TT: Science Fictional Implications

Want to see what Jim gave me for Christmas?  Page back to the Wednesday Wandering to see my new pueblo storyteller figure.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we take a look at some of the new ideas science fiction has brought to our attention.

Cloning Sheep (in polymer clay)

Cloning Sheep (in polymer clay)

JANE: A few weeks ago, Alan, you and I provided a basic definition of what SF is and  what makes SF different from Fantasy.  This was that SF in some way, shape, or form extrapolates from the universe as we know it.  Fantasy may do the same but also includes magic.

When we discussed Clarke’s Axiom – that suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – I noted that I agreed with Clarke in the way he meant this, that really high tech might as well be magic.  However, I ranted a bit about those writers who use this definition as an excuse to write lazy.

Most of my examples came from Fantasy, but it occurs to me that SF should have a sort of “spiritual” reason for being or it wouldn’t continue to appeal.  What do you think?

ALAN: Recently, I was reading a collection of essays by Brian W. Aldiss and I was struck by something he said that addresses this very point: “Science Fiction stories are the fables of a technological age”.

It has always been the business of fiction to try and explain the world in which we all live. One approach, hallowed by time, is to write the kind of social fiction that Dickens (for example) was so good at. But another very valid approach is to recognise that our world is increasingly dependent on technology and to try and explain our place in it in technological terms.

If you accept that, I think it follows that science fiction in the modern sense simply could not be written until the technological age really got going. Aldiss develops this idea in his book Billion Year Spree which is a critical history of science fiction. He makes a convincing case that, for that very reason, the first science fiction story was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

JANE: I really like what Aldis said, especially since he was clearly aware that fables are stories that are meant to supply a warning of some sort.  Unlike fairy tales (which may also teach a lesson), fables don’t need to contain a supernatural element.

(In this context I leave out talking animals since, as in Aesop’s Fables, these are clearly meant to stand in for humans of different types.)

ALAN: Very much so. And the rapid acceleration of technology is in danger of leaving us all behind if we don’t have tools that will let us come to grips with what it all means. When I was a child, the career that I have spent my life pursuing did not exist. My godson Jamie is ten years old. When he goes out into the work force it is likely that I will not recognise the career he chooses. It seems to me that science fiction, in the sense that Aldiss defines it,  is the very best way of exploring the implications of this.

JANE: Absolutely…  So often the SF/F community is having a discussion about a possible technological development before the idea enters the mainstream.

I had a vivid example of this some years ago…  Remember Dolly the Cloned Sheep?

ALAN: Indeed I do – there was a  lot of interest in her down here. After all, a large part of New Zealand’s income is sheep-related.

JANE: Well, Dolly was really the first time that the concept of cloning an entire creature entered the mainstream.  My mother, who reads both avidly and widely, asked me, “What do you think about all this new cloning stuff?”

I don’t know precisely how I responded but it was something like, “Remember all those brightly colored paperback SF books you never stopped me from reading?  The subject of cloning and its implications, positive and negative, have been being discussed in that format for years.    This isn’t new to me and I’m having a little trouble adjusting to all the fuss.”

ALAN: I have the same kind of feelings about computers. I make my living working with the beastly things and I’m constantly amazed at the way that science fiction authors have explored the implications of their impact on society. John Brunner wrote a whole novel about it (The Shockwave Rider) which had a lot to say about viruses, trojan horses, and worms long before they existed in the real world. So it all seemed very familiar to me when everybody started to sit up and take notice of just what these things were doing to them. Like you, I had a little trouble adjusting to all the fuss.

JANE: Back in 1999, I was asked to be the speaker at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s regional conference.  Since it was 1999, I made my topic “Millennium Fears.”   My teaser was that, although a certain degree of panic met the end of the first millennium, the panic faced at the end of the second was different.

I then went on to discuss how Science Fiction could be said to hold  much of the blame.  It was rather fun.  Since fiction needs conflict, most Science Fiction stories are not about science going right but science going wrong.

It was a long talk, so I won’t attempt to summarize here, but my conclusion was that, as long as fiction requires conflict, SF will create a certain degree of apprehension regarding the future.  I’m not sure that’s what the early SF writers had in mind.

ALAN: I’m absolutely certain that, for some writers at least, it was a deliberate choice. H. G Wells was very aware of this, not only in his famous novels such as War of the Worlds, but also in his short stories. He was particularly terrifying to his contemporary readers when he pointed out the implications that science would have on the conduct of warfare. Nowadays those stories read like simple reportage because all the unthinkable things that he pointed out are just accepted as being the way things work.

The stories written by Arthur C. Clarke (a very Wellsian writer, in my opinion) can also be read this way. I’m particularly fond of how he realised that scientific advances will, sooner or later, be used to distribute advertising!

JANE: You have a very good point there.  I was thinking of the “upward, outwards” sort of SF story.  That’s such a complex topic, I’d like to wait to talk about those later.

I suspect we could both keep going on but I’d like to open discussion to the floor. Anyone else have a good story about how SF either helped you understand developments in the future or otherwise showed you the implications of technology?

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11 Responses to “TT: Science Fictional Implications”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    As I read this, I kept thinking of the old game with fortune cookies, where one is supposed to add “in bed,” to any prediction to make it funny.

    Similarly, I’m starting to think that “science fiction is” or “fantasy is” can be better read as “science fiction that I like to read is” and “fantasy that I like to read is,” followed by whatever the erudite writer wants to talk about. It certainly puts a more enjoyable spin on the discussion.

    I’m not sure I agree with Brian Aldiss, but my fundamental grumble is that science fiction should be a living genre, changing and growing with every new author, and difficult to pin down for that precise reason. If it is too easily defined as a set of writing styles, tropes, and standard stories, then isn’t it simply a field of pastiches, people writing copies of old models rather than finding new stories to tell?

    While one can argue that there aren’t any new stories to tell, I do think about how much the world has changed, simply having Google to draw on and social media to communicate with. We’re still human, but how many SF stories take advantage of the level of communication we take for granted now?

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      interesting. My first thought was that your description explains what makes it so easy to define things like fables and fairy tales – they are, indeed, fixed in form and content. Reflection, though, leads me to wonder: are genres like westerns and detective fiction not defined as sets of styles, tropes and standard stories? And are they simply fields of pastiches? For westerns, that may well be the case. I haven’t picked up anything that could be identified as such, other than Louis L’Amour, for decades, but there certainly doesn’t seem to be much new happening [why do you think I don’t pick them up?]. I don’t think it even gets its own rack in the typical bookstore anymore. It would be pretty hard to make that charge stick against detective fiction, though, and there isn’t any shortage of new work or new ideas in the genre that I’m aware of.

      Being easy to pin down doesn’t in itself suck the life from a genre. There must be more going on. Perhaps it’s simply that SF/F isn’t _a_ genre, or even 2?

      • janelindskold Says:

        I was just discussing the Western genre with some friends… Basically, it’s a question of what the seller things will appeal to the reader… As someone said, “If you set it East of the Mississippi River, it’s a historical; if you set it west, they’ll put cowboys and six guns on the cover.”

        This is frustrating for writers of Westerns who would like to expand the themes they would treat. Late in life, L’Amour was expanding into both historicals (his Sackett prequels) and even fantasy (_The Haunted Mesa_). But they were all packaged as Westerns.

        As for mysteries… They’re worse about sub-dividing than SF/F and with a lot less justification in my opinion.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    If I may, a bit of a tangent. [I just typed git. Hmm… OK, if the shoe fits…]

    Jane remarks that fables don’t require a supernatural element, but fairy tales do – and then goes on to exclude Aesop’s talking animals from the supernatural. I’d just like to point out that, unlike the modern fantasist, the crafters of those tales would not necessarily regard any of their elements to be _super_natural. In fact, going back far enough they would even understand what the term meant.

    In the West, ‘natural’ has been progressively narrowed, to the point where belief lacking reproducible, material evidence is dismissed, and I use the word advisedly, as supernatural. That wasn’t necessarily so for Aesop or even Perrault. They may never have met talking animals, but they wouldn’t have regarded the ability as beyond their natures. While I don’t disagree particularly with that narrowing, it does mean that it becomes very easy to also dismiss the Highland crofters and Native elders who tell those stories as superstitious and overly credulous, which can be unwise at best. After all, what have we to learn from the ignorant? If nothing else, to remember to wonder how much of what _we_ know ain’t so.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Not disagreeing about those Highland crofters and Native elders, but Aesop pretty clearly meant those animals to stand in for types of humans, just as the mice and cat in the tale of how to bell the cat was a political allegory.

      Remember the context in which the tale was told.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    The fun thing about animals is that they do communicate, all the time, with each other, across species, and often with humans. Yet most people aren’t even aware of how many alarm calls they’ve inspired, aside from obvious things like rattlesnake rattles.

    Thing is, animals are individuals, although we seldom get clued into this aside from our pets. Still, when I watch hummingbirds at a feeder, I can tell them apart as individuals (each has a different feather pattern around the butt), and once they get habituated to me, they will tell me when the feeder is low or gone bad, so I can clean and refill it (just as cats will tell you when they need something). I even had one come inside the house and buzz me when he got hungry.

    So what’s so magical about animals talking again? If you actually live with them, they’re individuals who communicate with you, even if it’s only to say “go away” or “feed me.”

    Perhaps the magical thinking here is that animals can’t communicate, and therefore that all stories where they do communicate involve magic?

  4. John Michael Poling Says:

    I know that this avenue might be a bit ridden upon, but as a child I was introduced to Star Trek by my mother. Between the computers, comunicators, transporters and warp drive starships, it all seem science fiction to me at the ages of 5 through 9, but then I saw my first Apple comuter in my friend’s home in 1984. A couple years later I realized why the first Space Shuttle was named Enterprise, though it never saw spaceflight. In the late 80s and early 90s, when I was totally caught up with everything that was Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were cell phones and warp drive was therotically possible. And just the other day, I read an article that real warp drive may not be all that distant of a reality, woohoo! To me, science fiction showed me the grandure that was possible through science, the greatness of humanity and hope for a better world that wasn’t dominated by Communists, Islamic Extremists or whatever reality said to be afraid of at the time. I can think of very few things that move me more than this: it seems my generation got more luck than we realized since we were kids first, with a T.V., which never seemed as fun as being outside or within our own imagination (Star Trek being one of those great exceptions), and as we entered teenager-dom, we expolored computers, cell phones, pagers and the internet and now as adults, we happily, giddy with excitement, follow the ebb and flow of technology that may just lead us to our wildest fantasies. Perhaps my neices and nephew, or thier children, will see those fantasies as reality. Either way, I’m totally ready to transefer my conciousness to a 100% cyborg body. Screw the Borg, they’ve got it all wrong. LOL

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yes! Star Trek opened my mind to a lot of ideas, too.

      Great example.

      Does Star Wars extrapolate technology in the same way?

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        No, it doesn’t. As far as I can tell, the technology is irrelevant. Confine the characters to part of one planet and put them on dragons, and the stories wouldn’t change. [No, that’s not a reference to Pern. Didn’t notice the resemblance until after I typed it].

        The people who argue that SW is fantasy have a case. My personal jury is still out on that one.

  5. Paul Says:

    Maybe “Star Wars” is science fantasy, as was discussed here in an earlier blog. You have aliens, spaceships, FTL drives, blasters…and also explosions in airless space, telekinetic powers and The Force. I started reading SF around 1950 and find that I’m now living in worlds depicted back then. I’m now reading an SF novel published in 1974 whose setting has foreseen both our economic and congressional state of affairs. What goes around comes around, I guess. Basically, though, I would argue that even futuristic SF is really about some aspect of the time in which it is written.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I’d simply put Star Wars in the fantasy group and have done with it. It runs on The Rule of Cool, not science. There’s a lot of cool stuff (blasters, light sabers, the Force, and so forth), but none of it really works. Blasters shoot bolts that move about as fast as baseballs, which is why someone with a sword can parry them, there’s a magic-substitute (the Force), retconned to be based on hand-waving biology, spaceships wouldn’t fly, not because of the warp drive, but because they’re designed to look cool, instead of balance around a center of gravity, and so forth. Ultimately, science fiction isn’t about the props, it’s about a willingness to let the universe and its rules (read: science) have a say in how the plot progresses and the story universe works. There is no point in Star Wars where any rule that makes sense matters. It’s always trumped by cool. Therefore, I’d simply call it a fantasy.

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