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Science fiction: last bastion of the rational?

22 Comments

In 1930, Hugo Gernsback wrote, “Not only is science fiction an idea of tremendous import, but it is to be an important factor in making the world a better place to live in, through educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life which, even today, are not appreciated by the man on the street.”

I’ve never subscribed to the view that science fiction should be didactic or predictive. To me, sf is a literary mode – not a teaching tool, not futurism. Yes, any science in a sf text needs to be accurate and rigorous, but it’s only there to enable the plot.

But.

Given some of the outright bollocks being perpetuated by the right in both the US and UK, I have to wonder if it’s time science fiction should play a didactic role. In the US, the education boards of some states are planning to remove all references to evolution from school textbooks. In the UK, some national newspapers repeatedly publish pieces claiming Anthropogenic Global Warming is nothing more than a conspiracy by a handful of scientists desperate for funding. (And just look at the outright lies perpetrated by far-right web sites such as the Conservapedia.)

Scientific conversation is being swamped by right-wing politics. The right does not believe in the politics of debate, but the politics of exclusion. They’re not presenting an alternative view, they’re telling you that their view is the correct one. Despite all evidence to the contrary. And they insist their view is correct because their view is the one that perpetuates their privilege. The right is oligarchic and its politics exist solely to maintain that oligarchy.

This is reflected to some extent in genre fiction. The rational worldview at the core of science fiction is disappearing from the shelves of book shops. Those shelves are now dominated by fantasy novels. And the politics of fantasy tends to the oligarchic and autocratic – all those empires and kingdoms, all those Peasant Heroes and Dark Lords. Mind you, much space opera and military sf is no different – and in many ways no less rational than fantasy. Perhaps this has been partly driven by media sf, which has been chiefly fantastical since 1977.

I put this down to a confusion over sf tropes. They’re not the be-all and end-all of the genre. They’re not setting. They exist to enable the plot. Incorporate them solely as background, as a pandering to the current desire for immersion in secondary worlds and… well, doesn’t that lead to readers turning their back on this world?

When Geoff Ryman founded the Mundane SF Movement in 2002, I saw it only as a bunch of sf writers throwing the best toys out of science fiction’s pram. When Jetse de Vries called for sf to be optimistic in 2008, I didn’t really understand as, to me, the genre was neither pessimistic nor optimistic.

But it occurred to me recently that these two attempts to change how science fiction thinks about itself are themselves symptomatic of the erosion of the scientific worldview in the public arena. By excluding the more fanciful, the more fantastical, tropes in sf, Mundane SF forces writers and readers to engage with known science and a scientific view of the world. And optimistic fiction, by focusing on “possible roads to a better tomorrow”, acknowledges that situations exist now which require solutions. It forces us to look at those situations, to examine the world and not rely on a two-thousand-year-old fantasy novel, or the opinions of the scientifically-ignorant, for our worldview.

I’m not suggesting all sf writers should immediately start writing their twenty-first versions of Ralph 124C 41+. Nor that all fantasy writers must immediately cease and desist, and write optimistic Mundane sf instead. What I am saying is, that as readers and writers of genre fiction, we should perhaps begin to question how the public perception of our world is formed, and refuse to perpetuate the same lies and inaccuracies. We must examine our world more rigorously, we must examine the worlds we create more rigorously.

I’m horrified by the thought of an entire generation thinking there must be a god because they cannot conceive of any other way for the Earth, or humanity, to have come about. I’m frightened that the nations of this planet will not work together to prevent the climate from crashing because they believe it will never happen. I’m scared that the world is turning into a place in which orthodoxy dominates all media. I don’t want to live in a world in which I am told what to think.

And yes, there have even been a few science fiction novels written about that very situation.

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22 thoughts on “Science fiction: last bastion of the rational?

  1. It has always seemed to me that SF has been predominately left wing in it’s views. Scientific conversation (at least in the media) might well be swamped with right-wing politics but I don’t think SF is (or in danger of being).

    Whatsmore, I think that we must guard against the fallacy that our conclusions are the most rational simply because they are drawn from the most rational scientific position. i.e. That an acceptance of evolutionary theory means a rejection of religous faith, that the fact of Anthropogenic global warming means we should collectively attempt to stop/reverse it.

    SF can and should attempt to explore all avenues of possibility, all possible solutions, not merely what some (or most) deem the most “rational”.

  2. In the UK, there’s been a tradition of left-wing thought in sf, but I wouldn’t say the entire genre is “predominantly left wing” – on either side of the Atlantic.

    Not sure what you mean by “we must guard against the fallacy that our conclusions are the most rational simply because they are drawn from the most rational scientific position”. By definition, the most rational position will give the most rational conclusions. And an acceptance of evolution will mean a rejection of “intelligent design”. You can’t have to both ways.

    A scientific worldview may not be incompatible with religion, but when the two are at odds it seems foolish to make decisions based on the unsupported-by-evidence view of religion. But then I haven’t said the most rational view should always be proposed, only that the rational should be examined in preference to the irrational.

  3. Ok, I should just say that the majority of SF that I have read, from either side of the Atlantic, has been predominately left wing. But if your reading experiences tell you otherise, I defer to your superior judgement.

    And which scientific theory is the most rational to adopt is one thing, and how to act as a consequence of that theory being accepted as fact is quite another. Something that many people seem to forget.

    Personally, I fully agree with evolutionary theory (and am an athiest for that matter) but wouldn’t go as far as Dawkins does in condemning religous faith. Also, I accept that humans are contributing to global warming but don’t necessarilly agree that governments should collectively attempt to curtail such activities.

    I don’t want to get into a debate about those issues here, I’m only trying to make the point that there’s an important distinction there that is often overlooked.

  4. I think you’re confusing the term “theory” as used in science or philosophy. (I never used the word “theory” in my post.)

    My point is that there is a rational, scientific worldview – upon which most sf is based – and there is a non-rational, non-scientific worldview – which much right-wing politics is doing its best to promote. And that by popularising sf, we can help stem the tide of willful ignorance, lies and misinformation.

  5. Hard SF is certainly right-wing in its outlook, verging on fascistic with its fascination for warfare, hardware and blatant xenophobia.

    Your essay, without bombast or finger-pointing, makes some thoughtful points on the state of a genre we both love…and wring our hands over. When it’s good, SF can transport you past the meanness of your existence and take you far from the safe confines of familiarity. It is the one genre in fiction that can transform, perhaps even (in rare, gorgeous cases) TRANSFIGURE. The best sci fi writing is truly exotic, otherworldly.; penned by someone not quite of this Earth. But when it’s bad, the field reduces itself to media tie-ins, convention, cliche, semi-literacy.

    I’m not sure alleged new sub-genres like “mundane” and “New Weird” will save us but I positively QUAVER at the “aesthetic” of fans coming to the genre because of crap they’ve seen on television and movies, fans of “Battlestar Galactica”, “The Transformers”, “Cloverfield” and “Lost” dictating tastes.

    As serious readers, as critical thinkers and reviewers, we have to better identify and promote the work of authors who push the envelope, thematically and stylistically, and take the genre to breath-taking new heights. These days, there are fewer bookstores, far less shelf space (and almost all of it devoted to mass market trash). Through the wonders of cyberspace, the community-building it affords, (ex. the existence of smart sites like this one), we can help ensure the cream still has a chance to rise to the top, regardless of what the future of publishing/book-selling might be.

    Encouraging and promulgating good SF, rightwing OR leftwing in tone,
    is the important thing. I don’t care if a particular scribbler’s a fascist or a granola-chewing hippie, I just hope they can fucking WRITE.

  6. There’s the power-hungry wingnut Right and there’s the Dominionist tendencies; both are usually biblical literalists and thus Creationists. Intelligent Duhsign is not just an attack on Darwinian evolution, its an attack on the scientific method. And it seems to me that it is the scientific method which lies at the heart of rational SF, whether its mundane or cyberpunk or space opera. It is the concept of the rational universe, that it can be understood in a rational, linear-causality way, which is the foundation of science fiction. Take it away, and you have – fantasy.

    I realise I’m employing generalisations but I believe that this is the core argument. Hard SF, just because it focusses on strict, plausible extrapolation from current tech, isn’t instrinsically right-wing. But like other currents in the SF flow, it hews to the rational, cause-and-effect universe, which is a good thing since it is human reason allied to human compassion (and creativity) which will give us the solutions we need. The mindset of Intelligent Duhsign, on the other hand, will doom us.

  7. SF has always been diverse in its political views. From CHILDHOOD’S END or 1984, you can see two outcomes from a ‘big brother’ POV. They both reflect the political outlook of their times, but the science itself isn’t the pivot on which the political perspective hangs.
    The same holds true in Fantasy. Whether it’s a “Blodroodian blood spell of invisibility” in fantasy or a “NXR2-1 photon cloaking device” in SF, so much of so-called science is SF is just fakery to move the plot. Military SF is stuffed with it, so is space opera and many other subgenres.
    I suspect that the mundane and optimism movements may have in part been trying to bring more hard science back into SF, and step away from ‘gravity wave’ devices and photon blasters. None of that has much to do with the politics of the story. But if the plots rotate around a Star Wars struggle of good/evil or a Tolkien one, audiences aren’t paying attention very deeply to the framework anyway.
    Avatar is a great example. Best SF movie ever? Give me a break. The plot is a retread of so many stomped on cliches that you can only miss them if you let the visuals overwhelm you. Which audiences are happy to do.
    Where does that leave us writers who want to incorporate real science and theory into our stories? I guess we compete for their attention the best way we know how. I write hard SF because the science sets my imagination on fire. Period. I want to pass that on in good story telling regardless of my world view.

    If science is in danger, let’s excite people with it. I don’t think we should be tasked with saving the world from itself. If we can help readers understand the power of science, we’ve done a lot.

  8. >>The right does not believe in the politics of debate, but the politics of exclusion. They’re not presenting an alternative view, they’re telling you that their view is the correct one.<<

    The only inclusion and debate the left believes in is including those that dissent in with those sent to the mass graves, and debating what method to use to put those dissenters out of their misery…bullets? gas? plastic bags? or is it paper these days? Plastic being so passe, environmentally unfriendly and all that.

    • It’s a shame you don’t have the courage of your political convictions – or perhaps you would have signed your name to your comment.

      It’s also telling that your comment a) does not address the topic of the post, and b) contains only misinformation.

      It sort of proves my point, really.

      • I apologize, I read the first couple of paragraphs, and couldnt get past the hypocrisy contained within.

        You opined about how the right doesnt believe in inclusion, and debate, while espousing your view that there are opinions you find non-debatable.

        That the right doesnt debate they simply tell you that their view is the correct one, all the while you were doing the same. YOU know the answers, and the people that disagree are wrong…

        Yep, those evil right wingers are destroying science and science fiction, and I guess that leaves the left to save the day!!!

        Bullocks.

        The left is politicizing science and it just as bad as when the right does it. You simply seem blind to it when you agree with it…

        I do agree that SF is disappearing. It is disappearing because the public has lost its sense of wonder about the future. That is what SF in its most basic state is about, the future, always has been. Sure it is a tool, a device to tell a story, but at its bones….

        It doesnt have to teach, predict, or even inform. But it does have to tell a story and be entertaining while doing so. The problem is people look to the future and see nothing but death and debt. That their children will be worse off than they are.

        Both the left and the right have blame in that. “The world is being destroyed and it is your fault”, is all they hear from the left wing media. “The end is near and it is your fault” comes from the religious right (which tends to be neither right, nor religious) and its media. You perpetuated this in your posting.

        Instead of seeing the future as it is, brighter and better. People see the future as being brighter than today or yesterday, they see it as a cold dark place. It takes a special person to willingly go into the dark. Most will go the easy path and head to the shiny happy light that is the escapism of fantasy.

        To bring back SF you need to return the sense of wonder, of future to people. Not just in literature, but in life. Both sides need to find some sort of detente.

        Mainly so those of use that think both of the sides are full of it in alot of things can have some bloody peace.

        I hope that is closer to addressing your point (whatever it was).

        As to my name…I think I used a fine nom de guerre , my real name would mean nothing to you. Using it would neither add to, nor detract from, the conversation.

  9. I find it ironic that you object to my comments on the “politics of exclusion” and “politics of debate”, and yet refuse to read more than the first couple of paragraphs.

  10. I find it weird that anyone posting anonymously would bother to use a thinly disguised epithet for what (here anyway) is a fairly mild cussword.

    I mean: “Bullocks”? What’s the point of that?

    • It’s a common American misspelling, that arises from the fact that “bollocks” is not a common word on that side of the Atlantic.

  11. For the record though, Ian, I think if SF were to become “didactic” it would be terrible. No-one likes being preached to.

    “I’m horrified by the thought of an entire generation thinking there must be a god because they cannot conceive of any other way for the Earth, or humanity, to have come about.”

    C’mon, man, that’s far fetched and alarmist. An entire generation? Not here. Not even in the States. Not even in those parts of the States where these educational decisions are being made. These communities don’t live in isolation. They have the internet. They have syndicated TV shows. They have the ability to question, and that’s something people will always do.

    • Ah well, you’ve never lived in an Islamic country, and had conversations with people who have only been taught Creationism.

      Yes, the Internet can be a force for good – but what if people are taught that Wikipedia contains only lies and propaganda, but Conservapedia contains the truth?

    • People love being preached to. Look at the latest blockbuster in the doing the rounds right now, Avatar. So heavy-handed is the moralistic, brow-beating, it’s a wonder some of the audience don’t emerge from the cinema with a flat head, yet only a small minority of the audience complain.

  12. Ah, yes, those diabolical lefties with their oppression of dissent, narrowness of vision, and overbearing control of …. hmm, well, not very much, actually.

    Truth is that nearly all the major problems we face, locally, nationally and globally, directly result from the short-sighted arrogant policies of the Right. In my experience, right-wing politicians and pundits propound a narrow view of society and the individual, while those in the centre and the left actually do listen to a range of viewpoints – yes, even those from the right – and give them genuine, thoughtful consideration. Most of us on what could be called the Centre-Left do realise that a functioning democracy depends on a working consensus; trouble is that since 1979/80 that consensus has been steadily demolished, leaving the majority of the populace – the poor, the unemployed, the ordinary workers, single parents, etc – to cope with less and less while the wealthy elite grab more and more of the nation to themselves.

    You can pine for the sense of wonder in SF if you like, though I still see it regularly. We live in a consumerist semi-dystopia where generic sense-of-wonder has been worn out by repeated marketing; some even argue that certain elements of SF have been worn out and I can see a lot of sense in that. But – that trope erosion, if you will, is strongest in visual SF; in written SF, anything can be rejuvenated, provided the writer is skilled and clever and cunning enough.

    And seems to me that right-leaning, Yes-Sir!-SF writers lack a certain edge in their skill, cleverness and cunningness.

  13. Yeah, but some people will still question what they’re taught – especially those that come into proper contact with the rest of the world. Some won’t of course, but it’s a real leap to go from creationism being taught in some schools to an entire generation (world? western? american?) growing up in ignorance of evolution.

    There will always be raionalist texts and commentators. The idea that SF be the last bastion if rationalism is, for me, pinning too many medals on the chest of one fictional genre.

  14. Rejecting creationism does not make one a rationalist. Beware of deluding yourself that you’re rational just because you accept one rational idea.

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  16. Science-fiction literature could indeed be regarded as a thinking tool, but it could also help to build some sort of collective reflexivity and responsibility towards the future. For some complementary thoughts in a political theory perspective, see also: http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/2009/07/31/science-fiction-and-social-theory/

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