Pan, 1996 (1997 reprint), 632 pages, C$12.00 mmpb, ISBN 0-330-34837-X
Even though not yet at the year 2000, a science-fictional year if there was one, several commentators have already started mourning science-fiction as a literary genre.
Their reasons are varied. Robert J. Sawyer, Spider Robinson and Norman Spinrad are all on record as saying that commercial pressures are garroting the SF publishing houses, who then become forced to fall back on base-level sci-fi to survive and ignore the groundbreaking material. Robert Silverberg is also on record as saying that media-SF is killing “true science-fiction”. Thomas M. Disch has even written a Hugo-winning book, The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of about how SF risks disappearing in a world increasingly SF-like because brought in existence by people who read SF.
This last reason might be the most valid of all. The last few years have really driven home -in a literal sense- the fact that technological progress Changes Things. The Internet has gone, in five years, from academic curiosity to mass-market phenomenon, along with all the social changes (email etiquette, IRC addiction, porn distribution, bombmaking instruction acquisition, MP3 piracy, etc…) it entails. Science changes human nature is the motto of SF. Well, duh! answers the Millennial Society, already weaned from birth in a SFictional brew.
So, society Knows SF in a holistic sense. Then, one might ask, why do we need SF if we’re already familiar with its teachings? If SF is getting mainstream, then the mainstream is getting more SF.
The last decade has seen the strengthening of a publishing category once before associated with the names of Clancy and Crichton: The Techno-thriller. Though possessing most of the ingredients of the Thriller (an ordinary man; a beautiful heroine; dangerous enemies; a breathless chase against time to save the world!) these novels are based upon scientific facts often more solid and more developed than your average SF novel. The military techno-thriller, in particular, is often more didactic than hard-SF, commonly pausing for a few pages in order to describe the finest operating details of a weapon system.
Ken Follett’s The Third Twin is a great case in point. It cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a Science-Fiction novel. It simply adheres too well to the “thriller” category to fit anywhere else. And yet, its central premise is a seventies experiment in cloning which produced at least three identical individuals.
As a thriller, it’s very well-done. The writing is fast-paced and easily graspable by even the most distraught of airplanes passengers. The protagonists are suitably sympathetic, adequately developed and worth cheering for. The often-preposterous plot goes for maximum dramatic impact, often at the expense of credibility. The legal and medical details are obviously distilled from careful research, but in a way to avoid overwhelming the layreader. The Third Twin is a whole lot of mostly clean fun, and can be read in a flash despite the thickness of the pages.
As SF, there not much substance to the text; assume that clones exists, and here’s a pulse-pounding adventure to go with it. As with most thrillers, consequences and implications of the scientific breakthrough are eschewed in favor of the narrative flow. The Third Twin is fun, but it’s kind of an escape-the-bus-commute fun, not the mind-expanding wondrous fun usually associated with Science-Fiction.
And therein lies part of the answer SF must learn in order to survive in a world it has created. No one will be offended, or even mildly disturbed by The Third Twin. No one will look up to the stars after reading this book and say “this is where I want to go.” No one will start picking on the various plot holes. Because it’s a thriller and only aims to thrill, and even if it does so competently, it stops there.
But SF has to be more than that.