Thursday, 26 December 2013

A defence of science fiction.

I have a couple of friends who hate science fiction. They told me they don't like having to know a whole Bible of context before actually getting to the meat of the characters. And that is a perfectly legitimate criticism of the genre. Generally speaking Science Fiction and Fantasy won't have as much character development as other genres. Sometimes it will choose to focus on interesting characters (as evidenced by the television series Firefly) but for the most part they devote more time to develop the concept and universe they function in. I couldn’t tell you much about the main character in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and yet I am constantly singing its praises (much to the annoyance of all my friends). However some friends have still asked for recommendations from me despite disliking the genre.
In preparation for this essay I Googled why some people would hate Science Fiction (beyond the reasons mentioned). I ended up bumping into a blog post from 2007 that tried to explain the author’s disdain for the genre. It left me feeling frustrated and angry. Mostly because it revelled in the stereotype of sci-fi writers and fans (basement dwellers with questionable hygiene, it was all very original in its social satire). 
But there were a few criticisms that someone unfamiliar with the genre might have. So all the while I’ll be waving the flag of science fiction and making recommendations here and there. That said my recommendations might be limited by what I’ve read or watched myself.

Defining Science Fiction
This is a hard thing to write about. Science fiction covers a vast array of topics and unlike its sibling genre fantasy it sometimes chooses to define its fantastical elements with real world logic rather than an invented logic. From a young age I was told that science fiction is about humanities fears about science. Well that can be true, a classic example of this is Frankenstein, a scientist makes a breakthrough discovery but neglects to take responsibility for it and said discovery runs amok. But one the flip side you have science fiction that doesn’t chastise science. Star Trek for instance is all about a positive view of the future and technology. So now we’re back to square one.
I find a much better definition of the genre is: it’s about how a strange idea would have implications for humanity. Whether or not we see this impact upon all of humanity is irrelevant. It is all about humanity. For instance Frankenstein makes a supposition that has implications for all of humanity, the idea of artificial humans. I find this definition works for every story I’ve read. In order to build up a solid definition of what the genre is it might be a good idea to look at the classics.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

False predictions
Some people charge science fiction writers with the incredibly difficult task of predicting the future. How well do they fare? Pretty poorly. 1984 did not see the arrival of a totalitarian government in the UK and the space programme was crippled by 2001. How can we possibly take the fiction seriously when the facts have been disproved?
Here’s the thing. Science fiction is fiction. It is a writer telling a story it is not a prophecy. Robert A Heinlein is not Nostradamus. Even if the writer prided themselves on accuracy, like Asimov and Clarke, what their stories posit is mere speculation. In the cases of them you could argue that the only reason their predictions didn’t come true is because science and technology became more capitalist. I won’t say that’s a bad thing. Many incredible advances we use today we made by corporations and made personal products not industrial ones (such as the case with I, Robot).
Put aside the idea that the writer is trying to predict the future, because for the most part, they aren’t. They are trying to tell you a fantastical story in a way they can see as being feasibly possible, and sometimes that requires you put aside your knowledge of how history turned out. When was the last time a romance writer was lampooned for not bringing together couples in the real world?
I don’t think I can make recommendations for this section. Instead I will post a trailer for a series of documentaries I watched called Prophets of Science Fiction.

Too little or too much science?
It’s in the title, but what do people make of it? Well this is something that troubles a lot of readers. Science fiction in film and television frequently waves aside the science in favour of saying “it’s the future; we’ve accomplished this, deal with it”. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Sometimes when an author tries their hardest to show off the science in their stories, the fiction suffers. Writers of hard science fiction (Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman, Isaac Asimov) have to make sure they don’t end up writing a text book. It isn’t easy.
Of course the alternative is just to say “screw it, future science is way too complicated to bog down the story”. That’s a fair point. But in the information age it’s easy to check on simple facts.
With this the question is: what do you want as a reader? How much does the scientific plausibility matter to you? I would advise looking up any material you're thinking about reading; has a decent article about this called Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness. If you want someone who knows what their talking about when it comes to science then it’s probably advisable to stay away from Gene Rodenberry’s body of work. If you don’t care to have scientific principle peppered throughout the story then The Forever War is probably not for you.
Harder science recommendations
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Softer science recommendations
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Phillip K Dick
Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein
The semi-naked damsel
Oh boy. This is usually a fantasy trope but science fiction certainly has its share of scantily clad women. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t exist in some science fiction. There is definitely some male gaze in a lot of Phillip K Dick’s work and I’d argue that it works against it.
Now if you were to look up pulp science fiction covers you’d be well on your way to understanding what tentacle hentai is, and you’d be worse off for it. Seriously, we thought Japan is weird, we were weirder. Thankfully today science fiction magazines have a lot more dignity. The stories handle the topics of sexuality with a lot more tact and maturity rather than just “hur dur boobs”. As with any genre the only stories and novels people remembered were the ones worth remembering as such you’d have a hard time finding the rampantly exploitative in the local library.
But I’m sick and I get a giggle out of crap like this, if you’re prepared to laugh at the old sensibilities they can be amusing. So if you’re demented, sexist (homophobia and racism also feature for bonus points!) or both you can pick these up on kindle. 
I guess I’ve already made my recommendations here. Look up the covers on Google, find one that looks fun and ridiculous and see if the title is available as an e-book. I’ve never read any sci-fi for its portrayal of sex but if I were to choose examples I would say the best I’ve seen yet were: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (although I think it could have handled homosexuality better) and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (in which sex is always cheap and love is absent).
Really think of what comes to mind with a clichéd science fiction story. The first things that come to mind are probably laser toting rubber forehead aliens, a poor understanding of science often exemplified by technobabble, shiny leotards being the height of fashion, one ancient bit of technology still being lugged around in the space ship. Having carefully selected my science fiction reading I can confirm that so much of this isn’t true.
The Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land look nothing like humans and don’t carry lasers. The fashion in Brave New World is all artifice and superficiality, and it varies from class to class. The scientific understanding in The Forever War is well realised and relevant to the story.
So let’s look at something riddled with rubber forehead aliens, technobabble and leotards. Star Trek and its various incarnations are guilty of these clichés but I can happily watch it because that’s not the focus of the show. I like Star Trek: the Next Generation because each episode focuses on new dilemmas that are often a reflection of some part of human history. It ain’t too shabby. The only reason we notice science fiction clichés more is because most of the clichés have to do with aesthetics. Rubber forehead aliens? Aesthetic. Shiny leotards? Aesthetic. Shiny bleeping computers? Aesthetic. Technobabble? Erm… OK you got me there.
If you actually take a look at the story telling instead of the aesthetics chances are you’re going to find something more unique than your giving credit for. This is why so much of my friends and family don’t understand why I love Babylon 5, it looks cheap, and laser toting aliens are prevalent in it but good Lord the story is brilliant.
And let’s quickly get the whole rubber forehead thing out of the way. Science fiction shows are infamously tight for a budget. A quick way around this is to glue bubble wrap to someone’s face and call them king of the Clantoons or whatever. Some might see it as a copout but you try making a realistic Cthulhu on a shoestring budget. As for lasers, we use them today, in industry (the most common being Carbon Dioxide lasers). The reason they are not weapons is because it’s not practical for them to be weapons. Yet.   

Any of the texts I've put as recommendations would easily count as avoiding the clichés of science fiction. Some other notable examples include We Can Remember it for You Wholesale (The Collected works Volume five) by Philip K Dick, Battle Royale by Koshun Takami, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and also The Mammoth Book of New SF usually has some good stories.   

And this is where I conclude the ranting.
Chances are some of your favourite films are science fiction anyway. Examples include WALL-E, The Matrix, Jurassic Park, The Hunger Games and Transformers. These aren’t considered science fiction by so many people; they consider them family films and action films. Well if that is the case then I guess Jennifer Lawrence needs to give back her Saturn award, The Matrix should stop appearing on ‘best sci-fi films’ lists, Spielberg should throw out his Hugo award, and the creators of WALL-E need to have a MAJOR clear out of their trophy shelf.

 Going back to the blog of 2007 I found the writer did cite some examples that she enjoyed, such as The Handmaiden’s Tale and Isaac Asimov’s short stories about robots. But there were only two writers she mention not liking and her criticism of them was a sparing one sentence each. Interesting that she came up with equal amounts of examples for both sides. The rest of it was a list of unfair clichéd arguments prevalent whenever I ask someone why they don’t like science fiction. Rather than asking for examples that defy these clichés so many will just write off the entire genre as being riddled with it. It’d be like me writing of period dramas as padded, devoid of relevance, devoid of real conflict and tedious.But I’d be doing the fans and myself a disservice. One bad experience is not a good basis for an opinion of an entire genre. 

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