Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fantasy vs Science Fiction

This is a draft. I might revise it.

There is a typically acknowledged spectrum of genres that leads from "hard" science fiction to science fiction to science fantasy to fantasy. Anyone with an ounce of integrity working in these genres will admit that the dividing line between most sci-fi and fantasy is a matter of convention and labeling. From Wikipedia: "A hand-held cloaking device that confers invisibility is science fiction; a hand-held Ring of Power that confers invisibility is fantasy."  It's an arbitrary distinction. 

As Arthur C. Clarke pointed out, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," I propose to take that at face value, and to its logical conclusion. And as Mr. Spock wisely observed in James Blish's novel, Spock Must Die, "A difference which makes no difference is no difference." Therefore, fiction about sufficiently advanced technology is fantasy. The conclusion is inevitable and inescapable. This is as it must be, as we lack any frame of reference for stating with any level of confidence that the technology portrayed is in any way plausible whatsoever.

For me, it's really easy: only "hard" science fiction is science fiction. Everything else is fantasy, be it science-oriented fantasy or sword-and-sorcery. That keeps me from having to draw arbitrary lines and argue from atop shifting sands. It means I get to be relatively objective while everybody else is stuck justifying their prejudices. If your story honestly and sincerely extends the boundaries of current scientific knowledge in a way that extrapolates new discoveries or explores the ramifications of existing technologies in a plausible way, then you have science fiction. I don't mind some minor departures from the norm, as I myself posit in Quantum Propulsion and Other Random Thoughts. But these have to be kept to a minimum, in the spirit of "what if this theory is wrong?" If you're changing more than that, you're off in another Universe.

This is Science Fiction:

Apparently, there's a widely-believed myth in writing circles that you have to resort to fantasy to move the story along. well, you don't. 'Hard' science fiction can be immensely entertaining. I'm going to skip over gobs of it to go back to what I believe to be a quintessential example because it's also one of the very first examples. This is Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Today it's often thought of as an adventure story because so much of what Verne imagined has become commonplace. But the truth is that when he wrote it, it was speculative to the max. What makes it a good story to this day is that it doesn't suffer from the "oh, isn't that quaint!" reaction you get when reading the vintage works of lesser prognosticators. Keep in mind that this book was published in 1869. The United States was still scarred by the Civil War. It was the first ever year for professional baseball. Dmitri Mendeleev had just proposed the Periodic Table of the Elements.

So what did Verne 'invent' for his story?

  • Fully 'modern' electrically-powered self-propelled submarines capable of extended periods of submersion (those exhibiting the capabilities of the Nautilus had to wait for the first World War, in 1914. Diesel-electrics weren't around until 1928)
  • The Aqualung (invented in real life by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1943)
  • Electric stoves (invented in real life by Canadian Thomas Ahearn in 1882)
  • Practical electric lighting (commercialized by Edison in the 1880s)
  • Highly accurate electric clocks.
  • Wetsuits (1950s)
  • Submarine warfare (later, H.G. Wells would invent modern aerial combat)

The nascent forms for all of these existed in his time. What Verne did was to take his knowledge of the state-of-the-art technology and extend it to answer the question, "within the limits of plausibility, to what degree can this be perfected, and what will be the practical result of perfecting this?" He then made the story fit the facts. He refrained from inventing 'facts' to further the story. Fantasy does it the other way 'round.

This is Fantasy:

Boy, do I love Star Trek. Ever since I watched "The Man Trap" on September 8th, 1966, I have loved it, and the original series in particular. I've posted a bit about it previously in this blog. I still love it. This makes it semi-painful to seem as though I don't like it, as in a recent Twitter discussion regarding sci-fi vs fantasy. But I've long since decided to be honest about it: Star Trek is not science fiction; it's science-oriented fantasy. Here are some of the fantastic elements:
  • Human-alien hybrids. Somebody hasn't been paying attention to biochemistry. An exceptionally lame attempt to explain this away was made in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Chase by claiming that ancient astronauts had 'seeded' the various homeworlds of the galaxy, thereby implying that we would have common ancestry. I say 'exceptionally lame' because it doesn't take into account how distantly removed a common ancestor would have to be for a human to have hemoglobin-based (iron-based) blood while a Vulcan's is based on hemocyanin (copper-based). In other words, even given the 'explanation', you could no more have a child with a Vulcan than you could with an octopus.
  • Transporters. Everything about them in recent series is retconned. The plan truth is that it's a cheaper special effect than landing the ship. They actually worked very well in the original series, where they were treated as "sufficiently advanced technology". The writers didn't get into serious trouble until they actually tried to explain them. Then they couldn't keep the damned story straight. First problem; no receiver. Then, the old explanation of "matter to energy conversion" would take GOBS of energy (and there's still no receiver), so they came up with a "matter stream" that never existed previously, and which would be impossible given the previously displayed capabilities... such as transmitting through solid matter without punching holes in it. So the writers had to solve the problem they created by claiming transmission across a "subspace domain". And there's still no receiver. Except, of course, when you want to beam UP. Then there's a receiver, but no transmitter! An honest man would call this a fantasy element; a deluded fanboy would throw another lame explanation at it. I'm a fanboy, but I'm not deluded. This is the definitive example of Leigh's First Rule of Speculative Fiction: If you can't explain it, DON'T.
  • Rampant Telepathy. It's everywhere. But is it scientific? REALLY?? It amazes me that many of the same people who would defend such a thing also count themselves as skeptics. If there were a scientific basis for this particular ability then surely James Randi would be a million dollars poorer by now. It's not just telepathy; we see all forms of psionics, from telekinesis to disembodied 'entities' (logically indistiguishable from ghosts). The very purest form of fantasy, no matter how you try to dress it up in PhD's clothing.
  • Deus Ex Machina. An entity like Q or an Organian can, with a snap of his simulated fingers, literally change the laws of the Universe. Uhm.... ok... yeah, that's like... scientific. NO!! I can't even play along with that!! It's just fantasy, and Q is a god. He's not the only one. We've seen Quetzalcoatl and Apollo, too. And they weren't pretenders, but were the real deal.
  • Particle-of-the-Week. Also, Element of the Week. We don't get to make up elements. We just don't.  Although there can be exotic forms of matter, such as antimatter and neutronium, these exotic forms are found in exotic conditions. They aren't found in places hospitable to humans. In other words, it's not the sort of stuff you'll hold in your hand, or even a high-tech bucket. Science has given us a very nice Periodic Table of the Elements that really and truly accounts for all of the normal matter in the Universe. I know that if I go to another world, it will be made of iron and silicon and copper and oxygen and all of the elements that I find here on Earth. Nevertheless, Star Trek bombards us with a never-ending stream of elements and particles that aren't even postulated by science.
From the TNG episode, Rascals. The caption at the lower left reads, "This table lists those elements utilized by the standardized texts of the StarFleet Educational Texts. Other charts are available by accessing material under the heading 'Neat Stuff'.  Some of the elements listed include Cavorite, Cheesium, Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, Disneyium, and Daffyduckium. Would I lie? (source)

We'll leave it off at that, because I could extend this rant to book length if I were to include other WTFs depicted on the show like subspace, warp drive, interdimensional rifts, pocket universes, de-evolution, and wormholes. Mostly these are perverted science jargon. "Perverted" because the theoretical constructs don't exhibit the properties of their fictional counterparts. Wormholes for instance, are science... flying through one is fantasy. Nevertheless, traversable wormholes are among the most plausible of Star Trek's scientific liberties.

I'll close with this list of particles-of-the-week. Your job is to separate them into three columns:
1. those that are real 2. those that are postulated by real science 3. bullshit

Be warned! Some of the things that you "know" to be "real" are simply hypothetical constructs, without even the slightest bit of confirmation whatsoever that would raise them even from hypothetical to theoretical status.