carpets as may be needed to hurry us along to miracles of physics as well as dream.
The Double Revolution continues. And there are more, invisible, revolutions to come. There will always be problems. Thank God for that. And solutions. Thank God for that. And tomorrow mornings in which to seek them. Praise Allah and fill the libraries and art galleries of the world with Martians, elves, goblins, astronauts, and librarians and teachers on Alpha Centauri who are busy telling the kids not to read science fiction or fantasy: "It'll turn your brains to mush!"
"Go, children. Run and read. Read and run. Show and tell. Spin another pyramid on its nose. Turn another world upsidedown. Knock the soot off my brain. Repaint the Sistine Chapel inside my skull. Laugh and think. Dream and learn and build."
"Run, boys! Run, girls! Run!"
And with such good advice, the kids will run.
And the Republic will be saved.