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Thursday, September 18, 2014

No, Repetition Does Not Mean Science Fiction is Stagnating...Per Se

(This is going to be a bit ranty.  Be prepared.) 

There's been a bit of talk lately about Project Hieroglyph, an Arizona State University anthology (and website) which attempts to address the argument in Neal Stephenson's "Innovation Starvation."  I recommend reading that essay yourself; it makes some compelling points about science fiction and the failure of contemporary culture to meet the demands of the 1960s imagination.  Here, I'd like to talk about Ed Finn's (editor of Project Hieroglyph) article at  "The Inspiration Drought:  Why Our Science Fiction Needs New Dreams."

In fairness, I came to this article via a wildly misleading headline on io9.  Finn's actual argument concerns the recycling of ideas within and outside of science fiction proper and its impact on science.  Finn argues that

Hollywood special effects have depended for years on the same kinds of high-end computer modeling that physicists, mathematicians, and other researchers use to solve technical problems. Film design gets cited in patent disputes over product design. And then there’s James Cameron, explorer of real and invented abysses. 
But the issue is not sharing tools—it’s the limited pool of metaphors behind those tools. Right now, almost everyone is working from the same conceptual playbook. All of these engineers watched Star Trek...[It’s] why the X Prize Foundation wants someone to build a Tricorder. 
[The] fact that we are all so steeped in the same shorthand of the future (intelligent robots; warp drive; retinal displays) is a hint that we’ve become complacent about our dreams.
Part of the problem I have with Finn's argument is that it relies too heavily on an assumption that the repetition of ideas is necessarily tied to intellectual or imaginative stagnation.  I've left in the line about the tricorder to illustrate a point.  As far as I can see, the reason we continue to talk about warp drives and tricorders has less to do with the inability to imagine new technologies, but rather than fact that these tools are utterly absent from our everyday lives.  And we notice that absence because we feel a need for these tools.  The tricorder serves a function.  Our desire for it is largely utilitarian -- we have nothing that can replicate its functions, and yet having one would fill a need gap in the same way the now-old-hat calculators we used in school also filled a need gap.  Many of the science fictional things we keep turning to in our everyday lives arrive from a center of need, not an inability to imagine beyond the confines of reality.  Whether the functions of a real world tricorder will be the same as described in the Star Trek universe is secondary to the symbolic function of the device itself:  it's a catchall term for a tool which serves a variety of scientific and biological functions (and its name will likely change when we actually build one).

The exoskeleton is another example.  Is it original to the now?  Nope.  Does it serve a need in the now?  Yup.  Is creating a real exoskeleton an act of innovation?  Well, Finn's argument requires him to say no, but I'm inclined to say "hell yes."  There are a sea of common, repeated terms in everyday life that come from science fiction.  Repeating them in our narratives doesn't suggest stagnation to me.  In a way, the repetitions are necessary to convince our culture that we do, in fact, need some of these imaginary tools from our literary past.  Would we be talking about exoskeletons without the repetition of the term (and related terms) in our narratives?  Probably not (or maybe).  Would we continue to strive for faster-than-light travel in the form of a warp drive without Star Trek and the constant reference to the past?  Maybe, but it wouldn't have the same cultural resonance.  The same language.

That's the thing:  these repetitions are for Finn a mark of stagnation, but I see them as a mark of a cultural language of need and fulfillment.  That we share this language -- the warp drive, the tricorder, the ansible, the exoskeleton, etc. -- is significant.  Without that shared language, without shared reference points, we would have no way to talk about innovation and desire.  There would be no way to talk about a possible future or a future that we desire.  Rather, we'd be trapped with no way to conceptualize the future as it might one day be.  This is not to suggest that science fiction cannot continue to add to that language; indeed, it must by continuously imagining new technologies and ideas in response to the present.  Who would have imagined we'd live in a world where a huge number of people have access to immense amounts of data from the comfort of a pocket?  Star Trek.  Science Fiction.  The common language.

Additionally, I'd argue that the common language is a necessity.  It is inevitable that whatever device we create that falls under the title of "tricorder" will serve an entirely different function from the tricorders of Star Trek fame.  Function will outweigh the fiction.  But by referring to it by the same term, we create a narrative of that device's creation that is recognizable by a larger population.  Everyone knows what a tricorder is (well, most people), and so using that concept to describe a device with similar properties as the fiction gives us all a frame of reference.  "This is a tricorder."  That means something.  That meaning is transferable.  It has no immediate affect on innovation, since what we might create to fall under the name will be different by default.  Even so, Finn can't honestly think that we're not creating innovative technologies all over the world despite science fiction's input, right?  Look at the cell phone.  Look at medical technology.  Look around you.

Finn, of course, is right to point out that there is a certain degree of stagnation in filmed science fiction, which more often than not offers nothing new to the table, even if the technologies behind the creation of those films are the product of, to put it loosely, scientific innovation.  Ideas repeat in conjunction with narrative repetition -- reboots, sequels, and copycats -- even if the technologies in the background are new.  Avatar's narrative may be almost indistinguishable from ideas science fiction and fantasy have explored in decades past -- hell, the narrative itself is an unintentional copy of familiar ahistorical narratives about Native Americans -- but its creation was undoubtedly a product of serious innovation.  Peter Jackson's efforts to expand the use of motion capture to create realistic CG characters has had a massive impact on film as a whole, right up to the point that ideas that otherwise would have been difficult to do some 30 or 40 years ago are now doable (Rise of the Planet of the Apes may be a reboot, but it also succeeds where its predecessor could not -- in the realm of technology).  Hollywood's problem is not the repetition of ideas, but the repetition of narratives and the endless cycle of franchise-itis -- the desire to turn otherwise singular films into sequences of nearly identical sequels (Transformers, The Hobbit films (not science fiction, but whatever), etc.).

The problem with science fiction film is also that its innovation is unseen by the average viewer.  Unless you watch those behind the scene documentaries, you'll never learn about innovations in motion capture, new methods for producing practical and computer-animated effects, and so on.  The real problem, then, isn't that filmed science fiction lacks metaphors to describe its tools, but that their narratives are hardly science fiction at all.  The technologies behind film are innovative, but the stories those technologies are asked to create are, at best, mediocre narrative with a side of science fiction trope.  The metaphors exist, even outside of the standards (Star Trek, etc.); they're just not being used in film.  Literature, on the other hand, is a whole other thing entirely.

And on that note, I'll stop ranting.

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  1. Finn, of course, is right to point out that there is a certain degree of stagnation in filmed science fiction

    I disagree here, Shaun. Its not so much that its stagnation, its *lag*. Filmed SF by and large is years behind print SF in theme, subject, technique.

    1. His argument is that the stagnation in filmed sf and sf in general has a marked impact on the scientific imagination, which is false, as I point out. I don't disagree that filmed sf is stagnant in terms of its narratives, but I do disagree that that is a problem for innovation. Even the film industry must innovate to meet the demands of a heavily visually demanding audience. Hence new tech. Outside of film, new tech is everywhere. We live in an insanely innovative time, even if our filmed narratives aren't always aware.