April 11, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Slow Glass

In his short story "Light of Other Days," written the year I was born, science fiction writer Bob Shaw formulated the concept of "slow glass." In brief, slow glass is glass that is so opaque that light takes as long as ten years to pass through it. From a practical standpoint, then, if you looked through a window made of slow glass, you'd see events that took place outside that window ten years ago. In his story, Shaw explores the lives of a man and woman whose marriage is in its death throes. While on vacation, they visit a slow glass merchant and notice the man's wife and child through the window, playing inside the house. When they enter, however, the house is deserted; only then do they realize that the window is made of slow glass, giving the lonely man his final glimpses of his long-dead wife and child.

With his unique plot device, Shaw keenly illustrated how we are prone to look through slow glass in our own lives. Sometimes we focus too sharply on the present through the lens of the past, illuminating our lives with the "light of other days." The older we get, the more memories we accumulate. It becomes easier to look backward instead of forward. In bad times, especially, it can be seductive to look back at better times gone by, embracing nostalgia and indulging regrets.

This example shows the best of what science fiction can achieve. Though too often the genre doesn't rise above the little green men and space battles of popcorn movies like "Independence Day" and "Star Wars," the best SF utilizes the conventions of the genre to comment on the human condition. Time travel, alien visitation, space exploration... all can be dramatic tools to tell a story about the universal struggles we go through in our lives.

To some degree, this has been part of the formula for the long-lived success of the "Star Trek" franchise. Most of the best episodes of the series (in all its incarnations) deal thematically with one human issue or another. In the "Next Generation" episode "Redemption," for example, the Enterprise responds to a potential civil war on the Klingon home world, but ultimately the story is about the conflicts between duty and family honor with which Worf wrestles. The movie "Star Trek: First Contact" featured battles between the Enterprise crew and the Borg, but at its heart was Picard's fight to overcome his inner demons.

Ultimately, the best storytelling does more than just tell a story, more than merely entertain. The greatest stories teach us about ourselves, comment on what makes us who we are, how we deal with the constant struggle from cradle to grave. What makes science fiction so effective—and perhaps what attracts me to it so—is its ability to utilize speculative, imaginative concepts as metaphors: otherworldly devices to tell very worldly stories.


Development note: I've noticed that this site doesn't look like it should in Netscape Navigator. Rather than waste time jury-rigging it to look right in a soon-to-be-obsolete browser, I'll just add the cliché "This site best viewed with Internet Explorer."
Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year, I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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4/10: Freedom of Speech
4/9: Why We're Fighting
4/8: Eucalyptus Memories
4/7: Sleep
4/6: Writing, Just Not Here
4/5: Sci-Files Trivia
4/4: Sobering Up
4/3: Great White Hope
4/2: Entropy
4/1: Peace on Earth
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