Science fiction is really beginning to annoy me…

Dedication: To anyone who may find this interesting, but more-so to the science fiction fans most likely to find it offensive.

Science fiction, probably more than any other genre has the capacity for meaningful speculation. When executed deftly, it’s differentiated from its cousins in the broader fantasy genre in that within science fiction, consequences matter. There is an internal logic, obscured as much of it may be from the reader.

If resurrection violates this internal logic, the dead stay dead. The passing of a loved one of a protagonist, or the protagonist themselves, means something.

The logic, if it violates current scientific understanding, must at least explain the discrepancy. Either it is additive-speculative, or it rests upon the current scientific knowledge being wrong in some respect. The proverbial alien railway station is an (IMHO, much overused and abused) example of the former, Harry Harrison’s To The Stars trilogy, resting upon an assumed error in Einsteinian gravity, is an example of the latter.

X-Men, with its constant magical resurrections, and it’s bastardised contortion of evolutionary theory and genetics, is techno-fantasy. Anything physical can happen and it won’t violate the internal logic. Doctor Who is much the same. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as apparently is any scientific speculation sufficiently beyond an author’s ability or motivation.

The strengths of X-Men and Doctor Who come mostly from their ability to appeal to emotion via allegory and other methods and elements. There are no consequences. X-Men are resurrected with such frequency that nowadays the script writers mock themselves by explicitly giving no explanation at all. And how often do you hear The Doctor say “But that’s impossible!” only to find out that it isn’t, or “but they were wiped out!” and they weren’t?

Anything can happen, anything can be undone, and hence nothing matters nearly as much.

And oh am I sick of prophecy. Someone needs to throw James Gleick’s Chaos, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan at these people.

Just mapping the initial conditions is bad enough, without considering the computational power and inherent epistemological barriers placed upon any conscience – i.e. the proverbial Black Swan that everyone thought didn’t exist. Prophecy doesn’t work.

Prophecy is a blight upon humanity, misleading all with overconfident platitudes that at best serve to dupe people into fulfilling the prophesy, possibly causing catastrophe along the way – human history is riven with such misguided disasters.

Why not explore the risks inherent to prophecy? Instead, usually you’ll get some sagely figure smugly nodding after the protagonist has just got the picture.

The Truth of prophecy is confirmed once all the plot elements come together like a broken teacup rising from the floor to assemble itself upon a table, just in time for our hero to take a sip. Usually with no cause or reason at all.

It would be bad enough if it were only this silly. But it’s worse. It’s a wasted opportunity.

Apocalyptic visions have been used to manipulate and to console through the convenient removal of uncomfortable ambiguities, and they still function this way today. Prominently. Having a prophecy with no critical exploration is a waste of a chance for exploration.

Bring back the ambiguity. Make people uncomfortable. Screw comfortable. Get people thinking about the nature of prophecy and questioning the way it informs politics.

Interlude I: Battlestar Galactica is particularly notorious for its light-handed, fawning treatment of prophecy, and deserves to be rebuked on such a basis. No amount of “Oh, maybe the prophecy was wrong”, followed by “Oh wait, no it wasn’t. We should have had faith all along”, in the remake, can save it.

And while we’re on the topic of supposedly inevitable plot developments, I have a suggestion for script writers and authors of anthologies with contrived story arcs.

If your characters evolve in a different direction to that which you had envisaged in your original, convoluted plans, so much so that it makes elements of the plot unlikely – make changes to the plot rather than cripple the development of your characters. Evolution isn’t teleological, nor should it be for our proxies in your story – it cheapens them and reduces them to obviously designed clichés and then how are we supposed to meaningfully relate to them?

So how to treat this kind of thing?

Here’s an idea for a season’s story arc.

  • “The elders have foreseen that you will prosper and lead us to victory over our oppressors”, the wizened ones tell our protagonist.
  • … our hero dies from an unforeseen and mundane accident – something like an undiagnosed food allergy the prophets apparently weren’t aware of – a third of the way through the season.
  • The remainder of the season sees the disillusioned survivors trying to reconcile their ideals with their empirical reality, the very concept of prophecy being deconstructed along the way.

Importantly, by the end of the season, this conflict between ideals, prophesy and evidence would not be resolved. Because if there’s something I loathe in stories passing themselves off as science fiction more than the uncritical acceptance of prophecy, it’s moral didacticism.

I am so sick of having the protagonist give us a contrived lecture. Contrary to what the writer may be thinking, and contrary to what a bunch of old stuffed shirts think about classical literature, moral didacticism isn’t morally engaging. And it’s not particularly convincing in science fiction stories either.

Imagine a 31st century wedding – the best man toasts the groom and the groom. “I’m glad we could have such a loving couple marry, not like back before The Eugenics Warstm!”

The lecture is obviously there for our benefit and thus breaks the fourth wall in a manner that should only be permitted in farce. An individual living in a morally advanced culture where gay marriage is and has been practised for a long time is bound to take the practice for granted – so they would find little need to deliver a polemic on such occasions.

Star Trek is riddled with this kind of moment-breaking, critically un-engaging tripe. Usually fired over some ignorant sod’s shoulder, out of the screen and at the viewer by captains of starships. Firing morals at the audience is a bad, bad way of getting them thinking about morals.

It’s like Gene Roddenberry has descended from his mountain top to deliver the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s edicts to us. “Thou shall not…” Script writers shall not use exposition to opine. Roddenberry can clamber back up his mountain and take the gold-pressed latinum tablets with him.

Give the reader or the audience an opportunity to explore an issue – that’s what you want to do if you want to morally engage with them. Use the speculative powers of science fiction to design a thought experiment – a problem to solve. Have the protagonist attempt to solve it, and if the dilemma is resolved then have it done in a sufficiently morally ambiguous fashion that the reader can’t deduce endorsement from the choice of the protagonist. And have the decision weigh on the characters. Have them doubt themselves.

The problem in The Genesis of The Daleks, that of The Doctor’s choice whether or not to commit genocide against a species far more genocidal, was executed perfectly in this respect. Whatever decision The Doctor made would have weighed on him, and the viewer (unless conceited) wouldn’t be able to arrive at a conclusion as to if the decision was the right one. This indecision leaves the audience thinking about the ethics of the scenario, which is what you really want if you have any artistic or moral integrity.

Although, if you are in it to generate a franchise to merchandise to a cult following, I guess anything that preferentially attracts those who don’t think for themselves is what you’ll want to use. Anyone wanna buy a second-hand tricorder? Star Fleet uniform? Spotted Trill buttplug?

Interlude II: I’M SICK OF HEARING LASERS AND EXPLOSIONS IN THE VACUUM OF SPACE!!! YES, I MEAN YOU ORIGINAL BSG!!! PIPE DOWN BACK THERE!!!*

So what am I saying? If only we went back to the Golden Years? Clarke, Asimov and the others?

Hell no. I loves me some Asimov, but no.

I’m not even a genre purist – I love the work of Michael Moorcock for example – psychedelic-techno-high-fantasy-with-optional-scenes-of-incest-and-remorseless-genocide have a place on my shelf. (Although I think Behold The Man belongs strictly within the confines of science fiction and is a decent piece of literature at that.)

I even have room for steampunk (Sean).

What’s more, I think character development has fared better in hands other than those of the classical science fiction authors. Newer protagonists and antagonists are more easy to relate to – more real.

Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is an excellent book. In terms of its imaginative-additive scientific speculation, it is probably one of the best (Hugo and Nebula award-winning) science fiction books ever – possibly the best. The speculative plot device in question being the exchange of elements between two Universes between which the weak nuclear force is different – resulting in the production of energy from the decay of impossible isotopes in both Universes. But with the laws of physics of both bleeding into each other – catastrophe becoming increasingly inevitable. It’s good speculative science fiction.

But…

The characters and dialogue leave a bit to be desired. At least amongst the human characters. The alien characters were oddly interesting and fleshed out in such detail that I found they became easier to relate to. Conversely, I found the interplay between Denison and Selene in the third book to be particularly wooden, which while in itself not necessarily a problem – some people are a bit wooden and this would at least have suited Denison – they were too wooden for their developing relationship.

Specifically, the flirting between Denison and Selene (“did you sell any?” haw haw haw) was like a bad attempt at casual by alienated IRC denizens. As much as Asimov may have tried to make it convincing, you just can’t see Selene leaving her relationship with a flawed, controlling partner, to embrace Denison’s stilted attempts at laid-back charisma, despite his prowess as a scientist. But then, writing about women wasn’t amongst Asimov’s many strong points. Indeed, this was a problem with the golden age of science fiction in general.

I’d like to see Asimov’s rigorous, golden age approach to the science in science fiction repeated. But I’d like newer takes on the characters. Resonance between the audience is at its height when the consequences matter for the characters, and when the characters themselves are plausible and more easily able to draw empathy.

Further to this, I think the whole genre can and should be subverted. Particularly through the adoption of elements of weird fiction – which predate the modern genre-niche both the golden age of science fiction, and the more contemporary, more commercial pap rests within. Or at least a perversion of these weird elements could be used to subvert science fiction. I think this is the key to maximise the resonance of a newer kind of science fiction.

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

(H.P. Lovecraft, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, 1934)

It’s often been pointed out how looking up at the stars can fill you simultaneously with both exultation and existential loneliness. This is more-so the case amongst the godless who don’t have a deity to fill that loneliness – something that should on some level terrorize both the religious and the godless (the former being at risk if their faith fails).

Why then can’t a merely natural, as opposed to a supernatural agency, be responsible for a weird kind of horror? How hard would it be to pervert Lovecraft’s analysis to this end? A perversion with…

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unintuitive forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of a terrible and most alien conception of the human brain — a cruel and uncaring suspension or refutation of our calculated laws of nature which are our only safeguard against the unforgiving vacuum and energies of outer space.”

I think this could both compliment and subvert the current genre, back into a pre-genre state more closely resembling a proper part of literary tradition. What’s more breathless than the vacuum of space? More of an unexplainable dread than a lethal environment our senses haven’t evolved to deal with? What’s more portentous than the sheer scale of The Universe? Who needs demons or Outer Gods?

Combine this abysmal, yawning terror with the awe and majesty of the cosmos, and you’ve got a meaningful backdrop for the conflict that drives your story.

Plunge well crafted characters that ring true into a Universe like this, where consequences matter, and I defy you to show me that it couldn’t move your reader!

Still, nobody seems to be doing anything like this. So until someone does or someone points me toward something different, I’ll have to remain increasingly annoyed with science fiction writing for some time yet. Grrrr.

~ Bruce

* Seriously, the original Battlestar Galactica wasn’t a science fiction series, it was a noisy pinball machine that used clichés in place of steel balls.

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12 thoughts on “Science fiction is really beginning to annoy me…

  1. This will sound strange coming from a lurker, but I’ve been working on a science fiction story which lacks most of the things you’ve listed here (prophecies, magical unexplainable technologies that are left unexplained, gods, demons, etc.). It’s mostly because these aspects always annoyed the crap out of me. Science fiction stories containing such features seemed to succeed best at returning to the fantasy genre, rather than challenging literary and artistic paradigms.

    There’s actually a point in my story where prayer very obviously (and painfully) does not work, to the horrific dismay of a main character. The event is heavily tied in with overall character development, of course, which is the story’s primary focus rather than prophecies and audible space explosions. Hopefully, one day I can show what I tell. For now, thank you for posting an honest and straightforward blog entry.

  2. This was extremely thought-provoking, both as a writer and as a reader.

    It makes me look back at books that I’ve honestly enjoyed – mainly, as you have said, for their character development – and been reminded that it wasn’t really the science part of the fiction that I enjoyed about them. “Candy Plots” can be very enjoyable on a day-to-day basis, but they don’t really challenge your thinking or your emotions in the same way, and sometimes you need to put down the fluff for something that does challenge you.

    It also made me look at my current manuscript and consider the places I’ve created where consequences matter. Is there anything that I’ve written that would challenge my reader’s mind?

    Thank you.

    • How did you find the ending of DW – The waters of Mars?

      I found it a bit of a non-sequitur. If Adelaide had shown more signs of long-term emotional problems in the lead up, perhaps a bit of brooding cabin fever before The Doctor turned up on the scene, then the ending would have been more believable. As it was, we have a highly motivated, successful woman who’s just had a heap of importance added to whatever she may do, and with little thought she just goes and ends it.

      Spot on with your observations as usual, can’t think of a decent sci-fi film recently. Have you seen the original Solaris?

      I have. I thought the characters, while a bit too depressive-Russian for my tastes, we believable and could give emotional importance to plot developments. I think Solaris also fits the bill for being a bit of a Weird Tale, ala Lovecraft’s description. I did think though, that the science was more magic, than science. I suspect the book, which I haven’t read, may be a bit different in this respect.

      Editor’s note: Somehow my reply has been merged with Sean’s comment. I don’t recall getting an edit window though. Probably (another) browser mishap.

  3. I think the more magical aspects of mainstream (for want of a better word) SF make it more palatable to the uninitiated. It can slowly draw them in until next thing they’re enjoying hard SF and finding the machinations of Doctor Who and so on to be laughable.

    That said, there are many SF fans (myself among them) who find both hard and mainstream SF to be equally enjoyable.

    Give the reader or the audience an opportunity to explore an issue – that’s what you want to do if you want to morally engage with them. Use the speculative powers of science fiction to design a thought experiment – a problem to solve. Have the protagonist attempt to solve it, and if the dilemma is resolved then have it done in a sufficiently morally ambiguous fashion that the reader can’t deduce endorsement from the choice of the protagonist. And have the decision weigh on the characters. Have them doubt themselves.

    Yes yes yes!

    Your Doctor Who example is excellent. I am, however, rather disappointed with the outcome of Waters of Mars. His original decision to not intervene was superb and I expect probably came as something of a shock to newer fans, but his ultimate action ended with blatant moralisation. Reinforced by the reemergence of another character in the most recent episode.

    • His original decision to not intervene was superb and I expect probably came as something of a shock to newer fans, but his ultimate action ended with blatant moralisation.

      It was pretty ham-fisted, wasn’t it? And as far as ethical thought experiments go, I think it’s possibly one of the worst I’ve ever seen.

      I think an ethical thought experiment involving time travel should involve weighing up the harmful consequences of intervention (and their probability) against the beneficial consequences of intervention (and their probability) – in a fiction setting this would mean the protagonist attempting to weigh up the costs.

      Instead in WoM, we got Doc wanting to save lives, with a high probability of said lives being saved if the intervention worked – all the business of human history being altered was highly speculative, and any discussion of it being weighed against the benefit of intervention was brushed aside so that Adelaide could categorically denounce the intervention – “A TIMELORD TRIUMPHANT IS WRONG!”

      Then to back up her opinion (lacking the perspective of hundreds of years of time travel), RTD reaches back into his bag of deus ex machina once again, although this time to spite the protagonist instead of save him.

  4. Although I completely agreed with every part of your post, it was nothing new to me and many other once-sci-fi-fans and I would like to hear you push it further. After all, it’s sad that empathizing with characters is something that needs to be mentioned. As for having an interesting problem to solve … really? in Science Fiction, of all genres?? So my question to you is – why do you think these basics are overlooked? My theory is that it has to do with the publishing industry – there is a tried and true fan base of 13 year old males who don’t want deviations from the norm. And given what that norm is and how it deters most readers, authors try to publish what clearly should be counted as science fiction books as general fiction whenever possible. What would be extraordinarily helpful to me is if you and others like you could compile a list of those rare gems that are insightful and compelling. If people like me who once loved scifi but no longer want to spend time digging through tons of junk to find something decent only knew which books to read, we could buy them, and everyone would see that there is a fan base for works which are thought-provoking and include developed characters. Thank you for the post and for any book recommendations you might have – I now have a source I would be willing to trust.

    • …I would like to hear you push it further.

      I think I may make my reply in the form of another post, as you are quite right in pointing out that I haven’t conjectured as to why things are the way they are.

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