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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

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

Now to continue from where I left off in the post you can find here (based on this post by Joseph Robert Lewis).

II.  Science Fiction and Its Reflection on the Present

Since I have already established that science fiction isn't actually about the future, it seems prudent to now consider how Lewis' own logic on that particular point works against him (and, thus, how understanding science fiction as a generic practice is crucial to not only writing and reading it, but also to even talking about it).  Lewis' second point of contention with science fiction as a written practice is that SF is a killer of drama:
Think about your modern life for a moment. Thanks to the phone in your pocket, you’re never lost, never out of touch, never without access to detailed information. And you can photograph or video anything that happens so you have records or evidence. So you’re not going to have a lot of drama related to being lost, confused, or miscommunicating anything.
He claims that this logic is the foundation for why he perceives SF to be a genre that only functions
in short form (he cites Asimov and Dick as examples, since namedropping is better than actually supporting one's claim with facts) and that the genre's focus on technology makes it prone to imaginary conflict (i.e. that it embellishes or fictionalizes its conflicts to make them more than they actually are, such as in imagining robot rebellions) and mundanity.  He, thus, refutes all major conflicts that have appeared in science fiction since its inception as nothing but operatic fancy (space opera), since, in his reality, these things cannot have happened. It should seem ironic at this point that Lewis' claims are based on his own inability to think about how the present actually operates and how it influences visions of the future.  Cell phones don't always work, miscommunication occurs all the time, your GPS is imperfect (and sometimes sends you on strange paths it shouldn't), and the reality that everything can be recorded and distributed, generally speaking, presents new problems that didn't exist thirty years ago.  To think that the prevalence of technology in our daily lives means that our daily lives are without drama--that empires and nation states are not forced to change with the sudden infusion of transparency in state apparatuses built on controlling analogue- and proto-digital-based information systems, and so forth--is to say far more about one's perception of life than about the present in general.

The interesting truth of the matter is that the present is loaded with drama, whether of a personal or political nature.  Technology simply changes the dynamic.  What once was a system of information transfer based on "old" media like television news programs, newspapers, magazines, and books has simply been thinned out by new forms of technology that make access to information (which is not necessarily good, in contrast to what Lewis implies in his post) easier.  But how amusing that we as a society still have many of the same problems we always had:  we still have imperialist states, massive poverty, politics-as-usual, social and emotional strife, personal and public problems (from the relatively mundane to the catastrophic), and much more.  Life hasn't become boring; many of us have simply stopped looking around, secure in our little bubbles.  SF is, perhaps, a response to that, since it is the only genre with a dedicated author-base that is fascinated with how the present will be influenced by futures (close and distant) in which the dynamics have changed (slightly or greatly).  Galactic empires, for example, may experience similar problems that we do today, but on grander scales.  And even in the distant future, there are individuals who, contrary to Lewis' assumption, will be a part of remarkably dramatic events on remarkably different worlds.  SF is all about drama; it is, to repeat in a different way, all about staging the drama of the present (and the past) in radically new ways.

Lewis, of course, doesn't want to think about this.  He spends more time ejecting classic SF themes from his bizarre view of realism than he does in trying to understand where he has misstepped.  At one point he suggests that when technology goes haywire, it won't result in robot rebellions; this statement might be true, but only because science fiction has shown us in almost every way possible why we must be careful about creating intelligence from nothing--the future's absence of robot rebellions effectively relies on an intimate understanding of SF's look at the theme (one which, in many cases, is allegorical for humanity's questions about itself).

What this all boils down to is one writer's failure to imagine.  SF is an imaginative genre, much like fantasy.  True, it is a conceptually limiting one in those terms, simply because the possibilities for true (and serious) science fiction are not endless, but finite and subject to the reality from which it draws its themes and the reality in which it is based.  But Lewis' inability to actually consider how the very conditions he presents might be problematic (such as when he argues that all information will be monitored in the future, making it nearly impossible for rebel groups to do much of anything)--and, thus, drama producing--suggests that his biggest problem is in putting the pieces of a speculative puzzle together in his mind--in engaging with SF on its own terms (see Moylan, Delany, et. al. on this).  As a writer, Lewis doesn't seem to be able to look past his own nose.  Once you delve into the actual dramatic elements, he discounts them as impossible, failing to realize that what seems impossible is probably more likely than ever (intelligent robots are likely to be here by 2030, if not sooner).  SF isn't the genre Lewis thinks it is.  It's a genre of complex thematic elements and technological/social splendor.  There's a reason why it is often called the genre of ideas:  because as much as contemporary critics have attempted to dislodge it from its idea-logical roots, SF remains the only genre capable of true speculation and true transplantation of past and present ideas into settings altogether exterior from our moment.  The ideas may be more thematic and individual, but they are ideas nonetheless.

With that, I think I'll close this out.  Feel free to leave a comment as you see fit.


Some random notes:
1.  The Star Trek:  the Next Generation paradox (Lewis' term) isn't actually a paradox, since there aren't two oppositional elements at work.  Lewis seems to think that a paradox means putting together elements that are separate, but not oppositional (i.e. a technological problem solved by "simple" technological solutions, with an alien bad guy thrown in for drama).  There's no paradox there.  I also wonder if he watched the same show as myself, or if he's talking about the original ST.

2.  Lewis also seems to think about SF is about making excuses for why things aren't getting solved the way you want them to.  Computers, thus, have power failures to keep the plot going, etc.  The problem?  These things happen all the time.  The reality is that power systems are faulty, and probably always will be.  Computers are equally problematic.  They fail.  Routinely.  Even the ones that NASA uses (to be fair, they fail less frequently, but they still fail).  Hardware fails too.  Even bio-technology (genetic manipulation, etc.) goes wrong all the time.  Lewis' argument suggests that future humans will be perfect, neglecting to remember that nothing humanity has created thus far is foolproof, even seemingly simple technologies, like books, which are prone to falling apart.

3.  Lewis calls tradition fantasy "the magical past."  I've talked about this briefly in the first part of this double-post, but I'd like to offer a slightly more detailed version of my thoughts here.  The problem with traditional fantasy is that its setting is radically exterior from the linearity time map.  They are stories set on continents and planets that don't exist and dominated by themes that are, at best, vaguely relevant to the thematic elements of the past.  To say that any traditional fantasy story which presents the standard medieval framework is dealing with the past is like suggesting that politicians are interested in the future beyond the 15-year mark.  Both are false on a number of levels, but I probably will have to save that for another post.

4.  To be clear, I also think it is limiting to call SF the "genre of ideas."  While I am suggesting that ideas are central to SF, the concept of ideas I am using is broadly defined, rather than isolated to what many critics assume the term to mean (i.e. "robots have intelligence," or "what if").

5.  This last note is about the idea of the dream.  Lewis presents the dream as the focus of SF, since it is the dream of the future that, in his terms, produces it.  For Lewis, this is coupled with the de-dramatizing effect of excuse--i.e. that one dreams up the future, and then spends an inordinate amount of time (half, for Lewis) finding ways for said future not to work.  However, I don't see the production of failure as separate from the act of dreaming.  If one dreams of a future (which I am not saying is what SF is about, as you can see in the first post of this series), it is, by definition, also a dream of the future's failures.  No future is absolutely good or bad; the future cannot be treated this way.  Futures are, instead, broken promises, conceptually duological in the sense that they are both about what will be and the consequences.  To predict the future is also to predict its failures.  If SF is about the future (it isn't), then it must also be about its failures.  There is no separation between the dream and the production of failure (the de-dramatization).

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