Monday, May 9, 2011

Why I still basically don't like science fiction

A little while ago, I wrote a short series of articles for the website Fantasy Faction, wherein I effectively reduced science fiction to fantasy and criticized it for not being more awesome. Someone commented that I was being too harsh on the genre; and, for a moment, I actually thought: "Yes! Who am I to wield the censer of censor over SF? Shame on me! I need to give this genre a chance."

Then, last week, I tried reading Octavia Butler's "Dawn" - and remembered that, yeah, science fiction is a pretty bogus genre.

Now, don't get me wrong: I dig space opera. And I dig space western. Like fantasy, I don't perceive those genres as possessing pretension. "Science fiction," however, is a genre rife with it. Take, for example, the aforementioned Butler novel. It interested me enough when I began; the premise: a species of spacefaring gene-traders saves humanity from destruction in exchange for their life-code. Now, first of all, any premise like this reduces to fantasy: it is no more realistic than necromancy, as far as I'm concerned, as long as we have no empirical evidence of spacefaring gene-traders saving humanity.

But that's not the real problem, in my opinion, though most SF fans will howl at the ignominy of my reductio. The real issue is that the story came with what I perceive to be the bane of good reading: The Lesson.

Science fiction is terribly prone to lessons. Perhaps this is because the people writing it are terribly smart and have put a great deal of thought into their world-building and the concomitant consequences, values, and norms that arise from science fictional situations. It seems difficult, in short, not to think really deeply about something that has ambiguous consequences without trying to disambiguate its portrayal. "Dawn," for instance, was rife with people getting all righteous about their rights not to be tampered with (genetically speaking) and the gradual coming around to the acceptance of variance (i.e. having aliens transmogrify you) that was the painfully obvious lesson behind the story.

Lessons are fine, in one sense - that sense being, "if it is not immediately obvious what the author's agenda is." But Octavia Butler was an African-American writer speaking about perceptions of difference and xenophobia through her works. Similarly, the last time I read Robert J. Sawyer, the lesson was, "science right, religion wrong." It literally hurts my brains to read works so obviously didactic. Science fiction, in short, tends to obliterate the fourth wall. How can you immerse yourself in a story when you see the author behind it? For me, science fiction is an entire genre of lessons - a whole tradition of people telling you what to think and do.

Personally, I prefer lessons be taught by-the-by - in other words, that the lessons of fiction are no different from the lessons of life, i.e., non-didactic. Iain M. Banks' Culture novels are good examples of science fictions that are instructive in an entirely non-pedagogic manner; "Player of Games," for instance, is about a guy being manipulated into destroying an entire race of people by - y'know - playing a game. The story is great, and at the end of it, you've experienced something that might teach you something important about life - or maybe not. And if it does, the content of that lesson is up to you, since the author has nowhere written anything on the blackboard - as is so often the case in science fiction.

Fantasy, on the other hand - for all the absurdities it suffers under the yoke of mystical Zoroastrianism - rarely strives to teach. It seems to be telling us only things we already know, but that we should all like to learn again and again. I enjoy reading fantasy precisely because - high sorceries and vile bestiaries aside - I can see myself in it: both who I am, and who I'd like to be. Too often, science fiction lacks any human component: it is wielded instead as a social pedagogic device.

The question that will be thrown at me by the science fictionalists, of course, is: "But don't you want to be made to think?" The answer is "yes," and the rebuttal is, "I can read non-fiction, philosophy, actual science, history, and, even - gasp - fiction, and be given freer reign to exercise my own faculty of reason than SF allows me due to its pretensious didactic conclusions and its unrealistic, lesson-driven characters."

Now keep your science out of my fiction!



  1. To further illustrate:

  2. Well. I read Mark Twain before I became a writer. He advocated 'preaching', or to use the TVTropes term: Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped.

    (Whether some science fiction is, in fact, science fantasy is a conclusion impossible to dispute even in the most hard of hard SF. Imagination and lack of source citation will do that...)

  3. I agree completely, especially about writers using rhetoric. It's one thing to explore an issue; it's another thing entirely to use fiction to try to browbeat people to your point of view.

    Though Banks may be good about that in the Culture novels, his recent Transitions book - otherwise good - was ruined by rhetoric. He was trying to make this point about how limited liability corporations are evil, writing about how all the "better" alternate earths did not allow limited liability corporate structures. What made it worse was his incomplete grasp of corporate structures. It was obvious that he did not fully understand the difference between an investor and a lender, much less how that difference plays out when a corporation fails. It's such an esoteric thing to take a big stance on, and it was especially weird when he obviously formed a very strong opinion based on a kind of freshman-level business course grasp of the whole deal.

    Although my background is not in science, my impression from friends in the sciences is that almost all sci fi writers are extrapolating out from their own sub-par, freshman-level understanding of existing science.