This is the original piece Harlan wrote for Newsweek
magazine for the week ending April 5th, 1997. The piece was requested by Newsweek
to examine the link between the Heaven's Gate cult's mass suicide and science
fiction. For those of you who have been living in a cave, 39 members of the
cult committed suicide near the end of March 1997 based on a belief their souls
would be joining up with a UFO hiding behind comet Hale-Bopp, said UFO taking
the cultists to a higher level of existence.
Everywhere, today, the question is being asked: what did the Heaven's Gate cultists have to do with science fiction. Try this for an answer: nothing.
They had everything to do with that hideous verbal crotchet "sci-fi," however. And they are light-years apart, so don't confuse them. At peril of your life.
Almost exactly one year ago, my heart tried to kill me. Before I could die, 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; and this 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 the darkness and I need to know! Yeah, we all want 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 sufficient noble purpose.
Traditionally, answers have 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 no fully integrated or fully satisfying answers have come.
And those answers may not be anywhere in the literary genre called science fiction, either, but one thing is for damned sure: they are not to be found in the cheapjack foolishness of "sci-fi."
The concepts that abound in fantastical literature have the magical capacity to inspire dreams that become enriching reality. Science fiction, like The Whole Earth Catalog, is only an implement, a tool of the mind's imagination. It employs the technique called extrapolation, allowing us to play the game of what-if?. A game of intellect and daring, of special dreaming and determination not to buy into all those boneheaded beliefs that always tell use we're too stupid and too inadequate to prevail. That we need some kind of mythical alien or supernatural babysitter to get us over the rough spots. Science fiction says otherwise. It is an idea-rich literature that is, at core, hopeful and progressive, that always says--with a nod to the reawakening of a competent human spirit--there will be a tomorrow. It may be 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 hunchbacked, gimlet-eyed, slobbering village idiot of a bastardized genre, says only that logic is beyond us, understanding must be crushed underfoot, that the woods are full of monsters and aliens and conspiracies and 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 hysterical and as overripe as rotten fruit, that can turn all rational conjecture into a nightmare from which one escapes only by phenobarb-laced applesauce or a slug of grape Kool-aid 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 hairball in a cyclotron.
And that is the dichotomy of science fiction, as opposed to the tabloid mentality of UFO abductions, triangular-headed ETs, reinterpreted biblical apocrypha, and just plain bone stick stone gullibility. It is obscurantism and 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 monte on a street corner with a hustler who will never cut you a break.
"Sci-fi" is what the Rancho Santa Fe sleepers bought, in that flashy but adolescent shell-game called Waitin' 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 the sophomore horse-puckey of astrology and government conspiracies and recastings of Jesus as a deep-space navigator. That has nothing to do with the problem-solving and curiosity of science fiction...it has everything to do with the monster fear and dread produced by the dumbness of "sci-fi."
Stop being exploited by greedy thugs who only want to sell you movie tickets and poisonous delusions that enrich them by your stupidity and fear. Because the truth is in this: neither Heaven nor Hell, and certainly not a flying saucer, can be found in the tail of a comet.