Yesterday I visited the Seattle Center, primarily to go up to the observation deck of the Space Needle. That visit was part of my on-going location research for my work-in-progress novel Seattle in Shorts. I had been postponing this journey to the top, because the weather has been quite cloudy and that limits what can be seen from the observation deck. In the end, the weather was cloudy and hazy and I could not see very far across Puget Sound (or, if you prefer, the Salish Sea). The best value ticket is the Seattle City Pass and having bought one, I was entitled to a daylight and a night-time trips to the top of the Space Needle. In between those two visits, I went into the neighbouring Experience Music Project, a museum founded by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. The music to be experienced there focuses on two of Seattle's most famous talents, Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana. However, the highlight of the museum for me was on its pop culture side, in its Icons of Science Fiction exhibition.
Near the exhibition entrance is a wall with a telling statement that science fiction asks big questions. The exhibition treats those big questions as including "What if I had super powers" or "What if aliens invaded the Earth," but it took me back to my first experience of reading science fiction. This was when I was maybe 8 years old and would regularly walk the one mile journey from my home to the public library and was often reading a book each day. I vaguely recall being told by the librarian that the book that I was borrowing was really aimed at older children, but that did not worry me. I do not know what the book was called, all that I can remember it that it involved the crew of a space ship landing on a planet, and among their mostly human number was a blue skinned being, who was the ethical conscience of the group. That book introduced me to a different aspect of science fiction asking big questions; those of the life, universe, and everything variety.
A year or so after reading that book my science fiction interest took a different direction as the first Star Wars movie came out and I thought of science fiction as big battles and could not understand why there was no battle in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My science fiction interests later returned to that initial notion of big questions, involving philosophical reflection, rather than how big is your battleship. Reflected in my favourite movie across all genres being Artificial Intelligence and my favourite science fiction novel Allen Steele's Chronospace. As I wandered around the Icons of Science Fiction exhibition, I reflected that I had always been impressed than even in pulp science fiction there was often an effort to engage with the big questions. Philosophical endeavours are not the exclusive domain of literary fiction a case of Sci-Fi performing the function of Sci-Phi. Science fiction lends itself to this philosophical endeavour as the genre regularly involves plots that brings the reader up against the ethical limits of technology or the cross-cultural interaction between different species. My own reading is more likely to be in the realm of literary fiction nowadays, but I retain a soft spot for science fiction than centres more on big ideas than big battles.
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