I wrote this a number of years ago for publication in a long-forgotten online magazine that is now defunct. Since I have been talking scifaiku on Twitter with some people lately, I thought I’d republish. Enjoy!
(picture: Winston Science Fiction Endpaper by Alex Schomburg.)
The Role of Science Fiction in Poetry
A justification for scifaiku
Recently, while trying to define and explain “scifaiku” to someone, I was told that he “did not like the sci-fi stuff [and] did not see its purpose in poetry.”
Granted, science fiction poetry is not sweeping the world by storm, but neither is it non-existent. There are thriving Internet message boards, online publications, and print publications that cater to the sci-fi poet. I was, momentarily, at a loss to justify one of the more recent types of sci-fi poetry; the “scifaiku.”
Scifaiku is a style of poetry that stems from the traditional Japanese haiku. Like a haiku, they are short, minimalist poems that deal with tangible sense experiences. Unlike haiku, science fiction topics are integral to their construction. Whereas haiku has been described as dealing with the “natural world,” scifaiku deals with the limits of imagination.
I realized, after a moment’s thought that I was not being asked to justify scifaiku or science fiction poetry in general, but science fiction itself. In order to understand the relevance and appropriateness of science fiction poetry, I had to justify the entire genre of science fiction.
Science fiction plays a very important part in our literature, our culture, and in our lives. It has been around for centuries. “Utopia” by Thomas Moore was written in 1516 A.D. Sir Francis Bacon penned “New Atlantis” in 1628 A.D. One of the first “hard” science fiction stories that combined real science with reasonable speculation was Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” written in 1817 A.D.
Science fiction is, simply, a mirror of the time and place in which it was created. Allow me to explain; sci-fi written in the 1800’s reads completely different than sci-fi of today. Even sci-fi written forty years ago is vastly different than the sci-fi of today. It is different because the society in which it was created is very different than the society of today.
As a result, sci-fi is a reflection of society. One of the most exalted purposes sci-fi serves is to take situations, fears, attitudes, and concepts of the current day and place them in a fantastic setting. In that fantastic setting those problems and concepts become exaggerated, often shamelessly, and easier to recognize. Science fiction allows us to examine key driving forces of our times.
I’ll use a classic media example: Star Trek. The original series, from the 1960’s was a reflection of American society at that time. There was the Federation and the Klingon Empire. They were empires at odds with each other, each with the capability and means to destroy each other. The series celebrated cowboy diplomacy and brute force as a means to win the day. The Federation was Good and the Klingons were Evil. Exploration of the new and unknown was the goal of the starship Enterprise.
It was not at all unlike the society of the 1960’s. America and Russia were entering the Cold War. America was Good and Russia was Evil (if you were American). America was in an unprecedented space race with the Russians. The moon was a national goal; we would reach it in the next decade. We would explore the new and unknown.
Fast forward to the late 1980’s. Star Trek The Next Generation comes out and it is a reflection of American society at that time. The Klingon Empire had fallen and joined the Federation. A new enemy, the Romulans, lurked menacingly behind the Neutral Zone. The new captain of the Enterprise was older and more thoughtful than his predecessor. His mission was not to explore, but to work within the Federation to keep the peace. Diplomacy was always the preferred solution and force was rarely used as a solution.
Similarly, in the late 1980’s, Russia crumbled and the Cold War ended. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and, for the first time in decades, families and friends were reunited. China began emerging as a serious power. The moon had been visited – been there, done that. Our exploring days were on hold and domestic concerns were becoming more pressing and more often in the minds of average Americans. America was involved politically with nearly every country on Earth and there were no great wars of the day.
Star Trek was, and still is, a mirror of the society and times in which it was spawned. It’s easy to see with Star Trek just how much a society changes in 20 years; how much our society has changed. Science fiction has to have relevance to the time in which it was written. As a result, science fiction acts in many ways as a reflection of those times and of that society.
Today we have a number of driving forces that are evident in our science fiction. Perhaps the most prevalent is the theme that our technology is outstripping our morality. As technology advances it becomes apparent that no single person can understand, or even recognize, it all. This theme has actually always been present in science fiction. Again, the classic example is Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein.”
Technology is all around us; cloning, bio-warfare, space telescopes, evolution, alternate power sources, stem cells, and so on. More and more, the common man is unable to understand technology and must take its working on faith. How many of us really understand the process by which electricity is created in a nuclear power plant and sent to our homes? The average person accepts the workings of technology on faith and has little knowledge of how or why it works.
Our society has a very rich Frankenstein complex as a result. There is a general undercurrent and fear that our science is not stopping to think about what it is doing. It’s present in our press and politics as a wave of anti-intellectualism that celebrates ignorance. Our science is running unchecked and is not asking the right questions. Questions like “Should we play God and create clones?”
There is a resurgence of “old world” or “alternate” solutions to problems: Wicca, crystals, natural healing, astrology, metaphysics, and more. Most of our society harbors a belief that science has missed some ancient truths that our ancestors knew and that we can relearn. These are all indicative of our distrust of the technology that surrounds us every day.
Naturally, that distrust is reflected in our literature and in our media. In recent films, it’s seen in such movies as “Terminator,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “The Planet of the Apes,” “The Matrix,” and many more.
In literature, it is of course seen in “Frankenstein.” It is also seen in Terry Brooks’ “Shannara” series. If you recall, in the Shannara series, civilization is built on the ruins of another ancient civilization that was much more advanced. Indications in the books are that the careless and wanton use of technology destroyed that ancient civilization.
The Shannara example is a rather obscure example that I pulled just to highlight the trend of “technological distrust.” There are many more examples that can be found without really even looking. Tolkien immediately comes to mind.
There are, of course, other themes in modern science fiction. Common themes, among others, are “Earth Ravaged By Man,” “The Search for Immortality,” and “Overpopulation.” We live in a complex society with many concerns on our minds every day. Those concerns are integrated and dealt with in our science fiction.
So how does science fiction justify its purpose in poetry? As we’ve already seen, science fiction justifies itself in literature and popular media. It highlights issues of the day in exaggerated settings for appraisal and, hopefully, new and profound insight.
What about poetry, though? And haiku in particular?
One of the main purposes of poetry is to paint a picture that conveys an emotion to the reader. Haiku is the perhaps the ultimate expression of this. Haiku is usually devoid of specific emotive words and abstract concepts but instead simply describes something experienced, in the mind or in reality. It is described with hope that by describing the scene, the reader will experience the same emotion that the writer felt when he witnessed that scene. Haiku usually deals in the senses and in the physical world of, sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
Regardless of the style, science fiction still serves the same lofty purpose in poetry as it does in literature and in media. Free verse, sonnet, haiku, senryu, cinquain are all styles of poetry that can, and have, been touched by sci-fi poets. As reflections of the world, the science fiction in poetry may center on an emotion. It may tap into our fear of technology. It may try to give a sense of wonder at our accomplishments. It may create a loathing of war, famine, and prejudice. Science fiction and poetry are merely the venues to express interpretations and reflections of the everyday world around us.
Here is a scifaiku I wrote a year ago, when I was in a field, in the middle of the night, with only my telescope for company:
nothing moves except
This scifaiku attempts to capture the feeling of solitude I felt as well as the wonder of watching a man-made star streak across the sky. It tries to capture that single moment when the night is dead. No breeze, no sound, no motion except a single point of light high above. Looking up at the night sky and seeing something man-made, ISS perhaps, streak across the heavens is a reason to feel proud and humble at the same time.
the black hole
The above is a haiku death poem in a sci-fi setting. Our society is fixated on death. Religions deal with the afterlife. Science tries to extend life. Poets try to capture our emotions and feelings about death. Symbolically, the black hole is Death and the aging scientist is looking for it – perhaps so that by knowing where it is he can avoid it.
a Hawaiian shirt
pulled tight across his spacesuit —
cheap camera flashes
The above, an older poem of mine, written in traditional 5-7-5 haiku format, is a senryu. A scifi-senryu, if you will. I wrote it when Dennis Tito, the first “space tourist” went to space. The humor is supposed to highlight the incongruity between NASA and the commercial public. NASA would seemingly prefer to leave space for itself and its own pursuits, but the people are speaking. Space is becoming attainable to the average person. This senryu is a reflection of our modern society.
Science fiction has been in our literature for hundreds of years. It serves as a way to examine the driving forces in our society. Science fiction in poetry often does much the same thing; its purpose in poetry is to drive us to feel something, positive or negative, about our society and the direction it is moving in.
If you want to learn more about scifaiku, please visit the Official Scifaiku Website at http://www.scifaiku.com.