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Monday, November 08, 2010

Science Fiction: It's Not About the Future (Part One)

I suppose we have to get used to people saying really idiotic things about science fiction.  Whether it's some blogger telling us that science fiction is dead (again) or a non-reader telling us that science fiction isn't literature, there seems to always be someone saying something wrong about the genre.  This, however, is a new kind of wrong.  Blogger and self-published writer Joseph Robert Lewis has written a post about why writing fantasy is better than writing science fiction, a seemingly personal sort of thing, but which bases its claims on an essentially childish understanding of the genre.  And, as we all know, when someone is wrong on the Internet, you have to correct them.  But where to begin?

I.  It's Not About the Future

Lewis opens things up with a fundamental misunderstanding of science fiction.  Namely that
to write (good) science fiction you need to understand the future, which is impossible...But to write “fantasy” you only need to understand the past, which is less impossible and people expect you to make stuff up, as opposed to actually predict the future on some level.
If only that were true.  The problem?  Science fiction isn't about the future.  It's only set there.  Lewis assumes that setting determines what the genre is about, but since that doesn't even work within his own logic (since there are plenty of fantasy stories set in the present, and, thus, for Lewis, must be about the present -- see urban fantasy) it is remarkably faulty.  Science fiction has never been about the future; it has always been about the past and the present.  Hence the oft repeated claim (an accurate one, I might add) that science fiction is allegorical; something about the future cannot be allegorical, since the future, by definition, hasn't happened yet.  Whether traditional fantasy is about the past is debatable (most of it isn't), but science fiction and the past/present are bosom buddies, and understanding that is crucial to understanding the genre.

When one looks through the archives of science fiction, one finds stories about a range of topics:  empires, alien encounters, technology gone wrong, rebellion, dystopian police states, and so on.  And what all of these topics have in common is that they are extrapolations of past and present problems/events.  Whether a science fiction story's future is accurate is irrelevant.  I sense a hint of that old axiom in Lewis' first point, but it is, as always, a faulty one precisely because we can't know the future.  The future is a guessing game, and so science fiction writers only occupy themselves with future settings rather than future truths, leading us back, once again, to the genre's love affair with the past and the present.  After all, Asimov's Foundation trilogy is not so much about future galactic civilizations as it is about attempting to apply (read:  extrapolate) economics and psychohistory to a larger entity than a single nation state.  Asimov was working through the idea of predictive economic models (and, thus, economic collapse), something that people during his day, and today, are constantly trying to build and understand to avert collapse, since even rich people don't want economic collapses (generally speaking); Foundation, thus, could be read as an allegory for the Great Depression--which he lived through as a young boy--and earlier economic collapses and the politics involved (though, perhaps, this reading is too obvious).  Then there's Kage Baker--to use a more recent author--whose Mars novels--set, obviously, in the future--are less about predicting the future than transplanting capitalist and religious themes into interplanetary settings, thus presenting yet another allegory for past--and even present--events in which the capitalist-religious enterprise (associated as it was with colonialism and imperialism, and even postcolonial conditions/ing) fought over control of land and person--themes that play throughout her novels.

So the idea that science fiction authors are interested in understanding the future is patently false.  The truth:  science fiction authors are obsessed with either their past, present, or both.  This is in stark contrast to traditional fantasy--the form Lewis is occupied with--which is often little more than a repetition of Tolkien-esque fantasy narratives, without much in terms of variation.  To be fair to Tolkien, he was occupied with the past, and his work reflects as much, but the level to which most fantasy writers are occupied with the past and with transplanting the past into their work is far lower than (good) writers of science fiction.  That's not a slight on fantasy, per se, because what fantasy has managed to offer is the adventure that Golden Age science fiction did, and that contemporary science fiction has been lacking, but it is important to note that a great deal of fantasy isn't actually doing anything new with the past, which is the opposite with science fiction.  Of course, there are fantasy novels which contain serious themes and that break the mold, such as the work of China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer, and even less stylistically adventurous novels like those of Karen Miller (whose fantasy tales are often heavily political, while also being occupied with the trappings of the fantasy genre--and breaking them apart, as in her Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology).  But they are exceptions, much like Tolkien.

I'll have more to say in a second post about other things that Lewis brings up in his rant.  For now, I'll leave you with what has been said here.

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  1. Anonymous10:57 AM

    Yes, some of it is. That no sf writer ever gets it right hasn't to do anything with it. Some writers really believe they divine the future.

  2. Name one text and why it's exclusively about the future (i.e. that the author is divining the future).