Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fads and Fashions In Science Fiction

I've read the blogposts"Cory Doctorow, the Singularity and Progressive history"
"What if the Singularity Doesn't Happen?"
(on the blog Stone Dead Parrot)... and it got me thinking about fads and fashions in genre fiction.

Science fiction has its own catalogue of fads and fashions. "The Singularity" is but a recent one. It also reminds me about other sci-fi fads which have come and gone in the past... and often, in hindsight, caused embarrassment.

Examples of past "fads and fashions" in SF:

1. "Psi powers" (Hey kids! You can have super powers by just wishing for them!)

2. "Intelligent life on Mars" (Real soon now, the Martians will make a noise! Any... moment... now.)

3. "Faster-Than-Light space travel" (We can enter hyperspace! Just add Handwavium.)

4. "Evil intelligent computers take over the world" (There is no spoon -- and no Windows blue screens!)

All science-fiction fads, when you look back at them, seem naive. They are invariably rooted in the wishful thinking and cultural anxieties of their time and audience. But they were popular because they offered a phony wish-fulfilment "solution" to real problems, or articulated an irrational anxiety.

Real problem:
The reader, though intelligent and educated, is physically puny and gets sand kicked in his face by stronger, dumber guys.
SF "Solution":
Psi powers ("I may look weak on the outside, but I have hidden mental powers!").

Real anxiety:
Where are the aliens?
SF "Solution": There is intelligent life on Mars (despite zero evidence to prove it).

Real problem:
Space is enormously huge. Traveling to other stars would take hundreds or thousands of years.
SF "Solution": Faster-Than-Light space travel (Ask Star Trek fans how the warp drive works. Yes, really. Ask them.).

Real anxiety:
People who don't understand computers are scared of them, and fear losing their jobs to automation.
SF articulation of anxiety: Evil intelligent computers take over the world (despite zero evidence of this actually happening).

Real anxiety:
You're going to die.
SF "Solution": When the Singularity comes, we'll all be uploaded into a giant computer network and live forever as digitized souls.

It's not that I dislike using one's imagination -- far from it. But when SF readers and writers confuse "If Only" with "For Sure," you get embarrassments like "psi powers" and "the Singularity Movement"... or the "Super Adventure Fun Club" (created by a science-fiction writer). People start mistaking obvious fictions for future reality. Intellectual speculation becomes Manifest Destiny.

The tell-tale sign of this kind of infatuation with a make-believe idea is that the "believer" lacks a sense of humor and/or irony about it.
The fault lies not so much with the fiction itself, as with the way it is being read and "sold."

Of course it's perfectly okay and legal to write free fantasies -- add as many fire-breathing dragons as you want. But let's label it properly: Fantasy. (And it won't hurt to have a sense of humor, too.)


the inventor said...

A plan to save the space shuttle and thousands of jobs.


Mark said...

It may not be based on any real problem, but in reading some old SF lately, it struck me how often in the old days, the intelligent computer would make impossibly precise probability predictions. E.g., "The reactor core now has a 78.6 percent chance of exploding..."

I think the SF fads are not just lazy solutions to the problem du jour, they are the result of writers copying other famous writers. And of editors choosing stories that are similar to what's already popular.

A.R.Yngve said...

Good point. Popularity begets popularity. And I don't blame editors -- they obviously need to keep an eye on popular trends to stay in business.

I wonder what the next Big Thing in SF is going to be? (Wild & Crazy Suggestion: the "Abolish DNA Movement." Writers and readers propagate the idea that to make the Human Spirit truly free, we must cast off the shackles of DNA.)

Anonymous said...

I think the Mundane SF folks are kind of missing the point here. Couple of things:

1) There's no such thing as "Mundane SF", really. If you really wanted to be mundane, and avoid all wish-fulfillment, then you can't write SF at all. You write mainstream fiction.

2) There's no reason that fantastic SF should be considered harmful. People in real life know that there's no such thing as Warp drive, teleportation, etc. Anybody except those few people who can't distinguish fantasy from realit realize that those things are just cherished, but unrealistic tropes. Reading about Warp drive is no more "harmful" than reading about children attending a wizard school.

3) This entire thing rings of elitism and of an attempt by some Science-Fiction authors to give themselves a reason to stare down their noses at other authors.

At some point you have to ask yourself, "Why are I writing SF?" If your goal is to be as realistic and un-fantastic as possible, you might be better off writing techno-thrillers, after the manner of Tom Clancy, rather than trying to call what you write Science Fiction.

A.R.Yngve said...

I think SF should be wildly imaginative. But resorting to tropes makes the genre less, not more imaginative.

Tropes also make it too easy to ignore the consequences of using them. Take an amazing device like, say, faster-than-light travel. It could have many interesting -- and quite creative -- consequences. But it has mainly been used only to get a character from Star A to Star B faster... i.e. as a trope, a convention... a bit like those "555" area codes you see in movies.

If one explored the creative possibilities of FTL -- time paradoxes, how to get the energy for travel and the consequences of that -- then you might get a really interesting, intellectually challenging story.

No, I'm not looking down my nose. There is no "elite."

A common strategy of shrugging off criticism among SF fans is to conjure up a non-existent "conspiracy of elitists," working to undermine the genre for no reason whatsoever. I'll have to call bullshit on that one. SF literature is already very successful, but tired old tropes are not helping; they are not evolving the genre.

Please, Anonymous, do write a creative and original story about mind-reading... or undiscovered life on Mars! It can be done, and done well, with some creative effort and originality. Make the the reader actually think about a subject such as teleportation, and see it in a new and fascinating way.

But if you're lazy, and you use the subjects as tropes, without thinking about them or exploring how they change the (fictional) world you're writing, your story might just turn out bad... not to mention dull.