30 June 2009

Biology In Science Fiction

So it is taking a bit longer than I had hoped to get what I needed out of that last poll. Make sure to supply your own opinion, and bring your friends here too!

Today: a mashup of stuff related to one of the most current sciences in science fiction: Biology. This stuff is everywhere - from the heated evolution vs. creationism debate to the moral quandaries we face concerning abortion, cloning, stem cell research and genetic manipulation, to the world-arresting problem of global warming and the fantastic possibilities in exobiology that are emerging as we discover more about the planets of other stars and even our own planets and moons.

But I'm not actually going to talk about any of that. If you want to keep up with that battery of essential information (and so much more!) you can head over to Biology in Science Fiction, an excellent blog that is dedicated to just that topic. It even has a bookstore. From now on, it will have a link aside this blog, amid a (hopefully) ever-growing collection of like-minded observers.

In the information age, perhaps the most important/interesting Big Idea to come out of Biology is the theory of evolution through natural selection. Not only does it provide much of the supporting framework for the work being done with the above topics, but it actually has proven to be a surprisingly well-adapted metaphor for explaining the propagation of certain patterns in networks of information. For the theoretical background, I refer the reader to Wikipedia's article on Memetics and the Heath brother's Made to Stick. This second source serves as a "how-to" application of the theory set down in the Wiki article for business/viral marketing. In the brief (but incredibly fruitful) time I was able to e-collaborate with the Heath brothers during college, they assured me that their work rested upon the model of culture built by Hawkins, Dennet, Blackwell, and others. Hell, you can even read my own application to the study of literature if you like - it has a great bibliography on the topic at least, and is the method of analyzing literature you are most likely to see used by me later on here.

I'll wait here while you read up.

Now that you are familiar with the concept of Memetics, let's take a look at one biology-related meme as it propagates through the culture(s) of the internet. This video:

Chernobyl Fish

As you might surmise, this meme is counting on the sensational presupposition that it is the radioactive nature of the fishes' locale (which has enabled them to grow so unusually large) in order to replicate - an old SF plot device so common it has implanted itself into the collective unconscious of our culture as "true" even though evidence is scarce; these fish are well within the normally recorded ranges of length and weight, as it turns out (Well's Catfish).

Nonetheless, veracity is only one reproductive strategy in the ecology of ideas, and so we find this video making its rounds on the internet (even here!), evolving, and so on. A rather short video from the same bridge appears 10 months ago, then about 6-9 months later a flurry of new videos (1, 2, 3) from the same bridge but with better quality and longer times supercede it. The original idea was good, like exoskeletons, and it hit its own little cambrian explosion which both diversified and further propagated its ilk across the internet.

The interesting point for us as we witness how SF produces and is produced by the cultures it exists in is that the (in this case bad) fiction lent an air of believability to this urban legend.

Not only does SF use science to predict the present and the future, but we use SF to enhance our understanding of what is scientifically plausible. Knowing this, it would seem to place an onus upon SF artists to represent the facts as we know them accurately - or perhaps readers should be more skeptical?

Hey, now that I think of it, does SF with bad (false so far as we know) science behind it even qualify as SF, or is it a form of fantasy that takes itself seriously?

24 June 2009

The silicon portal

Escapism is very much part of my life with fictional works. There are several computer games that offer this to me, games that I play far more for the feeling of being there rather than any abstract challenge, because they offer more than the sum of their parts.

One in particular is, perhaps unsurprisingly. a game with a lot of text in it: Planescape Torment. Never--and I mean never--has an RPG managed to so completely enthrall me. The way the universe works is mind-boggling yet coherent, and the characters entirely believable within their realms. There's an element of black-and-gray morality that lurks here without ever entirely taking over, functioning along with the other aspects of the game that are just as well done, such as the music or the voice acting. This game made me fall in love with the Planescape universe to the extent of reading every single AD&D sourcebook and adventure module backwards and forwards. Sigil is not a happy place, but somehow it makes me want to go there.

Another game is Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, and this one is just...wow. The game is far less of a game than it is an interactive novel; there's not really a lot of freedom in it, and the 'action' sequences are pointless, often literally so, but the story, oh the story. It manages to be compelling and coherent without giving away much of anything, and there are aspects that are almost breathtakingly subtle. The characters are, once again, compelling and believeable, although in this case the main impetus lies in the main character. Zoey could have been a typical buxom action girl heroine, but instead she is a person, specifically a late-teens/early twenties girl who is thrown into a massive situation far beyond her, or anyone else's, comprehension. She solves some aspects but encounters others that seem massively incomprehensible except in the slightest of ways. Being the second game in a planned trilogy, it ends in a manner that is satisfying but piles on the mysteries to the point of making one doubt even the solved portions; I ended up with the feeling that there was something very, very large moving just beneath the surface of the plot, and that takes skill and effort to pull off.

I played the first game, The Longest Journey, after encountering this one, and the parallels between the two are satisfying and stunning in their complexity, a connection that makes both better than their parts. I should also add that both games have a sense of humor about them that is realistic and utterly endearing without going overboard.

The thing that ties both of these, and others, together is their quality of story, of course, but not just that; their problems, protagonists, villains and allies, solutions, and methods are entirely within their universes. Zoey, April Ryan, and The Nameless One face challenges that are complex because of interactions within their world are similarly complex. The Nameless One, for example, literally cannot die, and the player is never penalized beyond having to navigate a couple of screens for doing so--this is literally an integral part of the story, beyond its use as a mechanic. Were one to remove his immortality, the story would make no sense whatsoever. Zoey and April face problems that are on par with the real world's unfortunate tangle of issues; imagine, for example, of the complexities of the American reporters in North Korea and why they cannot, or perhaps just should not, simply be rescued by force of arms, and why Japan would be so worried about the whole issue, and why China is involved, or may be....and so it goes, history, politics, personalities, all tangled together. The universe of The Longest Journey is not reality, but it has that same feeling, and keeps its pace alongside narrative.

Whenever I play these games, I want to go there, wherever there is. They are not fantasy or science fiction, although they both have aspects of such...they are stories, and places, which is exactly what all tales should want to be.

23 June 2009

Your blue may be my green

I am not entirely sure that how I read is, well, normal. I read with great fervor and eagerness, but I also do not read like most people I know, with the possible exception of my brother.

It goes like this: when I read, I read in chunks, large segments, sometimes 3 or more lines at a time, sometimes paragraphs. I almost always ignore articles and other regular grammatical words, perhaps because the simple volume of what I have read before gives me a good sense of what to expect. When I run into understanding issues, I will backtrack, but by and large I can continue on in this manner indefinitely to the end of a book or article. My comprehension is high but not absolute; I would estimate that an initial reading tends to produce something like 80%, but that is for the larger aspects...I have considerable trouble with remembering small details, such as character descriptions, colors, general descriptions, and ultra-specific quotation.

To offset these disadvantages, I am a voracious re-reader. It is unimaginable for me to read a book just once, unless it fails to capture me, and even then, there is no absolute cutoff. My favorite books I have read almost uncounted times, and nearly every book that I own has been read more than once, front to back.

This all means a couple of things for how I approach books. For one, I end up filling in a lot of what I miss, particularly in the area of description and characters. There's books that have managed to force their visions on me, of course, and I do not tend to invent things wholesale, but commonly I end up with impressions that stick and are entirely specific to me. As a whole, then, I tend to comprehend books in a very cinematic manner, its focusing dependent on how the writer writes. Another, and more important, result is my tendency to quickly fall in love with a universe rather than a specific story. Sometimes when I read and re-read books, I end up 'getting' the mechanics of that universe, seeing the characters and locations and situations as parts of a greater whole. I read the book then not so much for the tale it tells but for the chance to return there.

A logical extension of these habits and tendencies is that I sometimes willfully ignore that which the author has put in front of me (in fiction!). The text is everything, indeed, but I feel that it is often the character of a work that is its strongest point rather than what is embodied in specific words. One cannot control the precise meanings of a word, and neither can one control the imagination of one's readers. I do read for enjoyment, after all.

There is no possible way that my modes of comprehension are unique to me, but I still end up feeling lost and alone sometimes because of it. No, I wasn't paying attention to the color of the suit that so-and-so was wearing; no, I don't care about that particular subplot; what do you mean you didn't get why he had to do that, and so on. It leaves me with a zero-man audience all too often, unless I am talking to my brother, who I also suspect reads in a manner very similar, although likely not identical.

A Question for (Any) Readers

Think back to the days when video games and computer games (if
you care to make the distinction) were making their presence felt.
A new medium for storytelling, these games did not take their
stories seriously, nor would the literary establishment have taken
them seriously if they had tried. Many (including myself) would
argue that with video games this is still the case. No Harold
Bloom or Oprah's Book Club is going to treat S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear
Sky with anything close to the degree of critical respect The Road or even The Matrix got. It
was the same with film, and the same with novels before that. Each new medium must prove
itself capable of carrying the tripe before it is permitted to carry the jewels of culture. What
is interesting about this state of affairs from the point of view of an SF afficionado is that SF
(along with other non-mainstream genres such as Fantasy and Alternate History) seems to me to
be more prevalent among the early titles of these genres (with perhaps the exception of the
novel). Or maybe not. What do you think?

I will publish the results of this poll as soon as I get a substantial (20? 100? I can dream!) number
of replies, so tell your friends and family to get over here and answer the question for me. The
potential "so what?" of this poll: if the perception exists that SF and other unconventional
(un-literary) genres lead the way in introducing a new genre, the following useful questions

1. Why does this phenomenon exist?
2. What effect does this phenomenon have on the cultural perception of the emerging
3. Does this phenomenon contribute to the continuing refusal of the literary canon to include
unconventional genre literature (or at least admit that it already contains unconventional
genre literature)?

And doubtless many others. If any occur to you, please list them in the comments below, along
with the usual.

20 June 2009

On the Mohs scale of SF, Ben Bova eats diamond

Something written by Ben Bova in his column (talked about it before here) has been bothering me:
I admit that if the only science fiction you’re aware of is what you see in movie theaters or on television, you have every right to be skeptical. That stuff isn’t based on scientific fact; it’s based on comic strips or the dreams of juveniles.


When I say “real science fiction,” I mean stories based solidly on known scientific facts. The writer is free to extrapolate from the known and project into the future, of course. The writer is free to invent anything he or she wants to — as long as nobody can prove that it’s wrong.
Man, this guy believes in the hardest of hard SF. I obviously disagree with what he is saying, but then, he's a well known author, while I post in some forsaken corner of the internet...but I'm a consumer of SF, too, which gives me some rights, yeah? I always value insight into others' mode of thought, besides.

But specifically--what's wrong with comic strips? The word used to compare them is 'juvenile,' wielded in a manner that drips condescension. I suspect that Mr. Bova thinks that all comics are basically The Family Circus, and therefore unworthy of his attention, which is an attitude that is very much prevalent in the American public. Some of the most interesting SF storytelling today is being told through an animated medium, and is often only tenuously related to scientific fact. I love it precisely because there is no pressure of reality upon it, either visually or thematically, and imagination is allowed to run free.

But enough about anime and comics for now. What about this requirement that science fiction be based upon something that cannot be 'proven false'? I find this silly for very similar reasons to the other assertion, but there's something more to this belief than simple condescencion. Ben Bova made his name in 'hard' SF and man, I can see why. That's a hard goal to live up to; virtually impossible, I would think, but it seems to work for him. I also think, though, that this is a remarkably narrow view, and more importantly potentially ignores the very function of writing, that of storytelling. Not saying that he has failed on this account, but there's a reason that I don't much enjoy the diamond end of hard SF and I suspect that this is it.

Ben Bova's viewpoint is that of a minority, however, and part of me is a little saddened by this. I see him and his ilk--Benford and...and...well, there's others that I can't think of right now--as being the ballast of the SF community, keeping it distinct and separate from other more fantastic genres by injecting a dose of (over)realism into the mix. I am a consumer, but I am not the consumer base...good thing, eh?

17 June 2009

Ray Kurzweil, SF Author

I do not believe in The Singularity.

Those of us who spend too much time on the internet, and the blogosphere in particular, cannot avoid excited talk of the upcoming Singularity, where man and machine merge into something more than just men and their peripherals. It is not really a moment, more a stretch of time when telling apart 'manmade' from 'computer made' will become less and less easy, where Turing Test-defeating machines are possible and easy to manufacture, if indeed they do not already manufacture themselves. The Singularity is simultaneously hoped for and worked towards.
If there is one thing that it lacks, it might be humanity, but really, it has humanity built in. Literally.

The problem is this: exponential progression is impossible when attempted by men. Predictions of the year 2000 had steam horses and rigid airships and other things similarly advanced, flying through the aether to Mars and beyond, perhaps to land on Jupiter. These are linear predictions, the kind that Kurzweil tells us is not only impractical, but worthless.

I would suggest that men working towards a future of the Singularity are laboring under the same misbeliefs. I think that Kurzweil moves his predictions closer, unbeliveably close, in hopes of circumventing this lack of imagination, but in the end his predictions are still functionally worthless. Take his prediction of a Turing Test capable machine: we know what that means, from a technological standpoint, but remember that years ago it was discovered that the simplest of looped response scripts can be incredibly convincing...this does not show limitation in the techology, but it does demonstrate the critical failure point of any predictions, namely that while we understand the technology, the mechanics of humanity continue to elude us.

This is where I think that Kurzweil's predictions suffer. He predicts artificial blood that increases oxygen carrying capacity by thousands of percent or more, while I suggest that what REALLY may happen is something completely different, unpredictably different. Artificial blood is the hyper-advanced airship, and whatever happens for real is the Concorde, because not only might new uses come up but other challenges may evolve that were literally unthinkable ten years before. Remember the idea of videophones? Who even thinks about those any more? We have devices that carry video, often shockingly high-def video, and phones that can transmit that in realtime--but we don't have videophones because we don't want them! Who wants an unavoidable video connection; voice is one thing but getting a midnight call on a videophone is quite another.

Basically, I think that Kurzweil is thinking like an SF author, a possibly misguided, probably genius, and certainly prolific SF author. He is taking what he knows, and adjusting it to what he predicts. While others publish novels, however, he publishes the predictions in non-fiction form. Same thing, different presentation--and who gets taken seriously? All negativity about his ideas aside, I think that he is on to something, and something big, but it's not something that is unique to him.

SF Apocalypses

If there were one thing the apostle John would appreciate about Science Fiction, it would probably be the genre's propensity for apocalyptic prophecy. From H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds to Dynamix's Earthsiege Universe, the genre has compiled an impressive number of attempts at the ultimate prognostication - the end of the world as we know it. The artists of the last ten years are certainly no exception - here's a (surely incomplete) list of Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic SF published in the last decade:

11. WALL-E

Take a look at this list for more (not genre-specific or within the last 10 years): http://www.quietearth.us/postapoc.htm

And this is leaving out all those great pre-millenials like Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man, etc., so forth, ad nauseam.

Science Fiction has been a primary vehicle for the darkest fears of our imaginations. When was the last time you saw a movie, read a book, or played a game that posited the destruction of this universe because of magic or mysticism? Take a look at ExitMundi, an amusing collection of eschatology. The category of apocalypses with the most entries is Science. The next highest is Space, and the third Earth. Note that most of the apocalypses in these categories would remain completely hidden from us without the aid of scientific inquiry. Certainly nearly every culture in the world circulates some form of the end times or another, vastly outnumbering the presently conceived scientific armageddons. That is not my point. The point is that we, as a western culture, are more and more concerned with the potential for annihilation revealed and/or created by the reaches of science.

Why the shift in interests? Is it because we have begun finding plausible threats? Hardly: civilization has known of the perfectly scientific apocalypses of disease, natural disaster, and Malthusian overpopulation for centuries. Is it novelty? Surely scholarly research into the eschatologies of obscure world cultures has kept apace. What about a growing sense of our own hubris, a sort of premonition before the fall? Perhaps, although civilization seems to be steaming along at a fairly unstoppable pace at this point.

The answer may be that we are more interested in exploring the options we have the capacity to resist or avoid. Take a look at the list above: it runs the gamut from malevolent god-like AI, nuclear holocaust, disease, global warming, gray goo, various natural disasters in space and on earth, malevolent aliens, portals into other less amenable dimensions, and pollution. The link between all of these calamities is that the stories that tell us about them argue that there is something we can do to rectify, avert, or minimize their negative impact on the chances of survival for our species (often by using more science!).

Where they get their science wrong, we laugh, deride, and forget them. But when these stories have frightened, inspired, and most of all - convinced us, we began to pay attention.

In the past decade, for example, we have successfully identified the trajectories of roughly 85% of large Near Earth Orbit (NEO) objects in our solar system. That feat, considering that the attempt began in 1998 with almost nothing, is remarkable.

What is more remarkable, perhaps, is that Deep Impact and Armageddon were both released in 1998.

"Printer's ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries."

- Christopher Morley

16 June 2009

Do not read this. It makes no sense!

A previous post spawned an interesting point:
[...] Then, since storytelling is a form of communication and the intent of all communication is to share information, the most useful interpretation is the one with the best information that the most people can understand.

I'll leave you to determine what makes some info better than other info, but at least by looking at it from this standpoint we can say that yes, all interpretations are valid but not all are equally useful.

In other words, why talk about what Janet thinks of Alice in Wonderland if what Janet thinks has little utility to us?
Ideas necessarily exist independent of utility, and as such, can only 'gain' it through application. Application in this case, as near as I can see, is use of the interpretation of others as a medium for understanding of larger things, and as such, validity (utility) is indeed not infinite but is instead limited to a generalized palette. Thus, if Janet is a paranoid schizophrenic who interprets the rabbit hole as a metaphor for her personal hell of persecution by rabbits and clocks, her interpretation is fantastically useless in analyzing the text. Valid, but useless, as stated in the comment above.

However, how might one determine that her interpretation is, in fact, useless, if not exactly invalid? We have no a priori knowledge of this interpretation.

Basically, this is the process of deciding an interpretation. See the image to the left: moving from 1 to 3 results in something that is easy to understand, a 'natural' progression that is anything but natural, but has the advantage of avoiding an overcomplicated explanation of every other possible 'end' result. I believe that we do this every time we interpret something, and therefore end up presenting 3 as a completed interpretation, having pared a massive tree down to something more manageable. (image modified from this)

B could be any one of the end points and 3 would always end up looking the same; that is, all are valid, because the process of creating an interpretation is identical in all cases. But is it useful? We cannot tell until we see where A and B were, originally. Without a priori knowledge of the interpretation, we only have 3 to go by.

My god, the point, finally: if interpretations are presented to the world as #3, knowledge of other interpretations can help shape a more complete knowledge of #1. As long as Janet arrives at B from A along a path that can be abstracted to #3, the interpretation is both useful AND valid. In fact, assuming adherence to the text and analyzation of the whole, all possible interpretations are both! Ultimately I would suggest that the definition of usefulness that is brought up in the comment is usefulness applied to some midpoint, one of the boxes that are unlabled. Certainly, progressing along one of the initial two division trees when the point or the idea that one is interested in is on the other is a path to confusion and uselessness. Thus only some would be useful, but still valid.

Relation of this to anything: non-zero but closer to 0, but these are the things that keep me up at night.

15 June 2009

According to Ben Bova, reading more Science Fiction could have saved a lot of grief over the years. To wit:

If our political leaders had been reading science fiction, we might have been spared the Cold War, the energy crises, the failures of public education and many of the other problems that now seem intractable because we were not prepared to deal with them when they arose.

We could be living in a world that is powered by solar and nuclear energy, drawing our raw materials from the moon and asteroids, moving much of our industrial base into orbit and allowing our home world to become a clean, green residential area.

Yes, and get me those flying cars while you are at it. He's on to something here, of course, but I think that he doesn't quite extend the article to the conclusion that I take from it all: no one reading SF is a symptom, not a cause.

The real problem is a lack of imagination, a lack of insight on the part of humanity and the United States in particular, or perhaps more an overabundance of the here-and-now. The worst insult that can be thrown at a visionary--or best, depending on one's view--is to call them 'impractical.' Impracticality is certainly something to look out for, but these generalized tossers of insults, the majority of Americans, I think, do not mean 'impractical over the long term.' No, they mean 'impractical NOW.' This attitude, coming from people who use computers and drive cars with GPS units in them and watch HD television, is silly and pointless, as virtually nothing that they use was very practical in the past, sometimes in the very near past, even. What is useful now is not necessarily worth beans in the future, and vice-versa.

With this holding us back, we are limited to the (comparatively) slow, steady pace of normal technological progress, a recombinatory process which extends from the present to the near future. Science fiction bypasses all of this, ignoring the slow process to look to at an end product of sorts. Sure, everything past the nearest future is often wildly impractical from a modern perspective, but, first of all, where's the fun in that, and why not try to take the path and see what else comes along? The end product is, after all, NOT an end product, but instead a transitory stage, an accumulation of other pathways that are all independently variable.

[...] The writer is free to extrapolate from the known and project into the future, of course. The writer is free to invent anything he or she wants to — as long as nobody can prove that it’s wrong.

Thus science-fiction stories can deal with flights to the stars, or human immortality, a world government, settlements on other worlds. All of these things are possibilities of the future.

Science Fiction is not an instruction manual; it's only a guidebook. Impractical, even--but knowing what might be at the end should excite anyone, and if it doesn't, well, then SF writers just need to write a little better.

12 June 2009

Society and SF, or, why, in the future, we will all have a society of our own

It strikes me that if there's one thing that SF does relatively poorly, it is in creating believable societies. I don't mean societies that are believable in the scope of the tale; I mean societies that can really stand up to more than a couple minutes' examination and avoid the tendency towards fridge logic that can take up residence in fictional stories at the drop of a hat. Star Trek is very much the poster child for this, as it is basically a universe built around a single ship and filled in on an ad-hoc basis. The Federation doesn't seem to really work so much as simply exist, which is forgiveable within the tale but falls apart if one spends any time pondering it on the way to the kitchen.

The classic SF authors avoided this through a simple expedient of writing their own society into the future. This isn't a cop-out, not in the slightest, because they knew at the very least that something had to change to maintain a modicum of suspension of disbelief while keeping familiar environs. I would call Asimov's Foundation series a prime example, from a 21st century perspective, because, once one strips away all the spacecraft and interstellar-ness, the dialogue and setting is a little archaic to modern sensibilities. Heinlein did this often, particularly with his Future History tales, but he also adopted another conceit: an ideologically triumphant society.

What I mean by an "ideologically triumphant society" is a society that is less an attempt towards belivability and more an attempt to transform one's personal belief system into a viable and transcendent system. In Heinlein's case, Starship Troopers is the exemplar (I seem to recall Stranger in a Strange Land as being one, too, but it's been a long while, and I didn't much like that book in any case). The society of Starship Troopers is, well, one of soft facism, what one today might call Libertarian Paternalism. The chaos of the past has been banished by application of Heinlein's belief in individualistic responsibilities, so much so that they look upon 'past' systems with a mix of fear and pity. A lecture by a professor in the book is actually a lecture by Heinlein himself about the failings of the juvenile justice system; it's all in the past, in this book, and this quietly confident society sails on through rough waters of warfare and tragedy to a calmer sea of peace.

This kind of society is generally easy to read if the rest of the story is up to the task. Starship Troopers is very much a product of genius and is undeniably a science fiction war novel before anything else, and as such succeeds. However, I see this as being only one side of the coin. Heinlein used it positively, to portray what he believed should be, but it can be used negatively, as well, in dystopian fiction. This is the most common method today, I think, and it is hard not to see why: drama feeds off of disaster. Things going wrong is ever a catalyst for heroism.

Movies have very much adopted this perspective, mostly because it allows for explosions. In V for Vendetta, a militant fascist society, Norsefire, controls all of England, and has carried out various iniquities upon its people until brought down by the machinations of V. Alan Moore, the writer of the graphic novel, is very much a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, and it shows (The graphic novel is far more careful and interesting, by the way, but condensation is necessary for a movie. Remember what I said about reducing interpretations?).

All of this does not mean that there is not hope for belivable societies in SF. Neal Stephenson's latest book, Anathem, avoids most of this ideology. The reversed perspective of what are basically technologically philosophical monks thrives within its limits, never quite allowing the reader to see past the prejudices of the protagonists while still allowing details of realism seep through. Arbe is obviously--and literally--a literary stand-in for Earth, to the point of almost innumerable parallels, which allows Stephenson the luxury of combining the simple fuctionality of writing modern society with the more-or-less neutral ideological views of his protagonists.

Despite what I said before, I see that Science Fiction does actually do fine with society, but only to a point, the point to where it serves the story, and not the other way around. Neal Stephenson wanted to write about philosophy; Asimov wrote about people and technology; Heinlein wrote about the effects of lifestyle and war. Different skills and talents produce different results, leaving the SF field scattered with methods that are varyingly believable and may or may not be worth embracing. Learning from a fictional tale is possible, but adopting it wholesale is impractical...because there IS nothing else other than the story. More on that later!

11 June 2009

Science Fiction as Thought

Science Fiction is robots, spacecraft, aliens, and Science! all wrapped into a package of epic storylines and a generous helping of buxom ladies, often in various states of undress. Science Fiction is Asimov and Clarke, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Star Wars. Science Fiction is brightly colored and shows the future. It is HG Wells and Independence Day.

Watch this and reconsider the above. No spacecraft. No robots. Nothing that men of the 40s and 50s SF explosion would recognize as being their chosen theme. Certainly no epic storylines, even given that the music is Led Zeppelin.

In order, I was reminded of: plants, ice caverns, glaciers, fountains, the moon, Halley's Comet, the great pyramid at Giza, European cathedrals, a mandala, bells, a suspension bridge, stairs, and endless plain, bronze in a furnace, lake of fire, the sun, an Incan calendar, The War of the Worlds, a single-celled organism, a dreamcatcher, dragon's teeth, the fall of night, Tron, monoliths, drill bits....

My list has a definite hint or two of Science Fiction, what with the moon, strange landscapes, and Tron all wrapped up together; there's some Fantasy in there, too, and some history, with some science thrown in for good measure, and an extraneous hardware reference. I saw a lot in there. I'm sure of two things: first, that people watching this for the first time will likely as not be reminded of things completely different, and second, that, if exposed initially to my list of perceptions, that they will suddenly be able to see the same things I saw, and perhaps even be unable to see others.

Any human being whose eyes work more or less properly and whose mind is more or less on spec cannot help but see something at work in those colors and shapes; it's not colors moving on a two-dimensional plane, but instead is a collection of objects moving through a three-dimensional space, alternately simulating motion of the observer and motion in the observed.

If I manage to influence people into seeing those things, does that make it Science Fiction? Assuming that someone else produces a list that is vastly different, does that make my list invalid? Would their perception of whatever they saw make it that? Certainly not! I could only succeed in convincing others of its science-fictional nature by forcibly eliminating a myriad of ideas, all equally valid. Ideas are all that matter, and, in the absence of a chosen, specific narration, there are virtually endless ideas in every piece of media.

This is why artists have a chosen medium--to alternatively limit or expand potential interpretations. Modern art often errs on the side of ambiguity, while classical art is (more) narrowly focused on a real thing, or place, or kind of person. Movies are the most constrained, showing and telling in a very directive manner, and writing falls somewhere in between.

Science Fiction, however, as a concept, straddles all of these, from the video I linked here to a carefully crafted movie narrative. I validly interpreted the video through the screen of my experience, which is very much suffused with classic and modern SF, just as I can watch a movie such as, oh, The Running Man, which has Science Fiction aspects but is mostly a rail-bound by-the-numbers Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and has a very small number of valid interpretations.

What is Science Fiction, then, if not robots and spacecraft? I said all of that so I could say this: SF is nothing more or less than a mode of interpretation, and while it often includes the aforementioned robots, it can just as often include almost everything else.

07 June 2009

Why Science Fiction is the Most Relevant Genre of Story-Telling Today

"The future is already here, it's just not widely distributed yet."

A quote from William Gibson, famous science-fiction author and futurist. Gibson started out in the '80s creating the cyberpunk sub-genre of SF - arguably the first wave of recognition in the SF community for the computer's revolutionary effect. Cyberpunk is often irreverent and byzantine, seldom distant, and nearly always noir. These characteristics do a pretty good job of defining the future this genre foresaw: complex, similar and chronologically near to our own time yet changed in many ways, and dark.

Why didn't Gibson and others, such as Stephenson and Jeter, extend their cyberpunk narratives further in time? After all, Science Fiction has traditionally been about detailing scientifically plausible futures for various purposes like social commentary, gedankenexperiment, or simply prognostication. Restricting your work to the near future as opposed to the billions of years which lie ahead in the existence of the universe seems to unnecessarily minimize the palette. The question only becomes more urgent when you consider that Gibson has more or less gradually worked closer and closer to the present with his works. Actually, some of his most recent work is actually set in the present, possibly even the near past, ala Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.

The truth is that what would seem to be a gradual collapse of one of the genre's defining traditions is instead an increasing acknowledgement of singularity. The closer we come to the "event horizon," the more the rate of change makes reliable, usefully-detailed prediction impossible. Few authors of the 1950's would have pretended to be able to reliably extrapolate the technologies and societies of a thousand years from now because, as in chess, it becomes difficult to see a certain number of moves ahead, no matter how deterministic the system happens to be. When the rate of change increases to include the same number of "moves" in a tenth of the time-frame, you must adjust accordingly.

(Let me qualify the assertion about SF authors and predictions. Yes, there are quite a few stories out there that find it no great problem to attempt a prophecy thousands, even millions, of years out. These stories generally fall into a few categories:

1. Those stories which use the distance in time to purposefully separate their narratives from that of the present so that little adherence to the legacy of present circumstances need be heeded.

2. Those stories that invoke special circumstances to indicate a massive slowing in the rate of change, such as stasis fields, civilization reboots [you can argue about the implications of this one], civilization stagnations, or even alien enslavement.

3. Those stories which are dishonest or misjudge the predictability of the future. Barring the science of Hari Seldon, there are limits to what we can know about the world of tomorrow.

4. Those stories with no treatment of the history constructed by human civilization on Earth [ala Star Wars].

Remove these special cases, and you should find the pool well-thinned and more amenable to the earlier assertion.)

Science Fiction, therefore, is more than ever the genre which predicts not what the distant future will be like, but is instead increasingly concerned with tomorrow and later today. Gibson's quote sums it up - the rate of change has gotten to the point where science, technology, and society advance so fast that most of us are left behind in some facet or another. Moderns such as ourselves are left in the curious position of attempting to predict what our present day is like.

The sentiment is insidious and shared. In the July 2009 issue of "Asimov's Science Fiction," we find Robert Silverberg (in an otherwise worryingly narcissistic article) writing that "we all live in the far future, these days." Certainly Ray Kurzweil would agree, with qualifications. He has focused his mind on getting the next twenty to fifty years right in terms of scientific and technological advances in several specific fields, but has had little to say about everything else. As with the rest of us, he lives in a present he only partially apprehends.

Science Fiction is the genre that deals with our visions of tomorrow, which have now become the visions of today. If we want to understand our present circumstances, it is fast becoming imperative to look to the one genre which is seriously concerned with interpreting that predicament - Science Fiction.

An aside: I hear voices in my own head suggesting that non-fiction, too, can answer this question for us. Without getting overly poetic or philosophical, only a short retort is possible: fiction can honestly provide a hypothetical special-case scenario with depth and detail, while non-fiction must abandon itself to do the same. Of course it is important to understand the broader hypotheticals as well, but as our lives seem very special-case to us, fiction is often the more accesible avenue to grokking.