By Gary K. Wolfe
After the initial phone call telling me to turn on the TV, after the hours of trying to get in touch with friends in New York (my stepson, Rob, taught his acting class in the World Trade Center on Wednesdays, but was vacationing in Pennsylvania that day), after the days of being glued like everyone else to the tube, I finally made myself get back to the business of reading SF, and inevitably began to wonder if what we do in this field can possibly retain any power in a world so suddenly and violently displaced from what we had thought it was only a week earlier. I tried to think of how SF might have prepared us, in even the vaguest ways, for what we saw, and for what we are likely to see. I thought of John Barnes's Kaleidoscope Century, criticized by some when it came out in 1995 for its dark view of a terrorist-run world, of apocalyptic post-US novels like Ballard's Hello, America, of the efforts by Bruce Sterling, Ian McDonald, Geoff Ryman, and others to bring the desperation and fanaticism of the Third World into the SF dialogue, even of closer-to-home political thrillers like Edward Zwick's 1998 movie The Siege, which was clearly inspired by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which made Islamic fundamentalists the main villains, and which raised bluntly the issue of how many civil liberties we are willing to sacrifice in the name of security. And then of course there are those endless nuclear scenarios of the ruins of New York. Probably we'll be seeing Sunday-supplement features on books and movies like this in the coming weeks, but none of it will quite ring true.
There is no entry for ''terrorism'' in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but there is one for ''terraforming.'' This is not the fault of the editors, who were only reflecting what the major themes in SF have been over the past century. It's just the way SF thinks, and what it likes to think about. For all its recent diversification, the field remains boyishly hopeful about the fixability of the future, and that may be a hard sell in the coming months and years.
What I finally settled on, after thinking of the awful familiarity of some of these images (one friend said, in stunned amazement, ''the special-effects guys had it right after all''), was not the political consciousness of SF, but its tackiest movie momentsthe flying saucers crashing into the Capitol in 1956's Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the cascading high-rises in Independence Day or Armageddon. A giant jetliner slicing into a massive urban towerisn't that the stuff of a 1934 Frank R. Paul cover for Amazing Stories? The problem is, the narratives never matched these images: they were fever dreams, nightmares, kid-games of ''what if?'' And the main problem is, as we all had to keep telling ourselves, this was real. Those falling bodies were real.
So the planning that went into the horrors of that weekplanning which is undoubtedly still going onmay have been the work of a diseased imagination, but it's an imagination which has not gone untouched by the imagery of SF. This doesn't mean that SF or its writers or its derivative filmmakers are in any way culpable, but it may mean that the vocabulary of SF has changed irrevocably. Catastrophe is no longer an off-the-shelf narrative commodity. The historical processes that we may have assumed were defining the 21st century may still be in place, but there are other historical processes at work, too, and ones that we can no longer ignore. The future isn't what it used to be, and now it's coming at us from a part of the world that we know more from Kipling than from SF. A big chunk of SF doesn't belong to SF anymore, I thought. What are we supposed to do now?
Gary K. Wolfe