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.


  1. Okay. I just read all the posts on your blog here, but I'll respond on this one. You seem to have a recurring theme going on here that science fiction and fantasy share a connected field. This is something that I find very refreshing and that I have been very concerned about within my own work.

    We humans are a vain lot. Regardless of genre, everything is going to mirror back to some form of commentary regarding human nature--whether that is with regard to how it is broken, how it is presently, or how it can be improved. While we are free to explore being anything within the bounds of fiction, the only guaranteed common ground we all have is our humanity. And even that is a diverse jungle of idealisms, which is why there is such a vast plane of difference between varying genres of fiction and even the stories within those.

    Anyway, I added both your blogs to my feed and look forward to seeing what else you put on here. Let me know if you're doing any more promotions in the future and I'll see what I can do to let a few more people know.

    Have a great day!

  2. Thanks for that Kathy. I still find it odd, personally, that the subject of fantasy and science-fiction being the same is deemed controversial. But we humans also like our exclusive gangs, and even artificial boundaries are considered sacred.