|What is Science Fiction?|
|Written by Paul D. Batteiger|
|Tuesday, 29 May 2012 05:51|
It used to be easier
Charles Stross wrote a post on his blog last week on the topic of Science Fiction as a genre ie: "Where Is The Good SF?" This kind of thing has been debated for years and probably will be for many more. His take is here, and is worth reading, because Charlie is a smart guy and intimately familiar with the genre, but I think he kind of missed the point.
His overall point was that SF has indeed stopped looking forwards to the future, and that while there are great writers forging into the next generation, they work largely in obscurity. In other words: SF readers have beheld the future, and found that they don't really like it.
Now I have never written more than the most nominal SF because frankly, I don't have the kind of science background to make what I do "Science Fiction" and not "Fantasy", but let me excurse briefly on my theory of what SF really is, and what it should do.
Because you cannot designate SF simply by the obvious external signs: robots, spaceships, laser blasters, cyborgs, etc. These things are props, not the fundamentals of a genre. A genre, after all, is built up by what it tries to do, not how it does it.
My posit is essentially this: Science Fiction is fiction that takes current science, perhaps takes it a few more imaginary steps along, and then uses that development to hold a mirror up to the world we have now and ask the timeless question: "In light of this changed world, what, if anything, does it mean to be human?"This is the central core of science fiction: exploring what our values and feelings mean when the world changes abruptly around us. All the best real science fiction does this. In War of the Worlds the central question Wells asks is: what will we be, if we are no longer masters of our world? What kind of men will we become? Stranger in a Strange Land puts forth a world where many of the values we hold as a society are proved immature and simplistic, and then tries to envision a world in a new mold. Works that deal with humanlike creations from Frankenstein through Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica all explore the boundary where creation blurs into creator. If we can make something that thinks and feels like a man, what does that mean? Not just for it, but for us? What value do we have as humans when humans can be manufactured?
Because the world didn't used to change this fast. Prior to the Industrial Revolution the change of daily life was glacial. We are always told to respect our elders, and this is now almost a joke, as our elders often have so limited a sense of what the world has become as to be like cavemen. In the fifteenth century this was probably not true, and the advice of your grandmother was more apt to be applicable, because the world was changing so slowly that it was pretty much the same as it had been when she was your age.
But when we began to remake our world with technology on a large scale the stage was set for SF - originally called Scientific Romance. The world began to change so quickly that we needed to ask ourselves what our shared values meant when science kept making them obsolete. It did not create this question, but the way the world worked suddenly made it sharper and more important.
Tellingly, the original visions of science fiction were often dystopian, foretelling a world of terrible wars, social controls, and the destruction of existing social orders in favor of often emotionless 'scientific' systems. We initially feared the cold logic at the heart of science that seemed to lack human feeling.
SF became popular, and entered the popular consciousness, when fans found ways to make the future seem bright and exciting. In the 1930s and onward SF became the realm of adventure and escapist entertainment, and this carried through even after the Second World War showed many of the early fears of SF to be all too real.
The Golden Age of SF occurred when the currents crossed just right: science was still seen as a savior - a path to a bright future with clean air and water, fast and easy travel, and new and spectacular entertainments. In this era, also, many of the central concepts of the genre remained unexplored, and fine young writers led their charges into the unexplored.
I think it is significant that the early wave of popular SF was essentially the familiar stories of the previous century wrapped in the trappings of the new: tales of exploration, man-against-nature, and war. It was inevitable that the popular image of SF be set by the public in forms they were familiar with and understood.
Now we have a lot of worry about SF having lost its way, and no longer being the genre of Big Ideas. I think there is some truth to that, and it is easily attributable to the genre undergoing a sort of generational shift. Writers can now look back and see that being genuinely prophetic is both difficult and thankless: so much of "classic" sci-fi is now little more than a curiosity because its science has been proven quaintly wrong and old-fashioned.
Speculative writers see little profit in this, and it is harder than it used to be, simply because there is so much science to keep track of. We are not only more advanced than the past generation, we are moving a lot faster, and whereas a book written on the 30s might have held up for a decade or more, now a book risks being rendered obsolete before it is even published. The nature of web culture has raised nit-picking to a fine art, and whereas a writer might have had a lead in a field fifty years ago, now anyone can google the science and find out if it's right. There is no period of "I wonder if that could really happen?" Turning things over in your mind, thinking of consequences and ramifications. Now you have a few minutes from "cool" to "no, wrong."
And, whether we like it or not, we live in an age of pessimism. It becomes harder and harder for anyone to look into the future and see any good on the way. We are well-informed, probably too well-informed, and we instinctively doubt uplifting views of future ages. It was easy, in the Golden Age, for writers to posit a future that was socially almost identical to their own only with cooler toys, but now we see that as parochial and foolish. The speed of technical development and the desire to not be rendered irrelevant in five years requires casting further and further into the future, with the awareness that any idea we have of a society even thirty of forty years from now will be not only almost certainly completely wrong, but requires delineating a culture so alien as to be distasteful. Who wants to do that?
SF used to be a genre that viewed science as capable of solving almost any problem, but we, as a culture, no longer believe that to be true. Aside from some cool video games for our bigscreen TVs and facebook, we feel that science has brought us mostly trouble. We believe, deep down, that even if we got rocketships and ray guns and robots, they would just cause more problems than they solved.
So if there is a solution to this, it's to stop focusing so much on the science, and focus instead on the people. Saying that SF is the genre of "Big Ideas" is to miss the point of what fiction is about. A lot of "hard" SF writers use the "ideas" saw as a way to explain why their stories have no relatable characters and nothing really resembling a plot. Ideas cannot carry a story, you need characters, and characters are people, not Big Science Ideas.
Seen in this light, even a historical story can be a Science Fiction story, because it can reflect the tension between human feelings and needs and the changes wrought upon them by science. SF is, after all, about humanity in a world that changes so fast that we have a hard time keeping up with it, and that's been happening for a long time. I suppose it's an odd assertion that SF doesn't need the future, but there it is, I made it.
And I suppose the old bogey of publishing must bear some of the brunt of the blame for this contraction of the genre, because after all, it is publishing that avoids risk and rewards retreading of old ideas. To posit a genuine future, removed form our own and pushed to the limits of our understanding of what will soon be possible would be an immense effort, and while such a book might garner critical accolades (or might not, many 'classic' SF novels took a pasting from the contemporary critics when they were released) but the movie rights would not be likely to sell for a bundle.
To go for the Big Idea over all other things carries a lot of risk: risk of an unrelatable vision of the future, risk of being wrong, risk of being - worst of all in this age - unmarketable. It also focuses on idea rather than energia, overlooking character for concept, which I feel is a failing for any fiction, and thus risks being of interest only to nitpickers and science geeks. Science Fiction's best has always come when the Big Idea can be wedded to a real story and real characters, when the Big Idea informs and fulfills the plot, gives the characters illuminating moments of wonder as well as doubt and uncertainty as to their place in this new world.
I certainly think it can still be done, and will be done. But to do it in a way that will capture the popular mind is a tall order, and the expectations on many of our classic SF stories were so much lower than they are now. I suppose it is no wonder that so many of our current generation see that bar as too high to reach, and foresee little reward for making it. Does that mean SF is no longer what it was? Yes, I think it does mean that. After all, nothing is anymore what it was. All genres must adapt and change; the genre that has looked most of all to the future is ironically having the hardest time with it.