The Myth Of ‘Science’ In Sci-fi

What’s the science behind Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed?

Let’s oppose ‘hard science fiction’ to ‘soft’ sci-fi (specifically, science fiction “where the science is neglected,” or so they say). The key question is, how would one measure its hardness when the alleged science is still a fantasy? For starters, the answer is certainly not the amount of amusing technobabble (made-up terms), nor an aesthetic precondition such as space, spaceships, etc.

To illustrate the obvious, a book such as Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon belongs to hard science fiction, despite the lack of extraterrestrials, intergalactic wars or plasma guns. So does Andy Weir’s The Martian, which may be more pleasing to the popular view of sci-fi as it is set on another planet (Mars). On the other hand, the Star Wars film-series belongs to fantasy, ‘science fantasy’ or, at best, a very soft kind of sci-fi in a ‘space opera’ setting.

Simply put, hard sci-fi prefers believable scenarios and events, whereas soft sci-fi is totally okay with unicorns. However, as far as believability goes, even the most fantastical scenario is necessarily held together by consistent internal structuring that respects its own made-up laws. Furthermore, an unicorn may find its place even in a hard sci-fi novel if it has grown a horn by, say, genetic engineering or surgery, but not if it sprung out of a portal or a magical book found in the dusty attic of an abandoned house. Both examples are fictional, yet the first may be deemed explainable, in the least, thus also believable.

It goes without saying that choosing how to present your ideas and concepts is of utmost importance to the reader. Some people want to read a fantasy that may be considered scientifically possible, be it the colonization of another planet or a zombie apocalypse. Others prefer things to be intrinsically ‘magical’ or ‘unscientific,’ an escapist affair. An author is free to present his story any way he wishes, but certain rules must be set for both types of scenarios.

Whatever made-up system of technology or magic an author develops in the course of his world-building, it must never break its own rules (unless it is done on purpose, as in, say, a comical Deus ex machina). To add weight to such a system, its limits must be set, preferably made obvious by its effects (or lack thereof) within the story. Things must be put to practice so as to strengthen the illusion.

For that reason it could very well be said that questioning whether a sci-fi work is scientific goes beyond its point, whereas the only actual science behind writing science fiction is that of consistency in the way the fantasy is structured. If there is any real science, perhaps it belongs to the realm of humanities, for the technical sciences are only there to be broken for the sake of an (all too) human story. Just consider the works of the greats, such as Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin.

Sci-fi authors may invent terms and concepts, like William Gibson did with ‘cyberspace.’ Visionary or prophetic, it still isn’t scientific. There is no scientific method behind it, no experiment nor theoretical proof. It is, however, very imaginative, even inspiring, perhaps enough to have inspired some of the actual science for the invention of a technology to carry ‘cyberspace’ into our reality. The myth of science in sci-fi doesn’t make it less important as opposed to, say, a realistic textbook representation, for the extent that our lives are governed by myth is just as vast.

But I don’t suppose delving into Jungian concepts would do the point of this article any good. In short, science inspires science fiction, so why wouldn’t science fiction inspire science? Thanks for reading & feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

The Purpose Of Science Fiction

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, all the while extrapolating a sad maqam on his oud…

Science fiction and fantasy may still be underappreciated by literary connoisseurs, whoever they are, although the iconic work that has made these ‘genres’ last often holds all of the qualities of literary fiction. It goes without saying that the production of soap-opera series with a ‘sci-fi aesthetic’ is a different matter.

In reality, though, there is no conspiracy against sci-fi. On the contrary, it is quite popular, as evidenced by the constant influx of new titles, yet, as with any other trend, perhaps the aesthetic is all there is to it.

On what science-fiction is not, let us listen to Philip K. Dick, if you’ll allow me to cite: ‘[Science fiction] cannot be defined as “a story (or novel or play) set in the future,” since there exists such a thing as space adventure, which is set in the future but is not sf: it is just that: adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced technology.’

Rehashing space opera, first contact or dystopian scenarios is not what I look for in science fiction. Sure, we all enjoy a good story, and the same old hero with a thousand faces may always provide what we look for in one, but it’s not as black and white as changing the setting and the protagonist’s looks and interests. (On a related note, I do not believe in writing to market, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Why are the Hunger Games so popular? Hasn’t anyone read Battle Royale? Most probably haven’t, despite Stephen King’s recommendation, but it’s actually beyond the point whether something is a rip-off. What’s important is that there is something for everyone in both, and it pertains to our own society, despite the fact that it might be argued that only one of the books does justice to its grim premise, besides being the objectively better book. Science fiction may usually be set in the future, but it is always predicated on our own society and its history.

Perhaps the burden of ‘genre’ is why some major authors have distanced themselves from any attachment to science fiction, such as, for example, Kurt Vonnegut, whose work embodies all the specific qualities that have made science fiction what it is for many of us; namely, the uninhibited exploration of ideas and concepts. Generic pulp is certainly a thing with its own grateful audience, but why call it science fiction? It’s misleading, in the least. It might be why ‘speculative fiction’ has gotten a lot of use over the years. To conclude, I’d like to quote Dick again:

‘[Science fiction] is creative and it inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not do. (…) the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create—and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness.’

Such is the most beautiful definition of science fiction (and fiction in general) I’ve ever read. More importantly, it rings true. It’s the reason why I’m here, writing these words. Furthermore, it is applicable to other arts, such as music; especially jazz, which some may deem “music for musicians” (despite the extraordinary range of actual music under the moniker), and which, at its best, may most certainly be seen as Philip K. Dick’s “creativity-inspiring creativity. “

For proof or at least further insight, one may consider the amazing cover art featured at the top. It belongs to an edition of Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Weird for a science fiction cover, right? Do I really think it’s good, you may ask? It may not tell you anything, yet it speaks of its own meaning. It’s subjective, even self-indulgent, though not as much as it seems. It depicts no policemen, cyborgs, spaceships or planets, basically nothing of the sort that we’re used to seeing in the genre. Yes, it may be abstract, but it is by no means unintelligible, and it ties into Dick’s original abstraction, i.e. the title of the novel, taken from the most famous air for lute by 16th century English (“or possibly Irish”) composer John Dowland, Flow my tears, fall from your springs.

That said, I have no idea who the artist behind it is (please let me know if you do), but I’m certain that he or she is a true Dickhead! The choice of an oud – an ancient fretless lute, predominantly a Middle-Eastern instrument, with its characteristic ‘sad face’ and the minimalist addition of a tear below one of its rosettas – works for what becomes the most important reason when judged it by Dick’s definition of science fiction. The cover art doesn’t attempt to paint a scene from within; it is not an image from the story. Instead, it is in itself an inspired work by the artist, a direct creative answer to Dick’s creative question; in turn, the cover art inspires a creative reaction in the willing observer, painting the very purpose of science fiction.