Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A great video featuring Asimov, Ellison and Gene Wolfe!

I came across this brilliant video on i09. It's pretty interesting in regard to my argument about SF being dead. Much depends, of course on what we mean by science fiction. All three have interesting points to make on that topic, and there's a lot left unsaid, too.

I'd like to come back to the things said in this video a bit later, perhaps as part of my second quarter reading round-up, where I'll also be considering The History of the Science Fiction Magazine vol 2.

Plus, doesn't Isaac have a great voice!


  1. To continue our discussion from the Guardian website... I've been working towards a definition of science on my own blog, with posts such as here and here. While I'm not there yet, I feel my argument is starting to come together.

    This is sf as a mode of fiction, of course. not the sf community, not the bag of tropes which most people think defines sf.

  2. Hi Ian, thanks for dropping by.

    The ideas about SF as scale you raise in the earlier post immediately made me think of how often the theme of scale came up in the first volume of The of the Science Fiction Magazine. Many of these stories deal explicitly or implicitly with the vast scale of epochal time, the minutenes of the atomic scale, the distances of interplanetary space or the irrevocable destructive power of 'the atom'. It's clearly a vital part of SF right from the start.

    I think you're also right that the same thing is part of the appeal of fantasy, and I think it's clear that the popular imagination turns increasingly to fantasy for that kind of thrill. In fact, that's been happening since the 80s.

    However, I don't think your later post is quite right. In the attached thread you ask, 'If sf is just spaceships, robots and aliens, then how is that different from a fantasy with æther-sailing ships, clockwork men and elves?'

    I think the answer is that it largely isn't. Most SF just borrows science to provide convincing short-cuts for other popular genre, typically adventures or thrillers.

    Most people, even literary types, most often just see the trappings. It's very hard to argue against that. In fact, just be saying 'SF is dead' immediately brings the reaction 'Don't be crazy, it's bloody everywhere!'

    But it's the trappings that are everywhere. Secondary worlds provide us with safe playgrounds for atavistic prejudices and tendencies. Anchoring these in empirical sounding realities gives them more emotional impact.

    Having said all that, I think that what you're defining in your later post IS the trappings: the trappings are those 'things' that have power over the natural world. You're describing the difference between the One Ring and the Death Star. Neither exist, and both have huge power over the natural world but the Death Star appeals to the audience's knowledge of the outside world to lend it credibility.

    I don't think that the opposition of 'author fiat' vs 'human beings' is quite right, either. I think that the power of both is granted by authorial fiat, but the Death Star is justified by an appeal to the empirical universe, and that's what makes it an SF trapping. In this way, I think that SF is, as they say, a sub-set of fantasy, not an opposing approach.

    There are degrees of rigor, which means one can accept FTL in area as long as lip service is paid to an empirical scientific basis. The tolerance with these things will vary among the audience when one approaches the edges as in the case with Star Wars.

    However, I agree with you that there's something else beyond the trappings, something that readers like you and I see and would fence off as 'real' SF, as much as that's a difficult phrase.

    This is a rather specialised use of 'SF'. I think it describes a type of story that takes shape when you mix ideas of technological innovation with the social sciences and philosophy to speculate about actual futures.

    That's what I think has died as a distinct fictional voice, and by 'died' I mean that it has nothing more to say to the world. The voice keeps talking, but the world doesn't listen!

    This series about trying to figure out why that is, starting with an attempt to get to the bottom about what that distinctive type of story is.


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