Still looking for the idea in science fiction…

Norman Spinrad has once again become my muse. In his article in Asimov’s entitled Doors to Anywhere, Spinrad trots out the science fiction author’s love afair with the multiverse. However, I must confess, I am not sure if he is speaking of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanism, which preserves both determinism and locality, that is, a predictable universe and no strange, spooky action at a distance, or if he is talking about multiple universes in cosmology a la Brian Green, click here. That is, the multiverse is like Swiss cheese and the holes in the Swiss cheese are the expanding universes in the wedge of the Swiss cheese multiverse. Each universe in the multiverse is outside the light cone of the other universes else they collide. Where the shape of this multiverse is determined by the shape and number of extra dimensions in string theory. Or if he is talking about the multiverse in Marvel comics. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure there is a difference, especially for science fiction.

More importantly, he notes that once you accept that we live in a multiverse, a writer can write “just about anything and still be writing true science fiction, and not what Gregory Benford calls ‘playing with the net down.'” (page 184 in Asimov’s science fiction April/May 2013 issue or you can just click here to go to the article. Perhaps he should have called the article “Doors to Anywhere and Anywhen and Anystory”.) This presents a problem and that problem is the one I describe in my previous posts. This, I fear, may just be another nail in the coffin of science fiction.

How so? Well, if you can write anything, slipstream, fantasy, aliens, alternative history, or create a universe of cowboys and angels battling for the Wild West, or aliens that are low tech and the only science element are the ships, not discussed and not detailed, that the human colonists have used to get to the planet, well, then you have a Sword and Technology (or Science) story. In other words, you can label it science fiction but it is actually fantasy. All you have to do is rewrite your Cowboys and Indians story to be a Spaceman and Aliens story in another universe and publish it as science fiction.

Let me expand on the alien theme, which has overrun, I feel, science fiction. Low tech aliens are used to hijack a science fiction story and turn it into a Sword and Sorcery, ah, excuse me, Sword and Technology story. Throw in antigrav sleds, solar power, a phaser or laser or two, and synthetic or silver clothing and voila a science fiction story without the science. Not even rubber science. Though these types of science fiction stories can have very nice world building and alien building plots and themes. Still, where’s the science? Perhaps we should have another category, Social Science Fiction or, better, Society Building Fiction. No need to speculate on extensions of technology or extensions of scientific theory or mathematics. I’ll just come up with an alien that looks like an earth animal, invent or steal a sociology and/or psychology and then give my human explorers swords and maybe capes and Bob’s your alien.

Or let’s say you have a gem of a WWI or WWII story about a French woman in occupied Brussels or occupied Paris taking care of a hurt German solider who deserted his platoon. He gets sick and she needs to get a doctor though he begs her not to. The doctor turns him in and he is shot. Has the woman betrayed his trust? All you have to do is change German’s to aliens and change occupied Paris to post apocalyptic Earth and Bob’s your angst ridden main character.

In other words, as I have said in previous posts, science fiction has gone main stream and mainstream novels have become science fictionalized. Science Fiction and Fantasy are dead. Long live Science Fiction and Fantasy. The nets have been taken down and sold. An end runaround of science has been committed. No violation. A flag has not been dropped. You’re published.

Judith Tarr approaches my angst from another angle. Ms. Tarr has written a wonderful piece on Charles Stross’s blog. It is a post after my own heart. (See “Who Got Fantasy in My Science Fiction?”) Who indeed got fantasy in my science fiction and science fiction in my fantasy. (Not to mention peanut butter. That legume is in everything.)

She asks where the psi went in science fiction. Where did the psi go in psience fiction anyway? And why is the force allowed? Is that not psi and should that not be fantasy or are Space Operas exempted? Why are betazoids allowed? Or are TV and full length, mega dollar movies exempted? Why is silly FTL travel allowed for that matter? Why are replicators allowed? After all, don’t replicators and transporters violate the no-teleportation theorem of quantum computing? (The no-teleportation theorem states that an arbitrary quantum state cannot be measured with complete accuracy.) Where is the SF&F I grew up with?

Everyone knows Clark’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’d like to add Lewis’s First Law: “Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl.” I would also like to introduce LaPolla’s Second Law: “A sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.” And that is where we get into trouble. Lewis’s First Law is the first casualty. Character driven novels are only the beginning as writers jettison the baggage and discipline of science and logic.

How could a genre of such daring, of such freedom to create anything, anywhere and anywhen, allow itself to be put into a straight jacket? And yes, it is a straight jacket. But wait, you say, didn’t I just say that anything is permissible? Anything goes? I could write a mainstream novel about a romance between a man in the 16th Century and a woman in the 21st or I could revive my never published book about a presidential candidate from Winesburg Ohio, who knew?, and change chapter one to be about a scientist who creates a machine that allows him to travel between dimensions and Bob’s your publisher.

The power of science fiction lay in its constraints and also in its love of mathematics, technology and science. How could a genre of mind and genre bending power be diminished and regulated as if it were a commodity? Who are these people who have decided that men write science fiction and women write fantasy and that fantasy better read like a romance novel?

I fear it is worse than Ms. Tarr portrays in her guest blog post. Much worse. It isn’t that fantasy has crept into Science Fiction or even that psi powers have left, which, in truth, hasn’t happened either, but that the science has left science fiction. Math was the first casualty.

Is it no wonder I cannot find any good science fiction and fantasy out there any more? Is that why I feel like David Gerrold and write because I can’t find the science fiction or fantasy I want to read? (Or at least have not read or reread a thousand times already.) Is that why in an entire magazine of science fiction I feel blessed if I find one story that warms the cockles of my ram scoop? Slowly, the science and math has been eroded from science fiction. And we are the poorer for it. (See my post Installment One of Physics in the 24th Century and the subsequent installments.)

Post Script.

Perhaps Clarkesworld Magazine has the right idea by not only embracing all these slash genres, such as Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, but also by explicitly making them genre selections in their submission processes.

Fantasy + Horror
Science Fiction
Science Fiction + Fantasy
Science Fiction + Horror

After all, isn’t genre categorization all about marketing?


  • Mike LaPolla says:

    Let’s keep real science in science-fiction, or at least introduce plausible, yet unproven theories. We still need a good time-travel novel with some interesting twists. Maybe enter a Tesla-inspired vortal-tunnel to visit the past or future; or holographic chronovision which allows the chrononuat to be immursed in holographic projections in a lab. Maybe a theme to go back to change current history, find out that what’s already embedded in the timeline cannot be changed. But, low and behold, an accident occurs which shows a work-around, an exception. -Just my two pence.

    • Mark LaPolla says:

      Have you seen Primer? Not only was that one of the most realistic time travel movies ever but also a really great view to how a start up works. I had flashbacks to my start-ups. I have a thread on Facebook about this movie. Go get it on Netflix.

      My point is that science fiction stories are becoming more and more mainstream and less and less science oriented, not even what Spinrad calls rubber science. In one sense, that is good because the writing is getting better and better, in another sense it is bad because it is becoming fiction with some incidental science.

  • Interesting concept. I am wondering what the conundrum is? I was always under the impression that science fiction writing was pretty much a free hand. None of it ever had to make any sense so long as it was entertaining. Maybe what you speak of her is more Science than fiction or a more believable blending of the two. Maybe as society advances technologically, science fiction becomes more difficult to believe and much more challenging to write.

    • Mark LaPolla says:

      I don’t care if the science is real or rubber. And by rubber science I mean extension of science whether plausible or way out there, such as the FTL drive on Star Trek. (Notice in science fiction that everything is a drive?) Because science fiction is speculative fiction. (See my post on this.) So, we can speculate what aliens are like, what the science will be like in the 24th century. My beef is more with how it is used in the story. I want the science to be not only present but integral to the story. Even if the plot-line does not turn on the science, as it needs to in hard science fiction, it has to include it as a major factor and not just as window dressing. I don’t want to read a homecoming story or a coming of age story that takes place on a space station and except for the space requirements or the lack of gravity it might as well be in Mayberry.

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