Monday, October 19, 2009

By Special Request: War on Sci Fi

So, whilst I was off being a good little grad student, apparently there was a Thing in the blogosphere about this fun little rant. By special request of RRRJessica, here's my take on the subject:

He's got a point.

Wait! Stop! Before you fire up the hate mail, I should probably clarify that a bit. There is a valid point in there. It's a tiny little thing; like most points it is 0-dimensional, lacking depth, width, and breadth, and is easily missed in the massive Calabi-Yau manifold of fail that makes up most of the post and would force us to use specialized mathematics to determine its true extent.'s a point that should be dealt with before dismissing the rest of the article as the sincere troll that it is.

Science fiction has, for several generations now, been one of the bigger sources of inspiration for the engineers and scientists in our society. There isn't much wiggle room there: anecdotes and studies both seem to agree that sci-fi, while not necessarily a determining factor, is certainly a critical factor in motivating many of the people who end up in those fields. So sci-fi, whatever it may be now, does have a history of pushing kids in the direction of curiosity and discovery that is so important to keeping them going through the decades of training that are now required before most researchers can even dream of making any sort of significant contribution to their fields. Hyperspecialization sucks folks, and if you're going to put in the investment of essentially all of your time for your entire life, there better be some kind of idea to grasp tightly and don't-let-go when your eyes are blurring over the latest dataset to process at 3AM. In the sciences, that role is often filled by sci-fi.

But the question is, does sci-fi now do what it did for several generations in the 20th century? Certainly, sci-fi has changed. In general, I'd agree with the observation that it has become more character-oriented as the decades went by–it's even visible in the course of the careers of individual writers, as I hinted at in a writeup on Asimov's work a little while ago. But that's not the question; the question is if those changes have damaged the utility of sci-fi in general. I don't have any convenient answers for that one, other than to say that I find the whole invasion of the gays and women angle from that article to be ridiculous at best.

I would, though, suggest one way I can think of that it could be making sci-fi less effective than it used to be. The most successful people–in any field–often have a certain degree of monomania in their personalities. Golden Age sci-fi, whatever else it may have been, was usually characterized by a highly focused storyline and world that I suspect made/makes it more attractive to those personalities. Modern sci-fi is much more aware of character and relationship and may not be as interesting to the sort of personality that doesn't want to wade through all that other crap to get to the stuff that inspires and motivates them. (It would be easy to generalize that into being a geek-thing, and maybe it is to a degree, but monomania is a feature of successful people in a variety of areas, not just science and engineering.) So, in making the product less attractive to the potential pool of future contributors, yeah, maybe it does hurt the cause a bit.

But I would also point out at least two caveats to that idea. The first is that even Golden Age sci-fi was almost never just about science and math. While the most basic formula started out with the author imagining a new technology, the key was that they then extrapolated an entire world (or more) based on the impact of that technology on society. In the very best sci-fi, the technology really only acts as a setting through which the author can explore humans. Kirk may have gotten all the (green) girls, but Spock was the icon of the original Star Trek because he was the one that was outside of humanity and could act as a proxy for the viewer who was trying to understand the strange new worlds Roddenberry was creating. 1984 and Brave New World featured unusual technologies, but they were really about unusual societies. My favorite sci-fi series, The Beggars Trilogy, was written in the 90's (by a woman, Mr. Spearhead!) and followed this same formula. So sci-fi has never been just about the technology, and maybe monomania just isn't a factor; but then again, the societies and technologies were so inextricably connected that it could be that they would both be considered as extensions of the same tunnel vision concept. I'm not sure that would apply as powerfully to the focus on character and interpersonal relationships that is so common in sci-fi now.

The second caveat is that, while I might acknowledge that something has been lost, I'd also have to look at what is gained by strengthening character relationships. The sci-fi stories I mentioned in the last paragraph are significant because they not only posit new societies, but also because they critically examine the ethical ramifications of the cultures and technologies they discuss. Obviously the ones I mentioned have all been successful to varying degrees, and for the most part it's because they take the standard sci-fi formula and then add in enough empathy to reach readers and get them to truly understand what it means to, say, be a genetically-engineered super human in a world that fears you. It's an integrative aspect that differentiates significant, world-changing science fiction from pulp sci-fi about guys with fancy guns and spaceships.

Character and empathy, human relationships? That sounds a lot like what this guy is complaining about...and yet, it's what made all of this classic sci-fi, well, classic. Why would you then complain about those features growing in the modern realm of sci-fi? Of course there will be cases when it does nothing but add emo-drama to an otherwise perfectly good book, but more character and more empathy really just means that there is more opportunity for really good sci-fi. The sci-fi is not going to be the same as it used to be, but really, how can anything improve if it never changes?

I've pretty much ignored what the guy in the original article wrote, and I'm sure a lot of my arguments above have already been mentioned in the blogsplosion that I didn't have time to read. Mr. Spearhead reads like a bad parody, and my general philosophy is to avoid feeding the trolls. But while gender may be a bad way to slice the data, I do think that the changes in sci-fi will make it more or less attractive to people with certain personality characteristics. Frankly, I'd much rather have somebody who is capable of integrating science and society doing the research of the future than some of the tunnel-vision types that have been at the switch in the past. Maybe if there was more banking fiction we could have avoided a lot of problems lately.


annmariegamble said...

I don't think it's as simple as saying "it's gotten more character-focused"--or I think it's more accurate to say "it's gotten more inclusive of the biological sciences." Now, call me a biochemistry major, but some of the more mind-bending of modern scientific discoveries have come from biology--the physiology of memory, for example, or the mutability of DNA expression. There are certainly bot and borg storylines that come from such discoveries, but stories about altered personal interactions are a natch.

Secondly, I've been watching some older sci fi TV shows, and I think perhaps the changes are only a quest for new storylines, not girlie influences: the old classics look a little dated, or at least, no longer new. How many times do we hash over the possibilities of near-light-speed travel or parallel universes before we move on to other developments? Warp drive, I get it, what else is this show about?

orannia said...

Fascinating post - thank you! I'm going to have to find the original article that set the internet aflame...yes, I have had my head in the sand of late :-)

John said...

Orannia: the link to the original article is at the beginning of my post.

Annmariegamble: I'd certainly agree that the biosciences have gotten a lot more recognition in sci-fi lately, and I can see your point that this shift would prompt more personal narratives than the old physics-based raygun sci-fi. I don't think that would tell the whole story though; even sci-fi that doesn't deeply explore bioscience has become more interested in personal stories than it used to be. In addition to bioscience, though, I'd also say that sci-fi has also gotten more interested in social sciences lately, which might have a similar effect. (I'd differentiate between social sciences and the outright political content of, say, 1984.)

I'm sure that part of the driving force behind the change is also the search for new plots that you mention. I might question whether or not they're actually finding new plots in relationship drama (pretty much the oldest plot there is) but the combination with sci-fi is new-ish, at least. But I think it really comes down to the writing being a reflection of the culture. Golden Age sci-fi was mostly written in a very optimistic era where a lot of Western culture was buying into a dream of unlimited technological progress...better living through atomic energy and such, very black and white. The current culture doesn't think that way though; even if people still believe in continuous technological growth, the growth is thought to be complex with wider implications and unintended consequences (environmental movement, moral justice, economics, etc). In order to show those conflicts the literature had to become complex as well, introducing the sort of gray characters that require more depth to understand.

suzie said...

Great post. Very well thought out. I'm a sucker for girlie love stories so I have to say while the whole space odyssey of BSG was fun, I was riveted by Lee and Starbuck's relationship more than anything else. I probably wouldn't have been a fan without the intense character relationships.

Spudly said...

I don't think this Spearhead guy is bugged so much by stories that focus on character. Sci-Fi is pretty much meaningless if it doesn't explore how all these new possibilities will impact the people who live in these fantastic worlds.

What I think bugs this guy is the Hollywood style focus on sex, and hormonally-driven romance and such. There is nothing more pedantic than rehashing a set of themes that already dominate other genres, have genres that are entirely their own and have been around for centuries. SciFi is about new ideas and new possibilities (that many works of so called "SciFi" fail this standard even without the romance is beside the point, thats a whole other problem.)

That the guy chose to cast this as a case of "women ruining a man's genre" is unfortunate as most of the responses on other blogs focus on that and ignore the more valid point the guy is struggling in vain to make. I really appreciate this blog for catching that more valid point and actually responding to it, I found the response to be thoughtful and well considered.