The Forgotten Core of Science Fiction is Not Science.

Thursday , 17, September 2015 14 Comments

There are a lot of people, even powerful, influential people, who seem to think that the goal of humanity is to spread itself. I want this book to make people think really hard about — Maybe there’s only one planet where humanity can do well, and we are already on it. – Kim Stanley Robinson, on Aurora

David Brin criticizes Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora for its downbeat insistence that science prevents interstellar travel, and that such a dream should therefore be abandoned. He agrees with Robinson that there are tropes to be avoided in speculating about the future…

But no unobtanium. No warp drives. No uploaded people who get downloaded into new bodies at the other end. And… most tellingly – no suspended animation or deep sleep or cryo-storage.  Those are cheating.

…and he also thinks Robinson’s success hinges on his maturity.

Moreover, I find his politics to be interesting, grownup and major contributions to our grand discussion of how advanced human societies may govern themselves. – David Brin, on Kim Stanley Robinson

But he challenges Robinson on the apparent tilting of the balances he has done in his latest novel Aurora, which, according to Brin, is bent on proving the futility of interstellar travel. Regardless of which author is correct on this issue (“interstellar-yes!” Brin) or (“interstellar-no!” Robinson) it is all a dodge of the real issue.

First, where I absolutely agree with Kim Stanley Robinson is over the biggest of all Big Lies in hard-SF tales about humans conquering the galaxy… the notion that it will be easy for ortho-humanity to colonize other earthlike worlds. A mere cloning of the European experience settling the Americas, stepping off the boat, inhaling the fresh air, chopping some trees and pushing back natives, building prosperous farms, then cities… this re-figuring of the American West in space is a standard motif, from Poul Anderson to Lois Bujold and a thousand other authors, and although it is so alluring a dream, it ain’t necessarily so. – David Brin

Brin’s conclusion isn’t where I see a problem but in the premise it is based on: that the European colonization of the Americas was in any way easy. The fact is, landing Armstrong on the moon, for all its challenges and triumph, was easier – by an order of magnitude – than the colonization of the wild and deadly Americas. Colonist groups considered it great fortune to merely be decimated by death, disease, supply loss, weather and hostiles. Today, we have technology under development to terraform portions of currently inhospitable planets in advance of colonization. Can you imagine what Columbus might have been able to accomplish with a single Mars rover?

The Wrong Targets

And this is where a critique of first principles in order.

Good science fiction may include politics of some sort, but despite what Brin asserts, that shouldn’t be its measure. Nor should “competence porn.” It is simply a myth that science fiction’s job is to correct any perceived tropes of the past.

Ken Burnside demonstrated an understanding of this very well in his Hugo award-nominated The Hot Equations. His counsel on the better implementation of physics into space combat is less focused on correcting tropes and is instead written entirely from the perspective of serving an underserved genre:

Thermodynamically limited space opera is a greatly underserved niche, in the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram between Hard SF and military science fiction. – Ken Burnside, The Hot Equations

Where Burnside is on target, Brin is off base. Brin’s argument is based on a premise: that in the future, Science Fiction depends on better political messaging and a commitment to progress.

Brin is half right: Science Fiction can be about an optimistic future that comes about through hard work and sound engineering. But does not, at its core only include that. Despite what Brin asserts, 1984 is not a positive self-denying prophecy. Orwell did not prevent a society that falls repeatedly under totalitarian thought policing – he merely provided a fictional setting that helped some readers identify it when it came for them.

Stay on target! Stay on target!

It is the half-truth difference between “can” and “should.” Science fiction, says Brin, should contain a politic that – whether in utopia, dystopia or realism – promotes the idea of hard progress. That is his disappointment with Robinson’s Aurora: it doesn’t do that.

But this misses the point. Aurora may be downbeat, its politics may be daft, its chaotic society a mess, but the problem isn’t any of that. You can say the same thing about Stephen King’s The Long Walk, and that is nonetheless a great science fiction story. The problem is that for all the chatting, no one has told me what there is to like about the story, or if there is a story there at all.

The Forgotten Element

Story. That’s the key element that is missing in Brin’s critique, and in Stephen Baxter’s, James Benford’s and Joseph Miller’s and in Gregory Binford’s!

No one is talking about the story. Is it any good? Does it crackle with adventure, pathos, wonder or is it at least entertaining? Over the generations, does a line of protagonists in the book achieve an objective or fail? Are there protagonists at all?

I’ve never heard anyone complain that they loved a novel, but only wished it read more like a college text book. I’m not saying that there’s no place in story criticism for politics or accuracy or whatever. But when the alleged “most controversial” science fiction story comes out, don’t you think that someone might mention the story?

14 Comments
  • Astrosorceror says:

    KSR’s “Red Mars” was a great tale. Sure the politics of the author were daft, but the adventure, scope and characters and their struggles were great. It bought out the scope and breadth of the epic of life on Mars.

    Brin’s “Earth” was snooze-worthy. It had the same daft politics, but it was BORING, and that is unforgivable. Nothing happened, really, nothing, other than people complaining about the end of the world. No one did anything about it, or fled the Earth, we didn’t even get a disaster movie where the crust collapsed to magma while the hero and heroine stood together one last time. Nothing but griping.

    Give me a story, an epic, with people daring to struggle and contest against all. They may win or loose, but let their cry echo forth as they challege.

  • Daniel says:

    The odd thing is that the Postman was a good story, despite the fact that its ridiculous anti-militia movement message is way over the top (he’d have been less hysterical making satan-worshipping D&D gamers the mortal threat). There are also good science fiction books with sound politics and good stories. The point isn’t that politics can’t be around a story, even if they end up making the author look like an idiot. As long as he focuses on the story, all the other stuff is either ugly or decent window dressing.

    Here, Brin pretends the dressing is fractured glass. A glazier isn’t going to save your curtains, and if there’s no window there, he’s going to think you are crazy, too.

  • The CronoLink says:

    “No one is talking about the story.”

    This is why I appreciate greatly what Castalia’s bloggers are doing.

  • James May says:

    So now in addition to the batty feminism producing non-genre stories there are people who want to make SF the genre of what is not possible?

    Barsoom has always been the bastard son finding its own kingdom to conquer. It finally did, only to have pedants, conformist rednecks and feminists jump on board and wreck the joint.

    If I want to read The Girl Who Could Never Be in a Golden Atom I’ll let cisgendered NASA know.

  • GK Chesterton says:

    Minor note, I believe you meant “Ben” not “Bin”ford.

  • anonymous coward says:

    > Can you imagine what Columbus might have been able to accomplish with a single Mars rover?

    Actually, I can. Precisely zero. There’s no gold or slaves or sugarcane on Mars.

    People forget that ‘outer space’, including all of its planets and starts, is literally an infinite expanse of nothing. Nobody wants to colonize nothingness.

  • Daniel says:

    I meant a Mars rover in the Americas. A weaponized robot in the hands of a Columbus would have made quite an explorer.

    Furthermore, the planets and stars are not a literal infinite expanse of nothing. The ore resources on Mars are in fact fairly plentiful.

    So, people haven’t forgotten anything. Just you and Kim Stanley Robinson, and even he thinks the immediate planets are worth looking into!

  • Russell says:

    “A mere cloning of the European experience settling the Americas, stepping off the boat, inhaling the fresh air, chopping some trees and pushing back natives, building prosperous farms, then cities”

    What the hell is he blathering about?

    “Colonist groups considered it great fortune to merely be decimated by death, disease, supply loss, weather and hostiles.”

    Indeed.

    “it is so alluring a dream”

    All of human history has colonization woven into it. It’s not a “dream” it’s human nature.

    “I’ve never heard anyone complain that they loved a novel, but only wished it read more like a college text book.”

    Story is just so pre-post-postmodern-SJW-ism. If you can’t beat yourself up over some injustice or feelbad du jour, no matter how imaginary, why read the book?

  • The Vest says:

    I think you’re confusing science fiction for Space Operas or Space Fantasy.

    Science Fiction by definition is speculative fiction based on an extrapolation of existing scientific theories to some point in the future. Science fiction is also often categorized along a spectrum from soft to hard, with hard science fiction taking the time to explain the setting’s science and technologies and attempting to base said technologies on what is physically possible, while soft science fiction tends to hand-wave things a lot more.

    That’s not to say hard science fiction is directly focused on the science and technology, of course. You can have a hard science fiction setting focus mainly on the plot and character interactions – you just have to make sure that you stay within the boundaries of a consistent set of scientific laws and at least describe them in passing.

    Similarly, you can have a soft sci-fi setting go in-depth on how the longetuditron interacts with the compression coil and why the entire ship shuts down when the compression coil breaks and all sorts of other technobable – in fact, that’s a decent-sized portion of good-ol’ Star Trek.

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