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Breaking: Science fiction is fiction
May 8, 2007 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Ruining science fiction: Not only are the science fiction cliches humorously skewered in the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy, but the science itself is wrong. For example, despite the best efforts of SF writers, interstellar trade will never work, unless wine costs $11 billion a bottle. Slower-than-light travel is much harder than you think, and warp drives are far away. Space battles, if they happen, won't have fighters and dramatic dogfights, but instead involve vast distances and maneuvers lasting years. And you can ruin a whole lot more science fiction with real science (and wonderful examples) at Atomic Rocket. Don't follow the links if you want to read Heinlein or watch Battlestar Galactica with a light heart.
posted by blahblahblah (185 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
Must be why they use that 'fiction' word.
posted by NationalKato at 11:53 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Science fiction is less about explaining science, then it is exploring issues of humanity. (at least the good stuff is)
posted by drezdn at 12:00 PM on May 8, 2007 [7 favorites]


Scientists are jerks.
posted by boo_radley at 12:01 PM on May 8, 2007


This is why I get depressed when I read posts about really far away shit, like that really bright supernova that we are just now seeing. I grew up a science fiction addict, convinced we were one day going to achieve interstellar travel. Only recently have I really grok'd that we aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Sucks.
posted by quite unimportant at 12:03 PM on May 8, 2007


Space battles, if they happen, won't have fighters and dramatic dogfights, but instead involve vast distances and maneuvers lasting years.

While I understand, and agree with, the sentiment, definititive statements about something that does not exist, and may not exist for centuries (if ever), is just, well, stupid.
posted by teece at 12:06 PM on May 8, 2007


Some scifi series are more plausible than others. Firefly took place on a solar system scale rather than the more technologically daunting galactic scale. Its easier to envision spacetrade and combat taking place over the span of a hundred million miles than a hundred million light years. Especially if you assume that the current exponential rate of technological change will continue for a few hundred years, and that someone will make a breakthrough in energy production. (although I always did wonder how those first Firefly settlers made it to the new solar system in the first place...it takes place only 500yrs in the future, they don't have FTL technology...how'd they get there from Earth?)
posted by T.D. Strange at 12:09 PM on May 8, 2007


Science fiction isn't about science, it's about Cory Doctorow liveblogging the Hugos from a balloon while wearing a red cape and goggles.

Besides, since Damon Knight died, nobody knows what SF is anymore.
posted by eriko at 12:14 PM on May 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Space battles, if they happen, won't have fighters and dramatic dogfights, but instead involve vast distances and maneuvers lasting years.
See The Forever War by Joe haldeman.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:15 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Then again, there are plenty of examples of sci-fi predicting new technology (and even inspiring it). Around the World in 80 days? Communicators from Star Trek are pretty much cell phones. Orson Scott Card had a pretty good vision of the internet and message boards in the Ender series. Frederick Pohl's Man Plus dealt with human enhancement, something we'll likely be coping with a lot more over the next 50 years. Those are just the examples off the top of my head.

So yeah, science fiction isn't always possible, but sometimes it inspires scientists to make possible the impossible. Surely back in 1873 somebody had an excellent argument about why humans could never develop the technology to make it around the world in only 80 days.
posted by SBMike at 12:17 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


To make it clear, I am a long-term science fiction fan, and always liked the hard science fiction subgenre. In those novels, projecting conventional science forward matters, and I was surprised to know just how much science they were ignoring, hence the post. Certainly authors who put science second to fiction, such as Dan Simmons or Gene Wolfe, represent a different can of beans, so don't get too mad at me...
posted by blahblahblah at 12:24 PM on May 8, 2007


Slower-than-light travel is much harder than you think

Slower-than-light travel is actually very easy. I do it all the time.
posted by Bort at 12:24 PM on May 8, 2007 [18 favorites]


Dammit. And here I thought the Cylons had a plan.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 12:25 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


I was pretty sure that some friends and I had made a breakthrough in bistromathics the other night.
posted by Staggering Jack at 12:31 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


won't have fighters and dramatic dogfights, but instead involve vast distances and maneuvers lasting years.

Well, last time I killed a spacecraft, it didn't take years or involve any kind of vast distance; I just trod on it one night.

You'd be surprised how painful an X-wing can be to the bare foot.
posted by quin at 12:32 PM on May 8, 2007


It's interesting to me, blahblahblah. I write. I have thought about writing lit. fiction, fantasy, and science fiction (although I generally just end up writing verse).

I don't ever have a problem with the inanity of it all when I'm (thinking about) writing fantasy.

When I'm (thinking about) writing science fiction, the inanity bothers me.

But that makes little sense. Most of what gets called science fiction is really just fantasy. Hard sci-fi is much less common. And much harder to do, and much less flashy. If it's not very narrowly focused and set in the very near future, it's not really hard sci-fi at all.

In Star Trek, for instance, they do try to imagine what humans might be able to do with science and technology in the future. But it's still just fantasy. They make no attempt to make sure their musings are even possible, let alone plausible.

Most science fiction falls into this category, in my experience. And that's fine with me. Even shows like Firefly, where the author thinks he's being realistic by restricting the action to one star system, are complete nonsense, realistically. But fun nonsense. Even illuminating nonsense, sometimes.
posted by teece at 12:32 PM on May 8, 2007


Surely back in 1873 somebody had an excellent argument about why humans could never develop the technology to make it around the world in only 80 days.

They didn't know about Handwavium back then. I have to find a way to work that term into some meeting minutes.
posted by MikeMc at 12:33 PM on May 8, 2007


>Around the World in 80 days? Communicators from Star Trek are pretty much cell phones.

I dont think those count. You can just write a story saying "We will be able to travel to x in y amount of time" and let all the engineers do the hard work, then when it happens say "SEE! I knew it!" You need to describe the method at the very least.

Same with communicators (what a clever name!) How do they work? Does the enterprise deploy a cell tower network? Does it deploy many LEO satellites? Who knows? But now the geeks can say 'WHOA WE TOLD YOU SO.'

Describe the method if you want to impress anyone other than other sci-fi nerds. Its happened a couple times, but not very often, especially when you raise the burden of proof to a reasonable limit.

For instance, spare warfare is a given. What form it will take, what technologies, etc are still up in the air. If I wrote a short story about using a laser to heat up a hull 2 light years away causing casualties, well that's pretty descriptive, but what kind of laser? How will you be able to target the other ship? What will power this laser? Why doesnt the enemy have counter-measures? etc. etc. etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:36 PM on May 8, 2007


Good post! although I love Trek and Star Wars (and the like), I have been trying to write hardcore sciency sci-fi over the last few years (no ray guns, no time travel, no FTL travel, no alien races). Although it's hard to do, it makes for more interesting storytelling IMO.

Operating within the bounds is where the real art comes from. Anyone can color outside the lines. It takes a real artist to color well within.
posted by grubi at 12:37 PM on May 8, 2007


Space battles have already happened. Just nobody talks about since weapons aren't supposed to be in space and nobody wants to make the citizens even more anxious.

And any talk of warships and beam weapons is pretty damn optimistic. It doesn't make any kind of sense to put people in space. Realistic space combat would actually look something like modern urban warfare (see Iraq): lots of positioning, lots of missiles, lots of drones, and immense, sudden concentration of firepower. Drones would be the key -- up to and including entire automated space stations -- combined with mass troop movements and the construction of enormous military bases that are really just heavily fortified supply depots capable of sustaining themselves. Of course for societies to sustain war for the kind of time scales involved you'd need some real hardcore authoritarian governments. Democracies would never be able to sustain a hot war on a far away enemy for say, a century or two. So really the most effective way to inflict violence across interstellar distances would involve economic weapons combined with network/communication attacks.
posted by nixerman at 12:39 PM on May 8, 2007


Space battles have already happened.

Moonraker doesn't count.
posted by NationalKato at 12:43 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


T.D. Strange I'd assume they got there in an STL colony ship(s). Even at only 10% of C it would only take a century or so to reach the nearest stars. Given the fantasy gravity manipulation and whatnot involved in Firefly it isn't difficult to suppose their colony ships could go that fast.

For us in the real world it'd take a bit longer, but its still doable. Make around 90%-99% of your ship reaction mass (ice would work well, design the ship like a giant push up popsicle) and you could get a fairly respectable turn of speed going, and all that ice up front would make a decent particle shield too, until turnaround anyway... It would be a generation ship type project but still.
posted by sotonohito at 12:43 PM on May 8, 2007



Scientists are jerks.
posted by boo_radley


True. Which is why I've become an anti-climate change, creationist, red state republican.

Stoopid scientists. Acting like fags and fucking shit up.
posted by sourwookie at 12:43 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


See also: Mundane SF
posted by Artw at 12:45 PM on May 8, 2007


My biggest problem with Firefly was its strangely literal revisitation of the old west. I have fewer problems with the science of the show than with the suspension of disbelief required to believe that any society would suddenly decide to model itself on what it had been hundreds of years earlier. Yeah, I know it was meant to be a cutesy conceit, and if they'd downplayed the old westiness, kept it subtle, okay...but it was so, SO very much not subtle. Otherwise a pretty good show, but certainly goofy in this respect. That I think it was intended to be kinda goofy isn't really a good excuse.

BSG is fantastic (or...well...it was, until the second half of this season), but the science...oh, dear. It's best not to think about it too much.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:45 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


NationalKato writes "Must be why they use that 'fiction' word."

Note the title of this post: "Breaking: Science fiction is fiction"
posted by Bugbread at 12:46 PM on May 8, 2007


BTW, does anyone know what happned to the alledged main site for Mundane SF, or have a link to a mirror of the original manifesto?
posted by Artw at 12:46 PM on May 8, 2007


Y'know, speaking as one of those semi-mythical, highly endangered SF writers, I'd like to point out that most of the cliches blahblahblah is wagging the censorious finger at are, in fact, epiphenomena of media SF, specifically film and TV, which only remotely approximate the written form. (Indeed, I could write a big essay about how TV SF is much closer to extruded fantasy literary product than it is to real SF, because the format itself -- the hour-long weekly episode -- is inimical to SF as a vehicle for disruptive ideas; but I'm not going to bore you witless).

Some of us are aware of the implausibility of the items supplied by the traditional SF wardrobe/central casting department. And if you want to know what kind of reaction this awareness brings, you might want to look into the Mundane SF movement.
posted by cstross at 12:46 PM on May 8, 2007 [14 favorites]


Cstross :

Hey, you are one of my favorite science fiction authors, and one who uses science in interesting ways. And now you hate me. Only MeFi will give you the chance to make your favorite authors despise you.
posted by blahblahblah at 12:50 PM on May 8, 2007 [7 favorites]


Personally, I like some science in my fiction, and I'm not surprised when the science in my fiction is also fictional. As long as there isn't any fiction in my real science, I don't have a problem with it.
posted by Tehanu at 12:50 PM on May 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


My problem with firefly, other than being a red-state confederate rebel in space wank fantasy, is when they showed whats-her-face working on the engine, the way your grandpa worked on old v-8s. Oilly rag in one had and forehead sweaty from working heavy tools against the heavy bolts... on an engine of a fantastic spacecraft. Sorry, I just can't buy that this machine needs an oil change a new filter every so often and that engine problems can be solved with a wrench some old fashioned elbow grease.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:50 PM on May 8, 2007


Realistically (ha!), there would be no interstellar war. Any civilization technologically advanced to get here from another planet can just nuke us from orbit - if you can make the first move, you win.

Interstellar communication would be very limited - very narrow channel, and probably limited to 'swaps' - cultural heritage and massive blue sky science it would take centuries for us to achieve on our own, like the cure for cancer.

And this assumes we can (a) find them out there in the void, (b) overcome the language barrier, and (c) not kill each other off by infecting each other with our respective colds.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:51 PM on May 8, 2007


Dammit, I was going to write a long, rambling post about how Accelerando takes a much saner view to this, don't truck stuff to the stars, truck the bits to make the stuff instead. And then Charlie Fucking Stross pre-empts me. Dammit.

Can I have your autograph?
posted by Skorgu at 12:51 PM on May 8, 2007


A mundane manifesto... from the Journal of Mundane Behavior.
posted by acro at 12:56 PM on May 8, 2007


Nice post, thanks! (To take just one example of things I learned from it, this page taught me that there was such a magazine as Authentic Science Fiction, one shilling sixpence an issue. "Authentic"? There'll always be an England!)
posted by languagehat at 12:57 PM on May 8, 2007


Oi! Stross! Get your own link! That one was mine!
posted by Artw at 12:57 PM on May 8, 2007


I found this blurb in the NASA link very poignant:

Time travel is considered far more impossible than light travel.

"Impossibility" is such a relative word, and is so often proven wrong. It is only apt when it applies to short-term thinking, i.e. it is "impossible" to do this with our current equipment, knowledge, etc.

Science Fiction helps foster imagination and a desire to think of one's place in the universe as larger than it currently is. Thinking that the future could be better than it is now, or at least different, for many people, is what pulls them out of bed each morning. I see nothing wrong with that.

Many people suffer from a chronic lack of imagination; others suffer from a chronic disconnect with reality. Science fiction, in my view, is somewhere in the middle.
posted by tempestuoso at 1:01 PM on May 8, 2007


acro... looks like a diferent mundane manifesto I'm afraid.
posted by Artw at 1:01 PM on May 8, 2007


My biggest problem with Firefly was its strangely literal revisitation of the old west. I have fewer problems with the science of the show than with the suspension of disbelief required to believe that any society would suddenly decide to model itself on what it had been hundreds of years earlier.

Actually the old west theme used in Firefly is not all that uncommon in SciFi. And in a weird sort of way, it's a defensible idea; if you are going to settle an empty planet, you could bring along a lot of high technology which might break down, or you could bring along tools that have been working for humans for years, and are a renewable resource.

Horses work as transportation, power for plowing, fertilizer, and if need be, food. Properly taken care of, a few horses can be bred and keep a community taken care of forever. Two tractors will never make a third.

I think the cowboy time period works, because it was right before the industrial revolution. It was one of the last times that humans could be almost totally self sufficient. Completely ignoring how easily it fits into the whole Frontier motif that the scifi writers are going for, it actually makes sense because the tech would be sustainable without a heavy duty infrastructure.
posted by quin at 1:07 PM on May 8, 2007 [5 favorites]


I don't like science fiction. I prefer to read chick lit while pretending I'm a Dark Ages monk. Women wearing revealing clothing and courting men? And their lustful talk is conveyed to each other through fanciful 'telephone' engines on wires of solid copper? Can you imagine such a world? The mind reels...
posted by Pastabagel at 1:09 PM on May 8, 2007 [7 favorites]


As a fictional character, I feel the need to point out that handwavium is largely supplanted by balonium early in the Second Empire.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:10 PM on May 8, 2007



Describe the method if you want to impress anyone other than other sci-fi nerds.


But if you can describe the method, either the tech is close to happening anyways, or you might as well try to invent it yourself.

To predict something like the Internet would exist was a bold pronouncement in 1950 when computers where the size of rooms, and a few megabytes of RAM would take up as much space as a piano. To explain how it was going to happen, while somewhat more impressive, is not necessary.

aside: I sometimes wonder if the possible dwindling in Sci-Fi literature fandom has something to do with the increasing rate of change in technology. We know longer have the time to sit and absorb tales of the future, when it keeps hitting us in the face.
posted by drezdn at 1:13 PM on May 8, 2007


Let's not discount the important strides made in Unobtanium refining.
posted by Skorgu at 1:14 PM on May 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


>"Impossibility" is such a relative word, and is so often proven wrong.

Just because some things have been proven wrong doesnt mean all thins will be proven wrong.

For instance, some people thought that faster than sound travel was impossible. Others pointed out that bullets do it all the time. Some people thought that VTOL was impossible and others pointed out that honeybees do this all the time. etc.

When it comes to big picture items like time and space, its very difficult to see if such an assumption is as foolish as some may believe it to. Unless you're witnessing time travel on a daily basis or have some other compelling reason to think of time travel as happening or possible, its safe to assume its may just be impossible. Same with FTL anything.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:14 PM on May 8, 2007


Vernor Vinge already made this post, except it was in the form of his two Hugo award winning novels!
posted by smackwich at 1:14 PM on May 8, 2007


You may love CStross Blahblahblah but I cannot love the man who killed numerous PC's by giving us the death knight
posted by Megafly at 1:14 PM on May 8, 2007


Mundane SF sounds kinda Dogme 95 for science fiction. I like it! But I don't see it replacing escapist science fiction anytime very soon.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:15 PM on May 8, 2007


I used to like science fiction, but at some point the cardboard scenery just got too damn obvious.

Most sf is written by hacks channeling westerns:
planet=town
rocket=stagecoach
personal-size-rocket=horsey
blaster/phaser/orgasmaray=(yo gits th'idear)
aliens=injuns
bad guys=bad guys (how'd that happen?)

and most important:
THE TRIP FROM ONE TOWN TO THE NEXT DOES NOT TAKE 400000 YEARS (it maketh the story to draggeth)-- hence wormholes/warp drives/handwavium crystals

In fairness, some sf channels historical romances, fairy tales, the bible, and anything that can be appropriated.

And some is unclassifiable, wonderfully original, imaginitive, and at the same time amazingly stupid. Yeah, Vonnegut too. And Dick.
posted by hexatron at 1:15 PM on May 8, 2007


The thing is, a heavier-than-air aircraft is rendered impossible by the weight of the coal it would have to carry. So it's a charming idea, but impossible.
posted by WPW at 1:17 PM on May 8, 2007 [13 favorites]


So really the most effective way to inflict violence across interstellar distances would involve economic weapons combined with network/communication attacks.

Yeah and lasers man!! DOn't forget teh frakin' lasers!!
posted by Skygazer at 1:17 PM on May 8, 2007


Unless you're witnessing time travel on a daily basis or have some other compelling reason to think of time travel as happening or possible, its safe to assume its may just be impossible.

If you're a SciFi author, you probably do have some compelling reasons to think of time travel as possible.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:18 PM on May 8, 2007


when they showed whats-her-face working on the engine, the way your grandpa worked on old v-8s. Oilly rag in one had and forehead sweaty from working heavy tools against the heavy bolts... on an engine of a fantastic spacecraft. Sorry, I just can't buy that this machine needs an oil change a new filter every so often and that engine problems can be solved with a wrench some old fashioned elbow grease.

That's exactly what I like about it. It's a helluva lot more entertaining than a bunch of Trek-style fake tech speak and earnest clean-cut guys tapping away at touch screens.
posted by brundlefly at 1:19 PM on May 8, 2007


Unless you're witnessing time travel on a daily basis

Everyone witnesses time travel on a daily basis. You're all doing it right now.
posted by WPW at 1:19 PM on May 8, 2007


engine problems can be solved with a wrench some old fashioned elbow grease

Why not? Apollo 13 stayed alive with duck tape. As technology gets more commonplace, common tools get more advanced. When electricity was a newfangled thing you were making it up as you go along, now I can get a digital autoranging multimiter for $20. Once the interfaces are well-defined, it doesn't take a factory full of specialized tools to fix things, especially if the thing you're fixing is designed to be fixed.
posted by Skorgu at 1:25 PM on May 8, 2007


There's a lot of we folk who are scientifically-literate enough to be well aware of many/most of the typical errors in science-fiction. Not to mention the real-life scientists that enjoy science-fiction.

The thing is, though, that there are a few things that most people accept as necessary suspensions-of-disbelief that are part of the genre. FTL is the main one, I suppose.

My sense is that what's expected from authors by the scientifically-literate is that the big fantastical elements are given at least a nod to some sort of credibility, even if it's really hand-waving. Or it's just a given: FTL exists, period. Then, at the more detailed and lower levels of science, we expect the science to actually be pretty good. And then, overall, we expect everything to be consistent and to hang-together.

All of this must come second to decent writing and storytelling, though. Most writers of very explicitly hard science fiction are in my opinion either boring or clumsy, or both. There's a few that I enjoy. But most of the writers I really like make their science credible enough not to be distracting but otherwise use the science in the service of the story, not the other way around.

It's also silly to nitpick the science when so many other things are unrealistic. Much characterization in other times and places is absurdly present-centric, for example. Not to mention cultural stuff. In fact, it's revealing that there seems to me to be an inverse relationship to competency of cultural world-building and science world-building. That probably reflects the cultural divide between the hard and soft sciences, not to mention the general cultural divide.

The bottom line is that this is genre fiction. It's flawed by definition. It's genre because there are tropes that subordinate everything else, which almost without exception results in inferior writing. That's okay—if you look at the books I've entered into librarything, they're almost all science-fiction and fantasy. I enjoy genre fiction a lot, obviously. But, taking the wide view, it's really absurd to criticize the science in any detail in science-fiction because so much else is flawed as well. Yeah, it does make sense to criticize it because it is, after all, science-fiction. But, hell, anyone who is very scientifically literate is already aware that this stuff is almost without exception fantastical.

Ironically, when I hung around with physics grad students in the mid-90s, there were a subgroup of them that actually argued about Star Trek science. The science in ST is so bad, it's in my opinion incredibly dumb to even worry about how bad it is. But the same argument applies, though less so, to almost all of science-fiction. Which brings me back to my first paragraph. The science just has to be good enough and it has to work with, not against, the traditional virtues of a novel. That's far hard enough a task to ask of almost any science-fiction novelist. It's silly to ask them to be simultaneously a decent writer, a physicist, a biologist, an engineer, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a political scientist, and whatever else. Give 'em a break.

The esteemed Mr. Stross is a good example of all this. Here he is representing himself as virtuous in all this when, frankly, in my opinion he avoids some errors and commits others. His highly acclaimed Accelerando had stuff that I admired how knowledgable and well-though it was and then other stuff that made me harrumph in annoyance. Basically, science-fiction writers can't win at this credibility game. They shouldn't try and we shouldn't expect them to. What they can do is be good enough at it. And that's fine.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:27 PM on May 8, 2007


Actually the old west theme used in Firefly is not all that uncommon in SciFi. And in a weird sort of way, it's a defensible idea...

Oh, definitely -- which is why I'm saying if they'd kept it subtle (but present), it would have been fine. I guess it's a subjective thing, but I can deal with steel guitars, starships full of livestock, batwing-doored saloons, western-style costuming, and even southern accents when it comes to a show that wants to depict the future as like the old west -- but when I'm expected to accept all of these things, I kinda feel like the production borders on camp. The parallel is too literal to be taken seriously. (Mind you, I LIKED Firefly!) I think they could have toned it down a little, is all.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:29 PM on May 8, 2007


Then there's fiction that uses scientifically current anthropology, archaeology, etc. a la People of the Wolf The science is background to the plot, but read as the 'correct' interpretation, kind of like mundane sf.
posted by acro at 1:31 PM on May 8, 2007


I thought Iain M Banks' The Algebraist contained some of the best use of contemporary sci-fi ideas and thinking: space elevators, no faster than light travel (w/o a portal)... and... um other things I don't remember. But then I think Mr Banks is a genius.
posted by NailsTheCat at 1:33 PM on May 8, 2007


What Skorgu said regarding repairs, if your mobile phone came without obfuscated screws and a decent handbook they would be repairable, but the design calls for the opposite.
posted by acro at 1:34 PM on May 8, 2007


I agree with MikeMc, handwavium is a great friggin' term.
posted by Mister_A at 1:35 PM on May 8, 2007


Inimical? Epiphenomena? Jesus suffering fuck. (also love your work btw).
posted by Samuel Farrow at 1:35 PM on May 8, 2007


I think this is in some ways the definitive comment of the thread. The post talks about errors of assumption, and then it goes on to assume all sorts of things itself. For example:

Space battles, if they happen, won't have fighters and dramatic dogfights, but instead involve vast distances and maneuvers lasting years.

Except you don't know that, because you don't know what the spacecraft will use for propulsion or weapons and what constraints and behaviors they will impose or make possible. I could go on, but it's pretty much all like that. A kind of "my ignorance is superior to your ignorance" sort of thing. Some things are obvious: spacecraft shouldn't make a "whoosh" sound when they go by, but we already knew that. Hell, the producers of Star Trek knew that and did it anyway, because it worked better on screen. And besides, TV SF != SF, and the former is what most people in this thread are referring to.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:42 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


kittens for breakfast: if you listen to that director guy for Firefly (what the hell is his name? oh yeah, Whedon), his justification for the Old West theme in Firefly is much worse than the theme itself.

Whedon imagines the non-Alliance people to be Old South southerners more than Old West westerners (minus that whole slavery thing, of course, he says). Hearing him say that made it really hard to not hate Firefly. The guys an idiot (but I do like Firefly, Serenity).

A woman wrenching on the engine to a starship does not strike me at all as outlandish. Really, you have no reason to believe one way or the other that it wouldn't need an oil change. Who knows what moving parts it has? Why are we to assume a better lubricant than oil has been come up with? Or that mechanical fasteners like nuts and bolts would suddenly become passe? Nuclear powered aircraft carriers are fantastically advanced machines. They still have men and women with wrenches working on them.

There are many other things in Firefly to pick on.
posted by teece at 1:45 PM on May 8, 2007


Oh, definitely -- which is why I'm saying if they'd kept it subtle (but present), it would have been fine. I guess it's a subjective thing, but I can deal with steel guitars, starships full of livestock, batwing-doored saloons, western-style costuming, and even southern accents when it comes to a show that wants to depict the future as like the old west -- but when I'm expected to accept all of these things, I kinda feel like the production borders on camp. The parallel is too literal to be taken seriously. (Mind you, I LIKED Firefly!) I think they could have toned it down a little, is all.

I liked the contrast between the Trek-like Alliance and everyone else. I think it was meant to be very literal, and it didn't come off as camp at all. It was meant to merge a future culture and the Old West, not allude to them.
posted by Tehanu at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2007


Only recently have I really grok'd that we aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Sucks.

It gets worse when you really grok that we aren't going anywhere ever.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:47 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Not all science fiction is in space you know. One of my favorite scifi authors is Peter Watts who manages to take a sound scientific premise, extrapolate it to ludicrous degree and then spin a brilliant story around it. Without spaceships.
posted by Skorgu at 1:49 PM on May 8, 2007


Er, he's currently up for hugo for a story with a spaceship in it isn't he?
posted by Artw at 1:51 PM on May 8, 2007


Metafilter - Acting like fags and fucking shit up.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:52 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


NailsTheCat is right, Banks is great. In his novella The State Of The Art, he has a character say something that is directly relevant to this discussion. The speaker is a representative of The Culture, a fabulously advanced civilisation that is, by our standards, a magical paradise:

"These people [humanity] expect time travel, telepathy, matter transmission. Yes, we can say, 'Well, we do have a very limited form of prescience through the use of anti-matter at the boundary of the energy grid which lets us see nearly a millisecond into ...' or 'Well, we usually train our minds in a way not entirely compatible with natural telepathic empathy, such as it is, but see this machine here ...? If you ask it nicely ...' or 'Well, displacing isn't quite transmission of matter, but ...' They will laugh us out of the UN building; especially when they discover we haven't even got out of our home galaxy yet ... unless you count the clouds, but I doubt they would."

What Banks says here, and he's right, is that if we can't come up with a solution to some things, the terms of the problem may change so fundamentally that it becomes irrelevant.

Take faster-than-light travel. The speed of a ship is only one limiting factor here - another is the human lifespan. We might make no progress towards speeds much faster than we can now achieve - but if medical science guarantees us lifespans of 80,000 years, our conception of time would change so utterly that interstellar travel is suddenly feasible - a 70-year voyage won't be such a big problem.
posted by WPW at 1:52 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


engine problems can be solved with a wrench some old fashioned elbow grease

Why not? Apollo 13 stayed alive with duck tape. As technology gets more commonplace, common tools get more advanced. When electricity was a newfangled thing you were making it up as you go along, now I can get a digital autoranging multimiter for $20. Once the interfaces are well-defined, it doesn't take a factory full of specialized tools to fix things, especially if the thing you're fixing is designed to be fixed.


To quote Commander Montgomery Scott: The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.
posted by Ber at 1:54 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Peter Watts is amazing, at least in his use of theoretical science and taking it to the illogical extreme.

You have to love when someone recreates vampires in space, because vampires in space makes sense when you have an interesting theory to explore about the possible evolutionary existence of vampires. And his site is wicked cool too.
posted by daq at 1:55 PM on May 8, 2007


Filthy propagandist lies. Yeah, I was thinking of the Rifters series. I haven't read Blindsight yet.
posted by Skorgu at 1:56 PM on May 8, 2007


And Mr Stross, I promise I will finish Iron Sunrise this weekend. Your presence here has made me feel guilty.

Really, there's a whole crop of authors that blow this theory out of the water: the gentleman above, Banks, Reynolds, Vinge, Hamilton, etc. The space opera is alive, well and entirely plausible folks.
posted by Ber at 2:03 PM on May 8, 2007


Hey, nyrath! Get in here!

Accelerando does great stuff with the idea of no FTL, as others have already described. I also liked Vernor Vinge's short story "Long Shot", which covered much the same ground.

Hmm, I can't really find anything original to say. Well, I'll just say that I agree with what Mr. Stross said!
posted by jiawen at 2:06 PM on May 8, 2007


My biggest problem with Firefly was its strangely literal revisitation of the old west. I have fewer problems with the science of the show than with the suspension of disbelief required to believe that any society would suddenly decide to model itself on what it had been hundreds of years earlier.

Not only that, but they threw in a Dickensian-era contingent (Badger, with the very fine hat) just for a lark.

It's the same thing Bradbury did in the Martian Chronicles - depicting the frontier of space within the traditional frontier idioms of American literature; in Firefly's case, it's American movie language.

I liked the way the Bluecoats and Reavers echoed, in a very simplistic, movie-going way, Federalists and American Indian raiding parties, the extremities of too much law and too little. In today's language, we might just as well perceive ourselves in the crossfire of proto-fascist Neo-Conservatism and grass-roots terrorism - but it's actually darker since there's no obvious frontier left to chase. Rather, we live between their teeth, trying to pry open the jaws.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:08 PM on May 8, 2007


That's exactly what I like about it. It's a helluva lot more entertaining than a bunch of Trek-style fake tech speak and earnest clean-cut guys tapping away at touch screens.

Plus, I'd much rather bang Kaylee than Scotty.

My problem with Firefly was that Mal didn't fly his own ship, but had that annoying unfunny useless pilot guy flying it. Lame. It'd be like Han Solo letting Jar-Jar fly the Falcon.
posted by notmydesk at 2:08 PM on May 8, 2007


but had that annoying unfunny useless pilot guy flying it.

Wash was a neat caricature of the American office worker. His ambitions were domestic: wife, vacation time, Hawaiian-shirt-day, cubicle toys, and the like. I thought dropping him into Han Solo's chair was a nice twist.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:15 PM on May 8, 2007


Why writers use FTL:

Let's get a sense of scale.

The centre of your right thumb's fingernail is the sun. Hold your right index finger against your thumb. The centre of its fingernail is where the Earth is, on a scale of one AU to one centimetre (roughly). Pluto is around your elbow.

Where's Alpha Centauri? Well, it's about two and a half miles thataway.

Space isn't just vast, it's actively mocking us. We're jumped-up time-binding story-telling primates, and the stories we tell are mostly about us. Alas, we don't scale well to fill those immense gulfs of space and time. Nor are we terribly vacuum-proof or radiation hardened.

Handwavium makes the stories possible, unless you want stories that are forever set in our own solar system, or indeed, on our own planet. Or unless your idea of interstellar travel is very radical and very weird indeed (and utterly unlike any historical model of travel we've experienced -- including, for example, the early Australian colony fleets, which took up to 3 years to make the voyage, with a couple of hundred people crammed cheek by jowl in a ship with living quarters about the size of two railway carriages).
posted by cstross at 2:16 PM on May 8, 2007 [6 favorites]


including, for example, the early Australian colony fleets, which took up to 3 years to make the voyage, with a couple of hundred people crammed cheek by jowl in a ship with living quarters about the size of two railway carriages

Hmmm...this could make an interesting premise for a science fiction story!
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:20 PM on May 8, 2007


People look so sure of themselves declaring what we can and can't do in space. It's a little embarrassing when we know that we don't know anything about 95% of what our universe is made of.

95%! It leaves a lot of room for a lot of possibilities, including about the nature of space itself. The only thing we seem to be lacking is imagination (Charles Stross not included here).
posted by bru at 2:21 PM on May 8, 2007


Has anyone read Walter Jon Williams' "Dread Empire's Fall" series? He at least attempts to work some physics into ship maneuvers.
posted by MikeMc at 2:22 PM on May 8, 2007


...but had that annoying unfunny useless pilot guy flying it...

Why you... I ought to shoot you through the chest with a ginat metal harpoon thing for saying that. Wash was ace.
posted by Artw at 2:22 PM on May 8, 2007


I'm the author of the Atomic Rocket website, and I have to say I'm with Mr. Stross. Especially when I included one of his quotes to illustrate a point.

Mr. grubi stated that "Operating within the bounds is where the real art comes from. Anyone can color outside the lines. It takes a real artist to color well within." Basically the Atomic Rocket site tries to define the lines for those authors who are trying to color within the lines. Such authors have a hard enough job as it is, I'm just trying to do the grunt work for them so they can concentrate on the artistic part.

But it doesn't say that you have to color within the lines if you don't want to.

Alas, I get enough angry emails from deranged Trek fans that I had to put up this section.
posted by Nyrath at 2:23 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Anybody who talks about "Star Trek" as if it's SF is not qualified to talk about SF at all.
posted by signal at 2:23 PM on May 8, 2007


Pff. If it's got robots, aliens and spaceships in it it's SF. Feel free to argue forever about whether it's good SF or not.
posted by Artw at 2:30 PM on May 8, 2007


Artw: by your definition, your comment was SF.
posted by signal at 2:32 PM on May 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


Artw: by your definition, your comment was SF.

He should submit that comment to Espresso Stories.
posted by MikeMc at 2:35 PM on May 8, 2007


Pff. If it's got robots, aliens and spaceships in it it's SF.

Check, check, check.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:36 PM on May 8, 2007


You know, the 'science' in science fiction doesn't have to be physics or astronomy. Social sciences are sciences too, their theories just have higher error.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:37 PM on May 8, 2007


I've long thought - ever since I watched Dark Star (*) and found out how my ZX Spectrum worked(**), in the same afternoon - that FTL is only a matter of perception. We operate within a teeny range of perceptions: we're wired to think at a certain speed, congruent with our metabolisms, lifetimes, things that may kill us, social requirements, what have you. That makes us think that two hundred years to the nearest star is, somehow, a long time.

Living longer won't make it seem any shorter, although you may be more blase about spending the period doing crosswords, reading the entire Gor series, whittling a CD of sound effects from a block of cheese, or whatever. But if you get frozen - either in suspended animation a la 2001, your consciousness blown into a computer with the clock stopped, Hypnotoaded - then there is no time for you. You blink, you've made the trip. Eventually the universe will run down, but until then, providing you can get the reliability up, you're golden.

More sophisticated methods would involve winding your clock frequency up and down depending on what's going on, and you really want to synchronise your comms, but that's all engineering, not changing the laws of physics.

The speed of light is a constant - until we make our perception of time go slower. Then it goes faster - and, paradoxically, so do we. The stars, our destination (but be sure to cancel your subscription to Wired afore ye go).

Easy. Next?

(*) Teach it phenomenology, Doolittle
(**) You mean, when the video chip wants to read the RAM, it stops the clock to the processor - and the processor never knows anything happened? Cool.
posted by Devonian at 2:38 PM on May 8, 2007


Pastabagel - Yeah, theres a bit of an assumption that SF is exclusively Space Opera going on here. I blame television.
posted by Artw at 2:39 PM on May 8, 2007


reading the entire Gor series

Way to make posthuman existance sound like some kind of living death...
posted by Artw at 2:40 PM on May 8, 2007


Television: I blame metafilter.
posted by acro at 2:48 PM on May 8, 2007


Truly great literature? Yeah, it’s all about pages and pages of engineering schematics.
Nah, it’ll always be story first, because y’know, they’re stories. Impose whatever bounds you wish, but it’s a poor workman that blames his tools (or lack thereof).
Whether the SF is so mundane it’s about a world where the highest speed computers are very slightly faster or it’s utterly fantastic, it’s still going to be story driven.
And the only real difference is whether the writer is lazy and uses the McGuffin to hash over something or uses it in truly interesting and thought provoking ways.
(+ what Ethereal Bligh sed)

Seriously - FTL is impossible, so we shouldn’t write fiction containing it?

“ ‘Space battles, if they happen, won't have fighters and dramatic dogfights, but instead involve vast distances and maneuvers lasting years.’
Except you don't know that, because you don't know what the spacecraft will use for propulsion or weapons and what constraints and behaviors they will impose or make possible”

Doc Brown: In the future, man will run for fun
Cowboy: Run for fun? What the hell kind of fun is that?

(/IM IN UR TEETH, PRYIN UP UR JAWZ)
posted by Smedleyman at 2:50 PM on May 8, 2007


Whedon imagines the non-Alliance people to be Old South southerners more than Old West westerners (minus that whole slavery thing, of course, he says). Hearing him say that made it really hard to not hate Firefly.

Whatever for?
posted by Snyder at 2:50 PM on May 8, 2007


Greg Egan also writes space opera without FTL (although some think his use of people downloading their consciousness into computers is equally handwavy magic).

Check out this story for a really cool idea for how to get to a point in empty interstellar space as fast as Einstein will let you. (And an equally cool reason for wanting to.)
posted by straight at 2:52 PM on May 8, 2007


"As a fictional character, I feel the need to point out that handwavium is largely supplanted by balonium early in the Second Empire."

Gosh, what happened to unobtainium? Did the mine shut down or something???
posted by zoogleplex at 2:55 PM on May 8, 2007


I don't like science fiction. I prefer to read chick lit while pretending I'm a Dark Ages monk. Women wearing revealing clothing and courting men? And their lustful talk is conveyed to each other through fanciful 'telephone' engines on wires of solid copper? Can you imagine such a world? The mind reels...

Sounds like Jorge Louis Borges: "This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?."

Also, Bruce Sterling wrote a short story using contemporary technology--computers, internet, cell phones--in the style of science fiction and then invited his readers to try to imagine reading it 10 or 20 years ago.
posted by straight at 2:58 PM on May 8, 2007


Sorry, meant to link that the Borges quote is from Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.
posted by straight at 3:01 PM on May 8, 2007


One of the best time travel stories I've ever read is Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. The time traveler is a guy who due to some unexplained and unspecified biological condition (Chrono-Displacement Disorder), flits back and forwards through time.

The book contains no science, no explanations, but is, in my humble opinion, the best exposition of the possible emotional effects of time travel on the Traveler, his loved ones, and it's impact on causality in their lives. There is a scene in which the traveler, upon returning yet again to the scene of his beloved mother's death, notices dozens of other versions of him, younger and older, and realizes he cannot get over his mother's death. (But because there are older versions of him there too, you the reader realize he will never get over his mother's death, because he continues to return here even after coming to this realization at a relatively young age).
posted by Pastabagel at 3:02 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Honestly the only thing I care about within SF is 1) is it written well, 2) is it internally consistent. I've read "hard" sf and liked it, I've also read it and hated it, same goes for the more fringe "sciency" books.
For example, A.A. Attanasios Radix was a great story, horrible science but seriously BFD.
posted by edgeways at 3:03 PM on May 8, 2007


Don't think it's been mentioned, so my favorite FTL method is "yunching" in Frek and the Elixir. Basically you uncoil the strings of yourself and your ship (strings as in string theory), grow to the size of the galaxy, inch over a little bit, then shrink back down to normal size at your destination. Utterly ridiculous, probably, but fun as hell.
posted by brundlefly at 3:15 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


drezdn: To predict something like the Internet would exist was a bold pronouncement in 1950 when computers where the size of rooms, and a few megabytes of RAM would take up as much space as a piano. To explain how it was going to happen, while somewhat more impressive, is not necessary.

Actually, in 1953, when my great-uncle had to invent a device so that the radar stations he'd concieved to guard our northern border could communicate digital information over analog lines (later called a "modem"...Oooooo), he started writing a science fiction story he never got around to completing that fancied a future world in which people's computers could talk in real time without the use of wires, and that they'd form a massive communications network...

So, nyah.
posted by thanotopsis at 3:19 PM on May 8, 2007


“ "yunching" in Frek and the Elixir.”

Sounds like Harry Harrison’s bloater drive.

(Yeah, I read Bill the Galactic Hero - so?)
posted by Smedleyman at 3:26 PM on May 8, 2007


Unobtainium? I haven't seen any of that since the Cartel thought they could make everyone pay triple by restricting the supply. When DiGriz found out that applying a layer of suspensonite to the ubiquitous old standby balonium could make it do everything we were using unobtainium for, that was the end.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:28 PM on May 8, 2007


Yeah, I read Bill the Galactic Hero - so?

So you're a man of taste and distinction.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:31 PM on May 8, 2007


Faster than light travel typically implies closed timelike curves, which is basically time travel. And since I've not yet seen swarms of FTL-traveling, self-replicating machines swarm across the galaxy converting most of the matter into more machines, nor have I been visited by my descendants, I'll rule them both out.

Or, as I like to say, "If you assume one impossible thing, you can get a bunch of other impossible things out of it." Applies equally well to science fiction and amusing paradoxes involving God.
posted by adipocere at 3:38 PM on May 8, 2007


So, you're really John Titor, adipocere? Don't lie to us.

"Unobtainium? I haven't seen any of that since the Cartel thought they could make everyone pay triple by restricting the supply. When DiGriz found out that applying a layer of suspensonite to the ubiquitous old standby balonium could make it do everything we were using unobtainium for, that was the end."

Argh! My holdings are all worthless then! How annoying! That's the last time I believe a holobrowser pop-up on the GalactiWeb...

Space piracy is my only option. I'd better steal an old battle cruiser somewhere.
posted by zoogleplex at 3:44 PM on May 8, 2007


Smedleyman : (Yeah, I read Bill the Galactic Hero - so?)

"Shut up you moron or I'll kill you" he hinted.

One of my favorite lines from any book, ever.

And not the first time I've quoted it here, apparently.
posted by quin at 3:46 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Anybody who talks about "Star Trek" as if it's SF is not qualified to talk about SF at all.

That's just silly. Science-fiction is defined by its genre tropes now matter what some socially-disabled wannabe science geek claims. It's not defined as fiction utilizing correct science as a plot device—that would be, absent the science-fiction tropes, a subset of general fiction and not science-fiction.

All of these tropes necessarily go outside the boundaries of correct science—if set in the future, they postulate new scientific discoveries and technological advances and/or large-scale social development. Some tropes involve alternate universes or other settings distant in time and space. Others are set in the present but specifically go outside the boundaries of contemporary scientific knowledge. The best that can be achieved in this context is some level of plausibility that satisfies some kind of reader. Real accuracy or verisimilitude is by design impossible.

This being the case, then there is no justification for excluding something from science-fiction which has as its themes one or more science-fiction tropes yet has very implausible science. At most, such science-fiction is a subset (relatively implausible science-fiction) of science-fiction. Star Trek, like almost all film and television science-fiction, has very poor science. On the other hand, it contains major science-fiction tropes and this is widely recognized.

I'm going to repeat myself but hopefully be more clear this time. The science in science-fiction doesn't make it science-fiction—the thematic and stylistic tropes of science-fiction make a particular work science-fiction. The science itself is nothing more than (yet important nevertheless) part of the environment, the setting, for the fiction. The science in a science-fiction novel functions like, say, the setting of Brooklyn in Jonathon Lethem's excellent Motherless Brooklyn. It's important to the nature of the book and requires an acceptable level of accuracy for the average reader of such novels. It's not going to satisfy someone expecting a literal and precise description of Brooklyn, nor should it. Just like a science-fiction book isn't going to satisfy, nor should be expected to satisfy, a reader wanting real and accurate science.

Furthermore, Lethem is a good example to use in this discussion because Motherless Brooklyn is genre fiction, a crime/detective novel, yet is considered by many to be general fiction or literature. Why? Because it's good, it's not dominated by the fact that it's genre fiction. The genre tropes are a context for a good novel. Similarly, his Gun, with Occasional Music is a science-fiction novel that you won't find in the science-fiction section of the bookstore. It's a combo science-fiction/crime novel but, again, these genre elements function as a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

The people who bitch about the quality of science in science fiction are hurting the genre because they've got things ass-backwards. They should be bitching about the quality of the writing and characterization. Worrying about whether space battles make sense is part of what's keeping science-fiction in the near-adolescent genre ghetto. The science-fiction writers who have gained the greatest literary respect couldn't give a damn about scientific accuracy. That doesn't mean that to write literary-quality science-fiction you need to include bad science, it just indicates a correlation between those obsessed with good science and those who are bad writers. And as long as science-fiction attracts aspiring writers from the ranks of techno-geeks and science-geeks and not from the ranks of, well, writers, this is going to continue to be the case. Perhaps we, as fans of the genre, should encourage good writers to experiment in this genre and work to include decent science.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:48 PM on May 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


Oh crap, did you just make an attempt to justify the "it can't be Science Fiction because it's good" argument?

This will not go well.
posted by Artw at 4:04 PM on May 8, 2007


Oh crap, did you just make an attempt to justify the "it can't be Science Fiction because it's good" argument?

When it's good, they insist on calling it Magical Realism.
posted by kid ichorous at 4:10 PM on May 8, 2007


If you're wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts (la la la)

Just repeat to yourself: it's just a show. I should really just relax.
posted by dozo at 4:20 PM on May 8, 2007 [6 favorites]


My understanding of handwavium vs unobtainium is:

Handwavium is some unspecified material whose properties don't matter, and just serve to power some device. Glorthrax crystals used in FTL. Throbooblium used in anti-gravity devices.

Unobtanium is some material whose properties are the important part: the super-strong alloy of blooferium. The ultra-frictionless material of slippinslidium.

So if you want to power your ship, you use handwavium. If you want to armor your ship, you use unobtainium.
posted by Bugbread at 4:26 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


So if you want to power your ship, you use handwavium. If you want to armor your ship, you use unobtainium.

They're just isotopes of bolonium. You have to be careful -- too much bolonium caused all of Known Space to collapse.
posted by eriko at 4:38 PM on May 8, 2007


The people who bitch about the quality of science in science fiction are hurting the genre because they've got things ass-backwards. They should be bitching about the quality of the writing and characterization.

Ethereal Bligh: Amen to that. I'll take fantasy space opera that is good literature over hard sci-fi that is good science but crap literature any day of the week. If only it were easier to find.... I'll also take hard sci-fi that is good literature, or even just plain old good literature!

Lots of great, hard sci-fi writers are crappy creators of literature (say, Asimov, and Clark). Yeah, gound-breaking in their work in the genre, but still pretty bland and forgettable writers. Neat ideas -- not neat literature. (YMMV).

So it's not like hard sci-fi is some kind of be-all end-all. Dan Simmons writes fantasy sci-fi, but still manages to do an OK job on the literature part (sometimes). etc...
posted by teece at 4:44 PM on May 8, 2007


Not that it matters cuz this whole thread got weighed down with trivialities and "my kinda SF rocks your kind sucks" bulldada about two or three dozen posts in.

Firefly is more fiction than science. It's totally bogus science, really. You can't call this science.

The whole story is supposed to take place in one solar system, and yet this solar system occasionally has multiple suns, and although there's a difference between those planets near "the core" and the ones on "the outer rim" from a sociological or economic perspective, it'd be patently impossible to put thirty planets inside the same ecosphere. You're lucky to get one or two of them in there without affecting one another's gravitational pull and careening into one of the nearby stars or off into space.

Supposedly, in five hundred years, man mastered FTL travel, then forgot it, then learned terraforming techniques that would allow mankind to live on planets outside the ecosphere of a star, yet not know how to make planets that didn't look like scenery for Gunsmoke reruns.

Even when the power goes out in a space ship, even when the life support fails, that gravometric doodad that keeps the captain from floating or walking on the ceiling? It still works, folks. Why not just take that thing and hook it up to the life support? It must be running on a cat with slices of buttered bread taped to its back.

A race of people who embraced cussing in chinese and allegedly the anglo & sino cultures merged so much that it became difficult to see where one left off and the other began, but somewhere along the way they seem to have misplaced asian people. There's like only one asian extra in the whole series, and he was playing a cop. Although some characters have chinese names, they're most certainly not asian. Where'd the asians go? Were they all eaten by space monsters? Maybe that'd make it more.. sciencey.

A race of people whose scientists knew how to do brain surgery on a little girl, multiple times, and not even leave a scar. However, still couldn't figure out how to kill one another in a proper brawl, without leaving a bloody mess.

I love Firefly. Don't get me wrong. It was some of the best television ever. It was also some of the worst scifi ever to grace any medium. The purpose wasn't to get the future right from a scientific perspective. The purpose was to get the stories right, and that Whedon's team of crazies did beautifully...

I think I'm gonna go put a Firefly DVD on tonight. Been awhile since I watched them. Love those things. Terrible science though.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:56 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


ZachsMind writes "somewhere along the way they seem to have misplaced asian people. There's like only one asian extra in the whole series, and he was playing a cop. Although some characters have chinese names, they're most certainly not asian. Where'd the asians go?"

In the future, being white is a dominant gene, and being asian is a recessive gene.
posted by Bugbread at 5:17 PM on May 8, 2007


I kind of like Frederick Pohls thoughts on this:

"People ask me how I do research for my science fiction. The answer is, I never do any research. I just enjoy reading the stuff, and some of it sticks in my mind and fits into the stories. Maybe that's the best way to do it. Stories where the author has known very little, but run a computer program that tells him how to construct a planet, and looked up specific things about rocketry and so on, really suck. If you don't care about science enough to be interested in it on its own, you shouldn't try to write hard science fiction. You can write like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison as much as you want."

Stolen shamelessly from the StarShipSofa podcast I listened to this morning
posted by Artw at 5:31 PM on May 8, 2007


I wanted to point out (too late, I know, given the delta-v of MeFi) one of the niftier things on the site I linked to, for those who might miss it, or skip the links to get right into the genre-bashing. It is the (pdf) Delta-V Nomogram. It lets you calculate, using just a straight edge, how fast any given engine with get you to any given destination. You can read about it here.
posted by blahblahblah at 5:34 PM on May 8, 2007


The people who bitch about the quality of science in science fiction are hurting the genre because they've got things ass-backwards. They should be bitching about the quality of the writing and characterization.

No, they're looking for different things out of the genre. They should be bitching about whatever it is they don't like about the books they read. edgeways said it well: I don't care if you break every law of physics ever written, or stick to them meticulously as long as you stay self consistent. This applies to all writing, scifi just gives more areas to screw up in.

When I read scifi, and I do quite a bit, I'm looking for characters, plots, and yes adventures but more than that I'm looking for new ideas. I want to read a book that, for weeks afterwards spins my head around until I'm looking at everything differently. The best example I can think of this is by The Integral Trees by Larry Niven. As a story it's nearly a trivial exercise in creative writing, but as a mechanism to illustrate a peculiarity of the universe it's brilliant.

Now, obviously, I prefer my reading material to be both well written and well imagined, but given the choice, I'd rather read timecube if it had a compelling (self consistent!) axiom.

I do think that mainstream, TV science fiction and probably 90% of written science fiction is crap. This is hardly surprising or distinctive. It might be a problem that arguably the least internally consistent examples are the most popular, but I doubt it. Star Trek et al simply fill a different need. It's a fantasy story that happens to be in space. From a purely literary analysis point of view, it's scifi because it has space ships and robots and that's a valid characterization from one direction. On the other limb, since it happily breaks and reforms its own laws of physics, it's not exactly scientific. Hence the (attempted, futile, silly) attempt by some to split the genre into "scifi" and "sf' or "science fiction."

Don't get me wrong, I wish that there were some tag in the library or on amazon that grouped Niven, Banks, Clarke, etc in one heading and left the crap out, but that's hardly a problem that's unique to science fiction.
posted by Skorgu at 5:37 PM on May 8, 2007


ZachsMind: like I said, Whedon is an idiot. Listening to him talk about his "vision" of Firefly was painful. He's got a very simple and childish thought process, when it comes to imagining a future reality. But he does have at least something of a clue when it comes to making an entertaining story, though, and can make very interesting character dynamics.

But I also think it's a bit of a red herring to pick on the science in Firefly, or any work of fiction (to a certain degree). You can quite fairly pick apart the science reality of almost any work of fiction. Fiction does not mirror reality, and it should not mirror reality. Story is a deliberate perversion of reality. It's the non-real things that make us like it, I think. Nothing in real life "works out" like it does in story.

Firefly is fantasy. Most science fiction is fantasy (hell, all fiction is fantasy, some just more so than others). What matters is that the world is internally consistent, not completely realistic (and I agree with all of your gripes about the inanity of the Firefly world).

Take any work of fiction, and there will be major problems with the reality of it. I tend to think that some science fiction thinkers tend to get too carried away with this in their thinking about sci-fi, in a way they wouldn't in another fictional setting. (Not really saying you're doing that, your post just made me think of it).

Now if a sci-fi work seems to be playing at hard sci-fi, but purports a perpetual energy machine or something, then the science should be a real gripe, but in most settings the science/reality only should go so far as the story requires, and only need suspend disbelief (as others have said).
posted by teece at 5:39 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


The science is on Star Trek is light-years better than what happened every week on Space 1999. Talk about FTL - what solar system are we and our moon in this week, Commander Koenig?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:43 PM on May 8, 2007


I think teece nailed it with his statement that what really matters is "Does it have internal consistency and is it a good story?" Fussing over whether or not a work of fiction violates what we know of science is something of a waste of time.

I enjoyed this bit of snarkery:
LIBERTARIAN MILITARISTS. A society that is frequently met with, at least among EARTH HUMANS. These people believe in minimal government and maximum personal autonomy, yet they have a large military establishment with very well-disciplined troops. This raises some interesting questions. How minimal can a government be if it collects enough taxes to support that enormous military? Don't people feel that if they're going to pay all those taxes they might as well get some roads or public colleges as well? And how does a society so devoutly individualistic provide sufficient recruits to an organization as essentially and necessarily group-oriented and authoritarian as a military force?

More generally, how does this odd combination arise in the first place? If these people are libertarians, they're unlikely to be EMPIRE builders, so they don't need a big military for conquest. And if they are so threatened from all sides as to need it for defense, how have they avoided a garrison-state culture in which (necessarily authoritian) military values become generally dominant in the society? Political scientists and sociologists have yet to provide a satisfactory answer to these questions. They need to work harder. It can't be for lack of examples, because PLANETS with Libertarian Militarist societies are found all over the KNOWN GALAXY.

via http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/lyonesse/spaceguideF-L.htm#known_galaxy
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:56 PM on May 8, 2007


cstross writes "The centre of your right thumb's fingernail is the sun. Hold your right index finger against your thumb. The centre of its fingernail is where the Earth is, on a scale of one AU to one centimetre (roughly). Pluto is around your elbow.

"Where's Alpha Centauri? Well, it's about two and a half miles
thataway."

That can't be right. I mean, intuitively, that just not believable. Anything that makes me so personally incredulous has to be made up.

But to show I'm an open-minded American who believes in real science (you know, without the boring numbers and incomprehensible and probably made-up "equations"), as soon as my vibrating power crystal re-energizes my sacred chakra and my Noni juice pyramid pays off, I'll pray on it to my personal guardian angel.
posted by orthogonality at 5:57 PM on May 8, 2007


Actually the old west theme used in Firefly is not all that uncommon in SciFi. And in a weird sort of way, it's a defensible idea...

Actually - and someone touched on this upthread - the Western themes in Firefly were a nod to both the literary and filmed traditions which supersede them. The Western as a genre pursuit, was replaced by science-fiction from the late-50's through to the mid to late '60's. To wit, teece, Firefly is sci-fi literature.

I always assumed that Whedon was fully aware of this when he created the Firefly 'verse. There is no reason why extraterrestrial settlement shouldn't be depicted as Western-style colonialism, if people are operating on fully accessible Earth-like planets. As a Whedon creation, Firefly is as much a self-reflective homage to its genre-sources as it is a new creation. And the nods to Chinese expansionism were just plain smart.

If ever there were a sci-fi show deserving resurrection it would be Firefly – and I say that as a devout 'Scaper.
posted by vhsiv at 5:59 PM on May 8, 2007


"He's got a very simple and childish thought process, when it comes to imagining a future reality. But he does have at least something of a clue when it comes to making an entertaining story, though, and can make very interesting character dynamics."

And that there describes what it takes to get someone to fund your TV sci-fi series pilot.

Though it does help to have a couple other successful shows beforehand...

"The science is on Star Trek is light-years better than what happened every week on Space 1999. Talk about FTL - what solar system are we and our moon in this week, Commander Koenig?"

But dude, I still love that hokey ol' show. There's just something about it, y'know? I even used to have that ginormous plastic Eagle toy. I still have to pick up the full set on DVD...
posted by zoogleplex at 6:13 PM on May 8, 2007


Around the end of the 19th Century/beginning of the 20th Century, one of the pre-eminent physicists of the day stated that everything was now known, there were no mysteries left to SCIENCE! and everybody could turn out the lights and go home.

The moral is scientists may be smart, but they don't know everything.
posted by lekvar at 6:20 PM on May 8, 2007


When I read scifi, and I do quite a bit, I'm looking for characters, plots, and yes adventures but more than that I'm looking for new ideas.

I don't want to argue too strenuously against this because, frankly, my lifetimes of reading science-fiction has provided me with this and I value it.

But I think that this viewpoint as to what once wants from science-fiction is, um, uninformed in pretty much the same way as someone who listens to that Bell guy on the radio for "new ideas". The reliability of these "new ideas" in science-fiction with regard to science is, as we've all been saying, not very high. It's only one step up from pseudoscience in that the threshold of ignorance isn't sixth-grade level (or less) like pseudoscience, but rather high-school level. That's not much improvement and anyone who is learning science from science-fiction, even the very hardest science-fiction, hasn't learned that much and what they've learned is very shaky. In this, it's a bad thing. If you want to learn about science, learn about science. Study it or read reliable (usually meaning written by a scientist in that particular field) popularizations of science. Science-fiction is in some ways worse than nothing.

And while a tiny handful of science-fiction writers have occasionally revolutionary yet credible scientific ideas, most of the mind-expanding ideas you get in science-fiction come from scientists and philosophers speculating either among themselves or in various informal (and sometimes formal) venues. You can have your mind expanded with reliable information, if you want. From my perspective, those who want to learn new science ideas from hard science-fiction are only marginally less deluded than those who want the same from science-fantasy.

Now, that said, I'm the last person to criticize simple matters of taste in art in terms of it being an individual's prerogative to decide what they enjoy. I've read most of the Western Canon, most of the great philosophy and literature of the west. And yet most of what I read on a day-to-day basis is genre fiction—science-fiction and fantasy, for the most part. That's because I read for simple pleasure and these are the things I enjoy most. So if someone enjoys hard science-fiction more than other types of fiction, great. There's nothing wrong with that.

But if they justify their taste on the basis of learning about science and stretching their minds, then that's something different. And it's just not a very convincing argument. It's really a rationalization.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:26 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Actually - and someone touched on this upthread - the Western themes in Firefly were a nod to both the literary and filmed traditions which supersede them. The Western as a genre pursuit, was replaced by science-fiction from the late-50's through to the mid to late '60's. To wit, teece, Firefly is sci-fi literature.

I don't disagree with this at all, vhsiv. I'm just saying that I think the western pastiche in Firefly is poorly done and not well thought out, and that from Joss Whedon's own mouth, he was thinking more along the lines of the Old South than the Old West (the fantasy versions of those both, of course).
posted by teece at 6:54 PM on May 8, 2007


But if they justify their taste on the basis of learning about science and stretching their minds, then that's something different. And it's just not a very convincing argument. It's really a rationalization.

Sounds like you're not seeing the car battery for the jumper cables.
posted by Cyrano at 7:02 PM on May 8, 2007


If it please the court, I would like to submit two exhibits from my father's bookshelf.

Exhibit A: My father's college physics textbook. Contains a 3 page explanation of why man will never travel faster than the speed of sound.

Exhibit B: A paperback novel from 1958 selected from my father's SF bookshelf. The plot consists of a radical and wholly unscientifically-supported thesis: man will one day land on Earth's Moon.

Defense rests.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:19 PM on May 8, 2007


damn dirty ape writes "Sorry, I just can't buy that this machine needs an oil change a new filter every so often and that engine problems can be solved with a wrench some old fashioned elbow grease."

You can get plenty dirty working on practically anything with moving parts whether it's a nuclear submarine, an ICE or an Hydro electric plant. Even a modern liquid fuelled rocket.

ZachsMind writes "Even when the power goes out in a space ship, even when the life support fails, that gravometric doodad that keeps the captain from floating or walking on the ceiling? It still works, folks. Why not just take that thing and hook it up to the life support? It must be running on a cat with slices of buttered bread taped to its back. "

Just 'cause my power goes out doesn't mean my magnets fall off my fridge. Yet I can't use my fridge magnets to power the fridge either. I can still use my air tools until my tank depressurizes but I still can't use them to power my fridge.
posted by Mitheral at 7:24 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why is it so difficult to believe that science fiction might explain, illustrate, or expand upon scientific fact in a way that non-fiction scientific literature cannot? Where is the dividing line between explanatory example and fiction? The frictionless spring in every undergrad physics textbook is a simplification, an intentional error to illustrate a concept. I see (good) scifi as no different. Many stories handwave past a concept that is, today, an impassible barrier to progress to explore other concepts that may lie behind. FTL makes interstellar commerce possible, it does not all by itself negate all other physics in the universe.

Putting real physics into impossible situations can be an enormously informative tool. The gassy worldlet of The Integral Trees probably cannot exist, yet it nonetheless illustrates both physical and biological processes in a way entirely alien to our own. Ditto the iron-bombing of stars in (among others) Iron Sunrise, the space battles in any of the Honor Harrington books, and the super-altruism of the Culture. They are all thought experiments in fictional form, intentional, focused wanderings in a universe different from our own. How is that any less useful as a tool for inquiry than assuming spherical masses, Gedankenexperiments involving perpetual elevators, or string theory?

On preview, damn you ikkyu2.
posted by Skorgu at 7:42 PM on May 8, 2007


EB: I think you're excessively discounting the framing abilities of hard SF. A physics textbook can teach you "a trip to star X at speed Y would take Z,000 years". A hard SF can then put a lot of context around that: how would life function on a ship like that? What other considerations would have to be made? What possible problems could happen during that time? etc., etc.

That's why the phrase "new ideas" is being used, and not "new knowledge". Sure, if you're trying to learn science you don't know, or don't know well, from a hard SF book, you're screwed. But if you're trying to get new ideas about the kinds of technical considerations would be involved in the science that you already know, you can have a bit of new insight.
posted by Bugbread at 7:55 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Z,000 is my new favorite number.
posted by signal at 8:07 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Add me to the group of people who doesn't like most sci-fi though I keep trying... and then I found Banks, Stross (NOT ASSKISSIST), et al.

I must respectfully disagree with EB about the use of tropes being the defining quality of sci-fi. Maybe mainstream sci-fi, but that certainly doesn't speak to its origins, nor the mundane movement. And what bugbread said about new insights, not new knowledge. Sci-fi wasn't about predicting the future accurately. It was about saying "what if X was different" and then seeing how humanity would be different as a result.

But then my favorite genre book is still Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille so what do I know.
posted by dreamsign at 8:37 PM on May 8, 2007


I like the "laser" guns.
posted by Balisong at 9:18 PM on May 8, 2007


Pastabagel: One of the best time travel stories I've ever read is Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife.

Wow, second that. Amazing characterization, water-tight time travel, all the people, settings, and emotions made so natural and real. Only SF book ever to make me cry. Not just cry, but bawl. Damn.
posted by purple_frogs at 9:25 PM on May 8, 2007


An article exploring what makes SF SF called SF Words and Prototype Worlds by Eric S. Raymond which I got from languagehat.com many months ago. Here's an excerpt:
The very experienced SF reader, at the fifth level, can see entire worlds in a grain of jargon. When he sees "groundcar" he associates to not only technical questions about flyer propulsion but socio-symbolic ones but about why the culture still uses groundcars at all (and he has a reportoire of possible answers ready to check against the author's reporting). He is automatically aware of a huge range of consequences in areas as apparently far afield as (to name two at random) the architectural style of private buildings, and the ecological consequences of accelerated exploitation of wilderness areas not readily accessible by ground transport.

The better an SF writer is, the more subtly and effectively he will play off against the experienced reader's analytical skills. At the highest levels, SFnal exposition takes on the nature of a delicate, powerful intellectual dance or game between writer and reader, requiring much from both and rewarding both very richly.

Indeed, to true aficionados of the genre this game is the whole point of SF, the unique quality which elevates it above other fictional forms. This attitude explains much about the genre that outsiders find obscure and annoying—the intimacy between fans and writers; the indifference or outright hostility to conventional "literary values"; the pervasive SF-fan complaint that outsiders "just don't get it" and (when they deign to approve of SF at all) like all the wrong books for all the wrong reasons.
posted by Kattullus at 9:26 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Defense rests.

Good thing you're a doctor and not a trial lawyer. You'd be handy in agriculture, though, what with all that cherry-picking you're doing.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:29 PM on May 8, 2007


Defense rests.

Defense of what, ikkyu2? Are people in this thread really arguing what you think they are arguing? I don't think so.

Why is it so difficult to believe that science fiction might explain, illustrate, or expand upon scientific fact in a way that non-fiction scientific literature cannot?

It's not difficult to believe that at all, Skorgu. I can read the scientific literature, and I still like to read sci-fi that deals with science well. I like to read other sci-fi, too.
posted by teece at 10:10 PM on May 8, 2007


Mitheral : Just 'cause my power goes out doesn't mean my magnets fall off my fridge. Yet I can't use my fridge magnets to power the fridge either. I can still use my air tools until my tank depressurizes but I still can't use them to power my fridge.

Damn it, that is both eloquent and concise in a way that I consistently fail at.
posted by quin at 10:20 PM on May 8, 2007


Joss Whedon has explicitly stated how hard he's trying to make his SF:
Q: Does Serenity go faster than light?

Joss: I don't think so.

Q: Are the planets really close together?

Joss: They’re really close together. You’ve never seen a planet cluster like this one. It’s a little planet village. If you start asking my [sic] science questions I’m going to cry.
He's clearly not trying to make his fiction hew closely to the established laws of physics.

...

Personally, I adhere to the two-fold sub-categorization of SF: there's SF, which tries to be serious and deal with big issues, and there's sci-fi (aka skiffy), which is about starships that go Zoom! and laser blasters and green-skinned alien women in skimpy clothes. Hard science fiction -- science fiction that stays very plausibly close to what we know about the nature of reality -- can be either SF or sci-fi, but it tends towards the former.
posted by jiawen at 10:36 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


What, you mean I set up a straw man? Everyone's doing it - why don't I get to join in the fun?

Those three paragraphs by ESR that Kattullus quoted are a shameless paraphrase of an essay by Samuel Delany, by the way. Delany examines the sentence "The door dilated." from an early Heinlein short to make the same point ESR's making; Delany said it better and he wrote it a couple of decades earlier.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:35 PM on May 8, 2007


there's SF, which tries to be serious and deal with big issues, and there's sci-fi (aka skiffy), which is about starships that go Zoom! and laser blasters and green-skinned alien women in skimpy clothes.

There ought to be more of an attempt in SF/sci-fi to put science and gadgets and action second to art. You can write fiction about whales as an endangered species but also whaling as a profession and way of life (a tedious "big issues" novel), or you can write about randy whalers wrecked on an island populated by lonely women (an "alien women in skimpy clothes" one-handed book), or you can write Moby Dick, which is technologically complicated and correct and a ripping yarn (though the only person the hero gets into bed is a giant tattooed cannibal man) and a work of art.
posted by pracowity at 1:23 AM on May 9, 2007


I don't think art has to be second, or first... It can be part of the entire concern with technology. That, for me, is what SF really aspires to be: art that deals with our relationship with technology. Getting the science right isn't secondary to the art, it's part of the art.

Or if you mean that SF or sci-fi writers should just try to write better and not worry so much about the genre tropes... Well, first, there's a lot of SF that is very well written. Second, you're making a false dichotomy, namely that they can either concentrate on getting the science right or on getting the art right. I totally disagree with that sentiment.
posted by jiawen at 1:47 AM on May 9, 2007


More on the SF-as-western thing. I don't think that it's unlikely that there would be some parallels, given that many of the opportunities and problems presented to settlers and existing governments would be similar (difficulties of law enforcement and communication over distance, inhospitable terrain, indigenous people etc). Freeman Dyson's essay Pilgrims, Saints and Spacemen (here in PDF, Aug 1979) likens an independent near-space colonisation program to the Brigham Young expedition to Utah in a financial sense, also.

On impossibility, you should bear in mind Marie Curie's epigram "If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong." Our knowledge of the universe changes quickly, and it's impossible to know what the far future holds. As has been said upthread, as long as the work is internally consistent no harm, no foul. It's that goddamn deus-ex-machina that's the real problem with bad SF, not handwavium.
posted by Jakey at 2:49 AM on May 9, 2007


Or if you mean that SF or sci-fi writers should just try to write better and not worry so much about the genre tropes...

Yes.

Well, first, there's a lot of SF that is very well written.

That's certainly not something I'd ever attempt to argue against in a thread like this -- it would be like coating myself with honey and lying on a very large anthill. I do agree that genre (western, romance, horror, science fiction, etc.) doesn't necessarily mean reduced writing. Today's Jane Austen could be writing popular bodice-rippers right now, unrecognized because her books all have this guy on the cover.

Who is the best SF author? And if you changed that writer's fiction to a different setting and took out the geewizardry, would it still be great fiction, with wonderful, believable, moving, three-dimensional characters described in memorable language, or does interest in that writer's fiction depend on the genre and its buzzclicks?
posted by pracowity at 3:06 AM on May 9, 2007


Oh crap, did you just make an attempt to justify the "it can't be Science Fiction because it's good" argument?

When it's good, they insist on calling it Magical Realism.
posted by kid ichorous at 4:10 PM on May 8


I'd have to disagree with you there. Magical Realism and Science Fiction are opposite ends of the spectrum of the fantastic. Magical realism places unfamiliar circumstances and characters into pedestrian environments, whereas science fiction puts ordinary, familiar characters into suitable circumstances within their extraordinary environments.
posted by duende at 3:57 AM on May 9, 2007


Magical realism places unfamiliar circumstances and characters into pedestrian environments, whereas science fiction puts ordinary, familiar characters into suitable circumstances within their extraordinary environments.

Are you serious? Is that meant to be a serious distinction? It makes no sense at all.
posted by mediareport at 5:46 AM on May 9, 2007


quin: Two tractors will never make a third.

This presupposes that they are not von Neumann-powered tractors.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:50 AM on May 9, 2007


The "magnets work when the fridge is out of power" thing doesn't fit with Firefly. They're not walking on magnets. Whatever it is that creates and artificial gravity would most likely require some sort of power source.

I mean, hell, at least Trek got *that* right.
posted by grubi at 5:54 AM on May 9, 2007


...because our understanding of how to control and manipulate gravity is right up there with our understanding of electromagnetism.
posted by LordSludge at 8:14 AM on May 9, 2007


Ursula Le Guin wrote the best essays I've ever read on what science fiction and fantasy are and what they aren't. One's in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (Introduction), and the other is in The Language of the Night ("Why are Americans afraid of dragons?").
posted by Tehanu at 8:24 AM on May 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


LordSludge said it - Gravity is the big one for me, personally. We don't understand it any better than NEWTON did. Einstein gave up working on it.

Many scientists think gravity must be generated by a massless particle, and have even dubbed it the graviton. But experiments to detect this entity (using a super-collider, for example) can’t be performed with current technology. “To generate the energy required to investigate a gravity particle, we believe, would produce a black hole,” says Harvard physicist Lisa Randall. “Space itself just breaks down.”

posted by chuckdarwin at 8:28 AM on May 9, 2007


The people who bitch about the quality of science in science fiction are hurting the genre because they've got things ass-backwards. They should be bitching about the quality of the writing and characterization. Worrying about whether space battles make sense is part of what's keeping science-fiction in the near-adolescent genre ghetto. The science-fiction writers who have gained the greatest literary respect couldn't give a damn about scientific accuracy.

Other people have touched on this, Ethereal Bligh, but I think you're only speaking for one group of people here. People who think the highest goal of fiction is a particular kind of aesthetic achievement.

Here's what I value in the best science fiction:

1. Sense of wonder. This is an aesthetic achievement that I think as beautiful and valuable as difficult to achieve as what you're looking for in fiction. The best science fiction not only has good ideas, but gets them across to the reader in a way that is sublime (in the Romantic sense, e.g. Edmund Burke).

2. Exploration of how technological change effects humanity. Getting the science right is not a matter of teaching the reader about science. I'm not asking for fictionalized Discover articles. But I'm looking for people like Bruce Sterling to help me think about what changes might be on the horizon, and what those changes are going to feel like. How they're going to change the way we live.

You're never going to get it exactly right, since you don't know what the future will be like. But this is why getting the science as right as possible is important. We don't know what the Internet will look like in ten years, but I think we can definitely start imagining the impact on our society of being more and more networked, of having more and more kinds of information and entertainment available instantaneously. Read Vernor Vinge's story Fast Times at Fairmont High and tell me you don't feel like he's showing you something true and important.

Most of our society was totally unprepared for the moral questions changes in reproductive technology would foist on us. And we are suffering because of it. Advances in genetic engineering are very likely going to make current disagreements about stem cells and cloning and obligations to people in vegetative states seem almost trivial. Good science fiction can help prepare us for this, help us imaginatively enter into the kinds of situations and decisions we may soon be facing.

You can argue that there are fundamental aspects to the human condition that are largely unaffected by changes in technology. That these are the things that good fiction explores. I might agree with you that these things exist, but I disagree that they are the only things fiction is good for.
posted by straight at 8:56 AM on May 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


Who is the best SF author?

Gene Wolfe.

And if you changed that writer's fiction to a different setting and took out the geewizardry, would it still be great fiction, with wonderful, believable, moving, three-dimensional characters described in memorable language...?

Yes.
posted by straight at 9:28 AM on May 9, 2007


Aw, fer cryin' out loud. People have been trying to settle on a definition of what is science fiction for a hundred years now, with no solution in sight. We are not going to manage one here in this thread.

Some definitions:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_science_fiction
http://www.panix.com/~gokce/sf_defn.html
http://www.treitel.org/Richard/sf/sfdefs.html
posted by Nyrath at 10:08 AM on May 9, 2007


grubi writes "They're not walking on magnets. Whatever it is that creates and artificial gravity would most likely require some sort of power source."

How could we say one way or the other? We haven't a clue how the system might work. Maybe it's like glow in the dark paint, charge it up in a gravity field and you've got gravity for weeks. Maybe it works on a pure chemical basis like a fuel cell or bioluminescent illumination and there isn't actually any tappable power produced. Or maybe the parts just aren't compatible. If the engine on a highway tractor goes I can't use the power plant from the refeer to get me down the road.
posted by Mitheral at 11:49 AM on May 9, 2007


A quick selection from my lunchtime reading:

"Today, Zeus is twenty-five feet tall or taller, each of his muscled forearms as long as my torso. I fleetingly wonder what this does to that conservation of mass and energy thing the other scholic tried to teach me about years ago, but that’s not important right now."
-Illium, p. 335


Dan Simmons, guru of hard SF.
posted by ormondsacker at 11:49 AM on May 9, 2007


But I think that this viewpoint as to what once wants from science-fiction is, um, uninformed in pretty much the same way as someone who listens to that Bell guy on the radio for "new ideas". The reliability of these "new ideas" in science-fiction with regard to science is, as we've all been saying, not very high.

EB, I think you're simply misunderstanding what Skorgu is talking about. "New ideas" does not mean SCIENCE, it means ideas—bits of thought that penetrate your mind and make it work in new ways, see the world differently. This is the great thing that the sf of the '50s and early '60s, when I was awash in it, did for me, with all of its bad writing and frequent absurdity (though Damon Knight opened my preadolescent eyes to those as well): it cracked my head open and shook out the preconceptions and cultural assumptions and made me see the infinite possibilities of the universe. That's what they mean by "sense of wonder," and surely it was important for you as well. Don't sell out your love for sf by relegating it to "simple pleasure." There's nothing simple about it.
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on May 10, 2007


Maybe it's not science fiction that I like but 'speculative' fiction. I don't care so much if the reality visited in the story stays consistent with my own reality but I am displeased when it doesn't stay true to itself.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:34 PM on May 10, 2007


Oh, I do very much agree that science-fiction's true virtue (and what many say is the point) is the reframing of things to present new insights and to go outside the boundaries of the conventional. I don't think I would agree that you can't get that in non-fiction or elsewhere, but within fiction I think it's relatively unique and valuable.

But the context of this thread is the science in science-fiction and those who argue that accurate science is crucial. It seemed to me that part of that argument in conjunction with a defense of the value of science-fiction was that one learns mind-expanding science from science-fiction. Which I think is mildly true, but not true enough to compensate for all the bad science one gets at the same time, even in hard science-fiction.

Sure, I do love science-fiction and it accounts for the bulk of what I read1. I'm not making this argument as an outsider, nor even as someone who only read science-fiction when I was younger. But, c'mon, I read real literature, too, occasionally, and of course some of the very best when I was in college, and science-fiction suffers greatly in comparison. It's entertainment, not great art. It's just not. It's not much more than entertainment. That's not selling it short—there's value in entertainment and there's some greater social value in the things we talk about above. But that still doesn't even come close to making it as valuable as good literature. It's not good literature. You and I know this.

1. I've only entered into LibraryThing the books I've ordered from Amazon in the last few years. But the relative portions of types of books is probably accurate. And Mr. Stross, notice how many of your books I have. :) You can see I lean toward hard science-fiction. Also, I should have more John C. Wright, as he's a fellow johnnie, but frankly I wasn't all that impressed with The Golden Age.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:09 PM on May 10, 2007


NERRRDS!
posted by shakespeherian at 5:45 PM on May 10, 2007


Ethereal Bligh writes "But the context of this thread is the science in science-fiction and those who argue that accurate science is crucial."

I'm not seeing the argument that "good science is crucial". All I'm seeing is a lot of people who are put off by bad science. That's an entirely different proposition. 10 guys hanging out saying they don't like Coke much, they prefer Pepsi is NOT the same as 10 guys arguing that Coke is inherently bad and Pepsi is inherently better.

I like my SF hard. I probably enjoy this because it enables suspension of disbelief; I don't have incredibly obvious things pulling me out of the story every few pages. But that's just me. I think the sites linked are not scoffing from the position that "soft SF is inherently bad", but just "the science in SF is frequently very, very wrong. If you would like to consider what the science would really be like, either for fun or to write a story using semi-accurate science, feel free to look through these pages".
posted by Bugbread at 6:06 PM on May 10, 2007


I'm not seeing the argument that ‘good science is crucial’. All I'm seeing is a lot of people who are put off by bad science.

Well, that describes me, too. I didn't go back and re-read the thread. It was my impression that the majority were arguing that good science is better than bad science, but that there were a minority who were arguing that good science is crucial and essential to the value of science-fiction. Maybe, in fact, no one actually was arguing that. If it was a strawman I put up and knocked down, it wasn't intentional.

I do think, though, that one's tolerance for bad science has a non-linear relationship with one's scientific literacy. It seems to me, both from observation and my own experience, that when one is not very scientifically literate, one tolerates bad science in science-fiction; when one is moderately scientifically literate, one is intolerant of bad science in science-fiction; but that when one becomes highly scientifically literate, one becomes tolerant again. Or, at least, if one keeps reading science-fiction after becoming highly scientifically literate, one must necessarily become tolerant of bad science. Because even hard science-fiction is loaded down with bad science, even when we don't include the tropes that we generally ignore.

I don't know a PhD yet who doesn't find any fictional account involving their discipline to be infuriatingly inaccurate. When it comes to their disciplines, they aren't tolerant. So I'm not talking about specific post-graduate scientific literacy here. When I say "highly scientifically literate", I obviously include myself—but I'm not claiming true competency. But it's enough competency to find fault in almost all science journalism, for example. And it's far easier to have enough knowledge to find fault with scientific accuracy than it is to write without committing such errors. All the hard science-fiction writers I've read either have narrow professional specialties that allow then to write accurately in that subject matter...but not in others. And those who don't have professional credentials but are knowledgeable enough in some field to write hard science-fiction, even they, too, have relatively narrow expertise when compared to the scope of the science they utilize in their writing.

A lot of people, when they talk about hard science-fiction, are really talking about science-fiction that is accurate with regard to basic physics or engineering. That leaves a lot of other science to get wrong. And those authors do get those things wrong. Hard science-fiction authors get sociology and history wrong, they get medicine and biology wrong, they get evolution wrong, they get cognitive science and neurobiology wrong—they get lots of things wrong. Different authors make different mistakes, they have different weaknesses. But if getting the science wrong puts you off science-fiction, you're in trouble—unless you don't really know as much science as you think you do. Now, that may not apply to you, bugbread, or to anyone in this thread—people here may be exceptions to this rule. But, frankly, my experience with science-fiction fans elsewhere validates this point.

Science-fiction is so terribly sophomoric in so many ways. In writing and in science. I still read it and enjoy it. That's because I can accept it for what it is and enjoy it. The only readers who I think are similarly sophomoric in the way most science-fictions authors are sophomoric, are those who try to elevate science-fiction far above its actual merit.

As a writer, I don't disinclude myself from this. If I'm ever lucky enough to write and publish a science-fiction novel, I won't claim virtues above genre fiction virtues, nor will I claim that anyone should ever think they learn anything trustworthy about science from my book. I mean, I don't say this enough around here—and I'm glad of the opportunity to be reminded of that—but when I apparently write with some "authority" on pretty much any topic other than the few I actually have some legitimate authority on (and that doesn't include any scientific topics), I expect (and should make explicit) that there are without doubt errors in what I've written and, at any rate, even without specific errors I can't substitute for learning from a truly authoritative source. Perhaps this is when I should point out that while I do read popularizations of science, I'm a bit of a snob about them and I almost exclusively read popularizations written by actual scientists working in that particular field.

All that said, I realize that I'm playing a bit of a devil's advocate here. Here I am: someone who reads almost exclusively fiction and who reads, even as a middle-aged, educated adult, a great deal of science-fiction. I do think I've learned a lot of things about the world and people from all the fiction I've read, including popular and genre fiction. But a life lesson for me is that Socratic lesson that the more you know, the more you begin to realize you don't know. On any given topic where I've approached real competency, I've become increasingly aware of how potentially incompetent I can be in that topic. I've read more of the classics that 99.99% of the people here, but when I read things that professional classicists write and talk about, I realize how little I know. What we have are relative level of ignorance and the virtues of generalism—and make no mistake that this is what we're talking about here, albeit a scientific generalism—are offset by its vices. I'm a king of generalists, my education is, by some measurements, the sine qua non of generalist educations. But the "mile wide, inch deep" things really is true. And it's easy to forget this. If you've had some good science education and you read a lot of science-fiction novels, it's easy to think that you know more science than you really do. Being picky about the details is sort of comical from that perspective because you're only being picky about the 10% of stuff you actually have minimal competency in. Being snobbish about accuracy in that context is worse than comical, it's sadly ironic.

And then take a step back: what does it say about a person who can't continue to read a science-fiction book because the author got some physics detail wrong while, at the same time, they didn't mind the fact that, say, the psychology of the characters is completely unbelievable? Maybe I am and maybe I'm not privileging psychological realism over physical realism—but it's obviously true that many science-fiction fans are privileging physical realism over psychological realism. Yet they don't qualify their objections to "bad" science-fiction as such, they simply say that it's "unrealistic". What a blindered point-of-view! Which parts of fiction must have verisimilitude? And here's the thing: if you say it's a matter of preference and that preferring scientific verisimilitude is reasonable, then you're implicitly arguing that a primary virtue of science-fiction is its science. And then you've opened the door to science-fiction being criticized on that basis. And on that basis, it doesn't do very well.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:31 PM on May 10, 2007


But, c'mon, I read real literature, too, occasionally, and of course some of the very best when I was in college, and science-fiction suffers greatly in comparison. It's entertainment, not great art. It's just not. It's not much more than entertainment.... It's not good literature. You and I know this.

Science-fiction is so terribly sophomoric in so many ways... The only readers who I think are similarly sophomoric in the way most science-fictions authors are sophomoric, are those who try to elevate science-fiction far above its actual merit.


EB, you're starting to get my goat. That argument is tiresome enough coming from the usual suspects who know nothing about the field; coming from someone who reads and claims to love it, it's bizarre. The only thing I can think is that you've been restricting yourself, consciously or otherwise, to a level of sf unliterary enough to satisfy your cravings for junk food—which is fine, we all need junk food and we all prefer what we prefer—but you go on to pronounce that what you read is all that exists, which is not fine at all.

There have been for at least a half century sf writers who could play in the big leagues. In the early '50s, Cyril Kornbluth was as good a writer as any of the American competition (assuming for the sake of argument that Nabokov can't really be called an "American writer" until Lolita, though one can certainly argue the point, in which case add "...except Nabokov"). Same goes for Theodore Sturgeon throughout the '50s, Avram Davidson and R.A. Lafferty and Samuel Delany in the '60s, John Varley and James M. Tiptree, Jr in the '70s, and Gene Wolfe for the entirety of his career. (This is just a few names off the top of my head, not an exhaustive listing.) You prefer your sf trashy and your literature mundane (= "not sf")? Fine, to each his own. But don't knock the field based on your own habits.

(You might want to check out this website for further suggestions.)

'SF's no good,' they bellow till we're deaf.
'But this looks good.'—'Well then, it's not SF.'
—Kingsley Amis
posted by languagehat at 8:19 AM on May 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


So, to recap: science fiction gets a lot of science wrong. It also gets a lot of non-science things wrong. If we ignore the non-science badness, we're leaving science as the be-all focus of judgment, where it "doesn't do very well." Got it. Why is that bad?

Why is there no middle ground? Why must science fiction be held to either the standard of literature or the standard of science? Applied Cryptography isn't any less accurate because Alice and Bob aren't believable characters.
posted by Skorgu at 9:01 AM on May 11, 2007


I don't know a PhD yet who doesn't find any fictional account involving their discipline to be infuriatingly inaccurate.

That's not how John Baez feels about Greg Egan.

And I don't think you'll find many astronomers complaining about the science in Gregory Benford's Bow Shock.
posted by straight at 10:08 AM on May 11, 2007


Languagehat, I never said there weren't exceptions. I've read all of the authors you mention except Avram Davidson, thank you very much, but they don't exemplify the entire field. And John Varley is literary? Please. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that when a science-fiction writer writes anything that would be mediocre literature, he/she is acclaimed by science-fiction fans as a "great and serious author". The standards are low enough that mediocre literary fiction makes great science-fiction if you put it in space or the future. Dhalgren, for example, was very, very good. For science-fiction. As literature, it had some problems. I don't know why you feel the need to elevate science-fiction above itself. I understand and relate to the defensiveness of fans who've suffered the common disdain of others who think that science-fiction is among the very lowliest of the low genres. Just because they're wrong doesn't mean that you have to allow yourself to be forced into the opposite corner.

And I don't think you'll find many astronomers complaining about the science in Gregory Benford's Bow Shock.

Egan and Benford are both physicists. When a science-fiction author is writing within their field, they do pretty well, of course, depending upon how close it aligns with their own sub-specialty. But the astronomers I've known generally are so annoyed with the astrophysics in science-fiction that they regard it as fantasy and either don't read it or don't worry about it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:19 AM on May 11, 2007


It's entertainment, not great art.

You're not reading this thread, are you? There is great art to be found in SF. Not necessarily the same kind of art that you find in "mainstream" fiction, which is just another genre of entertainment that is occasionally transcended by works with great artistic merit.

No one is arguing that all SF is great art. And I don't think you're claiming that is true of all mainstream literature.
posted by straight at 10:24 AM on May 11, 2007


No one is arguing that all SF is great art. And I don't think you're claiming that is true of all mainstream literature.

Of course not. But mainstream literature is better art than science-fiction and has a proportionately greater share of great artists. Science-fiction starts lower down the totem pole and rarely reaches as high.

And there's good reasons why people will say that when science-fiction is really good, it isn't science-fiction. If fans and writers of science-fiction didn't have a vested interest in arguing otherwise, they'd see immediately why this is the case. Use another genre as an example: when westerns are really good, they're not called "westerns". The people that mostly read westerns don't read them for great literature, they read them because they like the genre tropes that characterize westerns. The tropes themselves drive the narrative in predictable ways and other elements are given less attention because of them. Quality is therefore low in every respect other than delivering what is promised by the genre. Really good westerns, even if they conform to the tropes, are incidentally westerns, with the traditional literary values being in the fore. That's the difference between literature and genre fiction. Genre fiction is necessarily inferior in literary quality.

Or let's take another analogy even farther afield. Fast food is a type of cuisine that emphasizes convenience and speed over culinary quality. It's very mediocre food. Does that mean that there aren't some examples of food served quickly and conveniently that isn't fine cuisine? Of course not. But we don't call it fast food because part of the definition of fast food is its mediocrity. Why? Because, as a cuisine, it sacrifices quality for convenience. And the people that only eat fine food that happens to be served quickly and conveniently aren't moved to defend "fast food". They probably don't even think they eat fast food.

Despite languagehat's example, I know and have known people who only read the very, very few highest quality fiction that contains science-fiction elements. For example, stuff by Philip K. Dick. The funny thing is, they don't read "science-fiction" and they don't feel the need to defend it. In fact, they typically look down on it.

The exceptions to the rule don't disprove the rule, they reinforce it. People who regularly read science-fiction, who go straight to the science-fiction section of the bookstore (this includes me), aren't reading science-fiction for its literary quality. And, as a result, the literary quality of the genre just isn't very good. And that's okay. Again, just let things be what they are and enjoy them for themselves. Everything we eat doesn't have to be fine food, our cars don't have to be the best cars, the music we listen to doesn't have to be great art, we don't have to be the smartest and most attractive, the films we watch don't have to be high art, and the books we read don't have to be "soul enrichening" and literature.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:49 AM on May 11, 2007


Languagehat, I never said there weren't exceptions.

Oh, come on. Now you're sounding like a White House lawyer/flack (if there's any difference these days). No, you didn't explicitly say "all sf, without exception, is badly written." What you did say was "science-fiction suffers greatly in comparison. It's entertainment, not great art. It's just not. It's not much more than entertainment.... It's not good literature." (Where, just to spell it out, "it" = "science fiction," not "some substantial proportion of science fiction.") No reasonable person would read that and think you meant "science fiction is entertainment, not good literature, except for the exceptions that are good literature." Have the intellectual honesty to admit the obvious reading of your own argument. And what does this even mean?

Despite languagehat's example, I know and have known people who only read the very, very few highest quality fiction that contains science-fiction elements. For example, stuff by Philip K. Dick. The funny thing is, they don't read "science-fiction" and they don't feel the need to defend it. In fact, they typically look down on it.

"Despite languagehat's example" you have known people who blah blah blah? Am I somehow an example of everyone you have ever known, or... no, I just don't follow. And if you and/or your picky friends think Philip K. Dick is a big-leaguer, up there with Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov and far above mere drudges like the names I mentioned, I've just lost all respect for your/their judgment.

And I too have known people who look down on sf because they think their taste is superior. Those people are assholes.

For whatever reason, you want to think of sf as trash, and nothing I can say will dissuade you, so I guess we're done here, but I will continue to think it's bizarre. You could equally well say "French literature is entertainment, not great art," and when exceptions were pointed out say that 1) "there are always exceptions" and 2) "none of the authors you name are as great as Shakespeare." But that's okay! French literature doesn't have to be great! Just let things be what they are and enjoy them for themselves!

Bizarre. But enjoy your self-imposed slumming, if that's what turns you on. And try not to think about Sturgeon's Law.
posted by languagehat at 11:24 AM on May 11, 2007


People who regularly read science-fiction, who go straight to the science-fiction section of the bookstore (this includes me), aren't reading science-fiction for its literary quality. And, as a result, the literary quality of the genre just isn't very good.

Yes. If you read just any ol' crap, you're going to end up reading just any ol' crap.

I've read all of the authors you mention except Avram Davidson, thank you very much, but they don't exemplify the entire field.

Well yes. And Geoffrey Chaucer doesn't exemplify 14th Century poetry. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides don't exemplify Ancient Greek tragedy. Flaubert, Zola and Hugo don't exemplify 19th Century French novelists. Sappho, Marie de France and Anne Carson don't exemplify women poets.

And yes, there is less greatness in science fiction than there is in non-science fiction literature of the same period. That's because there's a lot less of science fiction than there is of other stuff. I read a whole lot of modern literature. Most of it's not that great. Most of it is at least interesting, but it's not often I find a book by a modern author that makes me run around mountaintops shouting the title of the book. That doesn't make me think that contemporary literature is worse than the literature of yesteryear, it's just that I'm exposed to a lot more of the modern stuff, so of course there's gonna be more crap.

Despite languagehat's example, I know and have known people who only read the very, very few highest quality fiction that contains science-fiction elements. For example, stuff by Philip K. Dick. The funny thing is, they don't read "science-fiction" and they don't feel the need to defend it. In fact, they typically look down on it.

Seriously... if I had a friend who said something like: "I don't read science fiction, but I love Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, William Gibson and Connie Willis" I'd slap them upside the head. That's like saying "Oh, I can't stand Roman literature, but man that Horace sure could write... and don't get me started on Ovid and Virgil, now there are some real poets..." Don't judge Roman poetry by Statius and don't judge science fiction by Peter F. Hamilton (I use Hamilton and Statius as examples of authors who bore me to tears, even though they have their defenders).
posted by Kattullus at 12:10 PM on May 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Kattullus said it better than me.
posted by languagehat at 12:18 PM on May 11, 2007


I'm sorry that my opinion upsets people. I just don't understand why people have so much emotional investment in defending science-fiction as good literature. It's like people getting upset if one claims that television isn't good art. It sometimes is, and I'd be the first to say this and that it can be. But it's generally mediocre. I think that's true of all genre fiction, including science-fiction. Why defend these things from anything less strong than absolute claims that there's no quality at all? I'm frankly surprised that you or anyone would use against me in this argument that I read a great deal of science-fiction. Apparently, if someone has this opinion they are either accused of not being familiar with the genre or they "only read the trash"—even if that's demonstrably not true. I read the good, the mediocre, and the not-so-good science-fiction. I'm sure I've read between one and two thousand science-fiction books. I think I have the expertise to form an opinion on this subject. But you don't like it and so you somehow decide that, really, there's something wrong with my qualifications for stating such an opinion. Is that really fair? Let's just suppose that both you and I (and some others here) all have about the same level of experience with the genre and yet come to different conclusions. Just because we disagree doesn't mean that someone doesn't know what they are talking about, or is stupid, or is degenerate.

Sure, I am baffled why someone who has read a great deal of real literature and not only science-fiction would feel so compelled to defend science-fiction. I can come up with reasons for why this may be, just as you strive to come up with why I take the opposite position. What's most likely is that we each have opposing emotional investments in the debate that are pushing are rationally stated opinions farther than we would otherwise allow them to go. I don't think that I was ever that defensive about science-fiction—I didn't grow up around reading snobs and even at St. John's College there's a general respect for people who are simply omnivorous readers and a subsequent acceptance of middle-brow and low-brow affections. I'm slightly defensive about my reading tastes, but not that much. Certainly not so much that I have any investment in publicly defending science-fiction from snobs who disdain it. And in spite of the impression I've given here, I don't disdain it myself, I just take issue with people who try to argue that it's better than it is.

Occasionally Hollywood movies are very, very good. Usually, they're not and they're mediocre mass entertainment. It doesn't upset me when someone says that Hollywood movies are mediocre, because it's true. It does bother me when they are such snobs that they don't allow that there's any reason to watch Hollywood movies. On the other hand, although this doesn't happen often in my circle of friends or elsewhere in my experience, when occasionally someone gets defensive about Hollywood movies and defend them by claiming that the few really good films make the case that Hollywood movies are good, well then, that seems silly to me.

Peter F. Hamilton. (I use Hamilton and Statius as examples of authors who bore me to tears, even though they have their defenders.)

I love Hamilton and actually think he represents the best of science-fiction as genre fiction. Also, I think a lot of contemporary American literature is vastly overrated—as the cliche goes, if I have to read another book about a middle-aged white college professor going through a mid-life crisis, it will be too soon. Or, alternatively, if I have to read another novel that is a thinly-disguised rant against conservative values, it will also be too soon.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:28 PM on May 11, 2007


William Gibson is not science fiction. Y'all just wait and watch.
posted by kid ichorous at 1:10 PM on May 11, 2007


99% of statements containing the phrase "is not science fiction" are false - is this one?
posted by Artw at 1:13 PM on May 11, 2007


EB, I'm so confused, what are you arguing again? You like scifi, but you don't think it's science, or that it's only sometimes good science, or that nobody who knows science likes the science in it, or that because it's a genre it's inevitably inferior to generic fiction, and I'm pretty sure about seven more statements that I'm too lazy to paraphrase.
posted by Skorgu at 1:18 PM on May 11, 2007


I bet this would be a good place for one of those Venn diagrams.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:23 PM on May 11, 2007


Well, let's stop arguing about this. Instead, let's talk about some books.

I've got two books coming from an author I've not read before, Geoff Ryman. Has anyone read any of his stuff? The two books that I should get on Monday are Was and Air: Or, Have Not Have. The former, I guess, is a sort of fantasy built around Baum's Oz. BTW, I wasn't that impressed with Wicked, actually—I felt beaten over the head by the politics. As it happens, one of my favorite riffs on Oz is Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz, especially his characterization of Glenda. It's not a good book by the wider standards I discuss above; but it's decent by genre standards. Farmer is spotty; but he does some things I like quite a bit. There's a special place in my heart for his Riverworld books.

I dearly wish I could get ahold of all of all of Ian Banks's Culture books, but most are out of print in the US. The thing that bothers me about buying used through AbeBooks or Amazon is that I usually can't find multiple used books from a single vendor and the shipping charges eat me up. I want to read all the Culture books I've not read so badly, though, that I think I'll scavenge around for them anyway.

Besides Charlie Stross, MeFi's membership also includes John Scalzi. Both are quite good, though I prefer Scalzi because he's an adept at the pared-down story. Stross can be very good but he's hampered by frequently trying too hard. There's something ostentatious about his writing—he's sort of science-fiction's version of David Foster Wallace. Or would that maybe be Neal Stephenson? Even so, I absolutely loved both Snow Crash and The Diamond Age...although both had their flaws.

Lord, I wish that Vernor Vinge wrote more books. Interestingly, for me the chief insight I got from Rainbow's End was some understanding of the mindset of the abusive asshole. A personality with whom I'm far too familiar. The singularity stuff in this book, and in others', elicites mostly a "meh" from me. One of the reasons that I can be critical of a lot of science-fiction is because the mind-expanding insights into the ramifications of possible technological change are far too often pretty sophomoric. It's like, "gee whiz, I bet nobody's ever thought of these mind-blowing ideas before". But they have—there's no shortage of stoned, college-aged, technogeek intellectuals. They've thought of these things, trust me. And far too often this hand-waving stuff substitutes for genuine characterization and good writing, not unlike the special effects in Hollywood movies. Look at the flashy lights and listen to the booming noises—ignore the man behind the curtain. It's annoying.

Someone's mentioned Connie Willis, I think, and it's true that she's a better writer than most. As I think is true of almost all the top science-fiction writers, this doesn't place her that highly among the wider field of writers outside genre fiction, but she's still pretty good. The Doomsday Book had it's problems, but what it did well it did very well. It's actually a fine historical novel, the science-fiction parts are a distraction. I do agree it's improved with the framing that allows the viewpoint of a 20th century character; but the subplot involving time travel detracted from the novel. Even so, it's one of my favorite science-fiction books of all time. I wish she'd write more like it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:05 PM on May 11, 2007


Yes, it's not like this argument hasn't played out more or less identically roughly a thousand times in the history of the world.

I'm in the same boat wrt the Culture, the copy of Use of Weapons I'm currently reading says "Not for sale in the USA" on the barcode label in the back. Much cursing, wailing, gnashing, etc. Of course, now this thread (and the excellent Atomic Rocket site in the FPP) have given me another mile-high stack of books to try and find. Which is good. And also terrible.

My only complaint about singularity books is that they inevitably succumb to the simple fact that nobody can predict what will happen under such radically altered circumstances, so the handwavium use goes up about an order of magnitude. Of course Vinge somehow manages to get around that, but he's not exactly a normal human being.

I mentioned Watts (I have to finish the Rifters and read Blindsight) whose blog mentions "R. Scott Bakker's soon-to-be-released Neuropath" in the context of "holy shit" so that's another author I'm going to have to watch out for. And then there's a lot of the more classic stuff that I haven't gotten around to.

Really the hard part is that walking into $BOOKSTORE and heading to the science fiction section is predestined to fail miserably. There's just nothing good there, and if it is you'd better know the name, title, isbn, and that it's hidden under sixteen shelves of identical Star Trek books.

So, metafilter, where do you find your good scifi books?
posted by Skorgu at 2:34 PM on May 11, 2007


Rudy Rucker is good.
Lucius Shepard is good.
Ken MacLeod is very good.
posted by straight at 3:06 PM on May 11, 2007


mentioned Watts (I have to finish the Rifters and read Blindsight) whose blog mentions ‘R. Scott Bakker's soon-to-be-released Neuropath’ in the context of ‘holy shit’ so that's another author I'm going to have to watch out for.

Bakker's The Prince of Nothing fantasy series and Steven Erikson's Malazan fantasy series are easily the two best fantasy series I've read in several years, with Martin's coming in third.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:14 PM on May 11, 2007


Ethereal Bligh & Skorgu, re: getting hold of Culture books: bookmooch.
posted by signal at 9:03 AM on May 13, 2007


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