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Musings, #5: Hard Science Fiction, Hard Heads

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“So I wrote a jokey Mundane Manifesto.…In a reference to The Bonfire of the Vanities, I called this the Bonfire of the Stupidities.”
    —Geoff Ryman

A thought or two about “Hard” and “Mundane” science fiction:

First off, we should be fairly sure we know what those terms are usually taken to mean, which is no mean feat because the older standard phrase “Hard SF” seems most often to follow the Humpty Dumpty Rule of meaning whatever the speaker (or writer) wants it to mean. But for the much newer term “Mundane SF”, we have the founders’ own words; assuming Wikipedia has gotten them at least essentially correct, they strike me at least (but some others, too, I think) as, to be blunt, pretty effing stupid.

The propositions of the Mundanes (what an incredibly apt designation), or whatever they like to be called, have severe problems on two levels. The first is surprising: sheer historical blockheadedness. It seems they subscribe, heart and soul, to the doctrine that we are far mightier of intellect than all who have gone before us; I say it seems so because I can imagine no other explanation for why they think it impossible that we—or, to be more exact, they—cannot possibly be repeating, for the Nth time, the mistake of the countless generations past who each firmly and clearly announced what was and was not possible, period the end, for all time.

Even since the advent of science and the technological era, generation after generation has assumed, with perfect arrogance, that they knew what was what. Not, perhaps, that they knew absolutely everything (though only a century ago young men were advised strenuously to avoid taking up physics, because there was essentially nothing significant new left to discover), but that they knew enough that the rest was merely filling in the corners. It truly boggles the mind (do not try this at home: experienced professional on closed course) to see not merely nominal adults, but adults whose professional life is—supposedly—deeply concerned with science, stating dogmatically what is and is not possible: not now, not in the near future, but in the middle and far future. Does no one ever learn anything?

How many, do you suppose, of the things we take for granted as an integral, unexceptional part of everyday life would have been called, a mere century ago, “impossible fantasies”? Think about it for a few minutes. Even today, right now, serious thoroughly credible and credentialled scientists are saying that some of the many things the Mundanes deride in their “Manifesto” are very real possibilites. (Just to pick one arbitrary example off the heap, see J. Richard Gott’s book Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe; or do a Google search for “many worlds” physics. And not only is our modern world filled with what were “impossibilities” a century ago, but the very pace of learning and building has accelerated substantially over that century, such that to say what is “impossible” to the science and technology of a century from now is even more insane than ever; merely to say what might remain impossible for a decade or two is taking a fairly big chance.

OK, most discussions in that area typically say the same things (though that makes the Mundanes’ pig-headedness all the more breath-taking). But if their inability to conceive breakthroughs in knowledge and the ensuing technology is a surprising problem, the second problem is much deeper and, to me, anyway, much more disturbing. It has to do with their basic business, the writing of fiction.

The Manifesto—ah, but let’s take a moment out just to consider that word. Where do we usually find the word, and with what associations? Politics: radical politics; would-be revolutionaries are enamored of issuing “manifestos” (things like Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto or Bellegarrigue’s Anarchist Manifesto). And it doesn’t take much examination to see that the Mundanes have an agenda much more political than artistic, points such as “That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth” making that abundantly clear. Now everyone has a right, within very broad limits, to a political opinion: but it is when political agendas are being passed off as artistic principles that the segment of public to whom they are being presented has a right to cry foul. If you want to address political issues, be honest and write pamphlets; if you want to write fiction, shut up and let your works do the talking. B. Traven—who, incidentally, wrote some science fiction—had the right idea.

Anyway: the Mundanes’ “manifesto” refers to various tropes of the field as “wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.” And there, neatly encapsulated, is the crux of the Mundanes’ second and biggest problem. Whoever gave them the incredible idea that science fiction is or of right ought to be chiefly or very much at all concerned with “serious speculation about a possible future”?

Such grotesque blindness as to purposes and ends says a very great deal about not only the Mundanes, but all those fellow travellers concerned with the sacred principles of “Hard SF”, who—as Professor Tolkien mockingly put it—liked to have books filled with things they already knew set out fair and square with no contradictions. Such folk have little need of and, apparently, less understanding of the things for which serious fiction is done. I have elsewhere here spent not a few electrons trying to make plain some of those things, but for the reader possibly chance come upon this page, let me recapitulate the principles. Meaningful fiction is always about us, here, now. When it is set somewhere other than here or sometime other than now, it is nonetheless wrestling with the timeless, placeless questions of what it means to be human, of the nature of, as Douglas Adams famously and charmingly put it, Life, the Universe, and Everything. We want to understand: fiction allows us to live a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand various lives, experience as many different things and different viewpoints about those things, and so learn as much as this or that author can help us to understand about our eternal questions.

(That does not mean that all fiction needs to be serious, and thus, by implication, somber; some of the world’s greatest fiction is hilarious. But even—some would say especially—humor teaches us things as it entertains us, for what we find funny, and why, are themselves illuminating considerations.)

“Hard” (and “Mundane”) science fiction is, instead, focussed not on the fiction but on the science. It is an awful, cockamamie idea of what science fiction, or speculative fiction in general, is all about. It reflects what I have elsewhere called a “Gus’s Garage in Outer Space” mentality: it assumes that our interest in reading science fiction is absorbing the author’s brilliantly clever ideas of gadgetry and its near future. Boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, if I want real science, I’ll get it from real scientists writing honest science fact, not speculations wrapped in as thin a fictive gauze veil as that of the Gus’s Garage stories. If I want genuine speculation on the wonders of the universe, Brian Greene and Michio Kaku and Lee Smolin and Paul Davies and a small army of others have produced stacks of eminently readable and thoroughly fascinating books.

What science fiction is about is what fiction in general is about. Science fiction is—ideally, at any rate—a category of fiction in which the author has posited technologies or laws of nature not presently extant or known or even believed possible, so as to create a milieu for his or her characters to interact with one another and life (and themselves, for that matter) which milieu allows that author to more easily or better shine light on such thoughts about being human as he or she has to offer.

The crux there is that the exact quality of those posited differences really does not matter at all to the tale and its quality: the only constraint is that the author present them in a way that does not fracture our “willing suspension of disbelief”, which presentation is really more a matter of authorial skill than any inherent plausibility or implausibility in the ideas. (To take an example from fantasy, consider Who Censored Roger Rabbit?)

If, to anticipate some replies, one holds that any posited technology or law (or variation of law) whatever that is not completely within what present-day science contemplates—that is, that is not something that we are sure, right now, today, that we could build given time and money enough—is an automatic smasher of “willing suspension of disbelief” suggests to me a pitifully fragile capability for the suspension of readerly disbelief, which is to say for the reading and appreciation of any fiction beyond the pamphlet level.

In short, science fiction is fiction enabled by science, not science presented in a fictive dressing gown.

And if that is anything close to truth, then such schools as “Mundane Science Fiction” are nonsenses, nonsenses piled on to obscure what is a political agenda rather than a set of artistically interesting or useful principles. Is Gulliver’s Travels to be consigned to the nearest dumpster as valueless and uninteresting because the events it portrays are “unlikely”? Were Olaf Stapledon or H. G. Wells hacks indulging “juvenile wish fulfillment”?

Or is perhaps the other way round? Perhaps it is a fascination with “fiction” about gadgets and technology and machines, coupled rigidly to a dislike bordering on fear of fiction that deals with strong and deep adult human emotion, that is juvenile? Hm?

Just some thoughts…

Let me add a sort of postscript here. Please note carefully that nowhere up above do I state or imply that a tale that relies on no science other than either what we already consider that we know, or on only modest and largely unexceptionable extrapolations from those “certainties”, is somehow lacking in merit per se. If that is the science that best suits the author’s needs in presenting us with whatever insights or experiences of the human condition that he or she wants to offer, well and good, and the tale will—as always—stand or fall on the success the author has in the general business of tale-telling. My philippic is concerned with those authors, and their readers, for whom it is a matter of doctrine, not artistic necessity, that no science involved in the tale exceed the narrow bounds of our mere present-day limits on knowledge—and that, by implication (or express avowal), any fiction not wearing that standard-issue straitjacket is largely or wholly worthless or, worse, pernicious.

(Return to the full list of Musings.)

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