Why read or write science fiction?

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Why read or write science fiction?

Postby caliban » Wed Sep 05, 2007 1:13 pm

This Friday I am giving our Departmental Colloquium, and as a lark I thought I would talk about "How to Read the Universe," based on my experiences teaching my class on science and science fiction.

As always I am constantly reformulating my thoughts. While thinking about my talk I considered, again, the question: why read, or write, science fiction? What do people get from it?

It is important to keep in mind that science fiction is subjunctive--not real, but possible. So it operates neither as "mainstream" (or mundane) literature, nor as fantasy.

I hypothesize that there are really two major attractions for the subjunctive mode of science fiction.

First, there is the fantasy of power, of changing the external world. Science is our most effective tool for manipulating the material world (albeit not nearly as effective and magically powerful as we like to think), and so it can be viewed as a path to power.

Alternately, science fiction can change the way we view the world--allows us to reframe the universe. The notion of history and change is most dynamic and powerful in SF, and the subjunctive mode of SF allows us to imagine both the worst and the best.

Star Trek is a classic example. The series, especially the original, was all about the struggle to use power (embodied by science and technology) responsibly. The Federation has immensely powerful technology; the Prime Directive forbade using it to influence it; and yet the characters are tempted over and over again to use their power. They often yielded to that temptation, but in the middle of the Vietnam War the series struggled with the question of imperial might. At the height of the Cold War and in the middle of the struggle over civil rights, Star Trek imagined humans of all backgrounds--American and Russian, black, white, and Asian, even "aliens"-- working together. It was a product of its time--the crew was still lorded over by a white male with overactive hormones, and the original concept of a female second in command was shot down by the network--but it also challenged cultural norms. Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on television (forced upon Kirk and Uhuru by telekinetic aliens, true) and while today Uhuru's post might seem rather slight to us, it was such a breakthrough of the time that Martin Luther King, Jr. urged Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show when she thought of leaving. Star Trek was both a power fantasy and a vehicle for questioning our cultural assumptions.

Comments? Thoughts? Athena, of course, has thought about this even more than I have....
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Re: Why read or write science fiction?

Postby Windwalker » Wed Sep 05, 2007 10:55 pm

caliban wrote:Comments? Thoughts? Athena, of course, has thought about this even more than I have....

I yielded to the temptation of giving such a talk twice. The first time was in grad school, when I discussed John Fowles' The Magus. The second time was when I was an instructor and gave a talk about LeGuin's work. Audience reactions were mixed (these were lab members, from techs to the lab head). Some loved it and wanted more. Some thought it frivolous and a waste of time better spent reading experimental protocols, proving the old adage about leading a horse to water, etc.

I agree completely that SF is subjunctive and as such combines the best of mainstream and fantasy. Controlled escapism, if you wish... or perhaps "potentially justifiable" escapism as a defense both to critical others and our own inner Puritan (Calvinist?!). But in addition to the two major attractions that you listed, I can think of a few more:

SF is a genre that can still be respectably literary in traditional format. That is, the possible future component provides the "experimental" part, without the author having to resort to stylistic gymnastics -- though that is recently changing, with SF entering its own era of over-ripeness.

SF allows experimentation with forbidden configurations without the sting or stigma attached to them in mainstream literature. Anything from sanctioned cannibalism (Donald Kingsbury's Rites of Courtship) to parasitism by consent (Octavia Butler's Bloodchild) to gruesome modifications (for business or pleasure) are made understandable, often palatable, in an SF setting. The same goes for social configurations.

SF can express trenchant criticism of the present without the preachiness/shrillness that can mar an equivalent work of non-fiction (however, this is true only if the author is deft -- the mature LeGuin is very good at it; so is Melissa Scott, in a narrower context). A tale is invariably more persuasive than a sermon.

SF enables the recasting of old myths in new guises, so that they can enter the collective consciousness of the increasingly jaded young. And it has the additional advantage of eclecticism, since you can mix and match to your heart's content -- and your imagination's extent.

I'm sure I can think of more reasons why people would want to read and/or write SF, but I, too, would like to hear the thoughts of others. By the way, if you have an outline or the text of your talk, I'd love to see it. And I have no doubt it will have an enthusiastic reception -- at least by the people who "get it".
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Re: Why read or write science fiction?

Postby caliban » Wed Sep 05, 2007 11:20 pm

Windwalker wrote:I yielded to the temptation of giving such a talk twice.... Audience reactions were mixed (these were lab members, from techs to the lab head). Some loved it and wanted more. Some thought it frivolous and a waste of time better spent reading experimental protocols, proving the old adage about leading a horse to water, etc.

For better or for worse I am at a lesser* institute, and I have a considerable amount of credibility in my department, so I am not going to get nearly as much static from my fellow faculty members. From the physics community at large, of course, such grumblings are always there. (Don't forget I have been criticized for not be sufficiently serious about science because I moved to enable my wife's career.)

Athena makes some interesting points, although I would suggest that several of them are basically elaborations--useful elaborations--of what I meant by "transforming how we view the world." Social criticism, constructing social alternatives, etc., are all ways to challenge and change our view. Of course, as a physicist, I tend to like simple, broad categories; biologists are rightly suspicious of such axiomatic bifurcations and more likely to see more nuanced genera. :) Such are the subcultures of science.

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Re: Why read or write science fiction?

Postby Windwalker » Wed Sep 05, 2007 11:28 pm

caliban wrote:Of course, as a physicist, I tend to like simple, broad categories; biologists are rightly suspicious of such axiomatic bifurcations and more likely to see more nuanced genera. :) Such are the subcultures of science.

A very apt distinction between physics and biology, some of it having to do with the relative maturity of the disciplines, some with their intrinsic content.

caliban wrote:*My university was recently ranked #1 in research among universities that don't take research very seriously. The Provost considers this something to boast about.

I think your Provost is either oblivious or has a robust sense of humor -- in either case, you may have moved to the right place after all! (*laughs*)
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Reasons for Sci Fi

Postby Master Rev » Thu Sep 06, 2007 9:47 am

I think you both bring out excellent points about why people enjoy science fiction so much. I think, in general, why people like science fiction is also due to the human need to imagine a better tomorrow. Especially during the Cold War era where many felt that all the future held was that a nuclear bomb would inevitably go off, thus destroying the world made people (whether consciously or not) project to a time and place where that was no longer a threat. That we would transcend beyond our petty difference to indeed form a 'Brave New World.'

In essence, I feel that science fiction provides a forum to give people hope that there will be a tomorrow. That we will evolve into a more 'civilized' people and learn to use our technology to improve the lives of all citizens of this planet--not just the privileged 1%.

My favorite movie line comes from The Shawshank Redemption where the lead character said: "Hope is a good thing. Probably the best thing." I think it is a driving force in all our lives and it allows us to imagine a better tomorrow, not only for ourselves, but also for our loved ones. Sci Fi most definitely enables this.

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Re: Reasons for Sci Fi

Postby caliban » Thu Sep 06, 2007 12:16 pm

Master Rev wrote: I think, in general, why people like science fiction is also due to the human need to imagine a better tomorrow.

I appreciate your comments. It's an interesting idea, especially since many fantasies (e.g. Lord of the Rings) are nostalgic for the past, a longing for the "good old days," while SF is generally devoid of nostalgia; you seem to be positing SF is frequently based upon "postalgia" (not my coining), a longing for the "good new days."

I'm not sure that hope, per se, is much of a driving force for SF; utopias are actually relatively rare in SF, in part because they are boring. Can you think of any examples? Star Trek did this some, especially in The Next Generation, but eventually moved away from it, mostly for practical reasons: utopias make for boring dramas, and inhabitants of utopias are in general insufferable know-it-alls.

I do think that the idea of history continuing, and being dynamic, is central to SF; the idea that we are actors in history and can and must affect the future. It's subtle twist on your idea.

That we would transcend beyond our petty difference to indeed form a 'Brave New World.'

Huxley's title is of course ironic, and harks back to the text in Shakespeare's play. In The Tempest Miranda waxes eloquent about the "brave new world" she sees when she meets outsiders for the first time; Prospero, her cynical father, snorts, "Tis new to thee;" he's seen it all before. Huxley suggests that the "Brave New World" in his book isn't new at all, that human nature will simply exapt new technologies that come along, often for the worse. I don't want a brave new world, because it is unlikely to be very new at all.
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Re: Reasons for Sci Fi

Postby Windwalker » Thu Sep 06, 2007 1:58 pm

caliban wrote:Utopias are actually relatively rare in SF, in part because they are boring.
//
Huxley suggests that the "Brave New World" in his book isn't new at all, that human nature will simply exapt new technologies that come along, often for the worse. I don't want a brave new world, because it is unlikely to be very new at all.

Utopias tend to become dystopias very fast -- witness all the purist movements throughout the ages that degenerated into deathly cults, no matter how benign or idealistic their original intent. Also, one person's utopia invariably is another's dystopia. Utopias in SF almost always are Edenic "pre-fall" scenarios, created only to succumb to some temptation that cracks their perfect crystal.
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Re: Reasons for Sci Fi

Postby caliban » Thu Sep 06, 2007 2:58 pm

Windwalker wrote: Also, one person's utopia invariably is another's dystopia.

It's interesting to discuss utopias in light of writing SF. I have noticed in my own writing that the story becomes stronger when there is an inherent power imbalance in the situation. Both "Political Science" and "Icarus Beach," sold to Analog, have intrinsic power imbalances, politicial in the former and economic in the latter.

Athena will remember a novel I started some years ago ("Slower than Light") which had many good aspects, but the culture I created, while interesting, was in retrospect too idyllic. There were external pressures but they didn't show very much in the society. If I were to go back and revisit that novel, and I might, I would think more deeply about how flaws might appear in that society. I think the novel would become more compelling.

While we all need hope, "cheap hope" is our mortal enemy (to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer). To live in an effortless paradise is usually just an illusion--if you just sit around in tunics while food is delivered to you, you're just the Eloi, while beneath the ground the Morlocks are sharpening their knives and firing up the barbeque grill. Science fiction, at its best, is about "costly hope." Coincidentally, I just finished the first draft of a story with exactly the theme of hopelessness and the cost of hope. It also involves drug addicts and prostitution--would unlimited sex and drugs be a utopia or a dystopia?-- quantum leaps, black holes, and a mad religious cult. After a couple more rounds of editing, I might post it here for comments.
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Re: Reasons for Sci Fi

Postby Windwalker » Thu Sep 06, 2007 7:08 pm

caliban wrote: Athena will remember a novel I started some years ago ("Slower than Light") which had many good aspects, but the culture I created, while interesting, was in retrospect too idyllic. // If I were to go back and revisit that novel, and I might, I would think more deeply about how flaws might appear in that society. I think the novel would become more compelling.

Slower than Light did show cracks in and among its societies, you just had to go with the flow of the narrative. I consider it your LeGuin-style story and I very much hope that one day it gets completed.

I also created a near-idyllic society in Spider Silk (in fact a friend warned me about making the Koredháni too likable), but they still have tensions and dangers, both internal and external -- very much along the "costly hope" that you describe. I agree that Lotus-eater stories can rarely hold the reader's interest.

It goes without saying that we'll be ecstatic to see your story draft. The brief description has already whetted my appetite!
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Re: Reasons for Sci Fi

Postby caliban » Thu Sep 06, 2007 9:40 pm

Windwalker wrote:Slower than Light did show cracks in and among its societies, you just had to go with the flow of the narrative. I consider it your LeGuin-style story

Well, I think you hit on the problem. LeGuin, in The Dispossessed, did a fabulous job of illustrating an ambigious utopia complete with flaws; I don't feel I've done nearly as good a job (of course, who can compete with LeGuin?).
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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The attraction of Science Fiction

Postby Marie » Fri Sep 07, 2007 10:05 pm

Calvin, I know your lecture was today about “Why to write or read Science Fiction” and I hope you had a receptive audience. If you have a moment, I would love to see a note commenting on your subject.

I, like Rene, am a romantic at heart and hope for a better tomorrow either in life or through the genre of novels or science fiction. At a very young age, I was encouraged to expand my mind and imagination through the medium of the written word. I read every Fairy Tale compiled by Andrew Lang both popular and obscure, roved the seas with Sinbad in the Arabian Nights, battled with King Arthur and his Knights and quoted passages from the Iliad and Odyssey. My father was a great reader and storyteller. Through his prompting I explored worlds of the early writers such as Verne, Wells, Burroughs, Norton, Tolkien, Cherryh, Howard and Heinlein and the swashbuckling tales of Sabatini, Dumas and Orczy. You can tell by the selections, that my passion delved into the Sword and Sorcery/High Fantasy scenarios created by these authors. It never took me long to find a book to capture my interest and my library can attest by the groaning of the weight on my shelves (and of course the inevitable clutter that ensued.)
I was a slightly over average science and mathematics student so those stories predicated upon computers, anomalies, biological social structure and cyberpunk left me generally in the dark. (Star Trek being the only exception). As Athena noted, it was a definite form of escapism for me due to an early introverted childhood. Even today, I can still go back to my old ACE paperbacks of Edgar Rice Burroughs and relive the tales of Tarzan, John Carter of Mars and Carson Napier of Venus; likewise, Simon Tregarth of Andre Norton’s Witch World.
C.J. Cherryh describes the various ages of Science Fiction as Gold, Silver and Bronze with a variety of authors in each category and I believe this to be her best quote as to why this genre is so addictive:

1. Sense of wonder—approaching the universe with awe, but with the nerve, the overwhelming compulsion to investigate phenomena.

2. Solution—there will be an answer of some kind.

3. Writers and readers will meet on equal footing at science fictional gatherings called conventions, for the further exchange and discussion of ideas and science.


I have found this to be true in my instance for I have discovered a sense of wonder, solutions at the conclusions (with the exclusion of series) and have attended those gatherings to the raised eyebrows and frowns of my spouse, family and most friends.

In essence, to denigrate this art form is a serious case of imaginative blindness :( and should be investigated by even the staunchest critic.

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Sense of Wonder

Postby caliban » Sat Sep 08, 2007 12:46 am

As Marie correctly points out, a sense of wonder is often put forward as another motivation for SF. I think that sense of wonder may be the true dividing line between "hard" SF and "soft" SF. It is frequently asserted that hard SF is more rigorous and grounded in science, but that really isn't true; for example compare Robinson's Mars trilogy and any novel by Larry Niven. Robinson's trilogy about terraforming Mars is meticulously researched, while there is hardly an hoary SF cliche Niven doesn't invoke; yet Niven is considered a hard SF writer while Robinson in not. The real difference, I think is the sense of wonder. Niven writes about Ringworlds and weird centaur-like aliens and other gee-whiz ideas, while Robinson is concerned with the political dimensions of colonizing planets. And I, too, grew up on the sense of wonder in SF.

I probably gave the sense of wonder short shift, at least when it comes to analyzing SF. First, when teaching on SF, I like analytic tools, and there isn't much more to say than "there is a sense of wonder in this story." Second, I also suspect there are multiple narratives besides the sense of wonder, and the other narratives can give us deeper insight. I think the sense of wonder seldom stands by itself; it is, I believe, a gateway to other motivations. I could be wrong, of course.

The sense of wonder isn't always hopeful. One of the themes of Niven's novel Ringworld is, the Universe is indifferent to you. (He then takes a Heinleinesque riff on existential self-determination; I don't know if that is hopeful, or merely stubborn.)

Still, it is an important consideration--one which I do cover in my course, but didn't have time for in my lecture today (which went fine).
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Re: Sense of Wonder

Postby Windwalker » Sat Sep 08, 2007 11:21 am

caliban wrote:I think that sense of wonder may be the true dividing line between "hard" SF and "soft" SF. It is frequently asserted that hard SF is more rigorous and grounded in science, but that really isn't true.
//
I also suspect there are multiple narratives besides the sense of wonder, and the other narratives can give us deeper insight. I think the sense of wonder seldom stands by itself; it is, I believe, a gateway to other motivations.

Actually, I'd like to make a seemingly small but (I think) important distinction. "Hard" SF is often less scientifically rigorous than "soft" SF. The distinction is made more on the basis of explicitly named/described gizmos; these include exotic aliens that are not biologically possible.

In short, a works is defined as hard SF if it shows a very visible, in-the-reader's-face exoskeleton of exotic engineering. This is one reason why it dates so fast and why writers of the Golden Age often sound so gee-whiz adolescent (imagine a contemporary novel that took a page to explain how the telephone works).

Soft SF interweaves its science into the narrative, without infodumps or sudden dead stops (Pay attention! you're about to have a lecture on how to fly a starship with supercilium!). It takes the background science for granted, and builds from there. That allows for the more powerful narratives that Calvin mentioned, in which the sense of wonder is still there, but tempered with the harder metal of how different contexts shape planets, societies, and people who are not engineers or computer geeks dreaming of the Rapture... er... Singularity, with its eternal six-pack abs and houris.
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