It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

All watched over by the machine-like prose of science fiction


In the first two episodes of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis lays the blame for the current economic crisis and last century’s ecological crisis on ideas propagated by two works of science fiction masquerading as non-fiction. The first is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a frankly risible book, whose philosophy of Objectivism led to decades of fiscal mismanagement and economic blunders. The second is Eugene P Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, which posited a deeply-flawed model of nature and society that corrupted several branches of science and technology for much of the twentieth century.

And while it may be stretching a point, given that Atlas Shrugged was a work of fiction but Fundamentals of Ecology claimed to be scientific non-fiction, I have to wonder how healthy has been science fiction’s magpie and indiscriminate approach to scientific and pseudo-scientific theories through the decades. Not just John W Campbell’s championing of Dianetics, or even L Ron Hubbard’s creation of Scientology, but also, for example, Jack Vance basing his The Languages of Pao on the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis. In fact, it might be said that science fiction has been little more than a delivery mechanism for bad ideas to impressionable members of society.

It could be argued, in other words, that science fiction is, and always has been, intellectually bankrupt.

But is this really surprising? Remember how the genre began, as a predictive and didactic mode of fiction invented by Hugo Gernsback, the author of Ralph 124C 41+ and publisher of several home electronics magazines. Science fiction is essentially prescriptive – it takes ideas and from them defines plot and world. The idea may be a thought experiment, albeit one that’s in service to a plot, but thought experiments built on flawed concepts cannot generate useful results.

Science fiction, unlike mimetic fiction, has never been observational. It models, rather than presents empirical evidence. It is machine-fiction, built upon calculated extrapolation from an initial position, presenting simplified conclusions drawn from simplified data sets. Because it seeks to explain.

I’ve written before of hard limits in science – these are not hypotheses or inventions, but known physical laws and theories, like gravity, chemical reactions, the speed of light… Our understanding of how chemicals react may change, but that altered understanding will not affect the amount of energy generated when two specific chemicals are mixed together. Likewise, no matter what we learn about the universe, the distances between stars will remain unchanged and, at present, far beyond our current ability to cross. There is room within the genre for fictions predicated on this approach to science and technology. Marry it with a mimetic mode of fiction, a mode which is first and foremost observational, and perhaps you have a new direction for the genre, or a new sub-genre.

Call it “hard-limits science fiction”.


12 thoughts on “All watched over by the machine-like prose of science fiction

  1. Very interesting. Not sure I agree that the difference between SF & mainstream lit. is that the former ‘models’ reality (all literature does that; Dickens’s novel model London for instance); the difference is SF’s love of ‘teh awesome’, the mind-blowing, sense-of-wonder, the sublime & transcendent. So what matters to most SF is not whether an idea us true but whether it is cool. Which is exactly what you’re talking about here.

    • Perhaps then the difference is that mainstream’s model is built from empirical evidence, whereas sf’s model is prescriptive.

      But yes, the coolness of an idea often seems to blind sf writers to the idea’s plausibility or usefulness.

  2. Eh…no. What really matters to most SF readers is internal consistency – of both the plot and the sci-fi maguffin (if said maguffin is important to the plot). Unlike almost any other genre, SF has for its heroes scientists, which gives the scientific method a heroic glamour. In an age of shameless fundamentalist/creationist twaddle, this is no bad thing.

    • Sf has not had scientist heroes since the 1950s. Now they’re all special forces commandos and battleship captains.

      And I’d suggest internal consistency has never been high on the genre’s agenda. These days immersion is valued highly, but you don’t need an internally-consistent universe to provide that.

  3. But thats the difference between fantasy and SF – SF is based usually in some version of the rational universe, which displays rational cause and effect, whereas fantasy can bend and break that linear chain of events. Immersion or no, consistency of cause and effect is the keystone of SF, and while you might not see many scientist heroes today, their technogadgetry is all-pervasive in our stories.

    • A lot of modern epic fantasy has entirely rational-seeming magic systems. The fact that cause and effect don’t follow known natural laws doesn’t make them inconsistent. I think the chief difference is a demand on sf’s part for its universe to be open to explanation: it does this because

      Which doesn’t invalidate my point about sf’s tendency to pick bad ideas, or misinterpret ideas, or simply expect an idea to carry more weight than it is capable of… which in Rand’s case at least has proven dangerous in the real world. (And possibly also in the case of Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land or Starship Troopers…)

  4. Another example that comes to mind is ‘Three Go Back’ by Scottish writer James Leslie Mitchell, in which three ‘present day’ (ie, 1930s) adventurers accidentally find themselves back in prehistoric times where the ‘noble savage’ stands in all his glory. Mitchell, who is far better known under his pen-name Lewis Grassic Gibbon for ‘A Scots Quair’ (and, in particular, the first book ‘Sunset Song’) was – like many people after the horrors of the First World War – taken up by the belief that human society and the path of technology had been a terrible bad move, and that we had lost a non-biblical Eden as a result.

  5. Not another sub-genre….

    Isn’t this just a variation on Mundane SF?

  6. If SF did anything in the era of US expansion, it just enticed youngsters into science. From then on, they actually had to undergo the training that would make them real scientists. Otherwise their scientific careers would be rather short unless they went the way of woo gurus. The case of Greenspan was a glaring exception — but then economics is voodoo, not science.

    Hard-limits SF has been on the books for a long time, written primarily by authors who are real scientists or engineers by day.

    Incidentally, your argument was also used to prohibit “impressionable young girls” from reading novels. The trick is not to make rotten fruit tempting by forbidding it but to train minds to recognize dross.

  7. P. S. Authors who are real scientists and engineers are not automatically good writers, of course. In fact, some of the worst SF comes from the “hard” side. Plus, as I said in one of my articles, hard SF is mostly sciency and its relationship to science is that of truthiness to truth. The talent, if the author has it, is to clothe the scienciness with the illusionary garment of authenticity — and make the characters engaging enough that their fates matter to the reader more than the obvious non-fact of FTL.

  8. Agreed – Bob Forward, for example. The best bits of his books are the scientific appendices and lists of references at the back, where he sets out the maths behind how to build gravity catapults, or time machines, or terawatt lasers to propel light-sails to Barnard’s Star…

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