15 June 2004

Science Fiction, Change, and Rationality

The ever-generous Maud sent me the text of a London Times article available only through subscription: a short essay by Stephen Baxter answering the question "Has the march of science made science fiction obsolete?" (Can you guess his answer?)

One of Baxter's premises is that science fiction, while seldom intended literally to predict the future, habituates its readers to thinking about change -- often large, world-shaking change -- and that we need such thinking now more than ever. He ends by saying:
So, in 2004, do we need science fiction? Some features
of the world of 2004 resemble science fictional dreams
of the past; some science fiction scenarios are
obsolete. But history hasn't ended yet. In the coming
few years climate adjustments alone will ensure that
whatever else we run out of -- oil, fresh water, clean
air -- change itself will not be in short supply. There
will be no shortage of raw material for science
fiction literature, whatever becomes of genre
categories in bookshops.

And in the coming dangerous century, we will need
minds capable of coping with change more than ever
before.
In some ways, what Baxter has to say compares with some comments Michael Swanwick made in his interview in the latest Locus, where he says,
Science fiction, no matter how strange it gets, has the advantage of literality. It's talking about a world that could really be, that could exist in what we imagine this universe might be. That's an extraordinary advantage. Fantasy is more fluid; it has the freedom to deal with irrational things as real. Science fiction usually doesn't, not in the same way. There's a greater freedom than SF affords, but it comes at a price. The payoff has to justify that extraordinary license. ... If the story is superficial, if your readers are left unsatisfied, you've annoyed them in a way you don't with science fiction.
I agree with Baxter more than Swanwick, but both seem to put too much weight on science fiction's "plausibility". While certain SF tropes are based on actual scientific and technological progresses -- it's hard to find an SF story without nanotechnology in it these days, and I remember reading about the concept in the late '80s in Analog -- others, such as faster-than-light travel, are essentially glitzy fantasy. (Sure, future scientists might discover ways that faster-than-light travel is possible, but they also might find that elves have been hiding in Yellowstone.)

Swanwick's point that fantasy can deal with the irrational as real is an interesting one -- but, of course, as anyone who has ever followed politics knows, the irrational is plenty real. Traditional science fiction embraces the basic processes of rational thought, giving it a veneer of rationality, but very little science fiction is any more rational than most fantasy. What successful examples of both are is internally consistent to their own logic. (If they're not, then they are surreal, though an entire essay could be written on the differences between satisfying and unsatisfying surrealism...)

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