Orthodox Science Fiction
January 18, 2011
When a fan says they prefer to read ‘hard science fiction’, what do we take this to mean? It is effectively a demand that the stories they read accept various limitations such that they will then accord with the reader’s conception of scientific knowledge. If this description is accurate, we might better understand ‘hard science fiction’ as meaning orthodox science fiction.
The phrase ‘hard science fiction’ has always troubled me, because it seems to represent a contradiction in terms. Science fiction, by definition, is a form of fantasy, one in which scientific knowledge and technology are the inspiration (as opposed to the magical worlds of sword and sorcery, for instance). Fans of ‘hard science fiction’ want to read fantasies in which their understanding of science is not transgressed – this is how the phrase is used. But in respect of the kind of stories that are told as ‘hard sci fi’ – often intergalactic adventures, constrained by the limits of special and general relativity, contemporary biology and so forth – we can be almost certain that our current understanding of science and technology is radically insufficient to allow us to predict with any confidence just what will be involved in such distant and speculative endeavours as interstellar travel.
Consider how wildly wrong the science fiction of the early atomic age was about what was to come: we did not get our promised flying cars, humanoid robots or nutrition pills. Technology was to move in a very different direction to what was imagined by the writers of the 1950s. Similarly, if mankind is to explore beyond the solar system, it will happen at a time and in a way radically impossible to predict now. Even the colonization of our solar system is difficult to adequately anticipate. Not even something closer to home like moon colonies simplifies our task to the point of it becoming entirely straightforward. We don’t have the requisite knowledge or resources to make these fantasies happen, and if and when we do, they will inevitably unfold in a manner that diverges from what we would imagine when thinking about such problems now.
So what exactly is being expected of ‘hard science fiction’? I believe it may be illuminating to interpret the demand for fantasies that do not transgress an individual’s scientific beliefs by considering this strange genre as orthodox science fiction. The parallel with religious doctrine may rankle – science, after all, is not a religion, and talking about it as if it were is therefore misrepresentative. But what is it that we are calling by the name ‘science’ that we can be so sure it is not a religion? Until we understand what the abstraction ‘science’ represents, it would be premature to be certain that it is not functioning in some way as a religion, or at least, as a doctrine.
The mythologist and historian Charles Segal coined the term megatext to refer to the Greek myths when taken collectively to imply a single fictional world, and this term has been taken up and used in the context of modern science fiction and fantasy franchises. Thus Star Trek, Star Wars, Middle Earth, James Bond, Marvel Comics, Dungeons & Dragons and so forth each comprise a megatext. These are all works of fiction, but they function in a manner exactly parallel with historical mythologies. They are not, as Joseph Campbell puts it, living mythologies, which is to say, they are not mythologies that belong to an extant religion (as, for instance, the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are for Hindus) but it is chiefly this element which distinguishes the megatext of (say) Star Trek from the megatext of Native American mythology.
Now science fiction as a whole also functions as a megatext, as does sword and sorcery when taken as a whole, and for that matter superhero stories. Fantasy author Michael Moorcock often quotes a fellow writer with respect to the way genre fiction functions in practice: “Terry Pratchett wisely said that genre is a big pot from which you take a bit and to which you add a bit.” No-one owns the megatext of science fiction, fantasy or horror – it’s a collectively shared mythology (although not a living mythology in Campbell’s sense). Thus science fiction novels take place within the wider mythology of the science fiction megatext. It is acceptable for these novels to feature starships, faster than light travel, teleportation, humanoid robots or psychic powers because these are all part of the wider mythology, even though specific fictional worlds might reject certain elements. It is clear on this reading that ‘hard science fiction’ represents a subset of the megatext for science fiction.
Now it is my suggestion that science itself functions as a kind of megatext. This is not to say that science is purely mythological – far from it. Specific individual acts of research such as the Michelson-Morley experiment or the double-slit experiment have their empirical validation, and provided you accept the paradigm they are conducted within, you will be able to confirm their claims. (Although, of course, most of us do not test these claims: we take it on faith that if the experiment were in error, other scientists would raise a red flag). But when we talk of ‘science’ as an abstraction, we are not talking solely about the experiments or the theories, or any other aspect of the specific paradigm. We are also drawing against a kind of mythological accretion that goes beyond the latest findings of practical scientists and the most recent models of theoretical scientists.
For instance, when something is dismissed as “not scientific” it is not usually meant that it does not adhere to the standards of contemporary paradigms – it usually means that the thing in question is incompatible with the beliefs of people who accept some hypothetical common core of scientific theories and experimental results. So, for instance, the claim that astrology is “not scientific” seems intended to mean that astrology is false under the terms of the abstraction ‘science’, not that astrology isn’t a scientific research programme (I don’t think there is anyone who thinks astrology is a research programme of this kind). This kind of statement isn’t even a claim that “experiments have shown astrology is false” – it is more commonly an a priori claim that the causal mechanisms deployed in astrological practice are incompatible with something being called ‘science’. What is that something?
I believe the something in question is what we might call the science megatext. There is a collection of things that can be broadly recognized as validated by the current paradigms of science – the theories, the experiments, and the metaphysical beliefs that are assumed to underpin both (such as materialism). These form a mythology of science, which includes (for instance) beliefs such as “science evolves towards truth” that Kuhn has demonstrated are not in any way necessary for understanding the practices of scientists. The science megatext is more than the sum of scientific knowledge, since it incorporates in addition to this a mythological stance concerning what science is, what it will be, what it can be, and perhaps most significantly for our current purposes, what it cannot be.
Thus when a person prefers ‘hard science fiction’, they are saying that they want to read stories that are not simply part of the science fiction megatext, but that are consistent with the science megatext. This excludes anything not currently considered plausible by mainstream scientists (such as psychic powers or, for the most part, faster than light travel). One can see here that the science megatext is operating as a kind of doctrine, and the fan of ‘hard science fiction’ is requiring that the fantasy stories they read that are to fit this term will be orthodox with respect to the science megatext. This is why I suggest we can better understand what is meant by ‘hard science fiction’ if we recognize that it is orthodox science fiction – orthodox with respect to the current interpretations of the science megatext.
This is not, I will repeat, to claim that science is a religion. But it is to claim that the science megatext can function as a mythology, and whenever someone (such as Iain M. Banks) claims that science has replaced religion, or has invalidated religion, this comes remarkably close to treating the science megatext as a living mythology. Banks (and others who believe similarly to him) effectively claim that the mythology of science must necessarily replace other mythologies (often as a result of taking the contemporary mythology of the science megatext as unambiguously factual), and this kind of assertion does treat the science megatext as a doctrine. Again, this doesn’t make science a religion – traditional religion, in fact, is neither necessarily nor quintessentially doctrinal – but in the same sense that the political non-religion of Marxism can be considered a religion (as Bertrand Russell and others have asserted) there is an ideology which functions as a scientific non-religion.
There is a sense in which the fans of ‘hard science fiction’ are treating the science megatext as the basis for a non-religion, or at least, as an approved doctrine, and because of this I believe it is not only reasonable but also clarifying to refer to this subgenre as orthodox science fiction.
This notion of the megatext is interesting. I understand the important distinction between a 'science fiction [generic] megatext' and using 'science' as a megatext as a basis for hard sci fi.
Where is the imagination? I ask myself. So many science fiction things I read in modern times are immersed in one megatext or another. Here's a list of cliches which are so common that the world of the story does not even bother to explain them but just presume the reader's familiarity:
1. Cryonics (which has its 40th anniversary this year)
2. Faster-than-light travel
3. Hearing sound in space (I think its a worthy mention that Halo: Reach has a mission which is partly in space where the first person shooting element has no sound but air vibrations from within the helmet- shame that the space fighter had sound though)
4. Artificial Gravity
6. Star trek style transporters
7. Extra-Earth life forms that have near humanoid physiologies and near social customs
I have a recent penchant for 'early science fiction', the likes of Harry Harrison for instance, where there is not much emphasis on the 'futurism' as such of the science fiction but more a speculation of the human condition and how humans may adapt in alien and extreme situations.
Deathworld is my iconic example of a good sci-fi story. The technological futurism is but a premise, a background for which any other similar story could be told. A good science fiction doesn't overdo the science as grounded in today; but engages in speculation; explores the (post/trans) human condition and goes somewhere original.
Despite this, I do have a niche for megatexts. I am a self-confessed Star Wars fan and that is more for comfort and its familiarity than for its innovation in terms of say, the expanded universe.
Something should be said, comparable to religious texts, of how megatexts often have 'Canon'-icity. What counts as the official story, for instance, whether Shatner's Star Trek books are part of the real star trek narrative, or an awkward period of Star Wars literature between about 1994 (when the novels started coming out) and just around 2005 when Revenge of the Sith came out. A lot of the 'canon' information had to be redefined, contradicted or outright written out to fit in with how George Lucas made the story.
I'm reminded of a Hume quote: "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous." I think one should widen the refering term of religion to lore.
As always, this is an insightful and provoking post.
Posted by: Sinistredestre.wordpress.com | January 19, 2011 at 02:20 PM
Michael: thanks for your thoughtful and supportive comment. A few responses to your notes...
Your list of clichés is a great demonstrator of how the sci-fi megatext operates as a fantasy tradition with elements that are couched in the dressings of technology, but that are not connected with contemporary scientific beliefs, per se. It's particularly interesting to me that the transporter has become so widespread since Roddenberry only devised this device for Star Trek because they didn't have the budget in season 1 of Star Trek to build a model of a shuttlecraft! :) (George Langelaan's story "The Fly" predates this, and was allegedly the inspiration, but it is Star Trek which popularised the device).
I have to say, I have much more time for older science fiction... Peter recently gave me Zelazny's Lord of Light, which was a fantastic piece of work - the kind of book I just can't imagine being published now because genre fiction is so trammelled into popular forms. With its blend of Hindu and Buddhist mythology and technological themes, I don't think any publisher would touch such a work today - and this is a Hugo winner I'm talking about.
Star Wars is a fantastic piece of world building; it's debt to E.E. Doc Smith's Lensman is vast, but it is a richer setting than the original, and really nothing in the West offers a more engaging space opera setting. That Campbell's monomythic themes are the foundation for its plot cycles is just the icing on the cake, really.
And as for canonicity - I have a post on this planned a short way down the line as part of the Fiction Campaign - it's a fascinating phenomena, and demonstrates just how involved in fictional worlds we become.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | January 20, 2011 at 08:38 AM