Prime Directive: Check Out Sci Phi Journal
by Craig Bernthal
The shelves of drugstores and news stands used to be crowded with “pulp” science fiction magazines: Fantastic Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Fantasy and Science Fiction, all of which sold for very little and provided a lot of entertainment. Many of them started in the 1920s and featured wonderfully lurid covers of giant flies attacking battleships or luscious blonds being carted away or molested by robots, green aliens, or perhaps just posing in front of a rocket ship. They shared shelf-space with a similar array of detective, mystery, western, and romance publications. In the twenties or thirties, at the height of their popularity, some of these magazines sold up to a million copies per issue. America and Britain had some great writers who got their start in pulp fiction or wrote it: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling, Elmore Leonard and H. G. Wells, to name a few. Pulp fiction was a national writing workshop, providing an enormous market for new writers, and the product was not just formulaic. A great editor, like John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction provoked wonderful, imaginative stories. This scene has now been replaced by the insipid university MFA writing program, which aims to produce sensitive stories for liberal professors, and pulp has given way to innumerable English Dept. journals. What a bad trade! We no longer see the successors to Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, or even Updike and Roth. American fiction has become the Oprah book club.
Given this, I am to happily announce the birth of a new venue for the un-MFA’d story: Sci Phi Journal, edited by Jason Rennie. You can buy Sci Phi on Amazon for $3.99 an issue. It publishes bi-monthly, and the first three issues are out. (The cover art, by the way, is beautiful.) May it start a trend, a rebirth of the popular short story magazine, requiring an on-line drugstore to hold them all.
The premise of Sci Phi Journal is to present science fiction stories and essays about science fiction that are especially aimed at exploring philosophy, which of course includes politics. I was delighted to find so many good stories and essays in the first issues. I’ve never read an anthology in which I thought every entry enjoyable, but I found enough here to keep me happy.
Two stories and two essays represent that magazine at its best. First, the stories. Peter Sean Bradley, an attorney in Fresno, CA is an avid science fiction reader and reviewer. In “Ghosts,” issue 2, Bradley imagines a world in which most of the “people” we interact with are algorithms whom we can see only with “I” glasses—an extension of Google glasses—that allow us to see and interact with a more of less fabricated world that corresponds with our desires. The hero’s wife aborted the child that would have been their son, so now he has a relationship with an algorithmic son, 16, only visible through the glasses. The story grows out of a wedding between his half-sister and a shopping mall (yes, she’s marrying a shopping mall, which is represented as human by another algorithm). The story is a Swiftian send-up of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s proclamation in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning. Of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. . .” The story takes off from two contemporary reference point: the argument that we can define marriage in any way we want, and the proliferation of people living in the virtual world of headphones and cell phones, even as they navigate sidewalks and roads. Bradley asks, what if you put the shoe on the other foot and produced a universe to correspond with your meaning? The reversal demonstrates that Kennedy’s statement is more fantastic than Bradley’s story, and this is what science fiction at its best does for us: it changes our perspective just enough to show us the distortions in our own ideas and behavior. The story provokes pity in the reader, pity for the lonely solipsism which the protagonist realizes he is trapped in.
Another story, among several that impressed me, was Lou Antonelli’s “On the Spiritual Plain” (issue 2), about a planet on which, because of its peculiar electro-magnetic characteristics, one’s ghost (soul ? spirit?) becomes visible after death. Here the protagonist is a Methodist minister who first encounters the phenomenon when a workman is killed in an accident, and the ghost visits him. The story poses more questions than it attempts to answer, as the Methodist minister with the help of an alien “shaman,” for want of a better word, shepherds “Joe McDonald’s” soul to a place where it can leave the planet and “dissipate.” The story does not attempt to make a statement about the afterlife, but is a poetic meditation on of the process of dealing with death. All of the stories have a “Food for Thought” section at the end, which draws one’s attention to the philosophical issues involved. I have not decided yet whether these are more limiting than helpful. A good story speaks for itself in ways which only stories can speak. I found this story more evocative than the “Food for Thought” section that followed.
In the essay section, which is about half of Sci Phi Journal, one of my favorites was James Druley’s “Star Trek’s Prime Directive: Moral Guidelines, Exceptions, and Absolutes.” The Prime Directive was a fecund producer of plot ideas for Star Trek writers and clearly a reacton in the original Star Trek to our Vietnam intervention and of our current concerns over colonialism and genocide. Simply stated, the Prime Directive tells Star Trek officers not to interfere with the development of less technologically developed societies. To quote Captain Picard, “The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”
Druley, who teaches Logic, Ethics, and World Religions at Reedley College, uses the Prime Directive, its development and exceptions, to present a beautifully clear and thorough lesson on absolute v. relative moral guidelines. Bringing in Kant and Hobbes, Druley argues that their grounding of an absolute ethics is too shallow to have a reliable impact on behavior. There must be a deeply felt, internalized component of any absolute morality. He then examines religious grounding, Ideal Observer theory, and suggests that God, as the Ideal observer, is the only sure foundation for ethics. Star Trek furnishes a narrative backdrop for discussing these issues, joining philosophical abstractions to the concreteness of narrative. This is a great way to teach basic philosophical issues.
Finally, there is John C. Wright’s essay, “Prophetic and Atropaic Science Fiction.” Wright’s main goal in this essay is to distinguish science fiction from prophecy, and he does it by using a pagan source, Oedipus, and a biblical source, Jonah. Oedipus shows that no man escapes his fate and Jonah, the opposite, that man can use his free will to amend his life. They speak from two opposite moral perspectives. Science fiction is more on Jonah’s side. It is a very American art form, optimistic about our chances of living better, decent lives if we work at it. Science fiction writers believed we would have moon bases by now (2001: A Space Odyssey) or be exploring Mars; Wright notes that we have not done these things because they were out of reach, technologically, but because social engineers decided to spend the money otherwise, and here he becomes prophetic himself:
The problem, not to put too fine a point on the question, was that we had too many social engineers, that is socialists, here on Earth, and their promotion of a vision of the unworkable worker’s paradise composed of a collective they crave was at odds with the workable but imperfect free market democracy composed of individuals.
The collective requires doubtful, fearful and effeminate men. It requires men conditioned to think that asking for permission from the state before acting is normal. It requires men who think of licking the boot of a bureaucrat as an annoying but necessary trifle; men who think nothing wrong with disarming themselves upon request; going into infinities of debt upon request; surrendering their children to be educated by incompetent ideologues upon request. . .
If we are no longer pursuing the dreams of space exploration, it is perhaps because we are also no longer the kind of people who have the dreams that powered science fiction as a literary genre. You don’t find paragraphs like these in America’s Best Fiction or America’s Best Essays. Sci Phi promises a venue for marginalized conservative voices in at least one genre.
Sci Phi is a diamond in the rough. It needs better proofreading. It does have some stories that are clunkers. But its first issues are impressive and fun. If you are tired of the current state of American fiction, Oprah’s book club, the MFA program mass-produced, academically orthodox sensitive read, then this may be for you.