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Editorial - January 2002
by Gordon Van Gelder

In his story "Slow Sculpture," Theodore Sturgeon observed that the mind panics and turns irrational when it runs out of rational options.

On the day of September 11, four days ago, I found myself turning to fiction when reality no longer made sense to me.

From Hoboken, a few miles away from Ground Zero, we could see the World Trade towers in the distance. As it happened, Sept. 11 was an exceptionally clear, cloudless day. And as the scene devolved from smoke billowing out of one building to the awful collapse and then the huge cloud that hung over the site for days, I found myself coping with the disaster by relating it to various scenes from film and literature:

* the California exodus in Ward Moore's "Lot"

* the apocalyptic nightmares of George Pelecanos's The Big Blowdown

* the Devlin/Emmerich films Independence Day and Godzilla and things they got right (the sense of panic) and wrong (the fast evacuation of New York).

I knew I'd reached some level of absurdity when the thought crossed my mind: I wonder if Chip Delany will be able to get The Fall of the Towers reprinted now?

In fact, I think that's when I began to regain some sense of normalcy.

That evening, I found myself browsing over an assortment of New York disaster novels: Blackout, Thirty Seconds Over New York, The Night Manhattan Burned, The Day New York Trembled. Most of the books date from 1965 to 1980 and mostly they're cheesy potboilers . . . but I found the two-dimensional characters and hokey dialogue strangely comforting. Life goes on, they said.

*     *     *

In the aftermath, I found it hard to get to work. In the face of such a disaster, what's the point of putting together a science fiction magazine?

Well, there are several.

First and foremost is entertainment. If we can provide some amusement, we've done a good thing.

But there's plenty of entertainment to be had elsewhere. What do science fiction and fantasy offer that aren't available elsewhere?

An ability to look ahead, for one. Ray Bradbury famously said he wrote Fahrenheit 451 not to predict the future, but to prevent it. A shared experience like that one, powerfully felt, can have a profound impact.

Another is perspective. There's an sf writer in Washington who predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "I just looked at the scenario as though it were a science fiction novel and the fall looked like the only possible outcome," he told me in 1990. (Incidentally, when he responded to my e-mail on Sept. 11 to say he was okay, his comment was, "What a day. I swear I've seen this movie before, and I didn't like it then, either.")

There's one other thing I think---I hope---science fiction can offer at this time: understanding. Because for all the recent dissection of the event in the news and on the internet, I still don't understand what the terrorist activities meant to accomplish (aside from instilling terror, that is). I've read excerpts from the Koran and articles on the Taliban. I have a grasp on the awful situation in the Gaza Strip. And I think I recognize that the World Trade Center symbolized American imperialism and capitalism. But what are we to learn from the hijackers who flew planes into the towers? That the American way of life is in peril? That imperialism has a toll around the world?

One of science fiction's fundamental themes is the question of how we treat the alien, the other. At its best, science fiction allows us insight into that other (think Tiptree's "The Color of Neanderthal Eyes." Think Longyear's "Enemy Mine." And there's "We See Things Differently" by Bruce Sterling.). Right now, I find myself observing a situation that makes no sense to me. I'd love to see our genre come forth in this difficult time and build some bridges, foster some cultural understanding, make sense of the tragedy.


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