Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What is Science Fiction Anyway, and Does it Matter?

Just stumbled on this (to me) very annoying essay that attempts to ever more narrowly define what is "real" science-fiction.

I'm annoyed on multiple levels, starting with the idea that this distinction is somehow important, moving on through how the author seems to think "real" sf is somehow superior, just on principle, to that Tolkien and Harry Potter crap, and continuing on from there.

I do, however, think there's some interesting validity to the author's idea of an scientific “event horizon” that defines whither a science fiction story is technically plausible or not. His idea is that the line between science fiction and fantasy (his term, though I think “science fantasy” is more correct, if a distinction must be made) isn’t a static thing, that a story can be written as science fiction based on the best scientific knowledge of the day, and be turned into science fantasy after the fact as science marches on.

Yet his central premise is that most sf produced today, especially media sf, actually starts out inside his speculative "event horizon," that most of it is scientifically implausible by today’s science (and probably yesterday’s as well) not tomorrow’s.

Okay, actually, I agree with this too. Where I differ is that this is somehow a bad thing. I think it's time to embrace it, fess up to the fact that it’s absurd to think that (as an example) Star Trek is, an any way more than metaphorical, any kind of prediction of the future, and that as long as we enjoy the stories, that's FINE.

First of all, I'm of the opinion that a good story rarely starts out, "An idea walked into a room." That notion has damaged sf as a literary form more than any single thing. Stories are about people, and if an idea enters into it, it is how the people react to that idea which is involving to the reader. The idea may be interesting as well, but a story is not simply a science-fact essay with dialog and a villain. This is important, because if the story is good, the failure of the science (by time or intentional design, at least, not withstanding the author's ignorance) will not significantly diminish it.

Frankly, I think that science fiction's function as a literary crystal ball predicting the future has always been highly over-rated. For starters, "science fiction" is a misnomer. Science fiction CAN'T predict science, except through guess-work, and where sf has attempted to anticipate hard science, it has almost always been wrong. Making up undiscovered subatomic particles is just fantasy with sf trappings. Even speculating about predicted-but-undiscovered particles (such as the Higgs Boson) is questionable, because, even if they exist, most likely anything you say about it will be wrong (and is likely to be proven so within a few years).

Most of what we think of as "science" in science fiction stories is applied engineering and technology, and it IS possible to extrapolate these things, to some limited extent. Jules Vern, for instance, didn't predict the submarine, or even its use in war. But he did extrapolate the submarine into a capable and useful vehicle and consider how it could be used for good (exploration, access to aquatic resources) and evil (terror attacks on shipping). He predicted lunar travel, but even by the science and engineering of his time, his technology was fatally flawed. The story's predictive value is not in that his science or technology were correct, but rather in its (quite correct) assurance that the technology COULD solve the problems involved with enough time and effort.

It’s ironic that Vern then scoffed at H.G. Wells book on lunar travel because he relied on anti-gravity metals and other such implausible devices. Yet neither book holds up to modern science, and the flaws in Vern's work are much more obvious and easier to prove. Yet Vern’s work is also satisfying in part in the his method for reaching the moon, though scientifically flawed, is at least plausible and understandable. Never mind that it would never reach the moon, and even if it did, it’s passengers would be nothing more than jelly due to the incredible acceleration. The method allows even the modern reader to willingly suspend their disbelief.

Classic Star Trek is sometimes given credit for "inventing" the cell phone. Yet all it really predicted was the shape and size of a cell phone, not the technology that makes one work, or the science behind it, or even the functional way in which a cell phone works. Functionally, near as we can tell, a Star Trek communicator was just a WWII walkie-talkie decreased in size, and increased in power. Actually, what it did, how it worked, and what those little dials and buttons did is all rather vague. From a story standpoint, that's actually good, as in being vague, it has dated less than a more scientifically-grounded device would. It served a story purpose, and served it well.

Really, that’s all most early Star Trek technology was, story devices dressed up with flashing lights, buttons, and sound-effects. Look at the elegant, self-descriptive names of those devices: transporter, communicator, shuttlecraft, warp drive, impulse engines, photon-torpedoes, phaser, tricorder. A transporter is less a teleportation device than a method of moving characters rapidly through the story (and without the expensive special-effects necessary to show a spaceship landing). A shuttlecraft isn’t a form of transportation at all, it’s a bottle to stuff a couple-or-three characters into and then crash into a planet for story purposes. A communicator is a delivery device for exposition (and so is a tricorder, for that matter). And so on…

Science Fiction was born in an age when science was expanding into a vast unknown, and when technology was advancing in absolute terms. But while technology moved slowly (by modern standards) in those days, it pushed regularlly into new realms, and seemed able to advance without limits. These days, things are much different. Technology is moving so fast these days than any such speculation is almost certain to be rendered either wrong or obsolete in very short order. And fast as it moves, it does not heave blindly into the darkness.

We live in a world where science bounds us at every turn by provable or demonstrated limits. The speed of light seems much more absolute than it once did, and time-travel far more likely to be an absolute fantasy. The list of unknown scientific things to speculate about grows ever shorter. Even the day in which you could imagine planets at random around known stars is growing to a close. We're mapping distant star systems, with new planets discovered almost every week. There are still gaps in our understanding of physics, but they're relatively small, and their practical implications far less profound than the heady days of the atomic era.

Computers continue to advance, but in such regular and predictable ways that the progress has gone on for decades, regular as a clock, far more predictable as the weather. Yes, we can speculate about artificial intelligence, or robots, but we've been speculating about those things for a very long time without a clear grasp of the technology that might make it possible. Are Asimov's robots no longer valid because of that? Hal 9000? Frankenstein's creature? The Golem?

Really, some of the best and most enduring sf isn't even about technology, it's about society and culture. A good example is, unfortunately, a story I can't name. I think it's a Bradbury story (though it might be Asimov, or someone totally different, I haven't read it in a long time). This is from memory, so forgive me if I get the details wrong, but here's my recollection about the story. It's about a future world where everyone gets from place to place using teleportation doorways, and as a result, culture has evolved to a point where nobody goes outside any more. One day a household's door breaks, and a boy walks to school. He discovers that he LIKES going outside, and even when the teleportation door is fixed, he continues to go outside. His concerned parents, of course, try to break him of this aberration. My memory of the ending is vague, except that the pleasures of going outside won't go away, and the idea spreads...

Looking at this from a scientific standpoint, it's kind of absurd. Science is showing us that certain kinds of "teleportation" may be possible, but the idea that we'll be routinely teleporting people from door-to-door is highly unlikely. The energies involved are incredible, for starters. Quantum uncertainty is another huge issue. But the story is no less valid because of this. In fact, it may have become MORE valid with time. We might turn into these people, even if the technologies responsible aren't teleportation, but some combination telecommuting, the internet, console gaming, robotic cars and general paranoia. In fact, to some extent, we're well along the way to turning into these people. The story still works as a metaphor for that. It doesn't matter if teleportation doors are possible by the most current version of physics or not. It doesn't matter if the story had used magic mirrors instead of teleportation doors.

Or look at Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands." If you haven't read this story, you should. It's about a man who discoverers a new store in town, one selling household robots. The robots are black, sleek, beautiful, and perfect. They clean house. They run errands. They do chores. They wait on their owners hand and foot. And they are completely incapable of harming humans. They EXIST to protect us from harm. It is their primary function. Never mind where they come from. Never mind how they work. Not really important.

Of course, there's a catch. The robots are TOO perfect. They move in and take away all human want, all human suffering, and in the process, all human freedom. Humans become prisoners of safety, not even allowed a knife to cut their food, least they injure themselves or others. The hero realizes this, tries to thwart them, but it's too late.

As I said, not so important how the robots work or where they come from (space, presumably from some non-existent planet via non-existent FTL). It isn't important how likely real robots are to be human-shaped or not. It isn't important if robots could really take over this way. The story is more valid than ever because it's about the slippery slope of trading freedom from comfort and an illusion of safety. It doesn't matter if the "safety" takes the form of a sleek-black-robot or a border-line fascist government, or helpful fairies that help too much. It's the sort of thing every school kid in American should have been reading post 9-11, every voter should read before choosing their next president. It's a story WITH robots, not a story ABOUT robots. That's an important distinction, and one that's lost on a lot of sf purists.

Sometimes a science-fiction can even be accurately predictive in ways that have nothing to do with the scientific device in the story. In 1971 hard-sf writer Larry Niven published a novella titled “Flash Crowd.” The story is set in a world where teleportation booths make instantaneous travel anywhere in the world possible. The basic premise is that with live television reporting of breaking events, people would naturally jump into a teleportation booth to see things for themselves. The result: instant crowd, instant mob, and potential instant riot.

In fact, “flash crowds” did happen, and they didn’t require teleportation. Live coverage of TV did play a role in some real “flash crowds” but the cell phone turned out to be a far more effective device for creating them. Ask the teen in the news a while back who threw an adult-free party at his house and invited a few friends. Apparently they invited a few friends as well, and they told other friends, and so on, until the police had to be called to break up a near riot of hundreds of teens converging on the home, drawn there by an invisible web of phone calls and text messages.

The point here is that, who cares if teleportation is possible or not, or if real teleportation would ever look or work like Niven’s teleportation booths? That isn’t where the predictive value of the story is at all. It was a “what-if” thought problem that translated to the real world in a completely different form.

If we define science fiction and fantasy as stories built on the premise or "what if?" and If science fiction (valid science fiction) is defined purely as a "what if" story that "could happen" then we're left with a pretty narrow field indeed, an even the stories that pass this litmus test are inevitably headed rapidly into the dust-bin of history, to join the huge pool of "real" science-fiction that's gone before. Whole subgenres, such as alternate history, are excluded from the canon as well. (Yes, you can scientifically justify alternate history through some application of the "many worlds" theory, but few books in the genre even bother. And of those, I rarely see it as more than tissue-thin rationalization; science as window-dressing.)

Really, for science fiction and fantasy I think the important distinction is not "could this happen," but how willing and able the reader is to BELIEVE that it could (or did) happen for the purpose of, and duration of the story: the suspension of disbelief. Fantasy has its roots in myth and legend, in a time when monsters, gods, and magic were, if not believed, then no less incredible than FTL drives or time machines are to most modern readers. Science fiction was born out of time when science and technology had largely replaced those things and in the realm of "fantastic but credible" in the public consciousness. (There was still religion, of course, but speculating about religion has always been and remains to this day, a dangerous pursuit, more likely to enrage than enlighten.)

Mind you, it isn't important to REALLY make the reader believe in the fantastic elements of the story. They can enjoy and be moved by Lord of the Rings without thinking that Middle Earth is historical truth, or that orcs and elves are real. They need only be willing to embrace them in the context of the work. The same is true of science fiction. It really doesn't matter if teleportation doors or warp drives work or not, only that the reader is willing to believe them in the context of the story. If scientific or technological trappings make that easier, then so be it.

In fact, a distinction one could make of fantasy is that the average reader has the comfort of putting down the book and knowing that the fantastic things they're just read are NOT possible. The story mentioned could make the same point with magic mirrors as with teleportation doors, but would it have the same impact if the reader could so casually dismiss it in the end? Perhaps not. But that distance also has its advantages. "The Golden Compass" can write about religion (like I said, dangerous) in a way that might not be possible in a science-fiction book, or even in non-genre fiction. The subject is dangerous, but there's the emotional and societal safety-valve that it "isn't real," making such an examination much more palatable than it would otherwise. This is true of any hot-button topic. A little distance, the different perspective provided by a science fiction or fantasy context, makes it a bit easier to approach objectively. It's a bit of trickery that Jonathan Swift understood well almost 300 years ago, and it's still valid today.

Likewise, there's great value in allowing the reader to believe that a thing could be possible. "From the Earth to the Moon" is important, not because it accurately shows how a trip to the Moon might be made, but because it makes it credible that through industry and determination, such a thing IS possible, even if the details differ. Compare that to Star Trek. We know that space travel, even to distant stars, IS possible. And while I can say with some certainty that our methods of accomplishing this will not resemble the Starship Enterprise, that the explorers aren't likely to have much in common with Kirk and McCoy, and that the aliens will almost certainly not resemble Mr. Spock, that DOESN'T MATTER. We can understand and identify with Star Trek far more easily than we can, for instance, post-human intelligences spending centuries traveling between stars in "spaceships" that resemble silicon cobwebs thousands of miles across.

If Star Trek makes us believe that such voyages, through industry and determination are possible and desirable, then the rest is just window dressing. Details. And though science fiction can't predict how, we will get there someday.