While the genre of science fiction is hardly a century old, the roots of science fiction go deep into our history. Men have always told stories, and in telling them they have inevitably recast the world of their perceptions into something easier to grasp, more beautiful or more terrible than it really is. At bottom, we are all creative liars, above all to ourselves, and remember our ordinary childhoods as enchanted realms, as so many dream days spent in secret gardens or hectic conflicts in Never-Never-Land. The source of all creative deceit lies in our memories, which act as funhouse mirrors, magnifying the importance of our experiences; they are “magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.”

In a religious world, it is inevitable that we should create, according to the talents of our race, myths of impossibly beautiful and powerful beings whose deeds and antics serve as models for conduct and warnings against presumption. In an age dominated by politics and war, the greatest fiction will be passed off as military and political history, and in this the age of science, it was virtually impossible not to subjugate science to the uses of the imagination.

Nothing is more boring than to go back and read the early examples of science fiction, and it is fitting that a literary genre that has produced more bad writing than any other (not excepting women’s romances) should have a prize named after one of the worst writers of the century, Hugo Gernsback. As a general rule, the best science fiction has been produced by writers who refused to limit themselves to the genre. Wells’ best work is his serious novels, Tono Bungay and Mr. Polly, not The Time Machine or War of the Worlds. C.S. Lewis was a scholar and essayist, who happened to write a great sci-fi trilogy. Poe (if one can include him at all) was primarily a poet, and the best novel of the future in living memory is Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins.

Even the most celebrated professionals in the field have tended to do other things as well. Tom Diseh is as well known (in some circles, at least) as a poet, and Philip K. Dick wrote mysteries. Ray Bradbury writes “straight” from time to time, and one of his finest books is Dandelion Wine, a nostalgic look at the Midwest of his boyhood. Harlan Ellison is eager to repudiate the label and wants to be known only as a writer.

I’ve never accepted Duke Ellington’s dictum that there are only two kinds of music—good and bad—but it can be applied to writing. In all the various niches of pop culture there are insiders eager to claim special rules and privileges for song lyrics or mysteries or comic book art, but such claims are a little like the claims of any special interest group threatened with competition. As works of literature, most science fiction has always been little less than dreadful, and the billions of pounds of pulp has tended to drag down the standards of even the most ambitious writers.

If science fiction is almost all junk, why should anyone waste time sifting through the rubbish in a usually vain search for semiprecious stones in a dimestore setting? In my case, I have a hunger (mostly unsatisfied) for science fiction, one that was aroused in my early teen years when escape from this planet and this century seemed an attractive option. (It still does, but dead languages are a more satisfying vehicle than spaceships.) The mere fact of this appetite among so many people points to the deeper reason for reading science fiction. In a world in which the reigning myths are all derived from science, it may only be through science fiction—however stupid or poorly written—that we can make sense of those parts of our world that science made. Perhaps we can only understand science’s lies by inventing lies about science.

I am not thinking so much of the obvious anticipations of technological advancement—even Gernsback described moving walkways—as of the moral and political dimensions of life lived according to the rules and plans drawn up by the scientistic state. In fact, a great deal of science fiction has been written in a libertarian, anti-imperialist vein. Robert Heinlein was a moral and political libertine who attracted a following among Randians and other libertarians. It’s easy to see the attraction; anyone who thinks Rand is a great novelist would worship Heinlein. Poul Anderson has several fine stories that can be read as briefs for communal anarchism, and Kurt Vonnegut, who was probably better doing science fiction than pretending to be the great writer, had the last word on equality in his story “Harrison Bergeron.”

At his best, Vonnegut is a dystopian writer who constructs future nightmares in order to expose the dangerous tendencies in our own age. The best political science fiction is always of this type. Gulliver’s voyage to Laputa and Lagado is an honorable ancestor of the satiric subgenre of science fiction. Wells’ best contribution is also a voyage to an island. The Island of Dr. Moreau, on which a brilliant scientist has discovered a means of hastening evolution. By inflicting great pain upon pigs and monkeys, he can transform them into a ludicrous parody of human beings. The original film version. Island of Lost Souls, is a brilliant adaptation with Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau, almost giggling as he describes the pain he has caused, and Bela Lugosi as a monkey-man deputized as Law-sayer to the bestial Adams. “What is the law?” bellows Laughton. “Thee law eez,” intones Lugosi, who had learned only to mimic the sound of English, “Thee law eez to walk on two legs, are we not men?” And all the two-legged pigs and monkeys and cats grunt and jibber in chorus: “Are we not men?”

In the end the beasts rebel. They kill the doctor and burn down his laboratory. We are what we are, Wells reveals, and the attempt to transcend our nature produces nothing but grotesque abominations. “In the end,” Wells’ scientist tells his colleague, “the study of nature makes us as remorseless as nature itself.” When Wells wrote the story he was still, in the official parts of his mind, a socialist who believed in progress through better chemistry, but the real Wells, the novelist Wells, had always known better. “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures,” Dr. Johnson once remarked, and no good writer is a liar or ideologue when he is doing real work. A nasty communist like Brecht or Sartre can still write plays that contradict his politics, and it is remarkable how many “liberal” or “leftist” science fiction writers have written tales imbued with a reactionary imagination.

Perhaps the most celebrated science fiction writer of the past several decades was the late Philip K. Dick. I haven’t a clue to Dick’s politics, but he posed as a cultural rebel, a drug-using degenerate. But what does one make out of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In Dick’s very unpleasant dystopia, most animal species, including insects, have been eliminated, and man’s only serious competition are the androids that have been exported and restricted to off-world colonies. In the impoverished world that men have made in their own image, the highest status symbols are pet mammals, although most middle-class people have to content themselves with robotic imitations that look like the real thing. When a group of renegade androids kill their masters and return to Earth, Dick’s hero, a “bladerunner,” is sent to dispose of them.

In the film version made by Ridley Scott, the androids are possessed of some dignity and humanity, and in the end Harrison Ford leaves his wife to elope with an android who has only just realized what she is. In Dick’s gloomier novel, however, the androids hate all life. One of them amuses herself by cutting the legs off a spider, and it is the beautiful android who pushes the bladerunner’s pet goat off the roof. The androids’ great plot against humanity consists in an attempt to prove that the new religion of empathy—”Mercerism”—is bogus, and they express their resentment in the classic language of minority rights groups: “It’s that empathy . . . Isn’t it a way of proving that humans can do something we can’t do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared group thing. How’s the spider?”

The really terrifying quality to the novel is not the almost-human androids but the almost-mechanical humans. The bladerunner’s wife spends her days hooked up to a device that can create moods, but the net effect is a subhuman apathy that prevents her from dialing any emotion that could release her from an autistic slump. In the end she purchases a supply of electric flies for a toad with a “perpetually renewing puddle” and a service contract for periodic tongue adjustments.

On the metaphysical level, Scott’s film trivializes the book, but it also picks up hints of social themes and turns them into major themes. In Bladerunner Los Angeles has become one giant ghetto of interbred blacks, Hispanics, and Orientals who speak a disgusting amalgam of languages called Cityspeak. Earth is an overpopulated sewer teeming with human rats, and all the best and brightest have abandoned the planet.

In a society poisoning itself on dishonesty, dystopian fiction and films may be the only means we have of considering the social and moral diseases that we are inflicting upon ourselves. They are inherently anarchic and prepare the mind for rebellion against an oppressive system. Utopian fiction, however, has the opposite effect. Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Walden Two, and Ecotopia (the fantasy of an eco-fascist state in the Pacific Northwest) were all meant as criticisms of the societies in which they were written, but the goal of any Utopia is perfection, and not an organic perfection but one that can be engineered by human craft and discipline. An engineered state, no matter how well-intentioned and no matter how humane the architect, will always be totalitarian. It is the product of a single mind or a single ideology that reduces all the complicated intentions of other beings down to instruments for the greater good. B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two is boring enough to read. Imagine what it would be like to live there. Imagine the numbers one would have to kill in order to create a society as uninteresting as the headquarters of a major corporation.

All art, as the ancients realized, is a form of representation, of “imitation” and not merely of things as they seem. Plato was wrong to stigmatize poetry as the imitation of things in the world that are themselves imitations of the true reality. As some Neoplatonists recognized, it is possible for the poet or the artist to imitate the divine ideas themselves and to convey some sense of that reality that underlies everyday experiences. In a crude sense, the artist “imitates,” that is to say represents, the divine act of creation, and his greatest temptation is to confuse his own role with that of the Creator. When the writer plays God and constructs an alternate reality filled with exotic worlds, strange creatures, and new laws, he cannot help trapping himself in the mirror of his own self. This is the reason why all Utopias and most science fiction are boring: the natural world—whether created or evolved—is the result of an infinite mind operating through an infinite number of inextricably linked interactions, but Utopia is the product of a single finite mind with a very limited range of experience. Utopias are to the world what narcissism is to marriage.

But utopias are worse than sterile: they are terrifying in a cold sort of way. Cutting himself off from both Cod and nature, modern man has repeatedly engaged in science fiction experiments on human society. Imagine a world without property, without competition, without status, without war. “Imagine everybody sharing all the wealth.” The longer I stare into the mirror of my finite self, the less able I am to see anything that is not me. In constructing a world in my image, I lose the capacity to understand any other world.

My choice for the most alarming piece of political science fiction in recent years is George R.R. Martin’s Sandkings. In some other world lives a self-indulgent playboy who mistreats the creatures he buys at a shop specializing in exotic pets from every galaxy. Finally he purchases a sort of giant ant farm with the injunction not to stir the creatures into violence or aggression. The playboy, however, cannot resist the temptation to play God, and as the creatures construct their cities, he destroys some and spares others. He sets one group against another and enjoys the spectacle of war and devastation. When his victims work for days on a giant statue, he is surprised to discover that the face is his own.

Ultimately, the insects metamorphose into powerful man-sized creatures with all the violence that their lord has instilled into them. Martin’s allegory can be taken as a reflection on certain kinds of religion made in man’s image, but it is also a comment on the whole Utopian project of creating new worlds. The rulers of Romania learned to their cost what sort of people they had made in their own image, and the planners and technocrats of America, so eager to change the condition of humanity, will with any luck have to face the consequences of their own narcissism.