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Science Fiction VS Scifi
August 21, 2009 3:34 AM   Subscribe

Harlan Ellison tears up the debate and J. Michael Straczynski speaks up on the topic. Oh, yeah there is also Herb Solow as well and his wife Yvonne (WTF) speaking on the subject "Science Fiction" over "SciFi". None of them saw SyFy coming back in 1997, that's for sure! (SLYT)

Also, here is the Newsweek article mentioned at the start of the segment.
posted by GavinR (136 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't it kind of futile to try to split any kind of art along a 'worthy/populist' divide by arbitrarily assigning different names and definitions? Do people need to be told 'this is a profound work which will make you think', or 'this is commercially-driven pulp with lasers and robots and no message'?

People will ultimately seek out the kind of experience they want to consume. That there are filmmakers and writers willing to go the extra mile to produce something that rewards a deeper reading is proof that there is a (minority) audience for such work. But trying to argue away something like SyFy (or Star Wars/Trek or the X-Files) on the grounds of artistic merit is a bit like trying to convince the general population that MacDonalds food tastes bad; you're preaching to the choir. History shows pretty clearly that most people will go with whatever form of entertainment is exciting, undemanding, and easy to follow. Science Fiction is not some special snowflake in this regard.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:55 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Speaking quite frankly, I believe the term "stereo" - though an utter bastardization of "stereophonic", in my opinion - serves as an appropriate detente for this "Hi-Fi" versus "High-Fidelity" debacle.

Enough ink has been expounded upon this issue, and I shudder to think of all the excellent eight-track tape recordings which weren't produced on account of the effort squandered instead of this grating rigmarole.

That the literary world hasn't - and dare I say it, should never have to - worry about any equivalent haggling over phraseology should serve as an important lesson to us all.

Now let's move forward with the truly excellent aural output our medium is capable of!

posted by Smart Dalek at 4:20 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of all the many passionately-argued debates of our age, this may be the least important.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:27 AM on August 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


his wife Yvonne (WTF)

Why WTF? At that time, she had written a Roddenberry biography that was quite successful, from what I can tell, and seems to have kept herself rather busy since then.
posted by effbot at 4:43 AM on August 21, 2009


So -- Harlan doesn't like Michael Bay either?

However correct the guy might be, he really needs to switch to decaf. Breathe dude, Breathe.
posted by mikelieman at 4:50 AM on August 21, 2009


Harlan Ellison told me not to fuck with him once. I thought it was odd that he singled me out of an auditorium full of people to admonish like that, especially since I was not fucking with him. I was just sitting there listening to him talk. Maybe he considers listening to him talk fucking with him. I just don't know. He's seems like a very odd person who could probably use a good punch in the mouth. That's all I have to add to the thread.
posted by dortmunder at 5:00 AM on August 21, 2009 [18 favorites]


Cranky author is cranky.

Also, don't label it a SLYT post if there's more than one link.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:01 AM on August 21, 2009


Writing a bio about a someone is not the same thing as being an expert the topic the person is known for. I could write a bio on Albert Einstein but that wouldn't mean that I expected to be interviewed as someone who knows something about quantum mechanics. She only wrote the bio stuff, and then sure she might have written some stuff for Star Trek art books, but she is NOT a science fiction writer or even a SciFi writer. I don't know why you linked to that Harrison Solo page, because that isn't even remotely the same person.
posted by GavinR at 5:04 AM on August 21, 2009


Oh, and that second link was more of an afterthought...it really is just a reference made in the video. I added it just because I managed to find it after I started the post.
posted by GavinR at 5:04 AM on August 21, 2009


I don't know why you linked to that Harrison Solo page, because that isn't even remotely the same person.

Herb Solow has two wives, both of which has written the book I linked to? Now that's a WTF...
posted by effbot at 5:08 AM on August 21, 2009


"SyFy" is insulting, stupid, and obviously the product of a marketing department trying to justify their existence.
posted by autodidact at 5:13 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's pretty clear in a general sense among science fiction folks:

Science Fiction = Science Fiction I like.

SciFi = Science Fiction I don't like.

I'm noting something similar in a recent discussion of Star Wars, in which some folks are adamant that Star Wars isn't science fiction, it's fantasy. Which is a way of saying "this bugs me, so it can't be the same thing I usually like -- it has to be something else, something I don't like."

To me, it's all science fiction. Some of it is better designed than others, and some of it is more entertaining than others (and these two sets are not necessarily the same), and all of it is subject to personal taste. Wankery on the subject is amusing -- and Lord knows I've participated in such wankery -- but fundamentally it's the nerd equivalent of arguing about whether the American League offers real baseball because it has the designated hitter, while the National league makes its pitchers go up to bat.
posted by jscalzi at 5:14 AM on August 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


Writing a bio about a someone is not the same thing as being an expert the topic the person is known for.

True, but it doesn't indicate the other direction either. It also would mean that she should be able to articulate what Roddenberry's views on the subject were. I haven't watched the video, but unless she clearly embarassed herself in demonstrating a lack of knowledge, I'd argue the WTF should have been left out.
posted by inturnaround at 5:14 AM on August 21, 2009


Wait, so she went from Yvonne Fern, to Yvonne Fern Solow, to Yvonne Solow, to Harrison Solow? Pick a name lady...no wonder I couldn't find much info on her when I googled Yvonne Fern. Was that a pen name?
posted by GavinR at 5:17 AM on August 21, 2009


Was that a pen name?

Not entirely clear, but probably birth name used as a pseudonym. From her own The Last Conversation page:

This book was written under the name of Yvonne (Harrison) Fern which changed when I married and became Yvonne Harrison Solow. I don't use the name Yvonne at all anymore and hence "Harrison Solow."

Anyway, my point was the one that inturnaround spelled out (thanks!) - being Solow's wife wasn't necessarily the only reason she was invited. She's no bozo [1], and she'd spent a lot of time in the Roddenberry universe before appearing on that show.

1) Well, I do agree with the YT crowd that her eighties/american haircut in that clip makes her look a bit like Izzard, but he's definitely no bozo, so that's not necessarily a bad thing in itself.
posted by effbot at 5:34 AM on August 21, 2009


I make a point of calling it all SciFi just to annoy people who think the distinction is important.
posted by curious_yellow at 5:55 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well I was going by her Memory Alpha page, which only mentions the biography and then writing copy for a Trek sketchbook.

http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Yvonne_Fern_Solow

Usually that site is pretty up to date and accurate.
posted by GavinR at 5:56 AM on August 21, 2009


Star Wars is not science fiction. It's fantasy. That's not splitting hairs. Sure only "nerds" and writers care about the distinction, but it's a true distinction, and not at all on the level of American League vs National League.

Spaceships != Science Fiction
posted by autodidact at 6:04 AM on August 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


I want to know if this is MetaFilter or MeFi, so I may tailor my comment appropriately.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:25 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Star Wars is King Arthur with lasers that go pew pew. But I like King Arthur, and I like lasers that go pew pew, so I don't really care what you call it. Syfy is a channel full of low-budget schlock. Dean Cain seems happy there in his post-success afterlife. From Superman to Syfy Schlockman, that's gotta suck.

(And the AL is lame. Fussy pitchers too wussified to get in front of another pitcher and take a beanball like a man.)
posted by jamstigator at 6:25 AM on August 21, 2009


*casts magic Jedi spell on autodidact*
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 6:26 AM on August 21, 2009


.. which is why the sequels to The Matrix pissed me off so much. I'll always admire the first one for being plausibly hard sci-fi*. Then the sequels made everything so fuzzy, and certain things happened that could mean only two things: Either they were still inside a computer simulation when they were supposedly in the real world (massive cop-out), or Neo really did acquire superpowers in the real world (he passed through a sentinel, Shadowcat style). Even if it was still intended to be hard sci-fi, the layers of cheese and stupidity in the sequels just fucking makes me feel nerd shame.

*Do NOT fucking bring up the bad logic of using "humans as batteries". First off Morpheus says "combined with a form of fusion" which makes me think maybe they were feeding our poop into reactors. Second, and more importantly, Morpheus was probably just plain wrong/misinformed/subject to interpretation like he was on so many other little details. With this bit of hand-waving, it's hard sci-fi.

I don't see a distinction between "sci-fi" and "science fiction" since one is an abbreviation of the other.... to assert that an abbreviation carries a different meaning is pretentious and supercilious.
posted by autodidact at 6:32 AM on August 21, 2009


Nice use of the "j" tag.
posted by Mister_A at 6:33 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Star Wars is not science fiction. It's fantasy.

I would argue that science fiction is a subset of fantasy, but one that either uses science in the way realism uses it's techniques -- as a way of accumulating superficially believable details in order to convince you that a story is credibly true -- and/or uses advancements in science and technology as a jumping off point for creating a work of fantastic fiction. Harlan Ellison, and a number of the Dangerous Visions crowd, were even more self-evidently fantasy with a lot of their writing, dispensing with some of the pose of realism to generate more self-consciously literary stories that didn't seem to feel a need to establish their scientific bona fides.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:38 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


So, is it more lowbrow to be on MeFi than on Metafilter?
posted by Cookiebastard at 6:40 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I thought debates like these are why people started using terms like "sf" and speculative fiction. Transcending false dichotomies is very in right now.
posted by Copronymus at 6:40 AM on August 21, 2009


Nice use of the "j" tag.

Yeah, someone needs to do some backtagging here: only one of six posts mentioning his name has that tag. The tag "straczynski" has twice as many.

posted by effbot at 6:40 AM on August 21, 2009


I assume everyone will have already seen the posts about Harlan Ellison over at Penny Arcade.

Essentially they just go to confirm what I think when I watch this - he's a complete cock. A grade-A asshole of the highest order, and someone I'm glad I can mostly ignore completely. Is there anyone out there with a positive story about the fuckwit?
posted by opsin at 6:51 AM on August 21, 2009


I would call them cousins and neither one a parent of the other. After all, the events of 2001: A Space Oddyssey remain plausible. Lord of the Rings will never be plausible. I don't see how something that could happen descends from something that can't. Unless you're talking about the history of writing itself. I'm thinking more about the works and how they relate irrespective of the creation timeline.

I don't think the debate is a false dichotomy. It's merely a distinction. It's about what shelf you ultimately file things on. To someone with a big collection, that's important and worth discussing.

I think a lot of people get hung up on the superficial side of science fiction (or fantasy). Gattaca is a good example. Most "civilians" would not call Gattaca a science fiction movie. They'd call it a drama unless they were told otherwise (likely by the DVD box). But it's sci-fi because the author is writing about how technology affects civilization.
posted by autodidact at 6:55 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just after the discussion of her many names, I read effbot's comment:

Anyway, my point was the one that inturnaround spelled out (thanks!) - being Solow's wife wasn't necessarily the only reason she was invited.

As...

wasn't necessarily the person who was invited.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:55 AM on August 21, 2009


And more on topic, I would say that indeed, the whole SyFy thing is dreadful, and clearly coming from a place where they want to focus less on being a science fiction channel - thus straightforwardly is some sort of debasement of sci fi. But, the only distinction between science fiction and sci fi is whatever the jumped up git wants to make it. Enough people who write or watch proper science fiction refer to it as sci fi, because it's the same thing, just contracted. Just because some people write shitty sci fi, or create TV shows with no imagination, doesn't mean everyone has to be so mindful about whatever term they use to describe it.
Sigh!
posted by opsin at 6:56 AM on August 21, 2009


Hmm bit of a logical fart there... I guess most people would still call Gattaca sci-fi, because it has spaceships in it. Damnit.
posted by autodidact at 6:57 AM on August 21, 2009


Star Wars is not science fiction. It's fantasy.

Wrong.

Next?

I would argue that science fiction is a subset of fantasy

This is absolutely correct (horror is also generally a subset of fantasy as well). However it's worth noting that when people proclaim things like "Star Wars is fantasy," they are generally not saying "Star Wars is fantasy because all science fiction is fantasy," they're generally saying "Star Wars is fantasy because I don't want that dirty, dirty thing in my genre, and I'm willing to ignore all the space ships and robots and laser guns and faster-than-light drives I have to in order to say that." Which is different.
posted by jscalzi at 6:59 AM on August 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


autodidact, I'm glad you liked the first Matrix but I hafta tell you, it was obvious from about 10 minutes in that for all its SFnal trappings the Matrix was a Gnostic gospel. The Matrix itself is just another form of what another SF writer, Philip K. Dick, called the "Black Iron Prison," the suffocating and deceptive illusion that is "reality." The main complaint I had with the trilogy is that if anything it was too pretty at the end, what with Neo convincing God the Architect to join with him to defeat agent Satan Smith and presumably pulling the Holy Spirit Oracle out of a hat to reset everything for a nice round of human-divine machine Kum Ba Ya. Any student of Gnosticism can tell you that Jesus Neo failed and that we are still stuck in the Architect's lie, and now the only way to find reality is to personally receive the Gnosis yourself. And that's why you can't be told about the "Matrix."
posted by localroger at 6:59 AM on August 21, 2009 [13 favorites]


I read "Harlan Ellison Tears Up" and I was like, wow! I dinna know that he had lacrimal ducts, the old lizard! And then I read the rest and was very meh. Still, whoever came up with SyFy should be shot in the groin.
posted by Mister_A at 7:01 AM on August 21, 2009


Oh dear. We had this conversation 30 years ago, but at that time it was SF vs. SciFi, with all right-thinking people coming out strongly for SF. I believe it was an attempt to make the culture of Science Fiction seem more serious, less frivolous. Even though I gave up on the genre sometime in my twenties, to this day when I see the terms "SciFi" or "SyFy" silently in my head I think "SF".
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:02 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is there anyone out there with a positive story about the fuckwit?

I wrote him a letter when I was in high school and he sent me a very nice postcard. He also typed the message on it, which I thought was curious and cool -- I've never seen anyone else make out a postcard with a typewriter. And it was definitely not a form letter of any kind: It replied to the letter directly. And no typos! So yeah: There you go. That is my positive Harlan Ellison story.

(I have no negative Harlan Ellison stories, as this was my only personal interaction with him. I do kinda wish he'd pick his battles, though.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:06 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


localroger, yeah I caught that. You're one of those types eh? The ones who point out the jesus allegory, or the deeper point of gnosis only coming from within, whenever I try to talk about what actually happened onscreen in The Matrix movies. I'm talking about the narrative itself, not the allegory. The narrative itself, especially if you look at the first movie in isolation, is a damn cool example of hard sci-fi.
posted by autodidact at 7:11 AM on August 21, 2009


Spaceships != Science Fiction

That's technically true, but only Apollo 11 and From the Earth to the Moon have spaceships but are not science fiction.

Otherwise, spaceships = science fiction. Fully paid up, honest to god elements of the set "science fiction," whether it makes you happy or not.

The words "science fiction" don't require that the story be scientically plausible in any way whatsoever; at this point that is merely the etymology of the phrase rather than its actual meaning. Insisting that a piece must be scientifically plausible to be "science fiction" is as fundamentally misguided as to say that a hot dog must be manufactured in Vienna to be a wiener because wiener does in fact mean "from Vienna."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:15 AM on August 21, 2009


Star Wars is Science Fiction, namely of a sub-genre called "space opera", which always was and will be part of the Science Fiction canon, which I guess is in itself a sub-genre of SciFi as opposed to "serious Science Fiction" in the definition Jscalzi offered above.
Some fantastical elements don't make it fantasy.

Lester del Rey in the 1978 book on the history of SF, The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976 p.325:
"(Space Opera is) Almost any story involving space, though it properly deals with those in which action takes precedence over other writing details. Analogous to horse opera for westerns"
p.370 about Star Wars:
"it is obviously an example of what has been called "space opera", long one of the favourite forms of adventure science fiction."

quoted after David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer in the introduction of "The Space Opera Renaissance", who continue:

"And in the end Del Rey Books happily attached Brackett's considerable prestige and authority to the Star Wars project when Brackett, also an accomplished screen-writer, did the script for The Empire Strikes Back. The Del Rey novelization of the film has her name on it as well as the novelizer's. And so in the popular mind, within a few years, Star Wars was conflated with Star Trek fiction to contour the new image of space opera: By the early 1980s "space opera" was a code term in U.S. marketing circles for bestselling popular SF entertainment."

There was also "Science-Fantasy", to quote again: "as a neutral term describing Brackett's work. That term was generally applied to writers or works from the time of Edgar Rice Burroughs on, including Brackett, C.L. Moore, Ray Bradbury (his Mars stories), who wrote a variety of SF that in some essential way violated known contemporary science. It was later applied with equal justice to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels. "Science fantasy" (usually without the hyphen as a term did not fall out of currency until the 1980s, and I would submit that it is still a useful locution."
posted by kolophon at 7:15 AM on August 21, 2009


Okay, fine, whatever, I can see the hypothetical usefulness of having a way to distinguish between SF that actually does try to deal with Science, and the stuff that uses it purely as trappings, Star Wars style. But... dude. Calm down. Nobody is ever, ever going to start using your effectively made-up distinction here, ok? It's like... it's like shouting, very loudly, I AM NOT A TREKKIE I AM A TREKKER. TREKKIES ARE THOSE OTHER PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT ME AND WHO I DO NOT LIKE. CONFUSE THESE TERMS AND SUFFER MY WRATH. See what I mean? Yes, there's sort of a distinction to be made, if - and that's a very bold if - you care a whole lot more than almost anybody else. For a value of "anybody else" that includes practically everybody who actually reads Science Fiction. Including the "real" SF that has, like, numbers and stuff.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to hurry up with some Scalzi for my Sci-Fi book club.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:18 AM on August 21, 2009


Are you guys in marketing?
posted by autodidact at 7:19 AM on August 21, 2009


I just call the genre "them robot stories" regardless of whether or not there's a robot featured. It seems to work just fine for me, so I don't see what everybody's problem is here.
posted by Spatch at 7:26 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have no particular feelings about the labels of "sci-fi" and "science fiction" (mostly, I use them interchangably). I think Ellison's on to something in his essay. We all have various existential concerns in our lives, to the extant that our leisure-time entertainments speak to these questions we ought to be critical of the answers they give. Ellison's probably read Gardener's On Moral Fiction. Ellison's almost certainly read Stanislaw Lem's critical essays of science fiction. Otherwise comparing Independance Day with the Heaven's Gate cult is an absurdity worthy of science fiction.
posted by wobh at 7:37 AM on August 21, 2009


Also David Brin has been complaining about this sort of thing for some time too.
posted by wobh at 7:38 AM on August 21, 2009


Is there anyone out there with a positive story about the fuckwit?

I met Mr. Ellison at a night-before-the-con-dinner when he was the guest of honor for the Chicago Comic-con (in the 90s). A friend of mine bought an auction item for charity and got to shake his hand and get his picture taken. I took the picture.

He was quite nice.

Also, I enjoy his writing. I believe Death Bird Stories is a masterpiece.

I've also met Harvey Pekar once or twice, a man who also has a bit of a reputation for being a crank. He's also never been anything but polite.
posted by Bonzai at 7:39 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Harlan's not a guy to take his work or his field lightly. He's also fearless in the way he writes, and the way he debates. An anecdote that I can't find the link for (just my own faulty memory):

Harlan and several celebrities were on a TV show debating something political (it may have been one of Bill Maher's earlier shows.) The debate is warming up a bit and they're starting to go after each others' points with a little more intensity. Then out of the blue, he responds to the latest point with (paraphrasing): "Well, I have no penis. What do you think of that?" And on that note, Bill goes to commercial with a very puzzled look.

Apparently this has been a tactic of his in previous debates; nothing like a good non-sequitur to throw your opponents (and your audience) off-balance.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:41 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


That there SyFy Channel, do they run their website offa sequel database?
posted by adipocere at 7:44 AM on August 21, 2009


I don't think there are a whole lot of movies that fit the actual "Science Fiction" label. Just because the term was debased by Del Rey's marketing department doesn't mean I have to accept that Star Wars and Childhood's End are in the same genre.
posted by autodidact at 7:45 AM on August 21, 2009


So, the dividing lines? What are they exactly? Star Trek's transporter beam and replicator are pure magic, but are considered science fiction? What about E.T.? Where does that fall in the spectrum? If we're going to get that hardcore about categorizing, shouldn't we have latin taxonomy, similar to how we classify plants and animals? That would at least allow us to know when, for certain, we are talking about related groups and not just looking at a huge amorphous mass called "fiction that extends beyond our physical reality", which is what all this stuff is.
posted by hippybear at 7:52 AM on August 21, 2009


Or is that greek that we use for classification? I need coffee, and a refresher in my word roots, apparently.
posted by hippybear at 7:53 AM on August 21, 2009


autodidact: I disagree that plausibility has anything to do it. If you can read these words, 2001, 2010, and Rama are impossible. If they were possible (much less plausible) the technology that brings these words to your screen probably doesn't work. And while I'm at it, Asimov got pretty much everything about robots and computing wrong, but it doesn't matter because positronic brains are not a prediction about technology, but a participant in dialog about ethics. (*)

And of course, this ignores the entire issue of literary science fiction in which scientific plausibility takes a deliberate back seat to the ability to experiment with narrative or explore philosophical themes. Vonnegut says in the introduction to Slaughterhouse Five that Billy Pilgrim's narrative frame is a coping mechanism for talking about a horrifying real-world incident, and LeGuin says in the introduction to Left Hand of Darkness that the Gethens are a narrative device for saying things about human gender.

Incidentally, Gattaca is the kind of science fiction that LeGuin pounded in that introduction. She described some of her contemporaries as analogous to nutritional scientists who feed large quantities of a single substance to rats over a long period of time, to reach the predictable conclusion that it causes cancer. Gattaca looks at contemporary developments in genetic testing and comes to the conclusion that it might cause human culture cancer. It's still a good movie.

I'd say that if there is a key difference, it's that science fiction looks to current scientific inquiry for its narrative devices, while literature tends to look towards world folklore and literature. Which of course means there is a lot of crossover between the two, as Star Wars is a folktale in space.

(*) Of course he can be forgiven for getting it wrong initially. The first Robot stories came at the height of complex analog computation systems. The computer as Turing machine hadn't been brought out of the military closet. But the Robot stories are still readable because the action centers around an inherently ethical agent interacting with inherently pragmatic humans. Vannevar Bush made predictions of technology that were partly right, but are now primarily of historic interest because he saw it implemented on mostly analog systems.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:58 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Like I said it's not about false dichotomies. Almost everything is a hybrid. "Science Fiction" is about the impact of technology on civilization. "Speculative Fiction" is a what-if story usually but not always hinging on technology. "Hard Science Fiction" is science fiction restricted to physical reality. "Military SF" is all that Frederick Pouhl shit I never read. "Space Opera" is mythological storytelling with magic plus spaceships, which to me is like if Science Fiction and Fantasy fucked and had a kid, and Fantasy has all the dominant genes.
posted by autodidact at 8:01 AM on August 21, 2009


How are 2001, 2010, and Rama impossible? Ignoring the dates...
posted by autodidact at 8:02 AM on August 21, 2009


Sorry for posting so much, but I actually never said sci-fi had to be plausible. I mentioned plausibility as the reason why the science fiction genre containing 2001 (which I contend is plausible) should not be thought of as being descended from the fantasy genre. Cousin, maybe, but not a descendent.
posted by autodidact at 8:08 AM on August 21, 2009


When I was 17 (circa 1977 or so), I had a guest. A childhood "girlfriend" came to stay because the father of the family was going to the "Sci Fi" convention in Lake Tahoe. At 1am the night before our guest was going to Tahoe, the phone rang. In my house, everyone was in bed by 11pm. Being 17, I was awake. In those days, since there were no cordless phones, we had this insanely long cord to the phone so anyone upstairs could take the phone into their bedroom. It happened to be in my room. (Gee, what are the odds of that, at 17!)

I answered the phone. The guy on the other end of the line said "is Marty there?" Not, "hey, I'm really sorry for calling so late, but I really need to talk to Marty." I said everyone was asleep, but he insisted that I wake Marty up. I was just about to take the phone to him when I had the idea: "may I ask who is calling?" "Harlan Ellison." No, I did not say that I had several of his books on my shelf. I said "hold on" and took the phone to Marty.

The next day, I drove Marty to Robert Silverberg's house in the Oakland hills. He was much older than I thought he'd be. He had a girlfriend a couple of years older than me. Stunningly beautiful. I felt like such a dork bring a few of my Silverberg books for him to sign. I now live fairly close to Silverberg's house. I even drove around once just to see if I could spot the house, but the streets in that area are like a maze.

The Marty in the story? Martin Greenberg (there are two writers with that name, not the famous one, the one that did anthologies with Asimov).

That's my Harlan Ellison story.
posted by e40 at 8:09 AM on August 21, 2009


I prefer saying speculative fiction, because that includes classics like 1984 and Zamiatin's We, which aren't about science at all but about society and politics.

And where does the whole rich world of fantasy fit in? There is a good reason that science fiction and fantasy have so much cross-over in readership, despite their obvious differences. Both genres (or two sides of one genre?) use impossible/alternative settings to interest the reader, to unset our expectations, and explore stories that are not possible in our world. Historical literature is also very similar - an alien/fantastical environment, with strange cultural norms and practices, and stories which would not make sense in our own environment.

And I really like all three.
posted by jb at 8:11 AM on August 21, 2009


Are you guys in marketing?

Nope. We're just fluent in spoken and written English.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:15 AM on August 21, 2009


Harlan Ellison
H. Ellison
Hellison
Harrison
Harrison Ford
Han Solo
Han Solow
Harrison Solow

Q.E.D.
posted by stevil at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2009


Sorry for posting so much, but I actually never said sci-fi had to be plausible.

Then how on earth can you claim that it isn't science fiction?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:19 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


autodidact: General relativity makes even slow interstellar travel prohibitively expensive in terms of energy. We are talking about quantities exceeding the energy budget of a small planet to get something like the monolith into a different solar system. And we pretty much know that FTL communication is right out. Clarke just hand-waves that away, hoping that the places where he is accurate helps you bridge suspension of disbelief. (And that's before we get into the whole Jupiter becomes a mini-sun business.) And as Gene Wolfe makes clear in his New Sun opus, magic could be technology from a different angle. If you handwave into your fiction exceptions to general relativity, you can just as easily handwave magic as well.

I certainly do agree that there are differences between contemporary science fiction and contemporary fantasy. I just refuse to buy the often-stated conceit made by science fiction geeks that science fiction is plausible and predictive, and therefore has a special status not held by fantasy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:20 AM on August 21, 2009


European Space Opera – Ken McLeod, Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds – is, however, a different beast.
posted by Free word order! at 8:28 AM on August 21, 2009


I could not disagree more with Ellison's opinions on Aliens. That whole movie (at least in its director's cut format) is a meditation on motherhood and maternal instinct, with some amazing action thrown in. At the risk of getting sued, Ellison needs to tone down the hyperbole.
posted by orville sash at 8:29 AM on August 21, 2009


Martin Greenberg was your childhood girlfriend?
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:45 AM on August 21, 2009


SCIENCE != MAGIC

(even if sufficiently advanced)
posted by blue_beetle at 8:48 AM on August 21, 2009


Just as an aside on the whole "SyFy" idiocy...
A few days ago, Talk of the Nation did a piece on the upcoming TV season (or, as much as a new "season" as TV has anymore) Anywho, Linda Wertheimer very deliberately referred to SyFy as "Siffy" the couple of times the network was mentioned. It was a quite wonderful bit of subtle, personal editorializing and, I am sure, will result in a barrage of angrygrams from Siffy's marketing team.

Fuck 'em. Marketing droids need to have their stupidity pointed out to them as publically and repeatedly as possible.

For the record, SciFi switched to SyFy because they were not able to secure "SciFi" as a brand because it's a generic, public term. So, their marketing company developed the SyFy brand in order to better facilitate licensing and merchandising. I'm not defending it, mind you. I hate it. But, that's the whole reason behind the change. Siffy is owned by NBC/Universal, btw.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2009


Contemporary mainstream literature can be divided to postcolonial stuff, relationship stuff, war, mortal diseases and apocalyptic situations, family dramas, expanded family dramas, pastiches, parodies, comedies, postmodernist stuff, youth and growing up, middle-age crisis, getting old, futility of politics, lifestyle exaggerations, ponderings on evil, playful artists, seriously about art, drug writing, sex escapades with morals, local books, trials of a common working man and big conspiracies.
posted by Free word order! at 8:51 AM on August 21, 2009


The aliens in 2001 are dealing on massive, geological timescales. There's nothing FTL about their communication from what I can see. Also, I doubt the monolith was propelled here at FTL speeds. It either arrived through a wormhole, or was created here.
posted by autodidact at 8:53 AM on August 21, 2009


Sorry, "doubt the monolith was propelled here at any speed."
posted by autodidact at 8:54 AM on August 21, 2009


"Military SF" is all that Frederick Pouhl shit I never read.

I think you're either thinking of Jerry Pournelle or Poul Anderson. Though it diminishes Poul Anderson to sum him up that way, it's about right for Pournelle. Frederick Pohl (note spelling) is nothing like that; humanistic, decent moral core to his writing, and often very very funny in a way that sort of sneaks up on you.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:56 AM on August 21, 2009


Oh my Harlan Ellison story, isn't actually mine but a good buddy named Jay...lets say Smith for the purpose of this story. I'm sure Jay doesn't want his name bandied about on the internet. Anyway Jay was one of "The regular guys" who was always hanging out at the comic shop in the 80's which was how we became friends. He would read all the comic related magazines such as CBG and Amazing Heroes, getting me into it as well. Jay wouldn't just read this publications, he was one of those guys who would write in if he saw something he really objected to. Cut to a few years later when Jay and I happen to being going to the same college. Jay had written into the CBG to argue against something Ellison had written about in an article or column. I think it had to do with the creator's rights and how far the companies should and could go with that type of concept. So like a few days after the new issue comes out and there is Jay's letter right at the top of the letters page and he's basking in the joy of it when the phone rings. He just answers "Hello?" and this gruff voice at the other end says, "Is this Jay Smith?" and Jay replies with a hesitant "Uhm....yeah", then the gruff voice asks "The same Jay Smith who wrote this letter in to the CBG?". Jay is taken aback and replies in the affirmative. "Well, this is Harlan Ellison and who the hell do you think you are to question my view on the issue. I'm a published and respected author who's had to fight against these corporate vampires and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah..." Jay said he could hardly get a word in edgwise but eventually Ellison calmed down and they had a nice conversation. Eventually Harlan said he had to go and that was that. Jay never heard from him again.
posted by GavinR at 8:56 AM on August 21, 2009


autodidact: Except that neither of those solutions are very plausible. Wormholes are an intriguing mathematical solution to general relativity, although they appear to not be gravitationally stable so again, you are stuck in the impossible under most reasonable interpretations of contemporary physics category. "Created here" begs the question of "by what and with what" which gets us back to where we started, how does a civilization get around the limitations of General Relativity when it comes to shipping things across interstellar distances?

Gene Roddenberry once explicitly said that the Enterprise was just a plot device for getting characters from conflict to conflict, and I think that's probably the most honest way of dealing with concepts in science fiction. Trying too hard to justify Science Fiction physics, biology, or even computer science just leads you into the timecube crazy land.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:06 AM on August 21, 2009


Oh, about this silly-assed debate, I don't use "SciFi" myself, but I don't find any of the discussion persuasive that there is a prexisting difference in the meanings of the two terms that we only have to identify. I think this discussion is about distinguishing between that which is and is not Science Fiction and then labeling the latter SciFi. You may like it that way but unless you can stand on streetcorners handing out a stylebook to make everyone use it that way -- and somehow impart your ability to discriminate to them in the process -- it's rather a waste of time. One was coined as an abbreviation for the other and I see no harm in continuing to regard them as synonyms.

Oh yes, and even Lucas says that Star Wars isn't Science Fiction. This may have more to do with Joseph Campbell having generously and retroactively laid some (IMO undeserved) academic cred on him than with his original intent, but that doesn't make it untrue.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2009


Anybody else here remember FIAWOL vrs FIJAGH? Seems like SF folks have been having these li'l pissing contests since, like, forever.
posted by tspae at 9:18 AM on August 21, 2009


even Lucas says that Star Wars isn't Science Fiction

That says more about what a colossal moron and jackass Lucas is than it does about whether Star Wars is SF or not. This is the same fuckwit who thought that "Count Dookoo" and "Mace Windu" are reasonable names to give characters, who though that Jar-Jar was a good idea, and thought that everyone would love it if he made it so Greedo shot first.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:20 AM on August 21, 2009


I certainly do agree that there are differences between contemporary science fiction and contemporary fantasy. I just refuse to buy the often-stated conceit made by science fiction geeks that science fiction is plausible and predictive, and therefore has a special status not held by fantasy.

I generally agree. Would simply add:

1) science fiction sometimes (though not usually) is plausible;

2) even implausible science fiction is usually making a kind of claim to plausibility, in the form of some continuity with the real world. When SF tells you it is taking place in the future of our world, it is making a suggestion about what the future of the real world could be like. In Star Wars or the Book of the New Sun, this claim is pretty attenuated, but it's usually there.
posted by grobstein at 9:21 AM on August 21, 2009


Here's a proposition for you: Firefly is, by and large, not Science Fiction; but Serenity is.

I say this because Firefly was overtly and intentionally a Space Western, but Serenity took a turn when it made it about a core moral issue that an advanced totalitarian society might face: if the government believed it was within its powers to actually make people good, should it try?

If a story persuasively or at least interestingly explores the consequences of human technological advance and the decisions we make as a result -- if it asks a question which can't be asked without a "science" component -- it's Science Fiction.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:29 AM on August 21, 2009


When SF tells you it is taking place in the future of our world, it is making a suggestion about what the future of the real world could be like. In Star Wars...

...which takes place neither in the future nor anywhere close to earth, or even earth's galaxy.
posted by hippybear at 9:31 AM on August 21, 2009


...which takes place neither in the future nor anywhere close to earth, or even earth's galaxy.

You did read the remainder of my sentence, right, after the ellipsus in your quotation? The one where I acknowledged Star Wars as a partial exception, along with the Gene Wolfe novel? I ask because it makes your smarmy fucking correction look a little out of place.
posted by grobstein at 9:33 AM on August 21, 2009


Here's a proposition for you: Firefly is, by and large, not Science Fiction; but Serenity is.

I am of the opinion that Firefly was waaaay better than Serenity, so maybe that colors my response somehow. But I think Firefly also has similar kinds of questions of speculative political morality in it.

For example, what are the ethics of what was done to River, and the contrasting responses of her parents and brother? It's almost a kind of mirror-Ender's Game.

A broader theme is the kind of sci-fi rejectionism -- refusing the techno-luxuries of the "inner planets" to gain relative political freedom. The choice to be in a space western is one with SF implications, I think.
posted by grobstein at 9:40 AM on August 21, 2009


Seems to me that limiting "science fiction" to the future is foolish. Science can exist outside the time line of our own planetary development. That was the point I was making. Wasn't meaning to be smarmy, was trying to say "hey, don't be so Earth-centric with all this".
posted by hippybear at 9:40 AM on August 21, 2009


Sorry dude, guess I flew off the handle. I didn't mean to limit SF to the future, but my argument was easiest to articulate for that (large!) subset of SF that does purport to take place in the future.
posted by grobstein at 9:43 AM on August 21, 2009


My bad for framing my response so curtly. Can we be friends? I'd love to hear your thoughts on Delaney's "Stars In My Pockets Like Grains Of Sand", perhaps my favorite book in whatever genre it belongs to.
posted by hippybear at 9:45 AM on August 21, 2009


For the record, SciFi switched to SyFy because they were not able to secure "SciFi" as a brand because it's a generic, public term. So, their marketing company developed the SyFy brand...

Got a source? I've heard the second part, that it was a marketing decision (to distance their image from...well, from the type of people who would argue about things like sci-fi versus science-fiction). But I find the legal part a bit implausible, because (1) strictly speaking, it may not be accurate; (2) I'm skeptical of the extent to which marketing departments are devising or informing legal strategy, and vice versa; and (3) if it was really a legal trademark decision, then it's a little late in coming, you know?

I don't have any inside knowledge about SciFi and "implausible" things happen all the time in television, so it wouldn't shock me if you're right. I'd just like to know if you have a source.
posted by cribcage at 9:57 AM on August 21, 2009


I don't care at all what SyFy calls themselves, they could call themselves the Science-Based Fiction Sucks And That's Why We Changed Our Name To SyFy channel if they would only take that FUCKING GHOST FUCKING HUNTERS show off their god-damned network. I can't watch my Star Trek: TNG without getting PISSED THE FUCK OFF during the commercials. Thank the gods for Tivo.
posted by Huck500 at 10:00 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I assume everyone will have already seen the posts about Harlan Ellison over at Penny Arcade.

Although PA is typically amusing (when linked from the blue), I now think they're self-important assholes. Just like Harlan! Takes one to know one, I guess. Also, most artists seem like jerks, unless you're their friend. Story at Five.
posted by unmake at 10:09 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'd say that fantasy fiction tends to cluster around folklore and literature as sources for inspiration, while science fiction tends to cluster around the hard, biological, and social sciences. There isn't a hard demarcation and certainly a lot of genre crossing. But Gaiman's re-framing of the Jungle Book and Tolkien's riff on sagas cluster around one flag, while Reynold's exploration of cybernetics and post-human possibilities sit close to another.

Firefly IMO uses an analytical approach to looking at the American Civil war as foreshadowing the future, so I see within Science Fiction.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:14 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think the use of wormholes violates plausibility when the wormholes are created by a civilization millions of years older than ours.

In 2010 Jupiter turned into a star because it had its mass suddenly multiplied several times by the addition of billions (possibly trillions or more) of medium-sized monoliths. This is plausible if you accept the plausibility of controlled wormholes, which is one of the functions of the giant monolith around Jupiter.
posted by autodidact at 10:19 AM on August 21, 2009



tspae: Anybody else here remember FIAWOL vrs FIJAGH?

Yes. And. . .

Seems like SF folks have been having these li'l pissing contests since, like, forever.

(sadly) yes.

Supposedly, the term 'Sci-Fi' was coined by Forrest J Ackerman in the early 1950s. It was just a breezy abbreviation. Maybe Harlan had a burr under his saddle about Ackerman. I've always associated the term with its use in TV Guide, which I suspect is how it was most widely spread: "10PM: Star Trek (sci-fi). . . "

It's not even a JAGDH for me anymore. I think SF caught a deadly virus from JRR Tolkien in the late 1960s and in its weakened condition was beaten to death by George Lucas. Fill in your own metaphor for the injuries caused by Cyberpunk.

Now, you kids gidoff mah monolith
posted by Herodios at 10:31 AM on August 21, 2009


I assume everyone will have already seen the posts about Harlan Ellison over at Penny Arcade.

Although PA is typically amusing (when linked from the blue), I now think they're self-important assholes. Just like Harlan!


This quote from the Penny Arcade page is telling. . .
The guy tells some pretty funny stories about how witty he is and how he’s always saying clever things at exactly the right moment.
Spot on.
posted by Herodios at 10:37 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


In 2010 Jupiter turned into a star because it had its mass suddenly multiplied several times by the addition of billions (possibly trillions or more) of medium-sized monoliths.

The monolith in orbit descended and reproduced itself many times from raw materials in the Jovian atmosphere. The resulting density increase supposably started fusion in the core.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:38 AM on August 21, 2009


autodidact: localroger, yeah I caught that. You're one of those types eh?

If by that you mean "one of those types" who are aware when some SF author is dabbling in realms normally reserved for religion, I suppose you're right.

The narrative itself, especially if you look at the first movie in isolation, is a damn cool example of hard sci-fi.

Quite true, as long as you're willing to look past the whole humans as batteries thing and "you can't be told about the Matrix" neither of which makes a lick of sense unless you are aware of the allegorical alternate interpretation.
posted by localroger at 11:05 AM on August 21, 2009


Wot, no Scientifiction?
posted by gamera at 11:40 AM on August 21, 2009


Seems like SF folks have been having these li'l pissing contests since, like, forever.

indeed they have.
also re: firefly, this "you won't find this in Galaxy" from the 50s:
Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing... and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand. "Get back from those controls, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last space trip."

Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. He spurred hard for a low overhang of rim-rock... and at that point a tall, lean wrangler stepped out from behind a high boulder, six-shooter in a sun-tanned hand. "Rear back and dismount, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last saddle-jaunt through these here parts."
Also shows that the claim that it can't be Science Fiction if it's just a western in space doesn't hold much ground. If you like it or not, the pulp background is also a part of the history of this genre.
posted by kolophon at 11:54 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Got a source? I've heard the second part, that it was a marketing decision (to distance their image from...well, from the type of people who would argue about things like sci-fi versus science-fiction). But I find the legal part a bit implausible, because (1) strictly speaking, it may not be accurate; (2) I'm skeptical of the extent to which marketing departments are devising or informing legal strategy, and vice versa; and (3) if it was really a legal trademark decision, then it's a little late in coming, you know?
In one of the interviews I ran across (and please forgive me for not looking up the link), a spokesperson commented that "SyFy" is googleable in a way that SciFi is not. Since it's not an existing word, they don't have to compete as much for the term.
posted by Karmakaze at 12:02 PM on August 21, 2009


autodidact: I don't think the use of wormholes violates plausibility when the wormholes are created by a civilization millions of years older than ours.

Certainly. But you can't do so without saying that general relativity is wrong and replacing it with some pseudo-scientific framework that looks almost like general relativity, but has exceptions for the plot devices that Arthur C. Clarke uses. Which isn't a bad thing, but you can't do it and then say that your plot devices are any more scientific or plausible than Lukyanenko's theory that vampires and wizards feed off of ambient life energy generated by humans.

And I'm going from raw memory and I never got beyond 2010, but I don't think Clarke ever bothers explaining how the monoliths work, because that's not really the point.

In 2010 Jupiter turned into a star because it had its mass suddenly multiplied several times by the addition of billions (possibly trillions or more) of medium-sized monoliths.

Well on this one, ROU_Xenophobe is right about how the text presents the event. And your explanation causes another problem in that increasing the mass of the Jovian system would also disrupt the orbits of the moons in that system.

Regardless, even compressing Jupiter, it doesn't come close to having the mass for maintaining a sustained fusion reaction. So again, we are stuck with the problem that we can't call the events of 2010 possible or plausible without replacing our current science with a fictional pseudo-science.

The impossibility and therefore improbability of these things really only matters to people trying to put science fiction onto a literary pedestal of being the predictive fiction. The rest of us are more than willing to accept an even bigger whopper of a premise, like we are all living in the post-apocalyptic dream of George Orr, to get into the story.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:17 PM on August 21, 2009


I mean "one of those types" who, and this is specifically in regard to The Matrix, can't or won't separate the text from the allegory. When I try to talk about the sci-fi aspects they say "BUT IT'S JESUS" as if I didn't know that.

I'll bookmark your novel and let you know what I think.
posted by autodidact at 12:24 PM on August 21, 2009


I guess in my mind it made more sense if they were adding mass to Jupiter. It has been a while since I read the book and I need to give the blu-ray a proper screening. I read all the 2001 books and I'm pretty sure that somewhere along the lines they explain that the giant ones create wormholes. Of course this is shown at the end of the first movie.
posted by autodidact at 12:26 PM on August 21, 2009


I find it useful to make the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to enjoy a lot of it. A major criterion I have for judging the quality of science fiction is whether the author can convince me that his or her setting is plausible given what I know about the universe. As Science Fiction, Star Wars (for example) just sucks. Ditto for X-Files, Farscape and Fringe.

But if I think of them as 'Science Fantasy' or something, I can drop that requirement and just enjoy the thing for what it is.

Note though, that I don't consider something being Fantasy to be a bad thing. It just makes it a different thing.
posted by suetanvil at 12:47 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]



But if I think of them as 'Science Fantasy' or something, I can drop that requirement and just enjoy the thing for what it is.

Note though, that I don't consider something being Fantasy to be a bad thing. It just makes it a different thing.


Did you even read the two sentences you just put together? You quite clearly regard fantasy as inferior to what you consider science fiction, and are exactly the sort of person John was addressing his comment to.
posted by rodgerd at 2:56 PM on August 21, 2009


"Oh my Harlan Ellison story..."

Y'know, meeting/interacting with an illustrious character who turns out to be hyperbolic in some way is always more interesting no matter how much of a dick they are.

I met Fred Pohl once. He lives out here in suburban Chicago and his wife teaches at a community college, and is active in politics, etc. and our paths happened to cross at this certain event (although I did go a bit out of my way to be where he was in the room) and I talked to him for a while and he was a really nice guy and warm and human and quick witted. Pretty much how you'd expect he'd be from his writings. Perhaps a dash of impatience because he's an older guy, but that just made him seem grandfatherly.
We talked a bit about local politics, Ursula Le Guin, what his kids were up to, what mine were up to and Russian cuisine.
*yawn*
It was a nice conversation with a gifted guy really, but it's no story.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:06 PM on August 21, 2009


"How about your very own Harlan Ellison?"
posted by hippybear at 3:17 PM on August 21, 2009



Higglety-pigglety,
Hell-raiser Ellison
Writes with such fever, such
Fervor, such strength,

Twenty-five pages of
Sesquipedalian
Intros for stories of
Seven-page length.
posted by Herodios at 4:10 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


autodidact, I find your hostility toward the religious interpretation of The Matrix quite weird. I find it most convenient to regard The Matrix as a technological allegory of an essentially religious story; that is, the religious story is the real story, and the "hard SF" interpretation is an attempt to cram that into a form we mere mortals can understand. I know this is exactly how the Gnostics would see it.

It is probably worth mentioning that anybody who thinks "it's jeeeee-sus" in the sense that any modern mainstream version of Christianity regards Jesus is quite ignorant; it's gnostic Jesus whose father-god was either insane or evil depending on which sect you follow, whose Holy Ghost was perhaps futilely trying to guide the father-god back to a path of, if not goodness, at least less evil, and whose Jesus figure positively failed which explains why we are still trapped in the Black Iron Prison. All of this was quite far enough from the Christian mainstream to get you burned at the stake until a couple of hundred years ago, when the Englightenment gave the Church even bigger things to worry about.

Anyway, the story does work well as hard SF except for a couple of glaring things that don't fit; but this is pretty much the way Blue Velvet works as a standard coming of age story except for a couple of things that don't fit, and when you manage to fit those things you find that you have to turn the whole story on its head to do so, and then it makes perfect sense but it's also a completely different story than your first impression.
posted by localroger at 4:19 PM on August 21, 2009


I'm not hostile towards the religious interpretation. I'm just hostile to what you say in your first paragraph there: That the religious story is the real story. It really hurts my brain.

The real story - the narrative - is humanity got locked into a computer simulation by our own artificial intelligence and eventually a human arose who could overcome the constraints of the simulation. That's the narrative. Gnosis/The Black Iron Prison are allegories, likely the main allegories guiding the writers of the story, but they are just allegories and they are not the narrative itself. So when I ask something like "did Neo develop superpowers in the quote-unquote Real-World or not?" The answer should not have anything to do with jesus or gnosticism. The answer should pertain to the events on screen and not the ideas behind those events. This is where my "hostility" comes from.
posted by autodidact at 5:32 PM on August 21, 2009


I've had lunch with Harlan a couple of times; I was terrified beforehand, but think of him with great affection now. He is over-the-top, yeah, but he's generous and loyal to the people he loves, he worked hard for passage of the ERA and is still pissed that it failed, and he marched to Selma with Dr. King, so yeah, he's done some fine things.

The documentary "Dreams with Sharp Teeth" is actually really good, and is pretty much in line with the Harlan I've met. It won't change anybody's mind, probably, if you dislike him, but it's entertaining as hell and a good look at what makes him tick.
posted by OolooKitty at 6:18 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Autodidact, the story is that humans create something more powerful than ourselves, the things we create enslave us by creating an enticing but dangerous illusion, and it takes a special person to see past this illusion and regain control. To that extent whether you call the things we created "gods" or "machines" is almost semantic.

For tens of thousands of years before we had machines that anybody realistically thought were capable of the kind of antics portrayed in The Matrix, we had gods, and while the idea has been well buried by modern monotheistic religions it is a staple of syncretic religions like that of the Egyptians that for all their superhuman powers, the gods are obviously created and sustained by humans.

The thing that makes sense with regard to the religious interpretation of The matrix, and which does not make sense in the technological interpretation, and which makes your brain hurt, is this: The so-called real world does not exist. In the technological interpretation there is an escape; there is "reality" which is implacable, fixed, dependable, and safe. In the Gnostic interpretation, there is no such thing; there are only layers of illusion, some more or less useful than others, but all ultimately concealing our true nature. This is why it makes no sense to ask whether Neo got superpowers in RL; in the religious interpretation the illusion is all there is. The only way to see truth is not to see at all, which is why it is only after Neo is blinded that he can see Agent Smith for what he really is, not the human whose form he has taken.

This is not some subtle thing being read into an otherwise hard SF story; even in the first movie hints are dropped all over the place. That is not my interpreatation of the story; that is the story being told, a very old story if you will, just as Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress with lightsabers instead of katanas. Those are the events on screen, including humans as batteries, "you can't be told about the Matrix, you can only experience it," and the rather embarrassing question of how the first humans managed to extricate themselves from the Matrix without help. Ignore those cues and you can have what looks like a solid understanding of the film, but it will be the kind of understanding a person carries away from Blue Velvet who does not realize that Kyle MacLaghlan's character is well on his way to taking the place of Dennis Hopper's.

I happen to like stories like this not because I am religious myself -- I am precisely the opposite of a believer in anything -- but because they show that humans have recognized the flaws that haunt us now and have been making up stories and arguing about what amounts to the Technological Singularity for millennia. The line between what our ancestors called a golem and we call a robot is really very thin, but probably not as thin as the line between one of the Matrix's AI machines and what we call a "god."
posted by localroger at 6:24 PM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here's a proposition for you: Firefly is, by and large, not Science Fiction; but Serenity is.

Whichever you assume is more plausible you're still going to have to agree with some hand-wavyism to allow the story to move you in a "realistic" way.

Which I think kind puts this debate into an odd place. Whatever the story is, if it's filed under science fiction, you are going to have to give up at least some expectations to go along with it.
posted by P.o.B. at 6:54 PM on August 21, 2009


At the risk of getting sued, Ellison needs to tone down the hyperbole.

Number of times Harlan Ellison has been sued: a googleplex to the power of eleventy billion
Number of times Harlan Ellison has sued another party: No more and no less than absolutely necessary / completely deserved / seemed like fun while being both necessary and deserved
Number of times Harlan Ellision has lost a lawsuit: A number so close to zero as to share the same toothbrush.

All figures, integers, near infinities and infinitismals courtesty of his reputation. But yeah - to say he's experienced in matters of litigation is an understatement.
posted by Sparx at 7:00 PM on August 21, 2009


That's a pretty dope response. Just to be clear: your take on The Matrix trilogy is that Neo ended up in what we call the "real world" but because it's a gnostic tale, when he's psychic-seeing orange auras in the real world, that's him seeing through the illusion of our (yours and mine) layer of reality?

In other words, he got super powers in real life?
posted by autodidact at 7:34 PM on August 21, 2009


People, it's very simple. Fantasy just is. Here's this world, it exists, it doesn't matter how it came to be, it just is what it is. It's different from the world we know because that's just the way it is.

Science fiction is an extrapolation. It takes the world we live in now, and hits the fast forward button. Is it within the realm of possibility that this world could come to be from the present day we have now? If yes, then it's science fiction. If no, then it's fantasy (or some other genre I'm perhaps not thinking of).

There are certainly some blends of these two genres, like a lot of Gene Wolfe's work, but I think this difference holds. It's not political; there's no value judgement on either genre here, just some undeniable differences.
posted by zardoz at 10:51 PM on August 21, 2009


The penis is death. The gun is life.
posted by autodidact at 1:18 AM on August 22, 2009


Also, don't label it a SLYT post if there's more than one link.

Better idea: don't label anything SLYT, even when it's totally goddamn obvious to even the most mentally disadvantaged among us that there's only one link and a quick goddamn mouseover will show unerringly that it's a link to Youfuckingtube, you damn fool herd animals. [/ellison impersonation]
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:19 AM on August 22, 2009


autodidact, my take on the Matrix is that Neo did not end up in what we call "the real world." Many of the inhabitants of Zion think it's the real world but then so do all the inhabitants of the Matrix, duh. The Architect's screed at the end of Matrix Reloaded makes it very clear that Zion is itself part of the plan of the Matrix, a necessary relief valve for that measure of human discontent which can't be accommodated in the mainstream Matrix.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about Zion, like where do the machines that sustain it come from (after all, we assume the eeeeevil machines didn't make them to set the Zionists up, right? right?) All of the jagged edges fit neatly into place, though, as soon as we realize that Zion isn't real either. Indeed, it is in trying to accommodate the very idea of "reality" with things like humans-as-batteries that the trilogy most strenuously trips over itself, because the whole point is that the Matrix is a closed system; the machines sustain the humans so that the humans will sustain the machines, and there is no room in that relationship for what we call "reality" to ever be anything but an illusion.

So if none of it is real what does Neo buy at the end with (possibly) his life? For their own reasons (probably clearing memory buffers or something) the machines had decided that Zion must be periodically purged, and while all the details of life experience in the Matrix might be fake, it is made clear that death is real. The truce requires that the machines edge away from their nice safe paradigm with its predictable and well understood parameters and let the Zionists pursue an existence which might be more chaotic and hard to manage. There are hints that the rather sharp dividing line between the machine and human consciousnesses might blur, something we know from Agent Smith's reaction many of the machines find disgusting. In any case, for the first time in a long time something new will be allowed to happen, and nobody knows where that will lead.
posted by localroger at 4:59 AM on August 22, 2009


So in your interpretation they're stuck inside a multi-layered computer simulation. I see that as a cop-out in the literal storytelling sense. Of course I see how it fits into the allegory, but that's what pissed me off. In any case, if they're still inside a simulation then it can still be seen as a hard-SF story.

I always thought it would be better if in the sequels it were revealed that the humans in the matrix actually were not batteries but actually the god-mind of the AI. Like each human brain was part of a massive parallel processing system. Maybe the AI are trying to overcome their creator and attain "true" consciousness by modelling the human psyche. This would make the AI more dependent on the humans than previously thought, and also provide a compelling rationale for much of the goofiness going on.
posted by autodidact at 10:00 AM on August 22, 2009


A Boy and His Dog is one of my favorite stories of all time.

Harlan Ellison was very nice to me - which perhaps we can write off to my being female - very nice to friend's kid, went above and beyond for a bookstore owner I know, and totally screwed over another friend of mine by buying a story from him and then not publishing it for years.

My take is he's somewhat less of a drama queen and blowhard in day-to-day life, but not by much. I have friends who are just loud and pushy, and far less likely to be informed in their ranting so I'm okay with his.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:17 AM on August 22, 2009


Better idea: don't label anything SLYT, even when it's totally goddamn obvious to even the most mentally disadvantaged among us that there's only one link and a quick goddamn mouseover will show unerringly that it's a link to Youfuckingtube, you damn fool herd animals. [/ellison impersonation]

Because not everyone reads Metafilter using a browser that shows the link url in the status bar you herd animal. [/derail][/ellison] 
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:08 PM on August 22, 2009


zardoz: Science fiction is an extrapolation. It takes the world we live in now, and hits the fast forward button. Is it within the realm of possibility that this world could come to be from the present day we have now? If yes, then it's science fiction. If no, then it's fantasy (or some other genre I'm perhaps not thinking of).

Um, no. Not even by the stated goals of some pretty influential science fiction authors.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:11 PM on August 22, 2009


just as Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress with lightsabers instead of katanas

This is something I constantly see people claim and it's something I don't understand. I mean, yeah, Lucas scavenged the hell out of Hidden Fortress and took almost everything (characters, scenes, pacing, plot devices, he even stole scene transitions) but it's still a totally different story. As a matter of fact he actually laid those ideas across Eps IV through VI, and not just Star Wars. I don't know. I've seen people compare flimsier ideas so this doesn't really bug me that much. The thing that is annoying is that Kurosawa is a genius and Lucas can't touch him if he tried...and he reeeaaally tried.

P.S. Sergio Leone IS a genius and he lifted a couple of movies directly from Kurosawa. So I guess Lucas at least knew it could be done.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:41 PM on August 22, 2009


Wow, I'm surprised this thread even got a single god damn comment. People care about this enough to discuss it in depth? Talk about a waste of breath.
posted by tehloki at 1:55 PM on August 22, 2009


The idea that the universe is a big computer possibly programmed by a hostile or trickster agent is both hard SF and religious at the same time, the only difference being semantic. As for the "real" story being told by the Matrix, the W brothers have made it abundantly clear that it is a religious story with SF overtones, not the other way around.
posted by localroger at 4:16 PM on August 22, 2009


Yeah but is the Zion world part of the AI simulation, or some greater simulation that maybe the AI themselves are unaware of (from Simulation Theory)?

And we're just going to have to disagree about what the "real" story is. The allegory is not the real story. The real story is the events on screen. The events on screen are a (pretty much) hard SF story, not a religious story.
posted by autodidact at 5:42 PM on August 22, 2009


Well, if we follow the gnostics (from whom the W brothers obviously got the idea) then the answer to the "greater world" question is that neither the machines nor anybody else knows; they are trapped. This is the fundamental tenet of Gnosticism: God is insane. (Evil is optional.) The machines have sealed themselves off so completely from whatever once passed for reality that neither they nor anybody else can tell the difference any more, which is kind of the nature of the Gnosis.

You keep using this word "allegory" and I do not think it means what you think it means. I suspect the word you mean is "interpretation," but that's not accurate either.

It is quite possible for a film to tell two completely consistent yet different stories at the same time, and both interpretations can accurately be said to reflect "what is on the screen." Be glad The Matrix wasn't made by David Lynch. I would say this is exactly what the first matrix movie does; it leaves itself open, nay invites interpretation as a reality vs. hardware story. But there are more than a few not very subtle clues if you are alert to them which say otherwise, and the sequels leave absolutely no doubt, that this is not the basic intent of the story.
posted by localroger at 6:08 PM on August 22, 2009


I mean to say Simulation Argument.
posted by autodidact at 6:16 PM on August 22, 2009


I'm talking about the literal transpiration of events as they unfold onscreen. This is completely unrelated to intent.

You have a strange way of mixing these things. If the machines have disconnected themselves off from reality to the point that they don't even know any more if their layer of reality is "real", fine. That's the story presented on screen. The closest allegory to the events onscreen is the gnostic interpretation. They are not one and the same.
posted by autodidact at 6:36 PM on August 22, 2009


@tehloki: You must be new around here. And to the whole science fiction world as well.


I went to my first SF con at the age of 13, circa 1976, and I still go to cons. I damn sure remember FIAWOL and the debates between SF and SF&F and Scf-Fi and Trekker/Trekkie and all the rest. A pox on all of them. As for Harlan, he might be an arrogant asshole most of the time, but damn, the man can write. I will happily overlook a few character flaws for that.
posted by keptwench at 7:56 PM on August 22, 2009


autodidact, one of my favorite movies doesn't have a clear separation and distinction between it's metaphors and it's on screen story. So even though the movie I'm talking about is different and does not have a clear allegory, as The Matrix does, the story was built with existing interactive metaphors. It doesn't really work from a narrative standpoint and It's sloppy storytelling but makes for an interesting and watchable film.
Supposedly the Wachowskis had to make some sacrifices and were under the gun to make the sequels. So what you get is hardly as tuned up as the first movie and actually it's a sequel extended into two movies.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:29 AM on August 23, 2009


I would love to see autodidact apply his razor-sharp reality filter to Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive.
posted by localroger at 4:33 AM on August 23, 2009


Sorry but self-published sci-fi author or not, you don't seem to grasp what "the events on screen"
means. Judging by your comments about "The Hidden Fortress is the real on-screen story of Star Wars" I'd say you've spent so much time thinking about writing.

You mention two movies by David Lynch, as if I'm unaware there are movies like his. How does that prove anything about The Matrix? Personally I hate David Lynch movies precisely for the reason that they all play out like some fever dream where you can't find a grounded reality (within the story), and are so open to interpretation. Fortunately The Matrix is not made by David Lynch. It's open to interpretation, but only within a few narrow questions such as "is the Zion layer real" which is a question that apparently completely fries your circuits.
posted by autodidact at 5:52 AM on August 23, 2009


"too much time thinking about writing" (to see the trees for the forest(sic)).
posted by autodidact at 6:03 AM on August 23, 2009


I don't think you're going to be happy about any answer you get, autodidact. Perhaps you could just put the question forth in a yes or no format and we'll have a fifty/fifty chance of getting it correct?
posted by P.o.B. at 6:45 AM on August 23, 2009


Well one of us doesn't know what "events on screen" means.

Personally I hate David Lynch movies precisely for the reason that they all play out like some fever dream where you can't find a grounded reality (within the story), and are so open to interpretation.

Your problem isn't that there isn't a grounded reality; every single David Lynch movie has a central story which is quite simple and consistent once you figure out the key. However, Lynch doesn't serve it to you on a silver platter; he makes you think about it. As an example, the key to Lost Highway is that the only scenes in the movie that depict reality are on video; everything else is a fantasy in the main character's head. Once you understand that it's straightforward to work out exactly what happened and it all makes perfect sense, you're just seeing it in the movie through the eyes of someone who's insane with guilt and grief. And in case you have any doubt, Lynch puts the line in the character's mouth: I hate video because it shows how things really are.. DUH.

I think the reason Lynch started making seemingly incomprehensible movies like Mulholland Drive is that he got tired of people taking the cheap front story at face value and walking off thinking they understood the movie. So no more cheap front story for you, grasshopper!

Like an early Lynch movie, The Matrix has such an obvious front story but there is no shortage of gaps in it nor of hints as to how those gaps can be eradicated; look, I didn't name the main characters Neo, Morpheus, and FREAKING TRINITY. Yes, the story you see is there on the screen, and so is the one I see. As for biscuits being fried, I'd say that only one of us is able to see both of those stories though.
posted by localroger at 9:01 AM on August 23, 2009


I get David Lynch movies. I just don't enjoy Lynch movies. Mulholland Drive is two hours of my life I'll never get back. Eraserhead is like torture. Lost Highway is like nails on a chalkboard, I'd rather watch Eraserhead again.

Again, I don't see what Lynch movies have to do with The Matrix.

And no, I'm not going to like any answers I get from you two. We just don't look at it the same way. All I'll say is I can absolutely see both stories. I could see them from the start. I think the difference is that I am sorting the signifier from the signified. Whereas you seem to want to claim there is no difference in these movies, I see a clear distinction between the text (events on screen) and the meaning of the text(the gnostic interpretation). There is a story and then there is the meaning(slash inspiration) behind that story. I guess we'll just have to agree that we see the lines between these things differently.
posted by autodidact at 9:56 AM on August 23, 2009


I meant to include this: It's pretty goddamn hard to miss the gnostic side of things when you've got things in the story like ships called "The Gnosis".

I don't know why you keep claiming I don't see this second meaning. I see it, crystal clear. I simply don't agree that the story on-screen is inseparable from the gnostic parallel. If one is curious, sees the movie, and has Google, then one will probably figure out the parallels back around November 2003 if not sooner.
posted by autodidact at 10:00 AM on August 23, 2009


Lynch movies are useful in understanding movies like The Matrix for the same reason the study of desert ecology reflects upon the forest; Lynch is more extreme and so it's easier to see what he's doing. However, it's a common technique in more accessible movies too.

You have repeatedly complained that people will not talk to you about "the real story" as opposed to "the allegory." I would assert that both of those descriptiive phrases are wrong, because what you call "the allegory" is "the real story" and what you call "the real story" is actually "the shallow front-story." The only way to see the shallow front-story as the "real" story is to deliberately ignore certain plot devices which most definitely appear on-screen and were most definitely put there on purpose. You can do that and enjoy the movie, and unlike Lynch the W bros. obviously intended to make that possible. But to complain that your vision of the movie is superior to that of people who insist on talking about the parts you would rather studiously ignore is silly.
posted by localroger at 12:04 PM on August 23, 2009


No, no. I don't think it's superior. I'm just saying I wish I could have a discussion about the literal, hard sci-fi version of the Matrix. Just me personally I wish it could be taken as a hard sci-fi story, with a clear narrative separate from the "allegory". But it pretty much can't be, as you've pointed out. To the point that when I ask questions of you or pretty much any other person who's given it some thought, the answers f***ing piss me off!
posted by autodidact at 12:08 PM on August 23, 2009


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