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Metaphorising the metaphors


To some people, science fiction is a toy-box packed with neat gadgets and shiny gewgaws, which they pull out and deploy in service to their story. They need, for example, a locale in which certain events happen a certain way, so they invent an alien world. That alien world needs to be distant, so some form of travel to reach it is required. And since distance in most people’s minds equates to time taken to reach the destination, some type of long-journey travel is required. To early writers of science fiction, there was only one model they could use: sea travel. And that worked pretty well because distant lands were exotic, and the distance – ie, journey time – itself was a signifier of exoticism.

Initially, Mars was pretty distant, but as we learned more about the Red Planet, so it became closer and less “colourful”. Locales in sf thus moved further afield. But by that point, the limits of the knowledge of the time had been reached, so imagination took over. The worlds were made-up, with no basis in reality. The universe itself became a fiction.

We now know a great deal more about the universe than we did in the 1920s and 1930s. We know that it is unimaginably vast, that the distances between stars preclude any meaningful relationship in human terms. The universe is no longer a fit place on which to map distant shores and strange new lands.

We also have over fifty years actual space travel, and we know how difficult it is to keep alive in space the fragile human organism and to travel useful distances in useful times. We also know there is an enormously expensive barrier between our world and the rest of the universe: our gravity well.

The spaceship-as-ocean-liner trope belongs to the fictional universe, not the real one. But the metaphor for the journey to far-off places has become so embedded in genre that it’s used as if it were no more than setting – as if it were a signifier of the genre itself. And while sf writers over the decades have rung a variety of changes over the spaceship trope – inventing new and more imaginative ways to explain how it circumvents the real universe, how it can traverse those distances beyond imagination in an eyeblink – the spaceship still operates very much as it did back in sf’s earliest days.

Except now, the spaceship trope is not enough. Now it has to be disguised, by referring to it metaphorically.

I work in computing, so the illustration of this which works best for me is that of the operating system. An OS is, according to Operating Systems Design and Implementation, by Andrew S Tannenbaum and Albert S Woodhull, a fundamental system program “which controls the computer’s resources and provides the base upon which the application programs can be written”. In the beginning, as Neal Stephenson once said, was the command line. Using it, computer operators could call on programs which would perform specific tasks. They understood that listing files from an area of the filesystem entailed reading data embedded in a magnetic media and then rendering that data in a human-readable format. But when computers moved onto the desks of business people and then into the home, that knowledge was unnecessary. Worse, it was potentially confusing. So someone invented the idea of a metaphor to represent the data on the magnetic media and the programs which performed operations on the data: the Graphical User Interface. (Invented by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in 1973.) A GUI such as Windows or OS X or X11 is a metaphor which allows users to easily and simply perform complex operations on a computer using its built-in resources.

An interesting aside: several people have researched, and even built, orthogonally persistent operating systems. These are ones which run entirely in memory, and the complete memory-state is flashed to persistent storage (disk, flash card, etc) at regular and frequent intervals. Should the computer crash, the last memory-state image can be loaded back into memory, and the user returns to exactly where they were before the crash. The interesting thing about an orthogonally persistent operating system is that it needs a new metaphor. The existing one has become uncoupled from the underlying reality. The orthogonally persistent OS does not keep files in folders on a disk because it doesn’t need to put data way somewhere safe while it’s not in use. It doesn’t need to organise the stored data so it can be navigated. Everything is in use all the time. So it has a workspace, and everything is accessible within it all the time.

This concept of the operating system metaphor is one of the chief problems I had with cyberpunk as a subgenre – aside from its uncritical use, and tacit approval, of neoliberalism, of course. It took the metaphor that was the GUI and then layered another metaphor, cyberspace, on top of it. Cyberpunk writers wrote about the metaphor as if it were the thing itself.

And that’s what I see some twenty-first century sf writers doing. They’ve taken sf’s tropes, and are not only using them as if they were the thing itself but are adding a layer of metaphor on top. So when you dig deep into the story, you don’t find reality, you find a metaphor which has become uncoupled from its underlying reality. This is how I interpreted Paul Kincaid’s reference to “exhaustion”.

Personally, I think understanding how something works is key to learning how to do it better. It’s important to my development as a writer, I feel, to know what science fiction does, how it does it, and in what ways I can bend or break or subvert it to best effect. The uncritical use of tropes, and subsequent disguising of them, doesn’t appeal to me as a technique for writing sf. It pushes all the emphasis to the presentation layer, to the prose. Yes, good prose is important, I appreciate good writing. And I like to think my prose is good. But choosing pretty words is not enough for me.

I would sooner explore science fiction itself. I think as a genre we’ve stopped doing that. We’re either playing postmodernist shellgames, or metaphorising the metaphors, or deep-mining the genre for tropes as if those tropes were its sole raison d’être. Some might say these are indicators of decadence. Perhaps they are. But I don’t think it means science fiction is dead or dying, just that it needs a good kick up the bum…

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13 thoughts on “Metaphorising the metaphors

  1. Hallo. I only recently started looking in on your blog, and I’m only commenting here to link to a rubbish-quality but tangentially relevant if only marginally-interesting photo of me with Andrew Tanenbaum back when he was launching the Operating Systems textbook you mention, along with his own exemplar operating system for it, Minix. It must have been 1987 at a computer exhibition in, I think, Earls Court. I worked for his publishers Prentice Hall (PH) then, looking after the International Paperback Edition programme for our UK/Europe/Middle East arm. I’m holding copy of the PHIPE (as we called them) of Tanenbaum’s book – if you bought it back then and were horrified by the price, well, I was partially responsible. Also there is Odette from PH, involved in special sales. The photo appeared in an in-house newsletter but might also have been in some computer magazine’s special offering for the exhibition.

  2. I’ve been preaching for years at my blog that SF has turned into fantasy, and galactic empires are no different from Middle Earth. The trouble is readers believe the tropes of SF like Baptists believing in heaven and angels – on faith. I believe there tens of millions of people who have faith in science fiction and believe that one day we’ll reach the promised land of Star Wars and Star Trek. Their beliefs are no different from the religious.

    I think we need Science Fiction 2.0 that gets back to science and reality. In Star Wars, the metaphor for travel is the airplane, where other worlds are merely hours away. We’ll be very lucky if we can bring interstellar travel down to decades or centuries. More than likely, manned interstellar travel is impossible. Probably the only beings from Earth to travel to the stars will be AI machines. They are perfectly suited for the environment and distances of outer space.

    • I think the SW aeroplane metaphor goes back further than that. As well as the ocean liner, there was also the barnstormer – you can see both in EE Doc Smith’s books.

      I don’t know that we need to get back to the science, but we do need to understand what tropes we are using and why we are using them. I like the fact that some tropes have baggage, and I can use that baggage to interrogate something unrelated to the trope itself.

    • Hello James and Ian,
      Sorry, but I have to disagree on one point… humans will be able to travel to the stars (on the assumption they don’t destroy themselves first). I’m currently in the middle of writing a novel that explains how, though the genesis of the idea has been published in one of shorts. What I do agree with is that the population of the stars will be a slow process compared with the science fiction tropes of SW and ST. (Just hoping my beta readers don’t read this ‘cos it’ll spoil the surprise for them.)

      • Rosie, I think it’s still possible for humans to colonize the galaxy, I just think it will be damn slow. We’re finding out there’s a lot more rocks between the stars. It might be possible to jump from pebble to pebble all the way to the stars. I still have hopes for generational ships. Plus I think there might be novel methods like sending DNA sequencers and building humans at the end of the trip.

        I just think the magical warp drive is tired. It’s being used as a crutch to get to the action quickly, where slow and easy might win this race.

        • Hello James and Ian,
          Generation ships are what I call a high risk strategy because we can’t be sure how the next generation will actually turn out.
          Even if the technology exists for sending DNA templates and building humans at the other end, there is still the nurture of the humans to consider i.e. how and what they are learn, as well as ensuring the humans become mature. So I would consider this a very high risk strategy.
          But definitely agree with you about the magical warp drive being tired.

  3. I see the argument you’re making, and agree with it, by and large. Still I’m going to intervene in what may seem to you (but doesn’t to me, ahem!) like a ferociously nitpicky way. Examples like ‘the Tie-Fighter is basically a WW2 fighter jet in space’, or your example of the GUI, are not ‘metaphors’; they are similes, metonymic extrapolations from the real world into the textual. Metaphor involves a conceptual leap, a jolt, a knight’s-move that startles or delights us. As such, it seems to me that metaphor is the possibility for countering Kincaidian exhaustion, not a symptom of it.

    Metaphor, I’d suggest, articulates an ironic, not a mimetic or linear, relationship between text and reality. Metaphor is the action when the bone in 2001 turns into a spaceship. It’s a way of refreshing our sense of the world and its possibilities, not a reification or calcification of those possibilities.

    I repeat: ahem!

    • But isn’t it – or wasn’t it – a conceptual leap from ocean liner to spaceship? Admittedly, given that the tradition of sf spaceships is based on sea travel, then it can be a spaceship is “like” an ocean liner. But when both are just placeholders in fiction for distance? Surely that’s a metaphorical relationship?

      I also don’t think a GUI works as a simile. It’s nothing like what lies underneath. It’s a completely new conceptual model which allows user to effect the same ends in a completely different fashion. By abstracting the computer hardware, it turns the computer into a black box.

  4. Wick! So what’s an example of a metaphor in 21st century SF where one end – the source domain/tenor/ground bit – is the spaceship-as-ocean-liner? What exactly is dangling on the opposite end?

    • There was an E Lily Yu (I think) story in Clarkesworld last year which sort of illustrated my point. The character operated their spaceship entirely through metaphor. John Clute’s Appleseed did something similar, albeit a while ago.

  5. Part of the problem lies with the publishing industry not wanting to take on anything that hasn’t got something similar out there already selling well as I argued in my recent post on the relationship between science and science fiction.
    Other parts of the problem are also covered in the same post… so all I’m going say is that I’m working hard on cracking this nut, along with several others. Considering the different backgrounds and where we (combined) can wield influence, I now think for the first time in many many years that we might be able to make a dent in the problem.

    • There’s always room for different, but it may be that the barrier to entry is set higher. Obviously, if you change things too much, you’ve moved out of commercial sf’s comfort zone, and that’s going to have an impact. But some forms of sf – literary, for example – relish those sorts of changes. You just have to be several degrees better a writer to get published.

      • Hello Ian,
        The SF I write post a certain story is really that different and some more, but all based on feasible physics… and that means I’m out of the commercial sf’s comfort zone by parsecs… literary sf does not deal with ‘logical’ consequences of physics, but style and mechanism of portrayal of the story. So literary sf has to be based on what is to some extent already accepted as ideas in sf, or the reader will not appreciate the art form to the full.

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