Monday, May 14, 2007

Ron on Sci-Fi, Sean on Sci-Fi

A while ago, I had a back-and-forth with Joshua A.C. Newman - the author of the very interesting and fun story-game Shock: - regarding the definition of science fiction. Now, on this Forge thread dealing with some actual play of Shock:, Ron Edwards offers his own definition:

All right, I must now deliver a brief polemic: science fiction is a distinct form of fiction. It is always concerned with today, or rather, the date at which a particular story was created. It is snapshot fiction, using exaggerated elements and codes ("future," "alternate dimension," "aliens") to generate some viewpoint regarding today (the date it's created) [emp mine -JH]. Whether the author's motivations concerned any such thing, or whether the themes involved are critical and nuanced vs. simple and brightly-colored, are totally not part of the definition.

Now, I like the first part of what I've bolded a lot. In fact, I like it better than anything I've come up with, in that it includes things like like Star Wars (exaggerated elements and codes = "aliens", "robots", "psychic powers", "Intergalactic rebellion", viewpoints regarding today = ) and The Matrix (exaggerated elements = "virtual reality", "transcendent AI", "robot-human war"), which other definitions seem designed to exclude.

That second part - "to generate some viewpoint regarding today" - is a bit trickier, especially if, as Ron goes on to state, we don't have to take the author's motivations into consideration.

Here's why it's tricky: how can any piece of fiction - science or otherwise - not generate a viewpoint on the time and place in which it was written? I'd guess that a writer who didn't want their fiction to generate this kind of viewpoint, would have to consciously try very hard not to do so.

(For instance, Gore Vidal's Lincoln generates a viewpoint about post-Vietnam America, even though the events in the book all take place in the 1860s. I'm also reminded of Pauline Kael's argument that Bonnie and Clyde is "about Vietnam".)

Still, even though this might be redundant, it's probably a good idea to point out that sci-fi isn't really about, say, predicting the future.

Now, Ron writes that it doesn't matter "whether the themes involved are critical and nuanced vs. simple and brightly-colored", but he then goes on to argue that

[t]he commercial and subcultural labels that go by the name "science fiction," on the other hand, are artifacts and of no special interest whatever except as artifacts (causes include bookstore categorization, investor jargon, and product placement). Suffice to say that of material published under/within that label during the last 10 years, I would be surprised if even 5% were admissible as science fiction by the above definition...

But this doesn't seem to follow, at least if Ron is serious about it not mattering "whether the themes involved are critical and nuanced vs. simple and brightly-colored".

There's more:

Anyway, to someone whose thinking inclines in the above direction, Joshua A. C. Newman is bucking for hero status. He is the only person with the guts to tackle this issue in RPG terms. All other science fiction role-playing games have been written in the sense of the commercial and subcultural trappings rather than the core concept. Shock is a first, a de novo, an innovation. But more than merely an innovation, it's not only what I wanted, but what I needed. In this day and age, I am not going to get science fiction consistently anywhere else. The person typing this post is Shock's target audience.

(Ooh, I can't stop ranting. All that polemic up there? I must spew more! ... [this] speaks incredibly badly of the design community since RPGs first appeared; it speaks of our collective intellectual spinelessness, our fascination with trappings and bogus pastiche, our complete loss of political awareness, and our willingness to buy things because they remind us of something good ... which, also, reflects most of my thinking regarding science fiction as a written and film medium since I entered my teens in the late 1970s, and for which I'd like to snarl, at the whole SF fandom culture, "thanks a lot, you fucking imbeciles," and oh yeah, pausing to kick Harlan Ellison a good one in the ass on the way. Talk about co-option. Graaaarrrhhh!) [italics in original - JH]

So I have a couple of thoughts about this:

I'm tempted to say that when he talks about generating a viewpoint on today, he really means "generating a certain kind of viewpoint on today" and I'd further guess that that certain kind of viewpoint is a critical one, and, perhaps more importantly, a political one.

But that doesn't really make sense to me, either: maybe I'm just reading lots of different science fiction than Ron is. I mean, looking over the Hugo nominees and winners from the last ten years, I see Joe Haldeman, Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, John Scalzi, Iain M. Banks, Dan Simmons, David Brin, Michael Swanwick, Bruce Sterling, and Kim Stanley Robinson, among others. This stuff doesn't seem "intellectually spineless" and most it strikes me as being pretty politically aware. And these guys are some of the biggest names in science fiction right now. Hell - we can add in blockbuster authors like Orson Scott Card and Michael Crichton and we're still well within the bounds of Ron's original definition. (And don't forget The Matrix, either, which, after all, is all about political awareness and is one of the biggest pop culture sci-fi hits of the last twenty years).

Maybe I'm spending too much time on this, but I think the progression here is both strange and interesting: Ron starts with a very sensible definition of science-fiction and ends up with a rant that boils down to "sci-fi was better when I was a kid and it's all those other sci-fi fans who are responsible for it turning to shit".

Now, I have no problem with Ron (or anyone else) thinking that things have gone to shit (I'm enough of a "Tory pessimist" to sympathize with these sentiments a lot of the time and I'm also in favor of kicking Harlan Ellison in the ass). But I think that he shouldn't have tried to tie his personal preferences and disappointments into his attempt to define sci-fi, mainly because his "polemic" muddies what is otherwise a very useful and clear definition.

Plus, placing the blame on "the whole SF fandom culture" ignores the idea that there's more in common between the kind of "good sci-fi" of Ron's youth and the degenerate "faux sci-fi" of the last ten years. This is related to what I said in my earlier post, but I think there's a non-trivial connection between the appeal of Star Wars and the appeal of Asimov's Foundation stories. If sci-fi has been corrupted by pandering to its fan base, that's only because sci-fi has always attracted the kind of fan base that was there for the "pandering". That is, the rocketships and robots and inter-galactic societies were a huge draw to the kids who first got into Asimov's Foundation stories. The trappings themselves - the "exaggerated elements and codes" - were always at least a big a deal as what the authors did with them - "generate a viewpoint regarding today".

Meanwhile, Sean posts about the "current" trend of dystopian sci-fi. I think Sean's major points are right on. (I agree with him that "a belief in the imminent apocalypse--best exemplified by religious millenarianists, although as the excellent Children of Men... would indicate, that lot by no means has a monopoly on the doctrine--is 100% pure vanity, a reflection of the deep-seated conviction that one is part of the Most Special Generation EVAR.")

My take is that dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction has always been around (from The Time Machine to Panic in Year Zero! to Blade Runner), so what we're really noticing now is the absence of any other kind of sci-fi, at least when it comes to sci-fi that reaches the mainstream of pop culture. It will be interesting to see what happens when/if the more optimistic kind of sci-fi of "the new space opera" and Singularity fiction reaches a big popular audience.


Rob K. said...

Although I know what you were referring to, I would like to see what "Pan in the Year Zero" would be like. "The World's First Post-Apocalyptic Greek Myth!"

Jon Hastings said...

Well, I guess if I am going to have typos, I'd rather they be evocative ones!