Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fish Custard (8)


I was less convinced by the one with Toby Jones.


C.S Lewis or Aristotle or someone of that kind asks us to distinguish between the plot machinery and the plot itself. It doesn't matter too much if the mechanism by which your hero gets to Mars is plausible if the story was never about the journey, but what he saw when he arrived. We don't have to believe in Delphic oracles, sphinxes or improbable meetings at places where three roads meet: we're interested in how a man would react if he suddenly discovered that the woman he married was his own mother. Folk-singers (and for that matter Mr William Shakespeare) don't really expect us to believe that if a lady-shaped person slips on a pair of trousers, she'll instantly be assumed to be male by everyone she meets, including army recruitment officers and her own true love. We aren't interested in the practical problems faced by 17th century transvestites. "Imagine that a man who robbed at gun-point and the robber turned out to be his own girlfriend!" the singer is saying "Imagine the look on his face when he finds out!"

I forget whether or not Aristotle himself uses the word McGuffin.

If I were to write about The Prisoner, which I probably won't, I would say that in the original version, The Village was pretty obviously a piece of plot machinery, but in the new version The Village is pretty much the whole of what the plot is about. The original version is about the ways in which an exceptionally individualistic person stands up for himself in a society where there are is no such thing as an individual. It's about the relationship of individuals to society and what's so great about being an individual, anyway? It's about that tricks and traps that Number 2 sets to make Number 6 conform, and about Number 6's plans to escape. The remake is about The Village. It's about Number 2 (sorry, "2") who has a back story, a family, and considerably more personality than 6 does. It asks us what The Village is – a real place, the only real place, a dream, a virtual reality? The original only asked us what The Village meant. All sorts of questions which were unanswered and unanswerable in the original version – who did 6 work for? why did he resign? what was his real name? – are neatly tied up. [*]

There are, of course, Portmeirion literalists who try to answer those sorts of questions about the original programme. They are terribly disappointed to discover that English schoolchildren say "break" rather than "recess" so when Number 2 is in the persona of Number 6's old headmaster, he's much more likely to be saying "See me in the morning break!" than "See me in the morning, Drake." But even if you could conclusively prove that the protagonists of The Prisoner and Danger Man were the same person, it's hard to see how that would elucidate The Prisoner.

It occurs to me that a working definition of Science Fiction might be "literature without plot machinery; literature for people who are interested in the plot machinery; literature which tells you how the space-ship works stories where a girl can't pass herself off as a boy without a special sort of bra". Someone in the Grauniad pointed out that Nineteen Eighty-four was certainly not science fiction because it showed no interest in how the Screens worked. (I forget if this was someone who liked Science Fiction very much, but didn't like Orwell, or someone who liked Orwell very much, but didn't like Science Fiction.) Certainly some of the objections to New New Who have been science fictiony nit picks about the plot machinery: Why do the Doctor and the Daleks always meet each other consecutively? Why is the Doctor so confused by money and football and pubs when he's lived on earth for years and usually has no difficulty fitting in on weird alien planets?

We don't care.

It further occurs to me that on this definition I probably haven't read, or at any rate enjoyed, a work of science fiction since Blast Off at Woomera in Miss Walker's class, so you probably shouldn't pay attention to anything I say about the subject. But you probably don't anyway.

continues....

[*] SPOILER WARNING: I do give them points for the ending in which 6 takes over from 2 and plans to create a new, happier Village. All the way through he's been saying "I am not a number": although he thinks he's "won", he's only done this by becoming a number, so he's really "lost". That's not a bad reading of the impenetrable final instalment of the original.







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29 comments:

Anton said...

A friend of mine once told me he disliked time paradox stories because "the time travel should just be what gets the protagonists to the adventure not the adventure itself". I couldn't disagree more. For me all the scenes in the Tardis and any kind of wibbly wobbly timey wimeyness are what make Doctor Who unique. (And I've been watching since 'Unearthly Child') I rapidly lose interest as soon as they step foot outside those wonderfully modern/op art/steampunk transcendental dimensions onto alien or historical soil (including all those misguided trips to Gallifrey).

As to 'The one with Toby Jones' It almost worked, I wonder if the Dream Lord is imortant to the main arc or just a sideshow? I s'pose we'll find out soon. Loving your commentaries on this season BTW.

Andrew Stevens said...

I do give them points for the ending in which 6 takes over from 2 and plans to create a new, happier Village. All the way through he's been saying "I am not a number": although he thinks he's "won", he's only done this by becoming a number, so her's really "lost". That's not a bad reading of the impenetrable final instalment of the original.

The Prisoner graphic novel had more or less the same interpretation of the ending though, so I couldn't even give them very many points for that. Plus, I don't agree with that interpretation, though I grant its plausibility.

culfy said...

"Folk-singers (and for that matter Mr William Shakespeare) don't really expect us to believe that if a lady-shaped person slips on a pair of trousers, she'll instantly be assumed to be male by everyone she meets, including army recruitment officers and her own true love."

I once saw a production of Twelfth Night in which the director's notes in the programme expressed a very real concern that he had never seen the 'lady wearing men's clothes looks like a man' bit done convincingly. His solution to this 'alleged' problem was to set the whole production in the second world war and have Sebastian and Viola in identical uniforms, supposedly solving this problem. I found this misguided on the grounds of
1) The actors playing Viola and Sebastian still looked nothing like each other, even in uniforms.
2) Setting the whole production in the Second World War meant that it became a group about an incredibly degenerate and heartless group of people whose main concern, during a time of great national suffering, was that the bloke upstairs got a bit cross about them making a noise.

There's a point to all this somewhere hidden - perhaps around the dangers of fanwankery?

Gavin Burrows said...

A couple of things to mention first off...

i) I solemnly swore upon the grave of my pet goldfish that I would devote my life to the cause of pedantry.
ii) I only ever made it through the first episode of The Prisoner But Broke before deciding it was a great big load of Number Two and giving up on it.

You will get no arguments from me about the failings of Proper SF. (Or “hard SF”, which is so called because it is so hard to read.)Whenever people talk about it in this way I can only say “thank the stars for sci-fi!”

But I’m not sure that the failings of The Prisoner Broke was the failings of Proper SF. Hard SF is like a How Things Work book which, after a knock on the head, imagines itself to be a novel. The Prisoner Broke was more like that I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue game, where you have to sing the words of one song to the tune of another. In this case it was the words of Lost to the tune of The Prisoner.

It’s failing was less that it tried to convince us that the Village was a real place (with a viable economic model and social system), and more that it spun the people hanging about in it as real people. Number Six was a cipher in a village built to be a set, so consequently it didn’t matter. ‘Six’ was a stereotype in a set built to be a village and it did. (“I am not an actor” would have been a more apposite catchphrase.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't agree with that interpretation,

Me neither. I don’t imagine the ending means 6 is 1, but that the two of them are joined at the hip. Each one’s existence is predicated upon the other. It’s actually very similar to the ending of Gilbert Hernandez’s ‘BEM’.

Culfy said...

His solution to this 'alleged' problem was to set the whole production in the second world war and have Sebastian and Viola in identical uniforms,

Why not set it at night before the invention of fire?

NB This is probably me demonstrating my endless reserves of denseness, but I don’t quite see the link to ’Amy’s Choice’ here. Toby Jones was a kind of Number Two?

Phil Masters said...

Definitions of science fiction are always personal (or at least subjective). Mine is, or rather includes that idea that, science fiction shows respect for the assumptions and methods of science - that the universe is consistent, with coherent rules which can be learned by observation and experiment, and that use of those rules, once learned, can accomplish consistent results.

Then you can play with the consequences of all that. SF doesn't have to get the science right - a story certainly doesn't stop being SF because its science becomes outdated - and is allowed the occasional mistake, but it ought at least to try.

So I think that 1984 is SF because it lives in that rationalist materialist universe, and looks at what happens when the powers granted by science and technology are hideously and brutally exploited by people whose only concern is power. It's more interested in being social commentary, and it doesn't expend a lot of energy on being SF, but it's in the canon. Similarly, Neuromancer is about the uses and consequences of a recognisable set of technologies, and how htey might make us and other entities less or more "human", so its slightly sloppy treatment of some of the logic doesn't matter. 2001 is about science bringing people face to face with powers who've been playing this game a lot longer than we have. And so on.

"Hard SF" is SF which brings the concern with logic and respect for current knowledge front and centre, and is exhilarating and challenging because it doesn't let us duck the difficult bits. It's not supposed to be easy, which is why it's wonderful, at least in controlled doses. (SF "hardness" is still relative and somewhat subjective, by the way, not an objective absolute.) It's also as dangerous as any other drug when it gets into the food chain unnoticed, which is why Michael Crichton, who writes mediocre hard SF without admitting it, is a bit of a menace.

On which terms, Dr Who isn't generally very SF, at least these days, because it doesn't show much respect for those assumptions and methods; it just uses the furniture of science, or rather of SF, for its own purposes. Which is why I refer to it as science fantasy. Serious SF fans tend to be rude about science fantasy - words like "bastard genre" and "playing tennis without a net" tend to get sprayed around a lot - but, y'know, whatever.

Gavin Burrows said...

Yes, but doesn’t all fiction (science-appendaged or otherwise) have to follow coherent rules or there is no point in playing? And, including in science fiction, these rules do not have to be scientific so long as they are coherent? Cosmic rays is a pretty hokey explanation for how the Human Torch can flame on, but it’s okay provided he doesn’t suddenly start exhibiting the powers of Spider-Man. (Now that would be silly...)

And the other way up, isn’t Sherlock Holmes’ universe scientific? It’s based around him making careful observations and extrapolations from explicable phenomenon, in order to catch stray dogs. That’s a kind of scientific method underpinning it throughout, but would that make it science fiction?

Similarly, the idea that Orwell wrote ’1984’ out of a concern with science and technology seems rather misplaced. Surely his concerns were much more social and political, and technology was merely instrumental to that.

Perhaps I should put my cards on the table and admit that bringing science and technology “front and centre” seems to me inherently misplaced. Real science is not developed by eccentrics in sheds exploring happy accidents, whose explosive discoveries then impact unexpectedly on the rest of us. Science and technology is today an industry, and like all industries it serves its paymasters. People invest to see results that they want to see. To focus on the science and technology is to mistake the hand for the brain.

Of course I agree that in reality it’s a spectrum. Like chocolates, the ‘hardness’ of SF comes in varying degrees. But my contention is that SF may say “science” on its lid without that word necessarily seeping through to the rules beneath the lid.

Phil Masters said...

Yes, but doesn’t all fiction (science-appendaged or otherwise) have to follow coherent rules or there is no point in playing?

Excuse me? We're discussing Dr Who here, aren't we?

Anyway, the point is not simple that "science fiction is logical" (which it may only be barely), but that it respects and often foregrounds the specific set of rules and methodologies that we label "science".

And, including in science fiction, these rules do not have to be scientific so long as they are coherent?

It helps if they come from somewhere in the vicinity of something that's been called "science" at some point. "Cosmic rays" were - still are - part of the science of astronomy. Fiction which focuses on, say, the rules of hermetic magic is somewhat more problematic - although done well (which is bloody hard, because hermetic magic is designed to be pretty impenetrable), such a story could actually qualify as a sort of science fiction. It's been done once or twice.

And the other way up, isn’t Sherlock Holmes’ universe scientific? It’s based around him making careful observations and extrapolations from explicable phenomenon, in order to catch stray dogs. That’s a kind of scientific method underpinning it throughout, but would that make it science fiction?

I didn't say that I was offering a complete and comprehensive definition. But actually, funnily enough, I could argue a moderately convincing case for calling the Holmes stories SF of a sort. There's a fair bit of science in there, some of it speculative or even plausibly invented, from Holmes's fondness for chemistry to the forensic science of typewriter identification.

One could certainly tag them as proto-technothrillers in their time (modern technothrillers being near-future SF for people with a fetish about gun stats).

Similarly, the idea that Orwell wrote ’1984’ out of a concern with science and technology seems rather misplaced. Surely his concerns were much more social and political, and technology was merely instrumental to that.

Nonetheless, he used technology to facilitate his plot. And the social and political problems he was concerned with partly arose out of technological activities. You can't really have a surveillance state or totalitarian propaganda systems without modern technology, though some people may have tried.

Phil Masters said...

Perhaps I should put my cards on the table and admit that bringing science and technology “front and centre” seems to me inherently misplaced. Real science is not developed by eccentrics in sheds exploring happy accidents, whose explosive discoveries then impact unexpectedly on the rest of us. Science and technology is today an industry, and like all industries it serves its paymasters. People invest to see results that they want to see. To focus on the science and technology is to mistake the hand for the brain.

You assume that science fiction should be concerned solely with the state of the world today, which is begging a planetary-sized question just to start with. Some people's definition of SF is "that stuff set in the future", after all. (Though yes, that's a mind-numbingly stupid and ignorant definition, of course.)

But anyway, science fiction is perfectly capable of talking about science as a team effort - scientist/SF writers like Fred Hoyle and Gregory Benford are sometimes downright obsessed with doing so. The solitary genius producing small explosions and random eureka moments is pretty much taken as the hallmark of bad pulp skiffy these days.

And SF can examine the uses and misuses of science and technology by corporations and governments, too, even as it showcases the science stuff in loving detail. The police procedural is a perfectly good format for an examination of the nature of law enforcement and the political thriller/melodrama can say things about political power; writing about the tools is often a great way to get into a discussion of the work.

If you want to say that determinedly hard SF focuses too much on the science to consider properly how it might be being used or misused - well, maybe. Though that still assumes that fiction has a duty to lecture on ethics rather than merely to entertain the paying customers. However, I'll happily give you a reading/viewing list of (quite) hard SF that also deals with these questions, if you really want. (Mmm. The Man in the white Suit; Greg Egan's "Luminous", "The Moral Virologist", or "The Hundred-Light-Year Diary"; Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End...)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Do these kinds of discussions happen in other genres? I mean, are there those who say that if I choose to write a love story set on a boat in the age of sail, I absolutely have to know and care about how you would go about belaying a topsail gallant after I'd carelessly settled it away, otherwise it isn't proper historical fiction but some kind of bastard genre called historical romance?

But then, I'm the story of crazy fool who would be happy to define "tragedy" as "a play with a sad ending".

Phil Masters said...

There are certainly people who take their historical fiction very, very seriously. I suspect that, for sheer pedantry of detail, there are very few science fiction fans who can lay a glove on serious Napoleonic sea story fandom.

(Of course, to be pedantic, there's got to be enough information to be pedantic about. Napoleonic-era ship-handling is a complex subject which is also quite well documented.)

Phil Masters said...

(By the way, Gavin - how do you reckon the Large hadron Collider serves its paymasters?)

Gavin Burrows said...

(By the way, Gavin - how do you reckon the Large hadron Collider serves its paymasters?)

It would have to bloody work, first!

(Will reply to your other comments when I have a bit more time...)

Gavin Burrows said...

I have a bit more time. (Though I wouldn’t go so far as to consider myself a Lord of the stuff...)

Rather than reply to Phil Masters point-by-point, it may be more beneficial to try and probe deeper and guess at where he seems to be coming from. At the same time I’m going to claim that at points he didn’t get where I was coming from, so of course it’s entirely possible I have this all wrong! If proved so, I shall look suitably shamefaced until at least next Thursday.

I’m wondering if Phil doesn’t consider hard SF to be true SF, and all the other types merely dilutions of it – like watered-down wine. (I’m also wondering if he considers hard SF to be true modern literature! Granted there’s some connection between it and detective fiction, but I don’t see Sherlock Holmes in the SF section of bookshops often. But the first wonder is quite enough supposition for one day...)

Hence ‘science fantasy’ is distantly related to the important stuff by using some of the important words like “cosmic rays”. But these psuedo-scientific terms would seem to me to be grasped more in haste than in judgement. Superman had a psuedo-scientifc origin, Captain Marvel an out-and-out magical one. I don’t think that stops us seeing them as the same kind of characters. DC considered them to be the same character even, and were onto their lawyers pretty sharpish.

”science fiction is perfectly capable of talking about science as a team effort.”

...and here m’learned colleague misses my point, perhaps misled by the messy-haired inventor I conjured up earlier. The crucial sentence was “science and technology is today an industry”, and industries are rarely solitary pursuits.

Of course Phil is right to say that SF can “examine the uses and misuses of science and technology by corporations and governments” – indeed the already-mentioned ‘1984’ does exactly this. Yet the phrasing of this reply seems to suggest a skewing. Scientists might innocently invent, say, the H-bomb as a means to get stubborn stains out of pans. Politicians then come along and decide to use it against the population of Japan. And the inevitable corollary for this is stuff like Asimov’s ’Foundation’ books, where society must be run by technocratic elites or else all is lost.

But ’1984’ is a good counter-case. I don’t think we are supposed to imagine that the authorities stumbled across some televisor screens and a lightbulb went off above their sinister heads. Quite the reverse, they would have invested in the technology of surveillance and the televisor screen was one of the products. The technology may be beneficial to their purpose, but it’s not essential and it’s not the subject of the book. If you’re going to stamp on a human face forever a boot is better than a bare foot. But it’s not a novel about footwear.

”that still assumes that fiction has a duty to lecture on ethics rather than merely to entertain the paying customers.’

Again with m’learned colleague’s misunderstandings! It seems to me that art will inevitably reflect the prejudices and mentalities of its creators, whether this is intentional or not. SF of the colonial era screams out that fact to our modern eyes, as does SF from the Cold War. Much of this may well have been invisible at the time, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Hard SF seems to me show a greater tendency to lecture and lay out blueprints. But even the stuff that largely consists of long paragraphs explaining rocket propulsion systems – there still seems to me the supposition about technocratic elites. I don’t doubt that there will be exceptions to this rule. But it seems common enough to warrant being called a rule, or at the very least a tendency.

Phil Masters said...

I’m wondering if Phil doesn’t consider hard SF to be true SF, and all the other types merely dilutions of it – like watered-down wine.

No. Not at all. Please point to where I said any such thing, so I can correct it.

Hard SF is a sub-category of SF, and arguably a sort of distillation of the essence of SF, but other forms of SF are far more than distillations of the pure essence. The Time Machine or Last and First Men or "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal" or The Space Merchants or Nightwings or Blade Runner are all, to my mind, masterpieces of the SF canon, but I wouldn't describe any of them as hard SF.

I’m also wondering if he considers hard SF to be true modern literature!

I'm not clear what I'm being accused of here. If you mean, do I regard it as the only true modern literature - well, no. There are, I believe, some dedicated SF fans who might claim that about SF in general, but few would limit the claim to hard SF, and anyway I'm not one of them. If you're implying that hard SF isn't either modern or literature... Well, what is it, then? The cat's mother?

Hence ‘science fantasy’ is distantly related to the important stuff by using some of the important words like “cosmic rays”.

"Science fantasy" is a marginal and peculiar category which some people don't use at all, and others use as a term of abuse. I just use it as a relatively neutral label for a few things, including as it happens Dr Who these days. The point is that discussing works of science fantasy as science fiction is like punching fog; anything that distinguishes science fiction as a distinct category tends to be missing, or discarded as irrelevant, except for some rather trivial furniture.

It's like taking a story with men in tunics and some sad bits and claiming it's "classical tragedy", when it's actually a melodrama set in a modern sports club. It may be a very good melodrama set in a modern sports club, but discussing it in a category with Oedipus Rex just wastes everybody's time.

[Cont. in next post.]

Phil Masters said...

But these psuedo-scientific terms would seem to me to be grasped more in haste than in judgement. Superman had a psuedo-scientifc origin, Captain Marvel an out-and-out magical one. I don’t think that stops us seeing them as the same kind of characters.

Actually, I'd agree. Superhero comics really need to be discussed as a category of their own. Even the ones that use vaguely science-fictional terminology to start with soon slip sideways into a zone that might be called science fantasy but is mostly, well, superhero comicdom.

Of course Phil is right to say that SF can “examine the uses and misuses of science and technology by corporations and governments” – indeed the already-mentioned ‘1984’ does exactly this. Yet the phrasing of this reply seems to suggest a skewing. Scientists might innocently invent, say, the H-bomb as a means to get stubborn stains out of pans. Politicians then come along and decide to use it against the population of Japan. And the inevitable corollary for this is stuff like Asimov’s ’Foundation’ books, where society must be run by technocratic elites or else all is lost.

All of which is merely claiming that a specific set of science fiction stories - okay, the large body of pulp-era and post-pulp stuff that was the first to bear the label - happens to be imbued with the assumptions of its authors and their society (like, what literature isn't?), and that it doesn't happen to share your particular social and political analyses. All of which may be perfectly good criticism of those particular stories, but really doesn't say much about SF as a general category.

[Cont. in next post.]

Phil Masters said...

But ’1984’ is a good counter-case. I don’t think we are supposed to imagine that the authorities stumbled across some televisor screens and a lightbulb went off above their sinister heads. Quite the reverse, they would have invested in the technology of surveillance and the televisor screen was one of the products. The technology may be beneficial to their purpose, but it’s not essential and it’s not the subject of the book. If you’re going to stamp on a human face forever a boot is better than a bare foot. But it’s not a novel about footwear.

So it's not hard SF. It's still science fiction - and another masterpiece of the previously-mentioned canon, in fact.

(All on my personal definitions, I should say. People with a lot more right than me to form such definitions may have different ideas. Brian Aldiss was big on references to the gothic mode, and John Clute... Oh god, does anyone understand what John Clute would say about this or anything else?)

Hard SF seems to me show a greater tendency to lecture and lay out blueprints. But even the stuff that largely consists of long paragraphs explaining rocket propulsion systems – there still seems to me the supposition about technocratic elites. I don’t doubt that there will be exceptions to this rule. But it seems common enough to warrant being called a rule, or at the very least a tendency.

So I could quote any number of counter-examples, and you'll dismiss them all as "exceptions", I gather.

And yet, you haven't offered any definition of "hard SF" that obliges it to carry any particular set of social or political assumptions. On the contrary, a story which happens to have detailed and rigorous use of contemporary scientific or technological ideas or speculations as a primary component can employ all sorts of socio-political assumptions. Just to name two people who I'd say were trying very hard to write hard SF these days - Vernor Vinge is a libertarian who'd say that he didn't want any elites, although in practise he certainly displays a rather strong scientistic bias, whereas Greg Egan is a liberal humanist whose ideal society would probably be built on some kind of democratic rationalism.

I get the impression that your idea of "hard SF" is, frankly, stuck in the 1940s and '50s, and heavily coloured by Asimov and Heinlein (who, gods know, have a lot to answer for). However, they weren't even writing really hard SF by the standards of their time and milieu, and the history of SF since then has almost been defined by people revolting against that "golden age" model, from Fred Pohl onwards.

culfy said...

"His solution to this 'alleged' problem was to set the whole production in the second world war and have Sebastian and Viola in identical uniforms,

Why not set it at night before the invention of fire?"

Because the invention of fire predated the invention of stringed instruments and the director said it was vital to his conception of the play that Feste played a stringed instrument.

Coincidentally, the director played the guitar and ukulele.

Gavin Burrows said...

Need... more.... timey-wimey stuff!!!

Gavin Burrows said...

Hopefully this reply to Phil is better late than never!

Part of the problem may be that, while saying you see Hard SF as but a sub-category, you don’t describe any of the other sub-categories. True you list other works, but not the category you’d consider them to fall into. (Most bizarrely over ’1984’. If anyone here was arguing it not to be SF, I’m afraid I must have missed it.)

The one exception to this merely compounds the problem. Is it me or is it a little odd to refer to Science Fantasy as “a marginal and peculiar category” where “anything that distinguishes SF tends to be missing,”. then claim this to be “ a relatively neutral label”? It rather beggars the question of what you call people you don’t like.

I am far too lazy to go and look this up, but at one point Andrew says the point to Rose and Jackie is that they are presented according to some narrative codes which we have learnt to associate with “real life characters.” It doesn’t matter much whether they convincingly represent real people, the point is that we recognise the codes they employ. It seems to me that the science in SF has a similar narrative function. It may at one end of the spectrum approximate the rules of real-world science, it may at the other be an alternative term for magic. But neither wing of the family is any more distantly related than the other. “You need to do the science right (or at least pretend to)” seems to me a peculiarly ahistoric definition of SF.

With ’1984’, for example, the debate is about whether the televisor screens are central or merely part of what Andrew called “the plot machinery.” I contend that the point of the book is that an Englishman’s skull is not his castle, that ‘they’ can get in and affect even his deepest-held feelings according to their liking. Televisor screens, like newspeak and Hate Week, are merely incidental to this end. Unlike ’Buck Rogers’, ’1984’ must appear credible to the reader. We must imagine that we would be no better at resisting than Winston. Yet nowhere does it follow that this must mean scientifically credible – that would be like demanding working diagrams of the machine from ’In The Penal Colony’. It is Winston loving Big Brother that counts. (And in fact the televisor screens manifestly fail in this aim. Hence the need for rooms with rats in and all the rest.)

”And yet, you haven't offered any definition of "hard SF" that obliges it to carry any particular set of social or political assumptions. On the contrary, a story which happens to have detailed and rigorous use of contemporary scientific or technological ideas or speculations as a primary component can employ all sorts of socio-political assumptions”

This reply seems to rather miss the point that I was replying to a description of yours! Moreover, your later examples suggest a writer who likes the notion of scientific elites but not the awkward bit of admitting it, and one who is more of a liberal humanist. If there are hard SF writers you know of who admit science itself can produce problems, rather than just be put to wrong uses by non-scientists, then of course I’ll concede the point.

”I get the impression that your idea of "hard SF" is, frankly, stuck in the 1940s and '50s, and heavily coloured by Asimov and Heinlein”

Oh, I haven’t read nearly as much Hard SF as that! I didn’t really read Heinlein, though I did most from that list. My history was probably a common one. In my adolescence I progressed from space opera to Asimov and Clarke, and felt terribly grown up. But they subsequently came to feel terribly adolescent!

Perhaps ironically, the nearest thing I’ve since read to Hard SF has been in comics. But when, say, Alan Moore or Grant Morrison have based their storylines on science, I feel they’ve mostly used recent scientific theories as a spur to their imaginations. I’m not sure they felt in service to science.

Phil Masters said...

Part of the problem may be that, while saying you see Hard SF as but a sub-category, you don’t describe any of the other sub-categories.

Space opera. New space opera. Dystopia. Utopia. Steampunk. Cyberpunk. Technothriller (a marginal case). Absurdist SF. New Wave SF. Alternate history.

There are doubtless others. I could describe most of these, but it would require inordinate amounts of text, and there are probably pretty good wikipedia entries for most of them.


True you list other works, but not the category you’d consider them to fall into. (Most bizarrely over ’1984’. If anyone here was arguing it not to be SF, I’m afraid I must have missed it.)

If I needed to make a snap categorisation, it's a dystopia, of course. And don't underestimate the capacity of mainstream literati to refuse to categorise things as "SF" because they're good (or because they reckon they can sell more of their stuff from the mainstream shelves). Googling "talking squids in outer space" will probably turn up more about this.

Hollywood is just as bad, of course, because Hollywood SF is largely defined by the big FX budget. I believe that desperate attempts have been made to save Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from the SF label, because (a) it's good, and (b) the FX are subtle.

The one exception to this merely compounds the problem. Is it me or is it a little odd to refer to Science Fantasy as “a marginal and peculiar category” where “anything that distinguishes SF tends to be missing,”. then claim this to be “ a relatively neutral label”? It rather beggars the question of what you call people you don’t like.

"Bad"? "Very bad"? "Annoying"? "Abysmal"? Stuff like that, mostly.

(It doesn't even beg the question, by the way. Heaven knows how one beggars a question.)

I am far too lazy to go and look this up, but at one point Andrew says the point to Rose and Jackie is that they are presented according to some narrative codes which we have learnt to associate with “real life characters.”

(Mostly East End accents, I suspect.)

TBC. I'm afraid.

Phil Masters said...

It seems to me that the science in SF has a similar narrative function. It may at one end of the spectrum approximate the rules of real-world science, it may at the other be an alternative term for magic. But neither wing of the family is any more distantly related than the other. “You need to do the science right (or at least pretend to)” seems to me a peculiarly ahistoric definition of SF.

Or at least respect it, is what I'd say. The science in, say, Cordwainer Smith's stories is, well, pretty tenuous. But all the signs are that this is a setting where science works and has meaning. A story set in a scientific research institution, but in which no particular scientific discoveries take place, and which could as easily be taking place in an accountancy firm or whatever, is probably not SF. One featuring scientists, but which makes it clear that the universe is directly controlled by supernatural forces, and that the scientists are damned and deluded fools, is certainly "fantasy". No matter how many signifiers - how many white coats, computers, and characters with physics degrees - you throw in, those stories surely aren't SF.

Whereas the old scientific romance tradition, and the subsequent Gernsbackian pulp stories that actually adopted the new label of "science fiction" (or "scientifiction", oh dear) are about worlds where science works and is at some level crucial to the plot. Science fantasy, by my terms, pretends to the same, but the science is too wildly goofy to be taken seriously - although the stories may have other virtues and charms.

TBC, hey ho.

Phil Masters said...

With ’1984’, for example, the debate is about whether the televisor screens are central or merely part of what Andrew called “the plot machinery.” I contend that the point of the book is that an Englishman’s skull is not his castle, that ‘they’ can get in and affect even his deepest-held feelings according to their liking. Televisor screens, like newspeak and Hate Week, are merely incidental to this end. Unlike ’Buck Rogers’, ’1984’ must appear credible to the reader. We must imagine that we would be no better at resisting than Winston. Yet nowhere does it follow that this must mean scientifically credible – that would be like demanding working diagrams of the machine from ’In The Penal Colony’. It is Winston loving Big Brother that counts. (And in fact the televisor screens manifestly fail in this aim. Hence the need for rooms with rats in and all the rest.)

Oh 1984 is lighter on the science than most SF. But it's about a world in which televisor screens work (and also in which the human "soul" is not supernaturally immune to physical assault, by the way - another scientistic assumption), and the ability to manipulate physical reality in such ways grants (horrible) power.

If there are hard SF writers you know of who admit science itself can produce problems, rather than just be put to wrong uses by non-scientists, then of course I’ll concede the point.

Well, there's Michael Crichton. Jurassic Park is, after its fashion, hard SF, as are some of his other stories - and he seemed prone to anti-science rants, albeit delivered in terms defined by science.

Or there are Greg Egan stories like "The Hundred-Light-Year Diary", in which the technology is certainly being abused by bad people, but the real problem is that quantum physics has exposed the fallacy of free will, or "Blood Sisters", in which standard scientific procedures (and a bit of corporate cynicism) lead to morally appalling actions.

But it is inevitable that hard SF tends to be written by people who know something about science, find it interesting, and tend to treat it on its own terms, as a search for objective truth and interesting applications of the ensuing knowledge. On those terms, it's hard to define "science" as bad, as opposed to the uses that people may make of it.

Unless you have an objection to the concept of objective truth, of course.

Oh, I haven’t read nearly as much Hard SF as that!

Ah, what know they of skiffy, who only skiffy know?

Gavin Burrows said...

Phil, with all due respect, it might be beneficial if you could focus on what we are actually talking about. Earlier, you were quite clear that you were putting forward your own definition of SF, which lived among others. It is not... ahem!... particularly useful to then turn round and say “if you want to know what something is, you can always look it up on Wikipedia!”

”And don't underestimate the capacity of mainstream literati to refuse to categorise things as "SF" because they're good.”

I’m not. In fact as soon as an ambassador of the mainstream literati posts on Andrew’s blog I will be all over him! Till then, it seems a little like a moot point...

”This is a setting where science works and has meaning.”

Similarly you could argue that the way, say, Le Guin’s ’Earthsea’ novels use magic in a way which works and has meaning. Of course in much genre writing it works without meaning, but then the same thing is true of science. (We have all at some time lamented the way the sonic screwdriver has become a “magic wand”, as a convenient shorthand. But it’s not really what we mean. What we mean is “an ill-defined crutch for lazy writers”.)

Each genre must respect its own conventions, just like a game player must respect the game rules. But those rules are of the game. ’Cluedo’ is not a bad game because real murder investigation is not similar to it. There is nothing to stop SF writers respecting the real rules of science. But there is nothing to insist on it.

There would be nothing wrong in, say, someone having an interest in both historical fiction and interior decoration, and then looking out for points where the two correlate. I’d wager than some historical fiction focuses more on interior decoration than others. Such a person would naturally prefer the first kind. But for them to insist that this was the true for of historical fiction would be like me insisting chick pea curry is true food.

”Jurassic Park is, after its fashion, hard SF”

I’ve only seen the film (which Crichton scripted, of course). But I can’t see anything SF in it. It seems to me more part of SF’s gothic inheritance, which you previously allude to (via Aldiss), a Frankenstein warning against human tampering. If the dinosaurs were resurrected by a more psudeo-scientific means (say harrnessed cosmic rays), everything would still work. wouldn’t it?

”On those terms, it's hard to define "science" as bad”

Specific scientific discoveries can be regarded as harmful without science as a whole being dismissed, In fact most of us do this most of the time. I might be in favour of the internet, solar power and bicycles but against nuclear power and GM foods, none of which makes me define science as a whole in any way. I don’t particulalry want to go to Kabul, but that doesn’t mean I’m against geography. (No sidetrack arguments, please! Those are just examples.)

”Unless you have an objection to the concept of objective truth, of course.”

Of course I do, but that’s another sidetrack!

Gavin Burrows said...

But I can’t see anything SF in it

By which I mean, But I can’t see anything hard SF in it.

(Sorry.)

Phil Masters said...

There would be nothing wrong in, say, someone having an interest in both historical fiction and interior decoration, and then looking out for points where the two correlate. I’d wager than some historical fiction focuses more on interior decoration than others. Such a person would naturally prefer the first kind. But for them to insist that this was the true for of historical fiction would be like me insisting chick pea curry is true food.

I fear that the whole question of definitions of hard SF has become a terrible distraction for the discussion of Dr Who. To clarify my own definitions:

1. "Science fiction" is fiction which makes explicit references to the concepts and methods of "science", and which grants the ideas of science some measure of respect. Details can be debated further, but that means stuff like objective reality, the experimental method, repeatability, and so on. Part of the "respect" would be a willingness to at least try and get the concepts and terminology right. You can get the distance from here to Jupiter a bit wrong and still be writing SF, but if you make Jupiter into a small blue rock inhabited by lavender-coloured elves, you're probably writing fantasy.

2. SF is "harder" the more it places the science front and centre of the story, and the more it tries to get the terminology and scientific concepts right, by available knowledge. Note: "softer" SF can be perfectly good stuff, and hard SF can be done badly. However, because the thing that harder SF emphasises happens to be the thing that defines SF as a whole, it's perfectly reasonably to say that a story is so squidgily soft that it isn't SF. (Conversely, very hard SF is always and unambiguously SF.)

4. Stories which use the furniture and a bit of the jargon of science, but with no discernible respect for what science means or how it's done, or what the damn words mean, slip outside the boundaries of SF. My term for them is "science fantasy". Science fantasy can be entertaining enough - it may even have enough other virtues to be downright good - but I can't blame science fiction fans for finding it a bit irritating and undisciplined. And talking about it using the terminology appropriate to science fiction is a bit of a category error.

5. These days, Dr Who is science fantasy. Once upon a time, it might have qualified as slightly squidgily soft science fiction - there's a great tradition of SF allowing itself one big honking dubious plot device to get the story underway - but it's long since shifted out of the area where talking about it as science fiction does more than cloud the issue.

Phil Masters said...

I’ve only seen the film (which Crichton scripted, of course). But I can’t see anything SF in it.

Do you mean that you don't see anything SF, or that you don't see it as hard SF? The latter is, admittedly, a bit contentious - but the bloody thing is science fiction by any vaguely sensible definition.

It's about hypothetical but vaguely plausible scientific developments, and it's about scientists working on those things. (Heck, the scientists even lecture each other on everything, in the worst traditions of the genre.) It's a present/near future "What if?" invention story; I could point you to literally thousands of those, many in SF magazines and anthologies, written by people who openly called themselves science fiction writers.

It's science fiction.

Like 2001, the book is harder SF than the movie, because the technical explication tends to get squeezed out in the attempt to fit a novel-length story into a couple of hours. (Arguably, the books make those movies hard SF by acting as a collection of footnotes.) But Crichton built a substantial supporting structure of "plausible science" ideas about DNA, cloning, and insects in ancient amber, and a whole load more about the tendency of complex systems to fail in unpredictable ways. That's why it's actually quite hard SF.

I said earlier that hard SF is a dangerous drug. That's because non-SF readers and non-scientists, confronted with a hard SF story they like, tend to be taken in by the surface verisimilitude lent by the coherent science and the mention of stuff which they've read about in magazines, and end up buying the author's pet theories, which may actually be rubbish. Long-time SF readers have seen too many hard SF predictions which crashed and burned, and actually tend to be more sensibly cynical about such things. Crichton was very hung up on stuff going wrong, and used the techniques of SF to reinforce his tendency to scare-mongering.

It seems to me more part of SF’s gothic inheritance, which you previously allude to (via Aldiss), a Frankenstein warning against human tampering.

I'm not sure that gothic stories are automatically or even often about the perils of hubris. Frankenstein is, sure, but Dracula, say?

But that's a debate for another thread...

If the dinosaurs were resurrected by a more psudeo-scientific means (say harrnessed cosmic rays), everything would still work. wouldn’t it?

Not so well, no, at least not in the novel. A story just about a bunch of resurrected dinosaurs chasing a cast around an island would just be another B-movie plot. Crichton gave his version that sheen of verisimilitude by using hard-ish SF techniques.

(The movie, on the other hand, made the plot look glossy and new by using state-of-the-art special effects. It was also a lot cruder than the novel in a whole bunch of ways. Really, I've been talking about the novel at any point in this thread.)

Gavin Burrows said...

I'm not sure if this debate ever got going, and my feeling is that now it's definitely locked into repeat!

It might well have been handicapped by a lack of common examples between Phil and myself. With the sole exception of '1984,' the nearest we got was him talking about a book and me the film!

Is SF hard, soft-boiled, sunny side up or over easy? Alas we may never know...

Andrew Rilstone said...

There's a lady named "Nora Roberts", only that isn't her real name. She writes love stories, that are generally reckoned to be better than the average love story. There's another lady named "J.D Robb", which is also not the real name of the lady who isn't called "Nora Roberts". She writes stories set in the New York Police department in the middle of the 21st century. The main character is a policeman who solves crimes, but there's also a love interest. "J.D Roberts" books get stacked in the "crime" section, not because of their political attitude to the nature of science, or because of their accuracy and consistency (they're police procedurals, so assume they're at least reasonably consistent) but because their likely to be read by the kinds of people of like that kind of book: books about policemen solving crimes.

Ditto, there are books set in the olden days where pirates buckle their swashes on olden days sailing ships; and books which are set in the olden days where the main character happens to go from point A to point B by boat; and books which are set on boats in the olden days where the whole interest is in finding out what sort of knot you'd need to tie if you were going to settle away your topsail foresail after belaying it. (And some of those are more true to life than others: I'm told that fans of Patrick O'Brien laugh at C.S Forester, ha!) The love stories which happen to be set on boats are more read by the kinds of people who like love stories, and the technical stories about knots and rigging are more read by the kinds of people who like technical stories. I really don't know if the fans of the technical stories say, "Forsooth! "The Lass That Loved Sailer" isn't proper historical fiction. I can't think that they do.

I don't know if I mentioned, but I've started listening to a lot of folk music recently. Some of it, like the Young Copper's, is really "folk" music, in the sense that they learned the songs from Grandpa Copper, who learned it from his Grandpa, definitely back as far as the time of Napoleon, and probably further. And some of it is probably "folk" music, in the sense that a Victorian dude heard someone singing it a hundred years ago and wrote it down, and there's a good chance that the version that got "collected" had been being sung that way for lots and lots of generations. But some of it, including some really "traditional" stuff, is only "folk" music in the sense that someone got it out of a book, jiggled the words round, got a tune out of another book, jiggled the tune round, and put them together. And a lot of it is "folk" music in the sense that someone who also sings "traditional" songs made it up, say last Tuesday. Or that there's a fiddle and a squeeze box involved. And quite clearly it doesn't matter. Quite clearly, the definition of "folk music" is "the kind of music that is listened to by the kinds of people who listen to folk music."

This is also why Michael Moorcock never won a Nobel prize or a Booker prize, but Salman Rushdie never won the Hugo. But I have the greatest difficulty in understanding why it matters.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Actually, I could push the analogy a bit further. Some people seem to think that you should only mention "sailing ships" in the context of a ropes and rigging story: that you have really got no right to tell us that Nell took ship to the New World to track down her One True Love if you can't also tell us whether the ship she took was fore and aft rigged or whatever the converse of fore and aft rigged is. More strangely, some people seem to believe, or affect to believe, that every story which mentions "boats" really is a knots-and-rigging story even when it patently isn't. They note that the swarthy sea captain who has arranged for Nell to melt passionately into Sailor Sam's big tough tattooed arms has spliced the mainbrace with the wrong sort of hook, and assume that this is deliberate and significant, and that it shows that the Swarthy Captain is an imposter, or comes from the French Navy (who are well known to splice main braces in a quite different way) and sometimes years later have built complex alternate histories based on the French Imposter theory. Not, of course, that using one kind of story as "raw material" to build up a different kind of story in your head is particularly wicked. It's a harmless pursuit, like collecting buses and watching football matches. But I do think it odd that some people seem to think that this is the most natural way of reading...