A couple of days after the death of the Rancho Santa Fe cultists I got a call from Newsweek. They wanted me to write 800 words as a sidebar to an article on it. They asked me to tell them what the difference was between science fiction and what the cultists believed. They didn't want to publish exactly what I wrote, the way I wrote it. It's been softened quite a lot. Here is an exclusive for you. This is what I actually said:
What did the Heaven's Gate cultists have to do with science fiction? Try this for an answer: nothing. But they have everything to do with that hideous verbal crotchet "sci-fi". And they're light years apart; confuse them at peril of your life.
A year ago my heart tried to kill me. Before I died, they cracked me open and did a quadruple bypass. But for a moment, I shook hands with death and in that bonding I got a tough insight. Having been there, I now know for certain: in those gasping last moments of the Rancho Santa Fe cultists, as they were descending into their death sleep, they were thinking, "Please, help me. I'm going into darkness and I need to know." Yeah, we all need to know the answers that make sense of a world growing ever more complex, of lives that seem to be controlled by forces too big for our puny intellects of a journey without sufficiently noble purpose. Answers have always been sought in philosophy, or religion, or mysticism of one kind or another. What's the sense of it all in a bewildering universe that doesn't seem to know or care that we're here? But from those sources we've never gotten adequate answers. And those answers may not be anywhere in the literary genre called "science fiction" either. But one thing is for damn sure: they are not to found in the cheapjack foolishness of "sci-fi." The concepts that abound in fantastic literature have the magical capacity to inspire dreams that become enriching reality. Science fiction like The Whole Earth Catalog it's only an implement, a tool of the mind's imagination, allowing us to play the game of "What If?" A game of intellect, of daring, of special dreaming and determination not to buy into all these bone-headed beliefs that always tell us we're too stupid and too inadequate to prevail; that we need some kind of mythical alien or some super natural babysitter to get us over the rough spots. Science fiction says otherwise. It's an idea rich literature that is at core hopeful and progressive, that always says there will be a tomorrow. It maybe troubling and it may require us to get a lot smarter but there will be a tomorrow for us to work at. Sci-fi that hunchback, [audio unclear], slobbering, village idiot of a bastardized genre it says only that logic is beyond us. That understanding must be crushed under foot, that the woods are full of monsters and aliens and conspiracies, dread and childish fear of the dark.
The former is a literature that can open the sky to all the possibilities of change and chance; the latter is as over ripe and hysterical as rotten fruit, that can turn all rational conjecture into a nightmare from which one only escapes through phenol-barb laced applesauce or a slug of grape Kool-AideŽ straight up with cyanide. The former says responsibility for your life is the key. The latter assures you that you ain't got the chance of a hariball in a cyclotron. And that is the dichotomy of science fiction, as opposed to the tabloid mentality of UFO abductions, triangular headed E.T.s, reinterpreted biblical apocrypha and just plain bone-stick-stone gullibility. It is obscurantism in illiteracy raised to the level of dogma. It requires that you be as ignorant today as you were yesterday. That you be no brighter than the sap who keeps playing three card monty on the street corner with a hustler who will never cut you a break. Sci-fi is what the Rancho Santa Fe sleepers were, not science fiction In that flashy but adolescent shell game called "Waiting for the UFO," they were philosophical suckers who turned away from the genuine wonders of the real world and all its solvable mysteries to embrace this sophomoric horse pucky of astrology and government conspiracies and re-casting of Jesus as Deep Space Navigator that had nothing to do with the problem solving and curiosity of science fiction. And it has everything to do with monsters, fear and dread produced by the dumbness of sci-fi. Greedy thugs only want to sell you movie tickets and poisonous delusions that enrich them by your stupidity and your fear. Because the truth is this: Neither heaven nor hell and certainly not a flying saucer can be found in the tail of a comet.
From Sci-Fi Buzz, episode 172
Publishing Rights to 'Harlan Ellison's Watching' copyright 1997 the Killimanjaro Corporation.