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Fiction vs Science
March 18, 2009 9:07 PM   Subscribe

Ken MacLeod, Paul Cornell, Iain [M] Banks and Ian Watson comment on the relationship between science fiction and science fact.
posted by shoesfullofdust (49 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
i think it would have been much funnier if they had gotten Gavin MacLeod, Joseph Cornell, Tyra Banks and Ian McKellan...just sayin'
posted by sexyrobot at 9:42 PM on March 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


Iain Banks (with or without the M) is top drawer. It's a shame he doesn't quite have the following in the States that I hear he enjoys in the UK, because his sci-fi is so much fun to read.
posted by dopamine at 10:25 PM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the main problem with sci-fi literature is that people think it has some sort of a direct relationship with science, whereas it really doesn't. Quoting Paul Cornell: "Unlike its cousin, fantasy, it wants to be talking about the real world in ways other than metaphorical." It not only wants to talk about the real world in a literal manner, readers expect it to. They expect it to be scientifically plausible and rational; they expect it to give accurate predictions about the future. But this is something literature will never do. It will always be metaphorical. Science in science fiction has never been and will never be anything other than a trope.

Sci-fi will only benefit from moving away from this term (like the Sci Fi/Syfy Channel has).
posted by daniel_charms at 11:17 PM on March 18, 2009


Why aren't there any scientists commenting on this relationship?
posted by dd42 at 12:23 AM on March 19, 2009


Nothing will benefit from moving to the term "syfy", daniel_charms.
posted by robcorr at 12:34 AM on March 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


They expect it to be scientifically plausible and rational; they expect it to give accurate predictions about the future. But this is something literature will never do. It will always be metaphorical. Science in science fiction has never been and will never be anything other than a trope.

Really?? So you mean that the authors who were actual scientists (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, P. Schuyler Miller, Hal Clement, James Blish, James P. Hogan, Charles Sheffield, Vernor Vinge just to name a few) only used science as a trope in their writings? If you truly believe this then I would have to say that you are not very familiar with hard SF. In fact, the allure of hard SF is the science. Everything else takes a backseat. Many of these guys (and others) are renowned for their prognostication within their fiction. Shit, read Vinge's Rainbow's End for a really intriguing near future vision.

This has actually been one of the arguments against SF as literature with a big "L". It is focused much more on the science and the ideas than the literary aspects. Of course there are also folks who are more literary (your Zelazny's, Silverberg's and Moorcock's) but that's 'cause SF is not monolithic. If you want to make the argument that certain sub-genres of SF use science as a trope then, sure, I'm right with you. But to make a blanket statement about the whole genre that dismisses hard SF, well I really think that you are misinformed.
posted by anansi at 1:36 AM on March 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


daniel_charms: Are you really saying that readers of SF really expect all the science to be plausible or the predictions to be accurate? I don't think even a cursory pass over the genre shows any such thing. Certainly there's a place for that kind of work, but SF as a genre is far broader than that.
posted by pharm at 1:53 AM on March 19, 2009


Really?? So you mean that the authors who were actual scientists (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, P. Schuyler Miller, Hal Clement, James Blish, James P. Hogan, Charles Sheffield, Vernor Vinge just to name a few) only used science as a trope in their writings?

That's right. They were not writing scientific literature, they were writing fiction and the 'science' parts in sci-fi were (and are) just a way to set up novel situations. "Glimpsing into the future" is only possible because, not in spite of using science as a trope.
posted by daniel_charms at 2:10 AM on March 19, 2009


daniel_charms: Are you really saying that readers of SF really expect all the science to be plausible or the predictions to be accurate?

Yes, this may have been a bit of an overstatement. While readers of sci-fi may have once had such expectations, these have been mostly abandoned by today. Yet, the tendency still seems to be there (see, for instance, mundane science fiction).
posted by daniel_charms at 2:20 AM on March 19, 2009


Yes, this may have been a bit of an overstatement. While readers of sci-fi may have once had such expectations, these have been mostly abandoned by today. Yet, the tendency still seems to be there (see, for instance, mundane science fiction).

If more readers of science fiction spent more time looking for new authors at the cutting edge or hunting down those old classics they hadn't yet read rather than lamenting the state of the genre and trying to define / classify / pigeonhole it they'd find a wealth of reading material that continues to thrill and wonder and amaze through its dance on the interface of literary art and scientific speculation, in more surprising ways than even the most dedicated bookworm could ever hope to find their fill of . . .

SF fandom has such an introverted streak running through it which I find so jarring when put next to the expansive freedom of the genre itself. Star-gazing transformed into navel-gazing . . .
posted by protorp at 3:29 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mundane science fiction... I'll give you my blaster when you take it from my cold, dead hands!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:23 AM on March 19, 2009


I think it's non-readers of SF who usually confuse it with attempted prediction. There have always been science fiction stories where the author made no pretence that the science bits were at all realistic. Instead, they're only there as a way of getting the premise established and the story going. Think of Cyrano de Bergerac's States and Empires of the Moon if you want a really early example.

That said, daniel_charms, there is something in the point you (and Paul Cornell) are making about the distinction between fantasy and SF. I think it's not that the science in SF has to be realistic, exactly; it's more that once the premise is established, the story must be resolved within the parameters of the scientific set-up provided (be it mundane or magic inter-polyversial) - although you can use an unexpected facet or implication of that set-up. In fantasy, on the other hand, you can change the rules or bring in a magic McGuffin any time it serves your narrative needs.
posted by Phanx at 5:10 AM on March 19, 2009


Science fiction seems more like a flavour than a genre to me. You can have just about any story you want within the bounds of sci fi.

I think it's simply to do with appealing to people who already enjoy some aspect of science, and therefore have some contextual knowledge to place the story in. A cool idea in a fantasy novel is made even cooler to me in a hard sci fi novel by knowing this really could happen. But then at the same time, ideas that I know are most likely impossible (like Iain M Banks' FTL travel) work for me because they're presented in a very strong sort of alternate-science universe. With rules and extrapolations that work similar to science in the real world. Fantasy novels I like appealed to me in a similar way.

Maybe now that more and more people have some grounding in science, sci fi is no longer something that needs a section off all to itself. But rather is an element that more or less permeates every piece of fiction, simply because it needs to be there to help provide the suspension of disbelief.
posted by lucidium at 5:32 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, joy, a science fiction definition debate, complete with all the poseurs and nerd haters who like to cage a thing they don't understand. Somebody call Margaret Atwood!

Here, let us reverse it: Science fiction is more credible than mundane literature, because there is nothing left to explore in the human condition. Indeed, the term human condition is itself nothing more than an attempt to puff up boring minutiae so that it deserves the label "art".

The defining characteristic of humanity is that it creates technology. It is the only thing that changes us faster than nature's evolution, whose last great gift was language and symbolic reasoning. Which human endeavor has used that gift more wisely? The liberal arts have done nothing but entertain us, either making us forget (or remember) the more tedious, the more tragic, and the more stupid aspects of our existence. Science, however, has lifted us out of poverty, conquered disease, and taken us throughout the solar system.

Which class of literature is more relevant to our world? The one that asks "what if", exploring the universe and it how it may continue to change us while we learn to control it, or the one that sighs "and so it goes", repeating the same tired thousand year old cliches, ad infinitum?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 6:29 AM on March 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


The one that asks "what if", exploring the universe and it how it may continue to change us while we learn to control it, or the one that sighs "and so it goes", repeating the same tired thousand year old cliches, ad infinitum?

You know that those were both in the same book, right?
posted by mhoye at 6:48 AM on March 19, 2009


I don't think anyone expects science fiction to predict *the* future. But is it really too much to ask that it describe *a* future? We've reached the point where it's finally rubbed into even the dullest noses that each century will be dramatically different from the last, but speculating about the upcoming differences becomes less fun when foreseeable technology and impossible technobabble get thrown together and used for nothing more than "atmosphere".

Being self-consistent, as a minimum step, is just good story telling. Introduce your faster-than-light drive at the start of your story and you may have wandered into science fantasy territory, but there's a place for that too. Introduce an inverse polarized tachyon beam to get you past your climax and you've just brought in a lousy deus ex machina.

Being consistent with existing science (albeit not existing technology), as a second step, would be nice to do in a few more stories. Yeah, I know, that may limit most of your action to no more than the few septillion cubic miles of solar system and the few quadrillion people that a single sun and its planetesimals could support. Is your story *really* so big that it wouldn't fit? Better to have a solar-system-spanning empire and the writing skills to convey how huge that really is, instead of a galaxy-spanning empire where the same Bigfoot, green Muppet, gay robot, etc. still lead lives that intersect over and over again out of "chance".
posted by roystgnr at 6:51 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


It might have been nice if the BBC had chosen their panel better -- while I enjoy the writing of all four of those authors, only Ken McLeod ever trained in the sciences, and I am not sure the others really give much insight into the question asked; though I liked Watson's observation that fantasy is more and more ascendant over science fiction in current publishing trends and that may reflect "Science with a capital S" becoming a social bogeyman for various global ills.

Anyhow, perhaps Alaistair Reynolds (until recently worked for the ESA), Greg Egan (a mathematician), or Paul McAuley (a botanist), or even ("MeFi's own") Charlie Stross (a pharmacist and computer programmer) would have been better choices to make comments on this topic, given their working roles in both science and writing sf?

Maybe now that more and more people have some grounding in science, sci fi is no longer something that needs a section off all to itself.

Hm. I wonder if more people really do have a grounding in science, though. I think it's more likely that a larger number of people have a facility with using tech (from laptops to cell phones to GPS units) that has a sf-nal feel, but I doubt there's much understanding of the principles that underlie the function of all our fun contemporary gadgetry. I imagine my loved ones thinking of the TomTom in their cars as a magic talking box divining their way rather than a computerized receiver triangulating its own position using signals from orbiting geosynchronous satellites. And let's not even get started on the topic of people's (complete lack of) comprehension of the medical technologies that lives depend upon every day!

Laypeople just don't care very much about the details, which is why they didn't major in hard science or engineering themselves. SF as literature is more reflective of the increasing fetishization of tech in ordinary people's lives, rather than their interest in the laws of physics.
posted by aught at 6:53 AM on March 19, 2009


SF as literature is more reflective of the increasing fetishization of tech in ordinary people's lives, rather than their interest in the laws of physics.

Yes! That makes much more sense than what I said. Rather than more people having a "grounding in science", I think I was groping towards the idea that scientific, though mainly technological, things permeate the world and people's minds much more than they once did.

There'll always (hopefully) be hard sci fi for people who really do have some grounding in physics, say. But I think the sci fi "flavour" is becoming more and more universal.
posted by lucidium at 7:57 AM on March 19, 2009


Really?? So you mean that the authors who were actual scientists (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, P. Schuyler Miller, Hal Clement, James Blish, James P. Hogan, Charles Sheffield, Vernor Vinge just to name a few) only used science as a trope in their writings?

That's right. They were not writing scientific literature, they were writing fiction and the 'science' parts in sci-fi were (and are) just a way to set up novel situations. "Glimpsing into the future" is only possible because, not in spite of using science as a trope.


Well, I guess that if you decide to view SF in that reductionist type of way, than what you are saying may make some sense to you. Of course that paradigm applied to all other genres yields the same results.
"They were not writing horrific literature, they were writing fiction and the 'horror' parts in horror were (and are) just a way to set up novel situations."
"They were not writing mystery literature, they were writing fiction and the 'mystery' parts in mystery were (and are) just a way to set up novel situations."
ad nauseum.

Anyway, your opinion isn't necessarily shared by all critics, fans or even scientists.
Putting the science in science fiction
Science Friday: Hour Two: The Science of Science Fiction (with audio link goodness)
The Science in Science Fiction (google books)
Discover: Putting The Science in Science Fiction
Science Fiction Stories with Good Astronomy & Physics: A Topical Index

And once again, I suggest that your generalization is just that, a generalization. Yes, there is scifi that does what you describe. The science is just used to dress up the other issues that the author is talking about ( Ken MacLeod does this to talk about his politics). In fact, there is really good scifi that does this, its a pretty powerful tool. However, as I said, scifi is not monolithic. A good chunk of hard scifi is most certainly not about the literature, its not about current events, its not about the human condition. It is unreservedly, unequivocally about the science. This scifi is all about the idea. Its about attempting to describe how things might be. And in fact a lot of scifi takes from both camps. Its not necessarily an either or issue. A lot of scifi is a blend of various style and intentions. I know its fun and amusing to attempt to categorize and pigeon-hole things. "X is all about this." But that kind of facile description is usually not useful. At its best, it is a generalization that is rather vague but allows one to give a brief overview of something. At its worst it reductionist to the point of absurdity. So anyway, I don't know if you are just not very familiar with the scifi that I am talking about or if you just can't see the pivotal role that science plays in some scifi. Rither way, your blanket statement is not very accurate.
posted by anansi at 8:03 AM on March 19, 2009


Science, however, has lifted us out of poverty, conquered disease...

what
posted by symbollocks at 8:15 AM on March 19, 2009


smallpox
posted by Iax at 10:30 AM on March 19, 2009


Really?? So you mean that the authors who were actual scientists (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, P. Schuyler Miller, Hal Clement, James Blish, James P. Hogan, Charles Sheffield, Vernor Vinge just to name a few) only used science as a trope in their writings? If you truly believe this then I would have to say that you are not very familiar with hard SF.

I'd say the opposite: If you don't believe it, you are ignorant about SF, including hard SF. The number of people who write SF of the sort you describe is absolutely miniscule. Hal Clement is, indeed, one. But one guy does not a genre make. Asimov, Clarke, Blish, and Vinge in particular bear no resemblance to the kind of writer you describe.

Clarke is the guy who wrote CHILDHOOD'S END and 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY for god's sake. Blish wrote DOCTOR MIRABILIS and A CASE OF CONSCIENCE. Vinge is best known these days for the Zones of Thought stuff and while there is some very interesting sciencey stuff in it, it's most certainly not about science. A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY is ostensibly about the cost we are willing to pay for our dreams with a side order meta commentary on fiction and translation but is on a more fundamental level an absolutely masterful tragedy. And so on.

In fact, the allure of hard SF is the science.

No it isn't! Hard SF isn't about science; lots of times the science in "Hard SF" is pure rubbish. Hard SF can plausibly be argued to be about style. Niven's science is often rubbish but he clearly wrote hard SF because that's the style he used. Asimov wrote in that style. Clarke did. Many of the guys you mention do (not Vinge or Blish, though). It's a certain style and set of tropes that some people like to believe has to do with correct science; it does not. As I said, the number of authors who write hard SF with plausible and correct science and that's much of the point of the story can be counted on one hand.

Hal Clement is the poster boy. I love me some Hal Clement. But he's one guy. It's not a significant movement.
posted by Justinian at 10:32 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lovely fun little piece. Good find!
posted by Artw at 10:33 AM on March 19, 2009


Most important two words in the entire article: "it depends"
posted by Artw at 10:34 AM on March 19, 2009


I think the term speculative term might give a bit more credit to science fiction writers who are trying to accomplish something. That said, I really revel in the dystopian stuff. FRAKKIN SKINJOBS!
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 11:08 AM on March 19, 2009


and i think i need to proofread and preview
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 11:10 AM on March 19, 2009


I'd say the opposite: If you don't believe it, you are ignorant about SF, including hard SF.

And I'd say that just because you can find examples that do follow this pattern does not make it the rule. I will repeat, scifi is not monolithic. To reduce the entire genre down to tropes is disingenuous. Just because you think that the amount of folks that do "proper" hard SF is minuscule does not discount the fact that it exists. True space opera is a small sub-set too, but its still a part of the genre. And just as the genre as a whole is not monolithic, neither is the output of specific authors. You want to claim that since some of the Hard sf guys have written stuff with "rubbish science," that it shows that they don't write about "science!" That's ridiculous. Yeah, Vinge's Zones of thought isn't all about the science, however "Rainbow's End" is practically an exercise in near future prognostication. Likewise with the rest of them. But hell, what do I know? I'm "ignorant about SF."
posted by anansi at 11:16 AM on March 19, 2009


Science Fiction isn't really about not really being about things.
posted by Artw at 11:18 AM on March 19, 2009


Yeah, Vinge's Zones of thought isn't all about the science, however "Rainbow's End" is practically an exercise in near future prognostication.

No it isn't; this implies that Vinge wrote the book as a vehicle for his extrapolations. That isn't the case. The book isn't about that at all; in fact, Vinge probably doesn't believe most of what he wrote is likely to come to pass. What RAINBOWS END (note lack of apostrophe, this is thematically important) is about is a mixture of the nature of identity with another side order of singularity. Is Robert Gu the same guy after his Alzheimer's treatments? He sure doesn't seem like it. Was his genius worth being such an asshole? What makes us, us?

Just because you think that the amount of folks that do "proper" hard SF is minuscule does not discount the fact that it exists.

No, I think the amount of people who write what you consider proper hard SF is miniscule. My argument is different; there are a bunch of folks who write hard SF, but hard SF isn't what you think it is. Calling something hard SF is primarily a comment on the style in which it is written. This is trivially easy to demonstrate; many works which almost no-one would dispute are "hard SF" do not contain plausible science. Therefore "hard SF" by definition cannot be SF containing or about plausible science.

But hell, what do I know? I'm "ignorant about SF."

Come on now, you were the one that brought up the phrase "ignorant about SF" in the first place. You can hardly complain when I simply quoted it back.
posted by Justinian at 11:53 AM on March 19, 2009


GENRE FIGHT!
posted by Artw at 11:54 AM on March 19, 2009


Cyberpunk: fiction or science fiction? Serious question.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:59 AM on March 19, 2009


Consider: Is THE MOTE IN GODS EYE hard SF? How about Mike Brotherton's work? Peter Watts' BLINDSIGHT? The works of Catharine Asaro? Nancy Kress?

Here's a good one: Kim Stanley Robinson's MARS trilogy. Hard SF, yes? Is the science plausible? Is the story about the science, or is it a vehicle for Robinson's commentary on human nature and his political hobbyhorses? I'll answer that: The science is rubbish and the story is about his political hobbyhorses. And yet it is clearly hard SF.

Why? The style.

Consider C.J. Cherryh's CYTEEN. Would anyone deny it is hard SF? I sure hope not. Is that book about future extrapolation or science? Anyone who thinks so did not read the book. So why is it hard SF? The style in which it was written.

You're making the equivalent of a prescriptivist argument when it comes to language; the original intended meaning of hard SF is close to what you use it to mean. But that's no longer what it means in common parlance and that should be recognized. Otherwise you end up like the late lamented Gharlane of Eddore on usenet, an aging relic forever quoting John W. Campell, Jr's statement on SF:

"It's Science Fiction, if, presuming technical competence on the part of the writer, he genuinely believes it could happen."

Sounds great until you remember that Campbell was the big proponent of psionics as a staple of early science fiction. psionics. Even Campbell didn't live up to his own definition.
posted by Justinian at 12:04 PM on March 19, 2009


We should give our subgenres some more subgenres, so they can all fight too.
posted by Artw at 12:10 PM on March 19, 2009


We should give our subgenres some more subgenres, so they can all fight too.

I'd comment on this, but I'm too busy laying odds on whether post-apocalyptic New Weird can take out counterfactual cypherpunk in under five rounds.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:20 PM on March 19, 2009


Well as long as it's not fucking Non-Mundane Steampunk, I hate those fuckers.
posted by Artw at 12:23 PM on March 19, 2009


Come on now, you were the one that brought up the phrase "ignorant about SF" in the first place. You can hardly complain when I simply quoted it back.

Actually, no, I didn't. I said that a poster may not be familiar with hard SF. I said that I thought that the poster might be misinformed. And I said that I thought that the poster might not see the role of science in SF that I do. All of these were commentaries on what the poster was writing. They were not attacks on the poster, and if I do say so myself they were rather genial. I have also not been smug in my arguments. What I have said is that blanket generalizations are not very useful and that to state that SF science is nothing but tropes is well, not quite true. And like I said above, this either or argument about it being about science or other issues is false on its face. Much of the stuff is about both. It doesn't have to be purely about the science to actually be about the science. The same way that it doesn't have to be purely about the author's commentary on other issues to tackle that end of it. You want there to be this straight up dichotomy that really doesn't exist. I never said that all hard SF is all about the science. I did say that hard SF is a subset of the genre where authors have written stories that do focus on the science, not as a trope but as an integral part of the story. They are "what if?" scenarios. How can my continual declaration that SF is not monolithic be construed as "hard SF is all about this!" That's precisely what I have been arguing against. But hey, its more fun to be snarky and attempt to argue points that I'm not making. Have at it.
posted by anansi at 12:33 PM on March 19, 2009


(Mundane Steampunk would be Steampunk that actually paid attention to how steam engines work. It would be a very small genre. )
posted by Artw at 12:33 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Big Hard SF is all about people with improbably huge shoulder pads shooting each other with gigantic guns.
posted by Artw at 12:34 PM on March 19, 2009


anansi: You're correct that you didn't use the word "ignorant". You did, however, say "If you truly believe this then I would have to say that you are not very familiar with hard SF." I suppose "ignorant" is moderately stronger statement than "not very familiar" so I apologize, I thought you had used the word.

I did say that hard SF is a subset of the genre where authors have written stories that do focus on the science, not as a trope but as an integral part of the story. They are "what if?" scenarios. How can my continual declaration that SF is not monolithic be construed as "hard SF is all about this!"

I'm not construing it as such. I'm saying that using the phrase "hard sf" in the way you are using it is not reflective of the current state of the genre and not very useful at all. The works that are generally considered hard SF are not works that fit the description you are making.
posted by Justinian at 12:45 PM on March 19, 2009


I'm saying that using the phrase "hard sf" in the way you are using it is not reflective of the current state of the genre and not very useful at all. The works that are generally considered hard SF are not works that fit the description you are making.
posted by Justinian at 12:45 PM on March 19 [+] [!]


And what I am saying is that by setting up these parameters for what hard SF is or isn't, you are clearly limiting the field and not acknowledging the fact that there is a very broad continuum of SF hard, soft and in-between. Nowhere am I arguing that SciFi isn't about the issues often with science on the side. What I am saying is that there is SciFi that is concerned with the speculation, the science--not just as tropes but as one of the points of the exercise. There is SciFi that is about "what if?" This stuff is not just using science as window dressing. It is very concerned with, "the big idea." And further, its not an either/or thing. SciFi can do both. It does both really well and to varying degrees. I'm not being prescriptive in my assessment of SciFi, far from it. I'm saying that the genre is such a large continuum that to attempt to reduce it as only using science as tropes is not true. That may be a current trend, but that is not the entire corpus of the field. Rather than being prescriptive, I'm trying to show that the field and even the subsets are broad open categories. Your dismissal of the science in practically all of hard SF as rubbish, is I think, harsh and unfounded. Some may be and some is not. And some may have both. I truly don't understand this urge toward reductionism in our definitions of SciFi (or anything else for that matter). By saying all "x" is this. Or, this category is really just "y" with tropes, we do a disservice to the categories being discussed. I can't think of very much at all that can be usefully reduced to simplistic , generalized descriptions.
posted by anansi at 1:01 PM on March 19, 2009


And, if I parse it correctly, your main counter to my argument is that not enough people are doing it for it (hard SF with "proper" science) to count. I dunno, I see the whole thing as pretty cyclical not necessarily as some sort of linear evolution. I see all sorts of SF styles that create a (for me, at least) pretty damn fascinating tapestry. If you do see it as some sort of evolution (as alluded to in your prescriptivist comment) than perhaps you see this type of SF fading away. I don't see that. Shit, people said space opera was dead too, and then came Hamilton, Banks and others who gave it a good shot in the ass and re-invigorated it. Cycles, man. Everything old is new again.
posted by anansi at 1:16 PM on March 19, 2009


Okay, I see where you're coming from. But I think what daniel_charms was reacting to in the initial comment that started this particular thread was the old notion among large swaths of the populace that SF is all rocketships and rayguns and none of that metaphor or symbolism or characterization stuff.

If it's an overreaction it is an understandable one, I think. SF was ghettoized for so long that it's hard to stop fighting the good fight against the notion that all SF is the kind of SF you're describing when little of it actually is.
posted by Justinian at 1:23 PM on March 19, 2009


Some of the deep defensiveness and anti-literary knee-jerking here really frustrates me, as someone who likes both science fiction and capital-L Literature, and who is sometimes sad that so much of the one doesn't even aspire to be the other. I mean, in what other situation would you see ardent novel readers denigrating things as "just" tropes* (that is, "merely" on the level of form) rather than serious-business content? Or casually dismissing the centuries-long history of the novel itself, the literary form they're spending all this time and energy arguing about, as mere navel-gazing fluff? (Yes, I know some of this was meant semi-jokingly, but it's common enough to see the same position argued without any trace of irony.) How can fans who are so palpably invested in literature simultaneously seem so hostile to it?

I suppose a lot of this, like any other kind of defensiveness, is recognizable as simple overcompensation for the flaws of the love-object, but it might be more productive to think about why SF plays by a somewhat different set of rules than to couch the whole discussion in such strident value-judgements. For my money the more interesting way forward in thinking about the mismatch between SF novels and literary novels is to ask, with Stanislaw Lem and Fredric Jameson, why SF is so much more committed to the literal – why the interesting thinking in SF novels happens so much more on the surface than in conventional literature, with its investment in obliquity, psychology, and metaphor.

* People writing that science in SF is a "trope," I think you really mean it's a "topos."
posted by RogerB at 1:27 PM on March 19, 2009


I get what you are saying. In fact, I don't think that hard SF is necessarily the best nor can it be called "true" SF. For their to be a true SF, the definitions would need to be so narrow as to exclude much of it. I love the more literate SF also. I don't think I actually have a particular preference, it just depends on the quality of what it is. SF is a really broad field with a lot of room to play in.

I think that a lot of the ghettoization was a knee-jerk response in order to differentiate it from unicorns and barbarians Fantasy. And while I don't necessarily agree with that type of territorialism, I'm also not too keen on the whole speculative-fiction-euphemism-distancing-from-scifi stuff either.
posted by anansi at 1:33 PM on March 19, 2009


* I am not putting down unicorns and barbarians or fantasy. I like them also. Well, maybe not unicorns so much but I love fantasy.
posted by anansi at 1:38 PM on March 19, 2009


Don’t think Venn Diagrams with hard lines, think a series of intersecting fuzzy edged shapes without distinct borders. It's all a groovy continuum.

Except for non-Mundane Steampunk. Fuck that shit.
posted by Artw at 1:50 PM on March 19, 2009


Artw: We should give our subgenres some more subgenres, so they can all fight too.

'Sup dawg, I heard you like reading subgenres, so I put a subgenre in the subgenre, so you can read a subgenre while you read subgenres!

mhoye: You know that those were both in the same book, right?

Quiet you!
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 8:27 PM on March 19, 2009


I kind of like what Peter Watts says about literature and genre, denial and relevance this essay about Margaret Atwood. [PDF, 94K, bitter]
posted by wobh at 8:46 PM on March 19, 2009


SupDawgPunk.
posted by Artw at 9:45 PM on March 19, 2009


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