The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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What We Could Be If We Tried

I got a lot of good feedback from friends/colleagues regarding my last post on defending the literary and humanistic elements of science fiction. The discussion led me to an important point which got left out of that post.  While using a speculative setting and premise to examine human element is certainly what I personally like best about the science fiction that I read and write, there is also another important role that the genre plays (or should play): to inspire and advocate for new ways of thinking, understanding, and living. As I wrote before, all art both reflects and influences the society in which it finds itself. For science fiction, examining the human condition is the reflection part; imagining the future is the influencing part. There seem to be a variety of opinions as to what the balance between the two should be however.

Neil Stephenson’s article in the World Policy Journal, Innovation Starvation has been creating quite the kerfuffle in the science fiction community for the past few months. In it, Stephenson argues that the genre has come to be dominated by inward-looking, dystopian, and cynical renderings of humanity and its near future. Perhaps this is not surprising considering the times… I certainly sense widespread disaffection with the world and its institutions at the moment, and just as certainly have little confidence myself that these institutions are capable of seriously addressing the grave problems facing our nation, world, and species. But I think Stephenson’s point is that especially in uncertain times, it is incumbent on a genre like science fiction to imagine a way out:

Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon. The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

There is obviously a valid point to be made here. I don’t think anyone who has talked to a group of scientists and engineers can deny that science fiction has influenced many (though certainly not all) of our best and brightest on the front lines of innovation and discovery. I absolutely agree that the sheer amount of pessimism out there does get to be a drag sometimes when getting through the latest issues of the mags. And our society in general does seem to have lost the capacity to think long term, to dream about what could be, and to consider anything beyond what affects them immediately and directly.

However, I think what irks me about Stephenson’s rant is that it seems to imply at least two notions which I find disingenuous:

  1. The only “good” science fiction is that which is centered on speculation about the future.
  2. A cynical viewpoint about the future expressed in science fiction is “bad” because it doesn’t spur the imagination and innovation needed to get to a better future.

With respect to implication 1, I have to insist that science fiction as a genre does not necessarily have to include future at all. It certainly can, and often does. But to me, all that is required is a premise that rationally speculates on some aspect of science. Steampunk is the perfect example of this: its works imagine a world in which steam and mechanical technology evolved more rapidly than electronics. Most aren’t set in the future at all, but often go into the past. Yet the stories rely on rigorous speculation about how science would work under different circumstances. (For the record, I have other issues with Steampunk, but that’s a post for another day.)

Also with respect to implication 1, I have to also insist that imagining what could be in terms of our own society and humanity is at best only half of the function of any art form; examining who we are now is perfectly legitimate, and moreover just as vital. This is the proverbial “holding up the mirror” to society that has been a mainstay role of the arts since ancient times.

Science fiction writer Charles Stross put it well:

We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.

This brings me to implication 2. So here we are, in some respects living the dystopia that the science fiction of yesteryear feared and loathed. Yes, putting more optimistic work out there is one great way to counter all the negativity and nihilism in the world right now. But it’s not the only way. Dystopia can inspire positive progress as well. As futurism blogger Mike Labossiere writes on io9:

On one hand, such works could provide ideas which would inspire later innovation. For example, a dystopian work could still include descriptions of interesting technologies or innovations that latter engineers of scientists might duplicate. There is also the possibility that such works could provide an inspiration in a negative way. That is, by portraying a horrific future a writer could inspire people to try to avoid that possible future. […] That is, the bad can be inspirational — provided that there is a strong element of the possibility of the good.

So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. For me, the debate has definitely made me look at my own writing. Sure enough, the two short stories I have in submission circulation right now are fairly pessimistic about our near-term future (though both feature protagonists who struggle to create positive meaning and identity in those dark futures… I’m a Hemingway fan). Maybe I should take a look at what else I could bring to the table.

It’s not that I don’t have optimistic ideas about the future; indeed, I’m often labeled a stubborn idealist. I guess I discard these ideas as subjects of my writing often because it’s a lot harder to bring in good character conflict when everything is fine. I, for one, CAN’T STAND the science fiction that goes on for pages about describing some technology or system or society, but nothing much happens to the PEOPLE. I want a story dammit, not an engineering manual… I read enough of the latter at work. I also don’t want a psychology textbook or a cultural anthropologist’s field report. To be sure, those can be the seeds of good worldbuilding, but the output of your worldbuilding is not a story in and of itself.

I will amend my argument, and hopefully arrive at a compromise, with the following: I know there are fundamental human conflicts, mostly of the inner variety, that aren’t going to go away, no matter what our future holds. Love. Identity. Belonging. Isolation. Mortality. Hope. Perhaps the challenge I need to set for myself as a still-forming science fiction writer is to blend these with a positive vision of what we could be if we tried… Sounds lovely actually, if hard. Maybe I’ll give it a shot.

In Defense of Science Fiction

I sent a draft of one of my latest stories to a friend with whom I’ve been sharing a lot of my writing lately. Being a writer herself, she gave me some great feedback, and I’m always appreciative of her perspective. Part of her response caught my mind though, and I’ve been thinking about it since. She said that she really liked my approach to storytelling on that piece because it combined futurism and humanity, and that it surprised her. Why? Because:

I hardly read sci-fi and fantasy stuff, one reason being that I find it hard to relate to the subject matter. I can better connect to a story if there is strong character development.

And I thought, wow, does science fiction really have that reputation for being so scrappy? Looking back at what gets popularized in the media, I suppose I can’t blame the “non-geek” public for thinking that science fiction is some niche genre for comic-book-guys who would rather nerd out to Death Star plans than appreciate depth of character or linguistic finesse.

I think this perception of science fiction kind of gets into the difference between what I would call “pop culture” science fiction and “literary” science fiction. For example, consider Star Wars… most people would call that sci-fi, but it really doesn’t meet most of the general criteria for it. I would actually call it more of a highly commercialized “western-meets-fantasy” that happens to take place in space. Oh and it sells a lot of merchandise. Definitely more “entertainment” than “art”, and there are those different camps in every creative field. (And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, I own a ton of Star Wars books and memorabilia myself… it’s a generalization.)

Literary science fiction is quite a bit broader and deeper than some folks might think. There are a whole bunch of sub-genres, such as cyberpunk (advanced computational systems, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, etc), steampunk (parallel world in which steam and mechanical technology developed far faster than electronics), gothic, alternate history, galactic empire type stories, higher abstract life form type stories, etc etc. Within these subgenres there is a range of hardness, from what they call “hard” sci-fi (rigorously defined scientific underpinning for everything going on, clear ties to known physics) to “soft” sci-fi (loosely defined science, more suspension of disbelief). And then on top of that I would say that is a whole separate range of “technology-driven” or “character-driven”.  So yeah! Lots of variety.

Example: Most people have read Flowers for Algernon. It’s a beautiful and touching human story, and not many people consider that to be science fiction just because there are no spaceships and laser pistols, but technically it is well within science fiction as a genre (in fact it was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)… the premise is an element of scientific speculation (the ability to confer boosted intelligence on a sentient being) that leads to consequences and conflict for the characters (does the fact that the subject will lose this intelligence and be painfully aware of his descent back into a mentally retarded state make the temporary boost worth it?).

It’s been said by many that the best science fiction asks one or more “what if?” questions, then explores the consequences of that on people. Some of my personal favorites:

  • What if warp drive were possible, and the resulting contact with dozens of new species rallied humanity around setting aside our differences and embracing exploration and knowledge as our highest pursuits? What if in doing so, however, we were forced to confront the best and worst parts of what makes us human? Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry)
  • What if we created an artificial intelligence so advanced that it didn’t even know that it was artificial? What if we devise a construct that genuinely believes itself to be human and even we “normal” humans can’t tell the difference either without disassembling it… is it effectively human? What if people got very scared of the consequences of this and tried to eliminate them, and they rebelled? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  (Phillip K. Dick, also loosely made into the movie Bladerunner).
  • What if contact with a particular alien species forced us to re-examine everything we thought we knew and believed about God and spirituality and what it means to sin or be virtuous? What if our anthrocentric perspective of religion was turned on its head? Would it destroy our capacity and desire for faith, or make them stronger? The Sparrow (Maria Doria Russell)
  • What if the relativistic effects of deployment in interstellar war created huge gaps in culture and language between soldiers and the civilians they defend? What if after a 2-year deployment to the front in subjective time, a solider returned to find 30 years had passed on Earth, and after a couple more tours over a thousand years had gone by at home?  The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)

In this way, science fiction is, in my opinion, one of the best vehicles for exploring the human condition. By using a speculative backdrop, we can “artificially” isolate or enhance the various factors that influence how people behave, and thereby investigate what it even means to be human. The novel I just finished reading, The Forever War, for example, was strongly based on Haldeman’s experiences in Vietnam. In reading it, we can see how exaggerating the culture shock that real soldiers experience when returning from deployment, by making the conflict an interstellar one, lets us look in a new way at how we count the human psychological cost of war. Does a returning soldier sometimes feel like an alien in his or her own home? I mean, just try and tell me that’s not culturally relevant right now.

I think science fiction can hold its own with any other literary genre in the best tradition of what makes a good story: telling an emotional truth through a literal fiction. Sure, you have popularized, superficial, unadulterated entertainment sometimes, just like any other genre… but the deeper stuff is there, and plenty of it, if you look.

I sometimes wish that people didn’t have this insatiable need to classify things. A good story is a good story, no matter what the marketers and publishers file it under. The sad part is that I feel like there are a lot of people who would really enjoy the themes and ideas in a lot of science fiction, but never get exposed to it because they are not interested in the popular idea of sci-fi, or the culture that surrounds it.

Admittedly, geekdom does go hand in hand with science fiction (yeah that’s me in a Starfleet TNG tactical uniform, so what). You don’t have to be a geek to enjoy what this genre has to offer though.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, as a leader among readers once said… splurge on some free short fiction and check it out yourself. Science fiction literary magazines Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed are just a few that I’ve noticed running great character-driven stories. I’m sure there’s a lot more out there, those are just the ones I’ve been reading lately.

I’ll even peg some example short stories I recently read and liked for their focus on character, good writing, and/or thoughtful premise:

Movement (pdf), by Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s)

Ruminations in an Alien Tongue, by Vandana Singh (Lightspeed)

My She, by Mary Rosenblum (Lightspeed)

The Paper Menagerie (pdf), by Ken Liu (F&SF)

Prayer, by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)

Convinced yet?