Friday 10 August 2012

A Genre Of Things?

Embrace your inner geek

Science fiction was created by geeks, who prefer objects to people.

An over-simplification?


But it also explains the predominance of 'ideas', concepts and technology in SF literature. And the cardboard characters who are often servants to the exposition.

If science fiction was created by geeks, then fantasy was created by dreamers, no?

But geeks are people too, and they dream.

So what do they dream about?

Super powers to defeat the bully with. Maybe genetically engineered super powers, or maybe some cool cyborg add-on. You know, that anyone could use.

Aliens - someone not-human who we can maybe talk with. And sympathise with. Maybe even crave the existence of. For do not geeks sometimes feel like aliens themselves?

A future where people are reasonable and wise, and where they are more likely to co-operate than threaten or fight. So no more stranger-fear.

A narrative that doesn't revolve around the troublesome issue of sex and relationships.

That last part is especially pertinent. Most relationships in SF, even non-platonic ones, remind me of the puppets in Team America. Only with less energy.

But what about the 'big picture'? The evolution of society and the endless possibilities that await us, if only someone could just see them?

Well, considering the traditional unease with which the geek sits in the present, it's not surprising that only the most far out and different future will suffice. A place that a geek would think would be a cool place to walk through.

A fantasy, in other words. A fantasy that would draw a geek in and make them reach for their wallet to purchase the book or comic and immerse themselves in it, away from the real world for an hour or two.

For is this not the role of all fiction?

And every character type gets their own fiction.

For the geeks who lament the lack of geekiness creeping into the genre, the lack of 'ideas' and 'hard science', the answer should be obvious.

The world needs more geeks.

The laws of supply and demand would deliver then.

Friday 3 August 2012

Science Fiction as fantasy

"Relax Bones, he's just another speculative entity."

Predictions are not really about the future. What they really do is portray one's view of the present. Science Fiction predictions are no different.

In Mary Shelley's time, advances in biology and engineering convinced many that humans were just like machines. So we got Frankenstein's monster, a bundle of stitched together body parts that was powered by electricity.

In the post-war years we all got excited about computers and, coincidentally, became convinced that the human brain was just a computer. So we got humans dispensing with their bodies and uploading themselves into networks, and we got smart androids imagining themselves to be human, as if there was no difference. Hence the angst ridden tag-line 'what it means to be human' appearing on dozens of sci-fi book covers.

Both these ideas sound ever so 'hard' science fiction. But in fact both ideas were, and remain, complete fantasy. Because that's what science fiction is - fantasy.

It's the fantasy of the imagined future that is actually just the present. And if you throw in ancient gnostic beliefs about being able to finally leave our bodies, it's also the past.

Mention that on a forum to a science fiction fan and you'll get predictable outrage. "It's science! It's logic! Fantasy is about magic, whereas science fiction could actually happen."

Of course. And if you push enough electricity through a corpse, you can make it come to life. Good luck with that.

Fantasy, as a genre, is supposed to reflect an imagined past, as opposed to an imagined future, and science is supposed to be the dividing line. But the separation of modern science from the past is bogus.

What is science? Simply the examination of natural phenomena with scholarly rigor. You think of an idea, then you try it. If it works, it's right. If it doesn't, it's wrong.That's it.

Humans have always been interested in science. It's how they invented clothing, discovered fire, created hybrid crops, bred new sub-species of animals, turned grains into bread, built pyramids, castles and turrets, ships, catapults, crossbows, rockets, muskets...

I could go on and on, but all you have to do is examine each of the above and read the full history of how they came about to encounter reasoning humans coming up with ideas and testing them out until they come up with the correct solution. That's science, and it's really not as esoteric as some modern science-fiction fetishists make out.

In The Lord of the Rings the Dark Lord Sauron bred hybrids to create orks. Saruman experimented further to create new hybrids, which were called 'uruk-hai'. He also used 'blasting fire' to breach the wall at Helm's Deep, which sounds like gunpowder to me.

So, fantasy or science fiction?

Both. Because there is no difference between the two. Not really. Whether it's fantasy, science fiction or 'speculative fiction', the settings are just the past or the present re-imagined as something else, with the present frequently passed of as 'the future'.

But what about aliens? Surely these are different? They are a staple of science fiction - some would say it is their inclusion that defines science fiction - and they are an entirely new life form. Surely they can't be put down to mundane facts of the past or the present?

Well, actually they can. All aliens in stories resemble either humans with add-ons, angels, or monsters. In other words, mankind's canon of mythology for millennia.

"Ah yes, but aliens - the best ones - are reasoned out, based on the science of what we know about life."

Bullshit. From a scientific point of view, aliens do not exist. We have as much evidence for them as we have for the existence of God.

"But surely with so many habitable planets out there, it is inconceivable, not to mention ridiculously human-centred, to think that there is no other life out there?"

Inconceivable perhaps, especially if you truly want to believe, but not impossible, nor even improbable. Not according to the observed evidence we have so far, which is what science properly limits itself to.

In the past Christian theologians used to extrapolate the probability of the existence of God form observations of the natural world. The more that science showed us the wonders of the natural world and how it all fitted together so neatly, the more they said, "See? Surely it is proof of a grand design by a single builder. It is inconceivable that such a thing could have arisen by random chance."

This is not science, it is attempted reassurance, and a reinforcement of dogma. And it is destroyed, always, by the simple phrase, "Prove it." Statistical probability just doesn't cut it.

Until we discover exactly how life really began - really, truly began - on this planet, then we cannot make any predictions on the likelihood of life on other planets, because we have nothing to extrapolate from.

Predictions then. We don't really do them. The bulk of alleged human intelligence is just a form of mimicry. We look at what we have right now and we imagine it faster, smarter or smaller. We take our adventure-seeking nature and imagine a future of high-tech explorations, exploding starships and adrenaline-flowing close shaves. Or we take our pacifist nature and imagine a future of reasoned behaviour, with scruples of the kind already held by the author and his or her chums. And when we run out of extrapolations, we repackage ancient myths and beliefs and present them as a radical new vision.

It's fantasy. Jonathon Swift deployed fantasy for his satire. George Orwell deployed it for his politics. Neal Asher deploys it for entertainment.

And the claim that science fiction is scientific, speculative and predictive? That's fantasy too.