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.


Kathy Wykes said...


You are an awesome writer. I'm NOT just saying that because I'm your aunt :-), but also because, as a teacher of college writing, I recognize the expertise and talent. Your wording is precise, artistic, yet above all, leads the reader on a fun journey replete with intricate verbiage that stands well above the pedestrian. What a refreshing treat.

Thanks for sharing.

Adam Wykes said...

You bring up so many problems that it is difficult to set my teeth into any one so that I maintain focus...but I will choose to comment on the rather postmodern "infinite valid interpretations" idea.

Sure, but at the same time those of us with nominally similar nervous systems and memories tend to pick out certain interpretations of stories, no matter the media, even independently of one another.

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?