Escape Velocity Girl


A quantumly uncertain spoon
July 7, 2011, 12:29 am
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Uncategorized

The above graphic incarnates the history of speculative fiction as a sort of malformed terrestrial squid, wriggling, or (in a feeble cephalapodian pun) squiggling through the literary substrate, its tentacular subgenres masturbatorily  entangled. And this idea of speculative fiction as a lurid and living Gordian bio-knot seems right to me, somehow. The concept of distinct literary genres can be seen in two ways (if only – por piedad! – for the purposes of this post): as a kind of useful Tupperwaring of tropes, themes and styles for the ease of discerning/finicky readers – or as the intellectual stockyarding of the aforementioned literate, veal-stunted in cages of their own self-perceived preferences, fat-stippled flesh/wallets air-gunned for profit of paperback pushers.

According to an absolutist view of genres, Anne McCaffrey’s telepathic dragons and Mercedes Lackey’s psychic horses are crypto-taxonomical Montagues and Capulets, their homologous mental abilities the products of genetic manipulation and sorcery, respectively– and in this distinction are meant to be crystallized the comparative quiddities of science fiction and fantasy, the former generally judged as having a more intimate relation with reality, or some embryonic version thereof.  However, on a fundamental, no doubt unsophisticated, level, I just don’t buy the idea that of two sets of talking animals, one can be more fictional than the other; to my mind, all fiction, whether literary or speculative, is equally fictional and thus equally unreal. Firefly worlds spun from synaptic flashes may mimic reality, but can never belong to it in any concrete, corporeal way  – each writer a Lem-ian Mymosh the Selfbegotten, constructing “brand-new constellations, arranging them with loving care in the eternal darkness of his consciousness, which [is] his Gozmos.”

This base-level equality of make-believe-osity both invalidates any kneejerk intellectual snobbery in favor of literary fiction and undercuts the jockeying for status and legitimacy between subgenres within speculative fiction, re: Vincent Omniaveritas née Bruce Sterling’s vintage takedown of swords and sorcery in Cheap Truth #1:

“As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin, Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands.  Dreaming of dragon-hood, Fantasy has puffed itself up with air like a Mojave chuckwalla.”

Now, while I do squee for a herpetological metaphor or four, and while I must confess to a certain ambivalence concerning magical artifacts and arboreal elves,* I reject hard sf’s claim to being somehow more “real.” My own (admittedly high-school level) understanding of scientific progress and innovation is that it rarely follows an arrow-straight path – the course of progress, like that of love, running not smooth, but along bumpy backroads and unexpected detours. For all Jules Verne’s efforts to extrapolate future means of transportation from then-contemporary technology, his Columbiad space gun bears little resemblance to the liquid-fuel rockets actually used to fly Autour de la Lune. Many of our own seemingly reasonable speculations will likely seem as quaint in a century’s time, hard sf’s carefully constructed scientific justifications for the fantastic proving no more than a house of cards, toppled by the Pompous Wind of Unpredictable Progress.

…or, to continue the architectural motif, perhaps hard sf is a Potemkin village of sorts. As Kathryn Cramer writes of the subgenre:

“…when scientific ideas and formulations are invoked in a text that does not make use of mathematics in appropriate amounts, the text relies upon other texts that do. Before science can be incorporated into hard sf, it must be stripped of its mathematical bones, so-no matter how accurate the text-science is used as a mythology. What science gives to hard sf is a body of metaphor that provides the illusion of both science and realism.”

In other (more unnecessarily obfuscatory) words, perhaps the definition of hard sf has less to do with its creators’ intentions than with the fact that its readers have faith that its flights of fancy are more than fancy. Kim Stanley Robinson may have labored to make his Mars Trilogy scientifically plausible, but, not having seen the arithmetic justifications for his speculations, I must accept the plausibility of his theories on the basis of a sort of truthiness, which is more a matter of knowing which subgenre his books have been branded (hard sf=kinda sorta real!) and of picking up on his style (in Robinson’s case, his exhaustive and, occasionally, exhausting cataloging of Martian rocks and terraforming theories broadcasts a kind of narcotizing authoritativeness). But, even were each hard sf novel to be accompanied by a companion Tome of Underlying Facts, I would still have to accept its premises on faith; for a nonscientists (or, at least, this nonscientist), the experiences of reading stories based upon carefully woven daisy chains of scientific/technological logic and those based on sui generis soap bubbles of handwavium differ but little.**

I do wonder, though, if there is, or ever was, some sort of sweet spot for hard sf, a point at which the average reader’s understanding of the scientific bases for such narratives was more profound than a facile-ity with genre jargon (genrargon?). Though Newton may have had to piggyback on a giant or two before being conked by his apocryphal apple, his resulting Laws of Motion seem simple enough (the experiments used to illustrate their meaning yielding visible, physical results) to have perhaps been comprehensible to hoi polloi of ye olde tymes (assuming hoi polloi not cerebrally stunted by malnutrition, black buboes, i tak dalee). And, thus, said unwashed masses could have enjoyed a genuinely informed understanding of the advanced concepts of Newtonian “gravity” and “inertia” as employed in contemporaneous hard sf-this, of course, in a magical slipsteam land, in which 18th century sf had progressed past the zygotic, and plebians possessed ample hours to devour scientifically-sound tales of interstellar derring-do.***

From what I understand, the the intellectual “buy-in” required to conduct or comprehend cutting-edge research-its nuts, bolts and terrifyingly complex concatenations thereof-has rather increased in the last few centuries; one cerebellum no longer sufficient, but rather Stakhanovite computers and collectives of contemporary Newtons required to advance “upward, not forward, and always twirling….” And if indeed scientific knowledge is complexifying and increasing at such breeding-bunny pace, then the foundational facts of works of hard sf will only become ever more abstract to the chimerical average reader (if one accepts the above-disputed premise that the subgenre is defined by an actual correspondence to reality, rather than by a posture or style vis-à-vis the same). Perhaps I lack the necessary geek credentials to comment, or aimlessly pick brain-bluebells, on a topic as potentially inflammatory as genre definitions (narrative, not science, having been my Stargate-way drug to sf), but, from a subjective experiential standpoint, I can objectively non-pre-pro-scriptively assert that, to this reader: dark energy=pixie dust

*and while there is little as exhilarating to read as bare-knuckle bile in criticism (see anything by Anthony Lane, or this splenetic and splendid  gastro-takedown in Vanity Fair, the inventive and eloquent vituperativeness of which reaffirms my faith in humanity far more than any Hallmarkian pablum-atic kumbayosity)…the question of whether gastrointestinal juices can actually have knuckles being conveniently not within the purview of this blog…

**I would argue that there are also-somewhat attenuated-comparisons to be made between religion and hard sf: the Book of Revelations builds its eschatological prognostications on a body of myth believed true by true believers, just as hard sf frankensteins plausible or probable futures from scientific scraps (I do not, however, wish to paint all would-be Cassandras with the same brush, there being, clearly, differences between predictions based upon religious belief and those on reason, my point being rather that such differences are not always as profound as they might appear prima facie).

***’Struth, Sir Isaac! ‘Twould seem the beryl beasties with ocular orbs of demonic diameter knew not that that that doth go up, so shall it ever come down. Yonder their sky chariot burns in the inferno and yea, verily, saved we have been by your principia mathematica!

image via scimaps.org, painting by Ward Shelley

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