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December 19, 2012 12:14 AM   Subscribe

Is Science Fiction promoting pseuodoscience? Is it not really better than fantasy? Is it exhausted and dying, per Paul Kincaid (part 1, part 2), a sort of genre-writing version of completing a list of The Nine Billion Names of God? Does physics-bothering unrepentant space case Alistair Reynolds have a compass pointing the way forwards?
posted by Artw (84 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
As we all know, 90% of science fiction is crud.
posted by cthuljew at 12:17 AM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


In September, the critic Paul Kincaid reviewed a clutch of science fiction anthologies for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His conclusion – that on the evidence of what SF itself selects as its best, "the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion" – provoked a gush of debate in the many online venues through which fandom conducts its conversations with itself.

This Christmas Gift Guide supposes, what if it wasn't?
posted by Artw at 12:19 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh. I was just reading some of Arthur C. Clarke's commentary on his earliest stories. He recalls that in 1953 when he was getting going there were some loud voices suggesting that Science Fiction was played out.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:20 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


It does says "Fiction" right there in the genre label doesn't it?
posted by PenDevil at 12:21 AM on December 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think the difference is that when kids read sci-fi they are inspired to try and make the cool stuff involved a reality. When they read fantasy they think, "Woah, dragons are cool!"

So my question is, why don't we have Jurassic Park yet?
posted by Drinky Die at 12:23 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just off the top of my head: No, No, No and Possibly, because Alastair Reynolds is awesome.
posted by Aquaman at 12:24 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, any world in which Peter Watts, Kij Johnson, and Stephen Baxter are still writing things is one in which science fiction is alive, well, kicking ass, and taking all nine billion names.
posted by cthuljew at 12:27 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Take the Third Star on the Left and on til Morning!" -
Mr. Mundane SF himself Geoff Ryman on not letting SF eat itself, back in 2007.
posted by Artw at 12:29 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, does it matter? A lot of science is also fantasy.
posted by deo rei at 12:30 AM on December 19, 2012


I finally found a torrent that has all 9 billion names of God. It should finish downloading on Dec. 21. I'll let you know what I've found.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:38 AM on December 19, 2012 [24 favorites]


I'm sorry, I already looked at that torrent, peeking at the stream. It's lying to you. It's just three letters, over and over, the second, the fifteenth, and the second again.

Why anyone would put up the nine billion names of Bob I don't know.
posted by mephron at 12:54 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why anyone would put up the nine billion names of Bob I don't know.

Just to be sure, I used the Internet for that.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:11 AM on December 19, 2012


But it does beg the question; do we have a responsibility as artists to respect the scientific method?

As a skeptic, I decry the way alt.med at once uses and abuses science. Shouldn't I hold my writing up to the same standard?... In our fight against alt.med and pseudoscience, we are battling against a compelling narrative...


Oh good grief, not this again. I didn't used to agree with hardline Christians that science is the new religion, but since reading self-described 'skeptic' writings, I'm no longer so sure. What is he saying except that science must be treated with reverence and anything that profanes it is giving support to the enemy in a fight against evil? 'Skeptic' my eye; this is moral dualism, and it has nothing to do with science. It's about science culture, science reverence. Not good for science, and certainly not good for art.

Bad science, when it's relevant to the plot, is bad writing. That's a problem. Pseudo-scientiic handwaving to substitute for magic is an ancient tradition - but more than that, it's the fundamental nature of fiction. At some point, you are going to have to suspend your disbelief. You may have to suspend it at the outset because there are talking dragons, or you may get an explanation that rests on real science, and then changes a certain fact in a speculative way: in both cases, your result is something that is not, scientifically, the way the world actually is.

Why is this thing in this book? The answer is always, at the end of the line, because the author says so in order to make a better story. Better science play just defers the point where you come to that final answer.

You could make a case, if you wanted science to be revered, that this is actually worse, because it makes the illusion more complete and confuses the reader's sense of reality even further. Myself, I prefer to believe that the reader isn't stupid and that they're well aware that if they're reading a work of fiction, everything in it is unreal and nothing should be considered scientific fact.

Artists have a responsibility to represent truth, but they always represent it in symbolic ways. This heavy-handed humourless about not striking a heavy enough blow against the forces of pseudoscientific evil is just silly, and frankly I don't see much difference between that and saying that Harry Potter encourages Satanism.
posted by Kit W at 1:32 AM on December 19, 2012 [26 favorites]


I'm more concerned by things like philosophy of mind materialists awarding themselves an imaginary "completed physics" to use in their arguments, than with writers making up a hyperdrive so their stories aren't all about multi-generational colony ships.
posted by thelonius at 1:54 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is Science Fiction promoting pseuodoscience?

Might help if the science fiction he looked to was more than Armageddon and Quantum Leap. Seriously.
posted by Amanojaku at 2:14 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess I'd be more worried about this if it weren't for the fact that I'm absolutely sure that if the authors of mainstream fiction felt that, when their character came home from work and made dinner, they had to include exposition explaining the principles behind the Otto internal combustion engine, cyclic refrigeration and microwave excitation heating, it would make Armageddon and Quantum Leap look like JACS and Cell by comparison. As it is, yeah, handwavy technobable is kind of annoying, especially when it tries to write off an entire body of physics we don't understand (and may not even be possible) as being just like a DC motor or some such. The solution is not to come up with a better explanation, the solution is to say welcome to my spaceship. It does A and B but not C or D without having to break out the Haynes manual writers guide.

Unless you're writing this Haynes manual.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:26 AM on December 19, 2012


Related: Today is the 50th anniversary of NASA's attack on Golden Age SF with horrible, horrible facts.

Nicked from James Nicoll
posted by MartinWisse at 3:20 AM on December 19, 2012


I'm pretty sure I hear this argument every decade. Science Fiction isn't dead. It's not dying. There are good years and bad years to be sure but having just read (In Asimov's) the short stories Over There by Will McIntosh and "They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Glass" by Alaya Dawn Johnson I can tell you. It's still there, it's still good.

Even the last couple of Culture novels have been a bit of a return to form for Iain M Banks.
posted by zoo at 4:14 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


OK, so Paul Kincaid's never read any Ted Chiang. (Who does both hard SF and fantasy... often in the same story.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:23 AM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


With thousands if not millions of years of future time to mine and every possible human endeavor to imagine, I think it's fair to say there are a few changes yet to ring in SF.

Whether anyone is actually ringing them is another story. There does indeed seem to be a bland, herd-like sameness to much of SF. But there's a bland, herd-like sameness to almost any field. That's why they call it a "field".
posted by DU at 4:39 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is like asking "Does Romance promote unhealthy attitudes towards identity and personal relationships?" The answer being hellz yeah, on average and if taken as a whole.
posted by XMLicious at 4:53 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Might help if the science fiction he looked to was more than Armageddon and Quantum Leap. Seriously.

I agree, yet those examples are some of the most popular science fiction stories ever produced. The masses don't necessarily read Alastair Reynolds, but they will definitely watch scenes like this without thinking too hard about them.
posted by zarq at 5:24 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


From my point of view this isn't actually complicated:

1. Get the science that we know to be correct as correct as you can get it.

2. Extrapolate intelligently from there for the purposes of your story.

There, you're doing science fiction.
posted by jscalzi at 5:30 AM on December 19, 2012 [20 favorites]


This is why so many of us call it "speculative fiction." Also, this sort of silly angst has been going on as long as I've been reading the genre (40-some years now and counting).
posted by aught at 5:34 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, there has been a move away from hard SF, which was rooted in the physical reality known at the time, with either some speculative future developments or changes in the fundamental laws in the Universe, sometimes both. But they were typically well-explained; deviating from reality, in hard SF, needs a specific reason.

The problem is that we've kind of exhausted a lot of the early thinking about SF, and we're still not really in space yet. As it turns out, going to space is an exceedingly hard problem, primarily because of energy constraints. Not too many SF authors foresaw that energy would be the primary constraint on, well, everything, especially getting out of this nasty deep gravity well we're in. Oh, and there's a lot of hard radiation in space, too, which was usually handwaved away with 'shielding' -- except that gamma radiation can't really be shielded, only attenuated, at least with present levels of technology.

So there's a huge mountain to scale to get to true space colonization, a mountain so steep that it's quite possible that humanity cannot climb it. We'll be able to send the occasional explorer, but widespread exploitation of space is going to need some huge advances in energy generation, storage, and delivery. None of these seem even remotely feasible at present.

So, SF writers seem, of late, to be skipping over all that super-hard stuff. Instead, they're retreating into the far future, imagining what societies might look like with few of the constraints we see now. And, as Clarke observed, these technologies are so advanced that they're not really distinguishable from magic. Further, there's no particular sign that these technologies are possible, or that humanity could ever do anything remotely similar.

So, yes, a lot of SF has turned into space fantasy, Star Trek instead of Ringworld. We can fully see the mountain now, and it's hard to imagine climbing it, so authors retreat to a far future where the mountain is just the tiniest of speedbumps. And there's not really much difference between that, and dragons.
posted by Malor at 5:36 AM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


OK, so Paul Kincaid's never read any Ted Chiang.

He has, actually, but don't let that stop you!
posted by escabeche at 5:41 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Leave science fiction alone! Go bother romance novels if you need something to do.
posted by Splunge at 5:48 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


the "scientific method" is a fairytale told to kids.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:49 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


WTF, dissing Quantum Leap? Can't abide, sorry. The brilliant sci-fi concept of Quantum Leap is that it uses a broad scientific-based idea, "scientific" enough that it's still within the realm of our understanding but broad enough that it's not really feasible the way it's to described... to set up a basis for telling nearly endless variations of stories about human experience. Seen through a filter we aren't usually privy (the lens of the 'science fiction,' - in Quantum Leap's case there's access to additional information and the ability to instantly see the long term effect that Beckett's actions have), and therefore gives us new insight. It both reinforces and questions key ideas about our understanding of time and choice and interconnectivity with the world around us - and explores some pretty great human dilemmas as well. That's beautiful science fiction. If science itself were the hero, as the author suggests, it would also be the point - and we'd essentially be getting stories that would feel like anecdotal parables in a textbook. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but why limit "better stories" to something so specific?
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 5:57 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


when kids read sci-fi they are inspired to try and make the cool stuff involved a reality. When they read fantasy they think, "Woah, dragons are cool!"


When kids read sci-fi they think, "Woah, robots are cool!" And there isn't the slightest thing wrong with thinking that both dragons and robots are cool.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 6:01 AM on December 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


In defense of fantasy, I'd argue that, when done well, it also has quasi-academic merit (if more philosophical/political), which I gather is the general sentiment behind the "is science fiction not really better than fantasy" garbage.
posted by likeatoaster at 6:14 AM on December 19, 2012


the "scientific method" is a fairytale told to kids.

Just like "truth" and "justice" - some fairytales are damned useful.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:17 AM on December 19, 2012


When kids read sci-fi they think, "Woah, robots are cool!" And there isn't the slightest thing wrong with thinking that both dragons and robots are cool.

True, but they don't grow up and, inspired by their childhood reading, try to make dragons.
posted by Malor at 6:27 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


They might not grow up to be so fucking reductively literal, however.
posted by fleacircus at 6:36 AM on December 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


True, but they don't grow up and, inspired by their childhood reading, try to make dragons.

No, but they might, inspired by their childhood reading, grow up and try to slay dragons, where 'dragons' = tyrants, political injustice, personal fears, etc. Fantasy can handle political allegory and personal struggle, the macrocosmic and the deeply idiosyncratic, very very well when it chooses to. As always, Sturgeon's Law applies.

And, slightly less tenuously, they might grow up inspired to explore history, archeology, ancient languages, foreign cultures, etc.
posted by RokkitNite at 6:37 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


True, but they don't grow up and, inspired by their childhood reading, try to make dragons.

Well maybe not yet...
posted by XMLicious at 6:37 AM on December 19, 2012


Sorry for the bitiness, but I like both fantasy and scifi, and so watching people fight over them is like watching two friends in seventh grade bicker over which one of them has higher status with the popular kids.
posted by fleacircus at 6:41 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is no such thing as Science Fiction as a collective thing. I think you are referring to the editors who select what will be available in your local bookstore.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:48 AM on December 19, 2012


True, but they don't grow up and, inspired by their childhood reading, try to make dragons.

This is only a loss if one assumes that we need lots and lots of robot-makers. That's more or less arguing that we need more books about robots being cool because robots are cool, which is pretty circular.

Nothing against robots, mind you, but there are plenty of other perfectly good things a child can grow up to be. Again, science and technology are great things, but this idea that we need fiction to preach their gospel to impressionable children seems unreasonable.


No, but they might, inspired by their childhood reading, grow up and try to slay dragons, where 'dragons' = tyrants, political injustice, personal fears, etc.


I quite agree. And they might also just inspire kids to grow up into people who really love imaginative art. Those are people who support the arts and try to spread joy in life, and that's a cool thing too. Or, if the book is well written and has good characters, it might inspire them to grow up interested in people, to be psychologists and teachers and social workers. Or if it's funny, they may grow up to be comedians, or just ordinary people who crack their friends up.

There are a million cool things that good books can inspire kids to be, and I have the strong suspicion that it's more about the kid than the books. A technically-minded kid is going to respond best to techie books, an artsy kid to imaginative books; as long as they're getting stuff that chimes with them, it's all good. It'd be a dull old world if we all had to be the same.

Kids aren't clay for moulding; even babies have definite personalities. When I look for art to share with my friends' kids and my own, I'm looking for artistic experiences that will help them develop into the happiest, healthiest possible versions of the selves they were born with - books that won't so much shape their futures as enrich who they already are. What we need is lots of great books of lots of different kinds, so as many kids as possible can grow up to be someone who says, 'Ohmygosh I loved that book as a kid - you know, I think it had a real influence on my life...'


(Wanders off, waving a 'Beverly Cleary changed my life' flag...)
posted by Kit W at 6:51 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm admittedly biased, but to me science fiction has always been about politics first and science second. So, as soon as we run out of politics, we'll run out of science fiction.
posted by cthuljew at 6:55 AM on December 19, 2012


> Is Science Fiction promoting pseuodoscience?

<looks up from reading ERB, The Master Mind of Mars> whut?
posted by jfuller at 7:10 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


promoting pseuodoscience

No. Promoting imagination, yes ... (Verne, Wells, Stapledon to begin with ... not so much the commercial pulp stuff) ... without which we *really are* automatons in a simulation.

I'd rather suspend disbelief for an unstable, magnificent idea like the Ringworld than suffer a CSICOP stamp of approval, thanks.
posted by Twang at 7:11 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay, so, first of all, Kitti Ping Yung in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsdawn, who engineered totally awesome dragons, was the first genetic engineer I ever read about and absolutely spurred an interest in genetics.

Second of all, as a soft science fiction writer, fuck this noise. Are we really still having this conversation?

Third of all, I think there are way bigger problems with depictions of science in fiction nowadays besides its softness and its woo. Like the fact that I can count a good half-dozen YA sci-fi books (and countless mainstream movies) that are SF-as-a-cautionary tale, which depict scientists as evil kitten killers or people who want to fuse human beings to trees because muahahaha GMOs or because scientists are faithless hacks or whatever. Many writers today--and readers--see no reason for optimism around science, and maybe they have reason (global warming, the death of the space race), but for the scientists I know this is a far more problematic aspect in the depiction of science than "OMG it's really fantasy!" Sam Beckett was still an awesome scientist, implausible premise or not.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:14 AM on December 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


I much prefer the realistic science of police procedurals like CSI, where they get DNA test results in half an hour and digitally enhance security camera footage to decipher license plate numbers reflected in bad guys' eyeballs.
posted by usonian at 7:18 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Second of all, as a soft science fiction writer, fuck this noise. Are we really still having this conversation?

I think it comes from misidentifying the source of our identity. Identity is a fluid thing and created moment to moment, and a lot of it depends on how we respond to the world. That's a scary thing for a lot of people, and finding some way to pin it down is a common response. In a capitalist society, lots of people define themselves by what they consume, and from there, a lot of people take the next step of declaring that their identity is the superior one because they consume the superior thing.

It's a lot more to do with economics than with science or art, in my view, and more still to do with psychology. People declaring that Their Stuff is cooler than The Stuff That's A Bit Like Their Stuff are very much alike - far more so than people who just get on with enjoying whatever they enjoy. Books really are different from each other, but nothing sucks the individuality out of them like turning them into nothing more than the raw materials of a turf war.

Identity-flourishing readers are all alike, but every happy reader is happy in their own way.
posted by Kit W at 7:24 AM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


So, yes, a lot of SF has turned into space fantasy, Star Trek instead of Ringworld.

Wait. Are you implying that _Ringworld_ is hard science fiction? That is, portrays technologies and situations that are scientifically plausible under current understanding? Becuase, hell no. (It's easy to argue Niven's Known Space is just as "soft" as the Federation.)
posted by aught at 7:24 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wait. Are you implying that _Ringworld_ is hard science fiction?

Hehe, beat me to it. Ringworld is every bit as fantastic as Star Trek, starting with the object in the goddamned title.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:27 AM on December 19, 2012


It's a lot more to do with economics than with science or art, in my view, and more still to do with psychology. People declaring that Their Stuff is cooler than The Stuff That's A Bit Like Their Stuff are very much alike - far more so than people who just get on with enjoying whatever they enjoy. Books really are different from each other, but nothing sucks the individuality out of them like turning them into nothing more than the raw materials of a turf war.

Hey, I like aliens better than elves, too, but discussions like these have often been used to crowd people (especially women) out of SF. Niven is in. McCaffrey's out. What's it matter that they both write space opera with implausibly bipedal aliens?

As an old teacher of mine, and feminist SF writer, once remarked to me, "It's no coincidence that so many male sci-fi writers think the superior form of SF is 'hard.'" As with penii, the superiority of rigorousness is assumed. Never mind that rigorous works often (but not always) botch the social sciences completely. Bleh.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:36 AM on December 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


I would just like to note, now that I've stopped foaming at the mouth, that in the first link, Simon Dunn proves himself unable to distinguish between TV/movie/media SF and the written genre.

The reason this is significant is that the former rely on visuals to provide a compelling sense of engagement for the viewer; but they tend to be thin on plot and concept, because the natural lit-fic equivalent of a 2 hour feature movie is a 25,000-30,000 word novella. The media formats simply don't have the duration or scope to put complex concepts across. So they substitute pretty SFX and eye-candy stars for actual ideas. If you're looking for ideas in your SF you'll have to learn how to read.
posted by cstross at 7:40 AM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


what about the kids who are inspired by both SF and fantasy and want to grow up to make (or be!) robot dragons? Because really. Robot dragons!

Honestly I feel like the name "science fiction" is a misnomer, that causes some people to think it has to involve REAL SCIENCE. Certainly that's part of it, I've read some awesome stories about projected future tech and it's impact on how people live. But there are also shitty, dreary stories that get the science right.

SF, to me, is stories about imagining the future. Some of these imaginary stories are more based in fact than the others. But really: how much scientific rigor did Philip K. Dick have in his work? Not much. Gibson famously hadn't even used a personal computer until after he pounded Neuromancer out on a typewriter. (And that reminds me that SF isn't about predicting the future either - how close was Gibson's, or anyone else's, visions of the GLOBAL COMPUTER NET to the real Internet?)

SF is for thinking about the future and playing with some ideas. Sometimes. Sometimes all you want is a rip-roaring adventure with crazy-looking alien landscapes and spaceships, and there's nothing wrong with that either - I enjoyed Star Wars too.

As long as people are inventing new technologies, and speculating about where these technologies will be in ten, twenty, a hundred years, there will be technological change. And as long as people are still writing stories about what things might be like once one of these future technologies is usable, there will be science fiction. Some of it may be supported by deep theoretical physics research, some of it may be supported by a bunch of traditional ideas about hyperdrive and aliens and galactic warfare. And some of it will be well-written and compelling, with no correlation to how "scientific" it is.
posted by egypturnash at 7:42 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


jscalzi:
1. Get the science that we know to be correct as correct as you can get it.
2. Extrapolate intelligently from there for the purposes of your story.


I just read redshirts, so I'm pretty sure this isn't how either one of use defines science fiction.
posted by zoo at 7:44 AM on December 19, 2012


Also one thing I just realized I, and probably most people, missed in the first article linked: the guy who wrote is is a scriptwriter, so he is quite possibly talking about the lack of any grounding in science in TV sf, rather than in WRITTEN sf.
posted by egypturnash at 7:51 AM on December 19, 2012


robot dragons? Because really. Robot dragons!
posted by adamdschneider at 7:52 AM on December 19, 2012


Is Science Fiction promoting pseuodoscience? Is it not really better than fantasy?

And this is a bad thing?

Some of us read science for science, and science fiction for musings on characters and human nature in unusual situations - you know, the same reason we read fantasy.
posted by jb at 7:58 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hehe, beat me to it. Ringworld is every bit as fantastic as Star Trek, starting with the object in the goddamned title.

My guess was that he liked it and he put a ring on it.
posted by ersatz at 8:01 AM on December 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


the natural lit-fic equivalent of a 2 hour feature movie is a 25,000-30,000 word novella.

That's very true -- I wish that they would stop trying to adapt novels into 2 hour films, when they really are much more like a mini-series.
posted by jb at 8:05 AM on December 19, 2012


Hey, I like aliens better than elves, too, but discussions like these have often been used to crowd people (especially women) out of SF. Niven is in. McCaffrey's out.

also Ursula K. Le Guin, or Octavia Butler - both of whom write soft SF about social issues and are (rightfully) recognized as two of the more important SF writers.

even Asimov's best work tended to be about social and psychological issues, for all that he was trained as a physical scientist. I think it's just that literature, by it's nature, is about characters and their relationships more than anything else.
posted by jb at 8:09 AM on December 19, 2012


Some time ago, I came across Drako Suvin's idea of cognitive estrangement and the idea clicked with me. Science Fiction tends to tap into the sciences and philosophy for its sources of estrangement, fantasy taps into the humanities. Both can use various levels of handwavium.

I also keep coming back to the thesis that Tolkien staked both his writing and academic career on, that fantastic fiction is primarily literature and not an academic window into some other subject. Of course, many fans would disagree. They prefer to quibble over exactly how much Reynolds is playing games with entropy to make his ships work or whether Sam Gamgee actually makes stew.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:20 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Honestly I feel like the name "science fiction" is a misnomer, that causes some people to think it has to involve REAL SCIENCE.

I think the tension between realists and fantasists applies to most genres. Look at Westerns for example. The iconic Sergio Leone Westerns have about the same relationship to the American Southwest in the 19th century as Hamlet does to Denmark and Macbeth to Scotland.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:34 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


SF, to me, is stories about imagining the future. Some of these imaginary stories are more based in fact than the others. But really: how much scientific rigor did Philip K. Dick have in his work? Not much. Gibson famously hadn't even used a personal computer until after he pounded Neuromancer out on a typewriter.
egypturnash

Exactly. SF is about exploring ideas and society, and about science (social or physical) and technology's effect on society.

"Hard" science fiction has always struck me as utterly ludicrous and missing the point. The point is the exploration and imagination; the "science" is, necessarily, set dressing. The important thing isn't whether you're using a Star Trek communicator or a completely technically accurate cell phone; the important thing is how that communication device affects the world. People whining about hard SF are like people angrily dismissing Hamlet because it does not accurately reflect medieval Danish architecture when describing sets. And, as mentioned above, this silliness is used as a way to shut down discussion of stories focusing on social issues (because social science isn't real science so it doesn't count) and push out women and minorities.

Not to mention, this idea that non-"hard" SF promotes pseudo-science is demonstrably false. The people who built the space program in the 50s and 60s grew up with "Golden Age"/pulp SF that is full of bizarre nonsense. But they came away with wonder and imagination, and that's what we need. I feel like hard SF actually stiffles and crushes that spark of wonder. Guys like Gibson who play fast and loose with the science have gotten a hell of a lot more right and have had much more interesting observations of the world than those obsessed with meaningless "scientific" detail.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:39 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Science Fiction and fantasy aren't unified blocks. Nerds who grew up in the 80s think of them that way, but it's just not the case anymore. Just as mystery fans have to differentiate between Dennis Lehane and James Patterson, so do sf and f fans have to realize that these complaints are totally true for a large portion of current output, especially in TV and movies. And don't even get me started on the total lack of science in comic books. DO NOT.

There's lots of great fiction out there that is set in a traditional sf/f environment. To me, Star Trek TNG or Buffy or BSG or Game of Thrones are all of those. But they have nothing to do with science, and that's OK.

But then there's Primer. It is possible to make a brilliant piece of fiction ABOUT science and/or that uses a real scientific concept to tell a story. And that is the best of all. Let's support the shit out of Upstream Color y'all.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:43 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Think of all the technobabble spouted on Star Trek...

So that's why they could never eject the damn warp core. There's no such thing!
posted by steambadger at 8:54 AM on December 19, 2012


Anyone who thinks science fiction is "smarter" than fantasy is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.
posted by straight at 9:10 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Zoo:

"I just read redshirts, so I'm pretty sure this isn't how either one of us defines science fiction."

Interestingly, I've seen the argument made that Redshirts isn't science fiction at all. It's hard to have a discussion about it without spoiling the book, but I think it's an interesting and possibly defensible argument.

For my part, I would agree that the book was written without much scientific rigor involved.
posted by jscalzi at 9:38 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Let's just agree to pin it all on Damon Lindelof and go out for drinks instead.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:39 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


But then there's Primer. It is possible to make a brilliant piece of fiction ABOUT science and/or that uses a real scientific concept to tell a story.

Wait, which one is Primer? I'm pretty sure that time travel is not a "real scientific concept".
posted by adamdschneider at 9:43 AM on December 19, 2012


Best and worst Science Fiction/Fantasy movies of 2012 - I like my Avengers and such as much as anyone but I'm rather gratified to see a film that is straight up SF at number one there.
posted by Artw at 10:06 AM on December 19, 2012


Every now and then the SF market gets saturated with stories by people who latch onto a wave and ride it until it hits the beach. Timeless themes never grow old, but the clothes change with fashion. Whilst the characters are changing their costumes, the impatient audience wonders if the play is over.

Nope. Never. It will persist until people forget how to ask "what if...."
posted by mule98J at 10:30 AM on December 19, 2012


Few people take literary fiction to task for trotting out the same, tired 'dysfunctional middle class relationship goes into tailspin - consequences happen' story again and again. For my part, I'm totally cool with reading SF about an AI gaining sentience and learning to exist in a predominantly human milieu, providing it's a good story. Sure, the preponderance of pre-existing stories where that happens means that it will have to be particularly good in order to distinguish itself (where 'good' = some combination of supple, vivid prose, memorable characters, and a rip-snortin' plot) but one hopes that pressure is precisely what drives a genre to improve and develop.

We do have some interesting cultural issues about what sort of stories speak to our fears and aspirations - space travel over any sort of distance looks like an increasingly tough proposition - but I agree with everyone who says that it's not really about the logistical feasibility so much as Suvin's ideas about cognitive estrangement - although I would go further and add that what I also like about SF are the really cool creatures/technology/new worlds. It's easy to lose sight of that in all the intellectual territory-marking, but I don't think the whole awesome-factor is something the genre need be ashamed of.
posted by RokkitNite at 11:04 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Few people take literary fiction to task for trotting out the same, tired 'dysfunctional middle class relationship goes into tailspin - consequences happen' story again and again.

Hmm. But people have. And more importantly if it seemed like the author wasn't really exploring what might happen based on knowledge of middle class relationships but instead was just stringing together a bunch of ideas about middle class relationships received from other works then it would probably come in fit a fair bit of critisism - words like "melodrama" and "soap opera" might be employed.
posted by Artw at 11:13 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Few people take literary fiction to task for trotting out the same, tired 'dysfunctional middle class relationship goes into tailspin - consequences happen' story again and again.

Yes they do. Quite a lot. If they're people who don't actually read literary fiction.

If they do, on the other hand, they know it's a silly and inaccurate stereotype.
posted by Kit W at 11:14 AM on December 19, 2012


twoleftfeet: Why anyone would put up the nine billion names of Bob I don't know.

Just to be sure, I used the Internet for that.
I think I love you.

But not in a healthy way.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:48 AM on December 19, 2012


I really like good stories.
My heart is warmed that Scalzi and Stross are both posting here defending those good stories.
*Whip crack*
Now get back to work you two! You could get hit by a bus tomorrow!
posted by bystander at 2:02 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


True, but they don't grow up and, inspired by their childhood reading, try to make dragons.

Hi! I read Genetics at University because, inspired by books like Pern, I wanted to be a genetic engineer and make dragons. No kidding.
posted by alasdair at 2:16 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


*Whip crack*
Now get back to work you two! You could get hit by a bus tomorrow!


...because nothing helps a writer focus and encourages the imagination more than fans telling them they have no right to do anything with their lives except serve their fans.

Some jokes are not cute.
posted by Kit W at 3:41 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


True, but they don't grow up and, inspired by their childhood reading, try to make dragons.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of the model of science fiction that's about predicting or inspiring technology. My favorite SF novels involve things that are quite possibly beyond human control. Reality-changing engines (Le Guin), alternate histories (PKD), alien singularities (Tepper and Slonczewski), conflicts between ways of thinking that are both alien and human (multiple authors including Le Guin, Asimov's robot stories, Slonczewski), and dystopias we hope never to create (Lem).
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:39 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Few people take literary fiction to task for trotting out the same, tired 'dysfunctional middle class relationship goes into tailspin - consequences happen' story again and again

A friend of mine (a philosophy prof and author of a rapidly growing list of plays and short SF stories) likes to refer to these as "stories about paint drying in Connecticut." ("Some of it is very fine writing. But it just gets boring.")
posted by lodurr at 6:48 AM on December 20, 2012


I think of them all as having been written by the Jeff Daniels character from The Squid and the Whale.
posted by Artw at 7:18 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Hard" science fiction has always struck me as utterly ludicrous and missing the point. The point is the exploration and imagination; the "science" is, necessarily, set dressing. The important thing isn't whether you're using a Star Trek communicator or a completely technically accurate cell phone; the important thing is how that communication device affects the world. People whining about hard SF are like people angrily dismissing Hamlet because it does not accurately reflect medieval Danish architecture when describing sets. And, as mentioned above, this silliness is used as a way to shut down discussion of stories focusing on social issues (because social science isn't real science so it doesn't count) and push out women and minorities.

You know, dismissing the importance of hard science fiction is as reductive as scoffing at fantasy. "The point" for you may not be "the point" for someone else. People like SF for lots of different reasons; for many folks, it's because some of it could, conceivably, happen. The difference between a Star Trek communicator and a technically accurate cell phone might not be important, but the difference between a phone/communicator and a phone that receives calls from Heaven might be. If you're interested in the social aspects, that's great -- but lots of readers who are interested in the social aspects also want to explore the social ramifications of something that might actually be relevant to their lives, and not just a symbolic stand-in for something else.

Other people like hard science fiction for the restrictions; the idea of SF being a genre where anything can happen is overwhelming -- if anything can happen, then, for some people, it becomes obvious that what happens is just what the author wanted to have happen. The set dressing becomes obvious, and the illusion is ruined.

That's not everyone, obviously. If that's not your thing, that's fine. But they're valid reasons, not just pedantry from crypro-racists.
posted by Amanojaku at 9:22 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


excellent points, amanojaku, but I think there is an important distinction that should be drawn between hard SF and rigorous fantasy: Hard SF enjoys a very privileged position in shaping our notions of possible realities. The harder the trappings, the more seriously we take it.

By way of illustration, contrast Greg Egan and Rudy Rucker. Both write stories where doing math literally changes reality. They have different sets of trappings. Almost no one I know automatically categorizes Rucker as a hard-SF writer (though I've heard people make the argument); almost everyone I know who has an opinion on the matter categorizes Egan's math stories as hard SF. And I know a fair number of SF fans who see the idea of intellectual activity literally altering the nature of fundamental reality as a real, non-metaphorical possibility.

After reading, say, Elric of Melnibone, ordinary sane people are not encouraged to seriously consider the idea that quasi-sentient cursed swords are free in the land being weilded by magical albinos. After reading Egan stories, ordinary otherwise very science-literate people, superficially identified with the positivist paradigm, believe that you can change reality by just doing math.

While here I'm just trying to illustrate a distinction, I will admit this really bothers me. The reason is that it's a profoundly human-centric understanding of reality. (It's also another occasion to call on a particular word that I've been trying in off moments for months to remember, but just can't bring to mind -- one that describes treating metaphors as though they're literally real.) Thought -- intellectual activity -- is a privileged expenditure of energy. It somehow has a different relation to reality than does, say, the electricity flowing through an electric motor. Minds have a separate reality from the physical that we're able to see. Call it a legacy of psychedelia, if you wil, but I see it as a legacy just as much of religion. A throwback -- really, a failure to get past the past and get on with the future.

The problem isn't that this stuff exists, it's that it clothes itself in these privileged trappings, thus giving people an excuse for entertaining woo for a few more generations under the cover of exercising their metaphorical imaginations.
posted by lodurr at 12:49 PM on January 18, 2013


lodurr: After reading, say, Elric of Melnibone, ordinary sane people are not encouraged to seriously consider the idea that quasi-sentient cursed swords are free in the land being weilded by magical albinos.

I don't think that's really the point of Moorcock's Elric stories, nor is the point of The Hobbit that there's really a race of mostly good little people who smoke something that's similar to tobacco. Unfortunately I've not read Egan (although he's now on my list) and my little reading of Rucker suggests that his stories are not about obsessive guys who've been given a glimpse of future pornographic advertising for household cleaning products either.

Otherwise, I'll agree with your point that "hard" science fiction fans seem to buy into a fair number of ideas that should be treated with a fair degree of skepticism. But, I don't think this is unique to science fiction, and I expect a fair bit of beanplating the meaning and relevance of The Hobbit over the next few years.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:32 PM on January 18, 2013


Can you point out any of these mathemagical books by Egan/Rucker? Sounds like I'd enjoy entertaining my woo with them.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:48 PM on January 18, 2013


(trying to be somewhat vague to avoid spoilers)

Egan has a couple short stories "Luminous" and the sequel "Dark Integers" about the possibility of mathematical inquiry having effects on the laws of physics.

Egan's novel Quarantine plays with possible interpretations of the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment and the possibility that humans effect reality simply by observing it.

Egan's novel Permutation City pushes at the concept of simulating consciousness on a computer. If it's possible, how far can you push the definition of what counts as a computer? And what makes a simulated universe less ontologically real than our (presumably) non-simulated universe?

And frankly, if any of that kind of thing sounds at all appealing, I'd just recommend Egan's collection of stories Axiomatic. I think it's second only to Ted Chaing's Stories of Your Life and Others as a single-author collection of hard SF.

I don't know which of Rucker's books best exemplifies what lodurr is referring to, Mathematicians in Love, maybe? Spaceland? (a riff on the classic Flatland)

Rucker and Egan are both more famous for writing books about people living as software inside computers. For Egan, that includes Permutation City, Diaspora, Schild's Ladder, and Incandescence, most of which are set in a far-future galactic civilization. Rucker's stuff is more Earth-centric, set on the fringes of a computational singularity with digitized civilizations competing with physical ones for the Solar System's resources (the Ware series, Postsingular, Hydrozoic). Egan's most recent series, Orthogonal, invents a universe with different physical laws and follows the physicists of an imaginary civilization doing experiments that parallel the history of our real-life physics while getting different results.
posted by straight at 3:00 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


All that said, I think lodurr is being a bit unfair in complaining about hard science fiction being a license to indulge in mathematical woo. I think there's a pretty clear difference between the kind of "thought experiment" hard SF Egan and Rucker do, and stuff that's intended to be more possible, books that try to help us grapple with actual technological changes that may face us in the future.

I think of Bruce Sterling's more recent stuff, or Vernor Vinge's short story "Fast Times at Fairmont High" or even Egan's Zendegi, which is in some sense a rebuttal to his more fanciful stories about duplicating human minds in a computer, or at least an attempt to grapple with how very hard such a thing would be to do.
posted by straight at 3:20 PM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


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