Monday, February 04, 2008

Inside the Science Fiction Event Horizon: Implications for Other Cultural Ideas

I really like this essay.

http://www.computercrowsnest.com/features/arc/2008/nz12191.php

It points out the spiral in science fiction, of how entertaining stories using dodgy science in the 1930s then created a genre with tropes that increasingly made no sense. But because they were initially allowed to stand as tropes, they became time-honored, to the point where much science fiction, once seen as real speculation on science and society, became ever more like magical fantasy.

I think it speaks volumes about how once tropes in a genre, or a subculture, become widespread and popular, they don't go away, regardless of outside stimuli.

My first original post in this blog (the first two were a welcome and reposting of a review I had previously written) was about this very issue. How transhumanists were picking fights with the UFO community, because the UFO ideas were badly out of date in regards to technology and biology (though as I note, I think the transhumanists are generally clueless when it comes to human behavior). Likewise, Cameron Mcormick suggests a similar problem with the cryptozoological focus on big "monsters," and the regular invocation of colonial "discoveries" in the early 20th century as models for the hunt in the early 21st century. Pamela McElwee voiced a similar concern over the label of "lost world" being applied to populated areas in Vietnam, in turn spurring interest in hunting mystery wild men. And I can tell you from personal experience that many ideas in alternative archaeology have roots in very old ideas long since discarded by those doing professional academic research.

I don't know when, but I want to develop this point more. But I think it is a crackerjack way of thinking about the development of ideas outside of the realm of falsifiability.

6 comments:

kojiK said...

Interesting article, if I interpret it correctly it seems to be longing for a return to "hard" sci-fi, based on todays concepts rather than rehashing yesterdays. I can agree with that sentiment, although I've always thought the bigger problem with sci-fi today is the failure of today's audiences (and writers, I suppose) to distinguish between sci-fi and fantasy.

Whenever I tell friends I am sick of the lack of real sci-fi today, they always say "yes, they don't make them like Star Wars anymore." Star Wars, though, is a prime example of the problem, IMO. It has nothing to do with sci-fi, it's pure fantasy, it's the same as Lord of the Rings.

I think we have to look at sci-fi as it originally was used not just in "Amazing Tales" and the like to predict fantastical new futures in the style of HG Wells.. but as allegory also, something also lacking from much of today's sci-fi. Things like Dune, or Stanislav Lem's work, or Heinlein, all deeply political, which we just don't see anymore (aside from remakes of those exact titles and authors).

Even "Lord of the Flies" was technically Science Fiction (the paperback copy I had actually had "sci-fi" imprinted in the category spot on the back cover). Why? Because it took place during a fictional world war 3 (often overlooked, but very important to the theme- the world was at war, and yet the children on the island were seen to degenerate "far from the forces of civilization.") Even though otherwise it would never seem like sci-fi to most readers today, it very much was- it just wasn't the type with lasers and spaceships at every turn.

My point here I guess is that we've strayed from what science-fiction could be in more than just the way the author of that article laments about.

ahtzib said...

That's part of it, though I'd note that it even brings in many of the tropes of "hard" sf in for a woodshedding (see the bit on military sf). Because what may have been plausible in the 1930s isn't anymore, or doesn't take into account changes since that time.

That's the message of the essay, not just that a lot of sci-fi has become fantasy with mechanical trappings, but that it simply doesn't leave much of what has come before. For me that is the relevance to ufology, cryptozoology, etc. That they are largely hooked on ideas that are decades old and not in keeping with new discoveries or conditions. While the astronauts in tin cans travelling amongst the stars idea of ufo people that accept the extraterrestrial hypothesis is probably the most egregious, the neo-colonial ideas about hidden monsters in uncharted (by white/Western researchers) is nearly as bad.

I don't keep up much on sf, but from what I can tell, there are a lot of innovative authors out there, doing very interesting things with not just physics (the staple of old-school sf) but sociology, genetics, psychology, etc.. However, that is no longer where the mainstream interest in fantasy/sci-fi/horror is. Maybe that's good, I think too much money and tv time rots the brain anyway.

koji K. said...

Yes, true... The few examples I've read that I think come close are usually both far from the mainstream and more in the way of a deliberate attempt to add as many concepts as possible (in the style of the Illuminatus Trilogy) than exploring one or two concepts in much depth. (The best example I can think of is Grant Morrison's "The Invisibles" comics...) Apparently Vallee wrote some fiction about the UFO phenomenon, but I've never read it and honestly from Amazon it looked kind of boring, which is a shame....

It's interesting to see the article, because I had always imagined writing a novel or short story based on newer concepts- taken from the ufo and "conspiracy" fields, transhumanist psychology, post-quantum stuff, and so on. The problem is I've never been much good with the actual "story" element, and there wouldn't be much point doing it if it couldn't be a captivating story as well as an exploration of "the new..."

I have noted (to some dismay) that Steven Spielberg is working on a movie about extradimensional travel, which I think somewhere I saw him say (or maybe I inferred it from something else he said) that he wanted it to be the "Close Encounters" he was afraid of making 20 years ago. I say "dismay" because his movies tend to become iconic of certain concepts, and "throw the curve" for other artists, if that makes sense, to say nothing of its effect on the public mindset at large. Of course, it still could end up falling into something like the "astronauts in tin cans" trope or some other old conceptual outlook. I'm sure I'll still be seeing it all the same, though...

koji K. said...

BTW- great blog. I've added it to my own blogroll, if you don't mind. Although my own blog isnt so great, it's new and more of a personal diary and time-killer than anything, no real direction or theme to it.

ahtzib said...

I'd have dismay simply because he continues to disappoint me. Big fan of Spielberg's early work, impressed by some of his later stuff in the historcal rather than fantasy vein. But I'm increasingly annoyed by his films, and War of the Worlds (a favorite story/trope of mine) out and out angered me.

Speaking of War of the Worlds and your blog, I see you have a Steampunk interlude. Did you see the bit in another post on the faces of the 1897 airship pilots? I'd still bet on newspaper hoaxes that utilize real names, but it makes the story a lot more interesting.

koji K. said...

I did see that article you linked to about the airship pilots, and I have to say it makes for a really great mystery. My guess would have to be with some sort of hoax also, but at the very least it's revealing of the sort of "flights of fancy" (no pun intended) that took the public imagination back then, almost as if they were at a crossroads between our present-day and a truly "Steampunk" reality...