It’s science fiction, not tech porn

Science Fiction Hall of Fame

Science Fiction Hall of Fame (Photo credit: Dülp-o-Rama)

I’ve got a rant in me today.

True, there’s always been the type of science fiction, hard scifi, where the tech was important.  To some, the tech is so fucking awesome that they make it the majorest character and What The Story Is About.

There’s always been military SF to some extent or other.  This is fine too.

There’s always been near future SF.  This is okay.

There’s always been SF writers who relied heavily on what we already knew or suspected.  Again, this is okay.

What isn’t okay is the scifi community coming to say that This Is SciFi.  No.

Near future, military, ‘realistic’, etc.  They are, yes, but they’re not all.

I read scifi, but not much.  Or maybe I read scifi a lot, but selectively.  Depends how you look at it.  This is because there is this overwhelming attitude that This Is Scifi, that it becomes hard to find anything to read.  Actually it’s all of speculative fiction, fantasy has this problem too.

I’ll explain.

I love it when spaceships go whoosh.  I like ray guns.  I like mages.  I like hobbits.  I like epic battles between good and evil.  I love all of that.  I love that the door irised open, and that to get to Alderaan we need to accelerate to light speed so that we’ll fly through hyperspace, which needs precise calculations, or Bad Things Happen.

Thing is, magic doesn’t have to make sense — it can be chaotic and random.  Just so long as it’s … internally consistent.  This is to say, if surrounded by orcs with his elderwood staff and his sword, Gandalf could smith them all with lightning, but the next time he can’t, there ought to be something to say why.  Is he underground this time?  Okay — hell, don’t have to say that one, just he’s underground, can’t call lightning from the heavens in a cave, after all.  And you can hint, rather than say.  You can show him, this second time, as feeling tired or weak.  That’s cool.  He’s drained.

Science is magic.  Remember Clarke’s laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This man wrote the Space Odysseys.  HAL9000, the ships that carted us about the solar system.  All of that.  He had a very scientific mind.  His universes painted a realistic picture — except this:  he was working off of theories.  What he was writing was, technically, impossible.  Or maybe they were possible.  Science said they could be done, but damned if anyone knew how.  Shit, no one was even sure that it could be done.  And later he assumed increases and improvements that are beyond our current understanding.  Taking months to make trips that had been years, then later, weeks.  The ships were, through a vague reference, doing this being powered by water.

Science fiction can be grounded and rooted firmly in science, but should remember, above all else, it is fiction.  Nothing is impossible except that which you decide to believe is.  Sure, something has to be impossible or your story gets a little weird.  Then again, have fun with that.  Maybe nothing is impossible, and that gets interesting since it’s a paradox — if nothing is impossible then surely it is possible for something to be impossible!  Paradoxes are fun.

If you want to write something, or read it, where everything is staunchly realistic by our current understandings, that’s cool.  Some people juggle geese, and others live in Paris on purpose.  Whatever floats you.  The thing is, please stop telling the rest of us that something is terrible because it isn’t that.  Please stop insisting that something is garbage because a ship can get to Alpha Centauri in an hour.  I might mention, though, that your own “realistic” settings aren’t — Transhumanism is not something that all people will happily embrace, it is shown to be a rather creepy notion to a large portion of the species; nano machines exist — they’re machines in that they do work, they are artificial enzymes — they are not atom sized androids with intelligence and circuits, et al … one cannot etch a circuit onto a silicon atom, atoms don’t have surfaces; the Human race has had religion since we were just a breed of chimpanzee, we’ll probably still have religion a thousand years from now — a different religion to be sure, as history has already shown that to be the way of things, but religion nonetheless, because atheism doesn’t satisfy that ultimate question of “why” that science cannot say — the big bang says a whole lot of nothing exploded a long time ago, why?!

Science fiction is the fiction of science.  It’s to spark dreams.  Clarke did that in a hard SF medium.  2001: A Space Odyssey used everything we already know about physics to paint our technology.  The abilities of the monolith?  Magic.  Mystery.  Beyond comprehension, and beyond physics as we understand and understood them.  Decades before, Heinlein measured people’s lives with a machine.  Decades before that John Carter found himself transported, mystically by all his understanding at the time — but by a perfectly explainable process (that isn’t explained) once he’s had the opportunity to learn more about the universe — to Barsoom, Mars, and a landscape was painted using what we guessed about the great red globe back in 1912.

Star Wars, on the other hand, paints a story with lasers, hyperdrives, starships, computers, droids, et al.  It has the trappings and props of science.  It’s soft scifi, however.  You could take all the toys away and the story would remain.  The starships could be sailing ships, camels, or horses.  The ray guns could be arrows, Peacemakers, or spears.  The light sabres … could, you know, be steel or bronze or something.  Tech isn’t important in these stories.  Okay, true it isn’t in some of my above examples, but it’s not even given a tip of the hat here.  The reason?  These stories are all about the people and adveture.  The tech was nothing but toys.  But it’s still science, in a fictional setting — it’s science fiction, it’s soft scifi.  A space opera.

Which brings me to something to say to the writers out there:  if you’re writing soft scifi, then just write the soft scifi.  Seriously, it is enough to just say ‘the door irised open’, really it is.  You don’t need to say ‘the door irised open …” and launch into a 5000 word dissertation on what happened to the door hinge, and you don’t have to have the characters say “Why do our doors iris?  Can’t they just swing open”  “Well, as you learned in history back in school …”  Sadly, both of these have been encountered, if not specifically about doors, in much recent scifi I’ve come across.  Needless to say, I won’t be reading it.  Don’t inflate your story, which is what that does.  Don’t show off your world building, which is what that is.  If you know door iris, fine, they iris, tell us that.  If you know why they iris, gravy, but we don’t give a shit — those who do will ask, and this is the internet age, you can explain it to them on your website.  Save the essays for a book of essays, keep them outta the middle of the story.  If you can keep it short and sweet, you might pull a Terry Pratchett and use footnotes, I suppose.  I mean, it’s what I do.

Regardless, remember, all speculative fiction — in the end — is about magic and imagination.  The props and settings are different, but our common thread ought to be about dreams and what might or could be.  It might be nightmares and warnings, it might be hope and inspiration, but regardless — it’s the magic of the dream.

We don’t say someone dreams wrong, if they dream that they can fly — for no reason, except that they have learnt how to stay out of gravity’s grip — and spend the entire night soaring through the clouds and over exotic landscapes.  Don’t tell them, when they decide to place that dream between the pages of a book, with some clever handwavium radiation tossed into the mix, that they’re doing anything wrong.  You suck as a writer and reader your way, and we’ll suck our way.  For those who’re not writing the flights because they can’t figure out how it might be possible, stop listening to those clowns and write your dream, it’s a dream, it has to only make that much sense — if you know how to defy gravity like that, kudos, patent it and live the life of luxury; that, after all, is one of SF’s greatest powers is to sit a reader (or from time to time the writer) down and make them say “wait a damned minute!  Matter Transmission!?  That’s a fucking sweet idea, I’m going to make that happen one day!”  Oh, and by the by, it can be done — we just haven’t figure out how to do it to anything big yet.

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