"The Yellow Pill" by Rog Phillips: An Appreciation by Sheila Williams
The school year at my high school carried on for about a week past final exams and graduation. The underclass students' work during that week wouldn't count for a grade so the school offered a number of mini pass/fail courses. One of the subjects offered my senior year was science fiction. The teacher responsible for the class invited me back after graduation to help him teach it. I found it fun and rewarding to be a "teacher" at my own school, but the experience was also enlightening.
Rog Phillips's story was included in the syllabus. To me it was a fairly traditional SF story, filled with third-class freighters and blue-scaled Venusian space pirates. To the students, it was something completely different. For all of them, and perhaps even the teacher, it was a story about a psychiatrist treating an unstable person who thought he was on a spaceship. When the psychiatrist began to think he was on a spaceship, the class was convinced the doctor had gone insane, too. Admittedly, Phillips has fun playing with the reader's perception of reality, but the story was first published in a science fiction magazine in the fifties and repeatedly anthologized in SF books. These are fairly strong clues that the story probably contains some straightforward science fiction concepts. As I recall, though, I failed to sway a single person in the room.
At the time, I assumed that the readers simply hadn't yet acquired their science fiction "legs." Like the kids I knew who'd moved north from Florida and who had had to learn how to walk on snow, I figured the students would get it once they had a little more exposure to the subject. That may have been true for most of them. They must have appreciated some aspects of SF and/or fantasy or they wouldn't have signed up for the course. But I believed that, once exposed to the "good stuff," everyone would be capable of appreciating fantastic literature. Alas, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
In a March 3, 1996, New York Times review of an Ursula K. Le Guin collection, Francine Prose lamented that some of the fiction in Unlocking the Air and Other Stories was full of the tired ideas only a science fiction reader could love. She compared some of Ms. Le Guin's stories about aliens to the work of college freshmen, and suggested that perhaps the author would have been better served if her stories had been split into two books that would have appealed more to each of her separate audiences. Then, taking the flip side of my own position, she suggested that perhaps it was better that the book hadn't been divided up after all because science fiction readers might accidentally stumble upon "the many-layered story 'Ether, OR,'" and by encountering Ms. Le Guin's "deft tricks with narrative techniques," "light-handed sureness," and "genuinely intriguing ideas" those readers might start to take pleasure in the author's complex fiction as well. Interestingly, Ms. Prose did not seem to realize that "Ether, OR" was first published in the November 1995 issue of Asimov's. Noting this fact, though, might have undermined her apparent assumption that people who enjoyed science fiction and fantasy had to be completely ignorant. If only we'd snap out of it, she seemed to imply, and take that yellow pill, it's possible we could actually be taught how to read English, too.
Well, that was years ago, you might say, and in a fuddy-duddy old newspaper, too. And even if Ms. Prose and her ilk haven't discovered the antidote to that pill, surely younger readers are more open to the wild subjects that pervade today's SF and fantasy. After all, 2005 brought broad recognition to authors whose work has also appeared in such SF venues as SCI FICTION and Asimov's. Jonathan Lethem won the MacArthur "genius grant." Maureen McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters was nominated for The Story Prize. The 2005 Best American Short Stories anthology included stories by Cory Doctorow, Tim Pratt, and recent Hugo- and Nebula-award-winner, Kelly Link. Both Time and Salon.com chose Ms. Link's Magic for Beginners for their top-ten lists of 2005 books. Yet a review of the same collection in the August/September issue of Bust, a magazine with a young feminist following, maintained that only those who could swallow an absurd premise would be taken with the book. Admitting her own strong preference for realistic fiction, the reviewer indicated that the author's stories had confused her and that only a writer guilty of a certain intellectual laziness would place "such absolutely human, flawed characters inside such baffling, uncanny plotlines."
So the Times reviewer and the supposedly hip Bust reviewer have had the chance to read SF and fantasy by some of the best writers of our day. Yet they still haven't acquired their science fiction legs. They're still confused by zombies and fairies and aliens. They still don't have much tolerance for stories that veer far from everyday reality, and they can't imagine why anyone professing any level of intelligence does. Well, I'll continue to read Rog Phillips and other SF and fantasy writers for fun, and maybe even for their "light-handed sureness," "intriguing ideas," and absurd premises, but I intend to keep Rog's medicine cabinet nailed shut. My sense of reality is just fine, thank you, but I don't intend to let it interfere with my sense of the fantastic.
Link to story.