If science fiction and fantasy have always had a shortcoming, it's in how they have always felt more dreamed up than observed. I know, more anti-fabulist heresy: surely the point of a literature of the imagination is to imagine things that don't exist?
I wrote the above sentence about a week ago and immediately threw it into the back of my blog folder. (One of the disadvantages of using a computer is how little visceral satisfaction there is in much of what you do. For neither the first nor the last time I missed having a desk drawer that I could slam.)
The last thing I want is to be accused of being "anti-imagination" or something along those lines. But at the same time, I sense there is this constant confusion about what imagination is or what it's for.
Most of us tend to think of imagination as creativity — making stuff up, like whole civilizations that didn't exist. Or for that matter, stories that never actually happened.
But the products of imagination aren't pulled out of thin air. Whenever you "create" anything, you're drawing on resources you keep within yourself — your memory, your experiences, your prejudices, your insights, everything that fuels you even when (and especially when) you're not thinking about it. Nobody just pulls things out of their ass; it all comes from somewhere. (Even your ass is connected to something else ... but I'll stop following that metaphor before people spit their coffee at the screen.)
The other half of imagination is where you've been, and knowing how to make use of that. A good writer is not just good with words, but good with looking, listening, and experiencing, and also good at making words serve as receptacles for what he's seen and known. The very best creators make it seem as though they are not in the way at all — that we are simply there, receiving experience directly somehow.
With SF it's harder to tell whether or not someone is working from received experience, because of the very nature of so much of what goes on the page. If I write a conversation with a mermaid, it's not going to be credible because I've had that many conversations with mermaids ... although I sure as hell wish I had; a meeting with even a boring mermaid would be a step up from most days.
What makes it credible is how well it connects to any of the vaguely analogous experiences we have had — for instance, speaking with someone who exists on the other side of a divide in life. Or speaking with someone whose daily survival depends on things that we can't even begin to fathom. And so on. Drawing on those things — and paying attention to them in the first place — requires effort, the kind of effort I know I find myself falling down on and promising to do better with.
I would love to read more SF and fantasy that felt at least as well-observed, as considerate of human behavior, and as — for lack of any better word — real as stuff like (to pull a few titles off the current reading list) Robert Musil's Young Törless, or Ousmane Sembene's God's Bits of Wood, or anything at all that made us nod and smile in recognition.