Thursday, April 28, 2016

Two Definitions of Science Fiction

Is science fiction flourishing, or is it dying? Some vehemently insist on the former, many insist with equal vehemence on the latter--and both in their ways right, but neither seeing it because, after all, they are parallel talking. The reason is that each is using a different definition of the genre, and accordingly a different standard for it.

The first, narrower definition of science fiction is that it is a genre which has scientific speculation--extrapolations, thought-experiments, call them what you will--as its raison d'etre, and its primary source of interest and appeal. Those who use the definition judge the quality of an individual work according to the originality and rigor with which it performs this task, and the health and fecundity of the genre by the extent to which its output is made up of stories working in this manner. Put another way, from their standpoint science fiction is above all idea fiction, and it is on the strength of its ideas that a story, and the genre, lives or dies. (One may speak of this as the standard implicitly adopted by John Campbell in his tenure as editor of Astounding.)

The second, broader definition is that it is literature which just so happens to utilize elements of the fantastic, perhaps with not much fuss made over whether those elements are extrapolations from science of even a superficial kind, or a utilization of elements out of ancient mythology or latter-day superstition. Setting far less store by originality and rigor, or even the use of science of any kind, this makes more conventionally literary assessments of the quality of science fiction the standard. (Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas explicitly adopted this standard as editors of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.)

One may consider Murray Leinster's "A Logic Named Joe" of work epitomizing the first, idea fiction-centered ideal, and William Gibson's Sprawl stories, particularly his novel Neuromancer, as epitomizing the second, more conventionally literary ideal, in their very different ways of treating the Internet.

"A Logic Named Joe," which was published in 1946, rigorously extrapolates from the idea of ubiquitous, massively networked computers, and the result is staggering in the originality, range and accuracy of its technological foresight about how the Internet would be structured, the ways in which people would use it, and the problems and complications this would raise--which is, of course, a testament to just how good a job Leinster did of developing his concept.1 By contrast Neuromancer, despite its much later, 'eighties-era authorship when the shape the Internet was likely to have was a far easier thing to guess at, is in its actual depiction of the Net (how it works, the ways it develops and actually impacts our lives), superficial, and unsurprisingly much further off as a prediction, but by postmodernist lights it is far more impressive as literature than the "old-fashioned," "unstylish" story in which he wrapped up his speculation--which is what adherents of this standard really care about.

Today Leinster's story has become relatively obscure, while it is Gibson who, despite "getting it wrong" (as he freely admits in interviews), is confusedly and confusingly celebrated as the prophet of cyberspace--a reflection of the fact that adherents of the second definition (from McComas, through Ballard and Moorcock and polemicists for postmodernist science fiction like David Pringle and Colin Greenland, Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling to today) have prevailed as the fashionable taste-makers and opinion-leaders.2 Indeed, when critics and others tell us that science fiction has never been better, it is the more literary standard that they have in mind, not whether we are getting lots and lots of really original, impressive idea fiction. By contrast, fans of good old-fashioned idea fiction are apt to be less sanguine about the situation--less enthusiastic about all the literary stuff we are getting, and pointing to the comparative scarcity of what they wish we had more of.3

It is rare that this is flatly stated--but it seems to me that acknowledging this properly would clear up a good deal of confusion.

1. In Leinster's story a computer looks "like a vision-receiver used to, only it's got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you want." The device integrates the functions of many earlier technologies and services into a single unit, at once "typewriter, radio, telephone, teletypewriter, newspaper," while also usable for "telecastin'," "a vision-phone connection" and a tool for general information searches on "everything you wanna know or see or hear," be it "the weather forecast or who won today's race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin' Garfield's administration."

Leinster also considered the issues of dependence, privacy and censorship with which society has grappled since the Internet's invention, from the intolerability of even a temporary Internet shutdown ("If we shut off Logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run!"), to the risk that others will easily be able to find out one's most compromising secrets (people racing to dig up dirt on acquaintances when they realize the safeguards against it are down), to the worry that children will be exposed to inappropriate content and adults find helpful advice on committing criminal acts while "online" (like how to get away with murder).

2. Indeed, reading the essays of J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock in New Worlds, I have been struck by the lack of any positive reference in their pieces to anything that distinguishes science fiction as a genre--the exaltation saved entirely for more conventional literary ideas (and in Ballard's case, generally hardcore literary ideas). The pattern continues today, with the sort of extrapolation Leinster did so well in his story overlooked or, if acknowledged, slighted as unimportant.

3. In reply they are often unkindly characterized in the genre's more respectable quarters as nostalgic for fiction not really all that good, or unsophisticated in their literary tastes, or simply "haters" in the asinine sense in which the word has been tossed about this past decade--the cranky, cantankerous, curmudgeonly coots of the field.

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