Monday, February 23, 2009

Science Fiction and Its Discontents

Over at Mark Shea's blog he has a post about Science Fiction and its inability to accurately predict the future. He attributes it to a flawed anthropology that most science fiction authors possess. Which is certainly true, and I highly suggest you go and read his post there. I, however, take a different tack on science fictions ability to predict the future. You see, one thing that one has to understand about science ficiton is that it never has been, never will be about the future. It is, always and forever, about right now. Yes, that's right, right now. As in this moment. Well, not exactly. It's about the period in which it is written. First, I'll tell you my thesis,a d thhen we'll bring out a few examples to prove my point. I bring up 4 or 5 well-known instances. There are dozens more I could bring up.

For starters, let's discuss what exactly science fiction is. While there are many competing definitions, we'll use the one that I think allows for the most leverage, and the most stories to fall under its heading. When I say science fiction, I use it to mean any story wherein there is technology advanced beyond then current technological levels, and there is a general, but not necessarily exclusionary, understanding in the ability of the scientific method to explain much of the universe. I believe the first part of my definition is rather self-explanatory and needs no further elaboration. As for the second part of my definition, I think that needs a little explaining. What I mean is that there is a general faith that science can explain many phenomena in the universe. This does not mean that there is no mystery or sense of wonder in the story. Merely that there is a scientific understanding of the universe, not a magical one. So, for example, Dr. Who, which has science that is completely made up techno-babble and is, more or less, merely magical incantations by the Doctor, still counts as science fiction. It has advanced technology, though made-up, and a generally scientific view of the world. In fact, whenever the Doctor encounters something "magical" or even religious, it is usually discovered to be merely scientific (usually some creepy alien trying to enslave the human race. But what do you expect from atheist producer Russell Davies?). So we have our definition, let's go on to why science fiction simply cannot be about the future. That's right, can not.

Science fiction is speculative. At its heart, science fiction is a "what if" question. What if this, what if that. The thing about what if questions, is that they really can't come out of left field. They always have to be based upon something that actually exists and happens. Oh sure, one can think of something does not currently exist, but it's always based on something that does. Say you read a story about a mechanical manservant, and what it would be like to have a mechanical manservant. Well, we do not have mechanical menservants, but we do have menservants. therefore, it is based upon something that already exists. Most science fiction is written this way. Moreover, most science fiction, and usually the greatest and best science fiction is written about actually trends that are going on, or their opposites. If we keep doing A, then B will follow, and after B, well, things get weird. Or, if we do anti-A, we get C, and so on. Science Fiction, like all literature, has to be set in its time, and is responding to conditions it finds there. So, on tot he examples.

Science fiction began in the 19 century. Oh sure, you can make arguments for Utopia, Gulliver's Travels, and even Don Quixote to be science fiction, but most understand that it began in the 19th century, usually attributed to Edgar Allen Poe, although there are others. Th 19th century also saw the birth of Communism, Socialism, and most importantly, Marxism. Early science fiction is steeped in Marxist thought. Why? Because it was the new sexy philosophy. Example , H.G. Wells, specifically the Time Machine. The Time Machine is set in a dystopian world where there are two ...breeds, for lack of a better term, of human. The baby-like Eloi, who live on the surface and enjoy the fruits of the world's advanced technology. And the Moorlocks, who live under the earth, and provide the labor for the world's advanced machinery. I think Wells's comment, is fairly obvious. The Eloi represent the "oppressive' owners of business, and the Moorlocks represent the workers. The workers have been so oppressed, and the owners so coddled, that they've become distinct species of humans. Again, Wells is only, and can only, comment on what was going on around him. So let's fast forward a bit. Let's go into the 20th century, and my favorite time period ever (except of course for the ancient Sumerians), the 50's. Now, much science fiction dealt with what? Rockets of course! Why? Well, besides the fact that rockets are cool, they were being worked on feverishly. World War II had seen furious development of rocketry (mostly by the Germans), and it clearly seemed to be the future. What did 50's science fiction not include? Computers! Why? well, at the time a computer was the size of a an apartment, and all it could do was add numbers together, but not double digit numbers! That would have taken way too much processing power. So in all 50's science fiction, you read about plenty of rockets, but few laptops. Let's go furhter into the future, shall we?

Space...the final frontier...these are the voyages... some of the most famous lines in science fiction. Guess what? No vision of the future at all. Merely a vision what was going on at the time. For those that have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm talking about the opening of Star Trek (I refuse to call it "The Original Series"). Star Trek takes place in a Utopian future, where there is one world government, all racial and cultural prejudices are gone, religion has finally been eradicated, and the galaxy is governed by a large bureaucratic body known as the United Federation of Planets, except of course for the evil Klingons with whom the Federation has an uneasy truce. How does is this wonderful vision merely reflecting what was going on at the time? Simple. See, Star Trek debuted in 1966. Two years previously the United States had hosted the 1964 World's Fair (this is the same World's Fair that Walt Disney's artists worked on, introducing Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and It's a Small World), bringing a (short lived) sense of world community to the United States. The Civil Right Movement was also beginning to gain momentum, now that Jack Kennedy was out of the way (this comment should not be construed as meaning any disrespect to the fallen President. I have great a respect for John F. Kennedy, and think his legacy has been greatly misunderstood. Having said that, he had a horrible record on civil rights). Speaking of Kennedy, he had also pledged that we;d reach the moon by the end of the 60's, and astronauts were regarded as American heroes. But not everything was hunky-dory. In 1960 Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev banged his shoes in anger at the U.N., denouncing "American Imperialism". In this soup of multiculturalism, civil rights, Cold War paranoia, and bright-eyed fantasy of the future, Star Trek was born. Once the counter culture started going in 1966, it was later incorporated into the show as well. In fact, Star Trek is a pretty good cultural lodestone for the entire decade of the 60's.

One more example and then we'll finish up. I promise. The most recent science fiction film to hit it big was an animated one, Wall-E. The story of plucky little trash compacting robot, who falls in love, travels through space, gets the girl, and teaches human beings and important lesson about love and the environment. While there is certainly an environmental message to the film,the filmmakers have consistently stated that it's merely a plot device and not relevant to the main story. I take them at their word, although I think we can all see how crazy enviro-nuts would love it. The main story is that humanity hasn't struggled with anything, and is unable to communicate with each other. People are completely alone in their own digital worlds, constantly entertained, distracted, and satiated. Andrew Stanton, the director, has stated that this is a direct comment on modern technology and society. That people today are just sitting at home Twittering, Facebooking, cellphoning, and reading blogs (not that there's anything wrong with that). People are getting increasingly detached from the real world and each other. The Axiom is merely that taken to the extreme.

I could bring up more examples, but I think that suffices. I used the more famous ones to illustrate my point more clearly. Now, having gone to this length, I will say this. Science fiction authors get the occasional things right. Jules Verne accurately saw a lot of modern technology, although in all honesty he merely took things that already existed and made them much more fantastic. Still From the Earth to the Moon, and its launch from Florida is remarkably prescient. Robert Heinlein fairly accurately predicted, and even contributed to, the sexual revolution. And William Gibson discussed "cyberspace" when the internet was still completely newsgroups for extreme, extreme geeks.

43 comments:

  1. This was really great, Mike. It also shows how a lot of science fiction is written by Godless heathens.

    Except Gene Wolfe. That dude is crazy but brilliant (and Catholic, but that's just the cherry on top).

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  2. It's not all written by Godless heathens, but much of it is. What science fiction truly is, is modern mythology. So whereas the ancient Britans believed that Britain was once teaming with giants because their worldview allowed for that kind of thing, so too do modern people believe in chupacabra and aliens. But, let's face it, chupacabra is awesome!

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  7. 愛情是一種發明,需要不斷改良。只是,這種發明和其他發明不一樣,它沒有專利權,隨時會被人搶走。............................................................

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