Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The booleanization of human science fiction and fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy have become too predictable. They are largely booleanated now.

Science fiction generally falls into two categories: spaceships and ray guns (aka space opera) or not spaceships and ray guns (not space opera). Generally speaking, if we're dealing with space opera, someone is trying to take over something (usually the Earth, the universe, or some sizable chunk of real estate in between). If we're not dealing with space opera, mankind is doomed either by the environment (which might include monster asteroids, exploding stars, escaped viral weapons) or his own stupidity (we fail some critical evolutionary test or we just toy with certain extinction via some new discovery).

Fantasy is more liberal. It falls into the Tolkienesque or not Tolkienesque categories. Tolkien loved epic fantasy, high adventure, save-the-world intrigue and suspense. Anything else is whatever people have tried to do to distinguish themselves from Tolkien. In either case, Terry Pratchett will tell you that he does it better than Tolkien and then immediately issue a retraction saying he was misquoted.

In the old days, science fiction was more about science than fiction. Writers would try to unravel the consequences of mankind's use (or misuse) of science -- primarily technology. Spaceships-and-ray guns was predicated upon the assumption that we would take all our petty conflicts and ambitions to the stars with us, when we finally figured out how to reach them; or that anyone else out there whom we could possibly understand would have to be so like us as to be bringing their petty conflicts and ambitions to our star.

Prior to Tolkien, fantasy was largely about the individual journey. It could have been written as a parody or satire, or just as pulp adventure fiction. Worlds might have been at stake (Egdar Rice Burroughs frequently threw the fate of Barsoomian civilization into the capable hands of John Carter of Mars), but the stories were about the individuals saving the worlds. Tolkien turned all that on its head and showed us that fantasy can be about the worlds that individuals strive to save (and ultimately lose anyway).

It took about 30 years before Tolkienesque fiction became mainstream fantasy. Prior to 1980, a lot of fantasy books followed basic pulp adventure or pseudo-medievalist intigue patterns. Mary Stewart strongly influenced the pseudo-medievalist school of fantasy with her Merlin novels. So did Anne McCaffrey with her medieval dragons in space Pern adventures.

After the 1940s, pulp science fiction began moving away from spaceships and ray guns, although we had plenty of pulpish SF for decades. Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein opened doors and minds with regurgitated pulp adventures and concepts that gradually expanded the horizons of their fiction. By the time they finished writing, they were both writing really weird stuff -- mainly, I think, just to avoid rewriting all the neat stuff they had already written.

We tend to look at "Classic SF" (or "SciFi" as Hollywood as commercialized it) as stories that once made you think. But true Classic SF didn't make you think. It made you daydream. You wanted to go there, wherever there was, and be part of the adventure itself. You didn't want to be riding a gondola in a virtual theme park of words. You wanted to pick up the ray guns and blast the space pirates, pilot the ships, kill the bug-eyed monsters, win the princess (or prince), and be the hero.

Classic Fantasy, on the other hand, did make you think. You had to picture everything in a certain way or the stories didn't work for you. Yes, milieu science fiction stories require that kind of inventive imagination, but it's often been said that milieu science fiction is fantasy disguised as science fiction. What distinguishes true science fiction from other types of fantasy is that the science is integral to the characters or the stories.

Real science fiction actually tends to be very boring. You can get so wrapped up in the science, you don't have much of a story. Or the story becomes depressing because it dooms mankind in some fashion. Orson Scott Card's Wyrms, C.M. Kornbluth's "How To Serve Man", and Asimov's Gaia-controlled Galactic empire relegated mankind to being a second-rate species incapable of surviving on its own. We are doomed because we are inferior. That's not the kind of stuff I want to read.

Good science fiction is hopeful and looking forward. It doesn't question our place in the universe, it suggests where we may want to go and how we may want to get there. It doesn't wrangle with whether you can move a ship across 10,000 light-years while the Earth experiences 10 days of "relative time". Real science fiction assumes we find a way to cross oceans of ignorance and darkness, lighting paths for future generations to tread. Real science fiction assumes that time travel will be a ride in an amusement park that doesn't put the park visitors in danger. But to get to the theme park, we may have to solve a few time paradoxes along the way.

Good fantasy is fun-filled rollicking adventure. It doesn't matter if the world is at stake. All that matters is that the world is fantastic. Modern fantasists insist this means fantasy must include magic. "Without magic," Marion Zimmer Bradley once told me, "all you have is an adventure story".

I'm hardly in a position to challenge MZB's judgement. But I'm going to do that now. I don't think she was completely right. I would put it this way: "Without magic, your story must still be about something fantastic".

Fantasy is distinguished from science fiction by what we consider to be possible. If a concept is scientifically validated, then a story based on or incorporating that concept is probably science fiction; otherwise, it's fantasy. That's not a very good rule, in my opinion, but it's about the only rule we have. Unfortunately, people now rely upon the crutch of inserting spells and incantations to show they are using magic and therefore they are writing fantasy.

But Arthur C. Clake has often been quoted as saying, "Any sufficiently advanced technology seems like magic".

Technology is simply what we contrive with wheels and gears and motors. Biologists, for example, have engineered whole new species of microbes through chemical-based technology. No wheels, gears, or motors were directly involved in the processes. Illusionists (stage magicians) have engineered whole effects without using gears, wheels, and motors. But we have advanced the technology of illusion through chemicals and machinery as well as through technique.

Technology is best defined as "the way we do things what whatever we have available". If all you have are your hands, you can devise a technology such as a martial art, a sign language, an exercise regimen, shadow-making, etc. Put a tool into those hands and you expand the number of technologies you can contrive.

So who is to say we cannot eventually devise a technology that looks and acts so much like traditional magic that it requires spells and incantations? Then what sort of story do we have? Is it fantasy because it has spells and incantations, or is it science fiction because our spells and incantations are simply catalysts that engineer effects through scientifically devised media?

Science fantasy, which blends elements of science ficton and fantasy, has been around for decades. Gardner F. Fox wrote several series of pulp adventure books about heroes like Kothar and Kyril. The magic of their worlds might or might not have been based on science. Andre Norton threw wizards and engineers against each other numerous wars and adventures.

In a way, science fantasy pretends that there is no distinction between "science fiction" and "fantasy". They are one and the same, just dressed up differently to look distinct from one another. Science fiction is androgynous fantasy. Fantasy is dumbed-down science fiction. Both have become formulaic and rebellious, trying to be different from what they once were.

The foundation of both science fiction and fantasy is "what if?" What if we could fly on dragons? Would it matter if they had to chew stone to burst into flame or if they were genetically engineered? What if we could send bolts of energy from our hands? Would it matter if those energy bolts were fired by microscopic mechanisms that Mom and Dad planted in our bloodstream before their Mad Scientist lab was shut down?

What if we could fly? What if we could travel back in time without having to disassemble our molecules and reasaemble them in the past (not taking into consideration the fact that those molecules and/or their constituent components existed back then)? How we fly, how we travel back in time, how we reach other worlds are all matters of mechanics. If the mechanics seem reasonably approachable through our current scientific ideas, we say we are writing science fiction. If the mechanics seem beyond the reach of today's ideas, we say we are writing fantasy.

Star Trek was considered to be science fiction when Gene Roddenberry first launched the series in part because he asked science fiction writers to help imagine the Star Trek universe. But he couldn't help fantasizing certain elements of the technology: warp travel is bogus; teleportation by disassembling molecules and "beaming" them across the universe is ridiculous; phaser is just a fancy name for an adjustale strength (laser) ray gun.

Today, scientists propose that it may indeed be possible to traverse the physical universe at speeds measured in multiples of the speed of light -- if only we can find a way to slide along cosmic strings, which may retain physical characteristics of the early universe where the speed of light had no limit, or had a different limit.

Today, scientists "beam" molecules across rooms by disintegrating them and reconstructing exact duplicates elsewhere (but how would one ensure that a living creature's consciousness transferred to the reconstructed molecules at the other location?).

Today, we walk around with cell phones that bounce signals off of satellites so that we can speak to people on the far side of the planet. We have begun to develop beam technology weapons systems that resemble the ship-mounted rayguns of classic SF. And our computers are more powerful and store more information than Captain Kirk's voice-activated, colored-button monolithic duotronic systems. In fact, we are experimenting with quantum computer technology that, if taken to its fullest potential, will allow us to create new tools and things on the spur of the moment, based on improbabilities.

And then where will our science fiction be? Perhaps reconstructing the past because it's too slow to keep up with the future? Will the historical novel become the next great science fiction paradigm? Pseudo accuracy has become so important that authors spend months, even years researching miniscule details about how things were done in the past. Medieval Europe has become the standard by which fantasy worlds are measured (even though Tolkien blended his medieval European influences with Biblical, Greco-Roman, Babylonian, an modern influences).

We will rebel against the compulsion to imagine the future by reconstructing the past. The sciences of reconstruction have already begun to permeate our museums and schools. We devote whole television shows to reconstructing past events. MythBusters reconstructs scenarios that lead us to ask silly questions (such as, "Can you survive the impact of a falling elevator hitting the bottom of its shaft by jumping at the last instant?" -- No).

And reality television fabricates scenarios that simply are not true in an attempt to push our imagination further. We have gone from Divorce Court to Cops to Survivor to Paris Hilton mixes fruits and vegetables simply because we are bored with the old false realities we created for ourselves. Perhaps the future of science fiction lies in imagining how we will pretend to be gods, creating whole universes that only exist in some limited fashion.

Virtual reality will become so yesterday. And it will all seem like magic.

That's when we'll start rebelling again, writing non science fiction to avoid replicating our past accomplishments. And we'll take the magic out of fantasy because it's all explainable if you put enough theory into it, so we can write non fantasy.

Either way you cut it, we only leave ourselves with two choices. That's just human nature. A real alien might be satisfied with no less than a third choice.


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