Science, the future and my Luddite superpowers

Well, it’s been a frustrating time for me technologically over the last week or so; I seem to have developed some kind of weird anti-modernity super power.

On return from America, I discovered that my boiler had stopped working; a plumber came and ‘repaired’ it last Friday, but it’s still not going. Last Thursday, my laptop blew itself up, losing the ability to open Windows. I spent the whole of tonight completely rebuilding it, which hasn’t really achieved very much; it’s moving with glacial slowness, and currently busy pretending it doesn’t have wireless. Even my phone has joined in the fun; today, its mail server started crashing. I didn’t even know my phone HAD a mail server.

Anyway… none of this has detracted from wildly pleasurable memories of last week’s convention. In particular, I’ve been pondering science fiction and realism, after a very interesting bar-side conversation with Ted Chiang.

As you’ll no doubt know, I’ve used this blog in part to mount an ongoing argument about the relationship between realist and genre (specifically science fiction and fantasy) fiction. I’ve argued that in some ways genre fiction is less deceived than more ‘literary’, realist fiction, given its deep honesty about its own unreal status. It’s the literature of things that never happen (to borrow from a phrase from M. John Harrison), and at its best it has fascinating fun with the metafictional status that that stance gives it.

This was the argument I was making to TC last weekend (imbetween ranting about Powell and Pressburger, themselves the most metafictional of filmmakers, and weaving to the bar to get more discussion lubricating pints in), and the one that he undercut. As he pointed out, the above falls down when confronted with the absolute literal mindedness that underpins science fiction.

At its purest, science fiction insists on a deep reality of response to the world. Far from escaping into fiction, it consistently grounds itself in the most current scientific thinking. The apparatus of science fiction might be speculative – space ships, AIs, aliens, etc – but that apparatus is hung on experimentally proven fact. Given this, science fiction can be read as more direct in its engagement with reality than even the most realist fiction, grounded as it is in an absolute, exclusive obsession with the root structures of the world.

So where does that leave my metafictional take on genre? For one, I think it helps create a way of distinguishing between fantasy and science fiction, rooted not so much in genre trappings (if the protagonist flies by space ship it must be sf, if by dragon fantasy) but rather in approaches to reality. Fiction steps into fantasy when it bends reality to its own ends; but it becomes science fiction when it refuses that consolation, instead taking an entirely rigorous approach to reality as a grounding base for the wildest narrative mayhem.

But if I had a time machine I might pop back to the bar and point out that on one very important level SF remains metafiction, insisting as it does on an extrapolation from, rather than a direct reflection of, current scientific thinking. It asks ‘given that the world is like this – what might we become?’ – stepping out of direct realism into the most self-aware, highly imaginative speculation as it does so.

Oh, and for the sake of comparison, here’s someone who refuses to extrapolate from science into tomorrow, finding meaning instead in its intersections with the directly lived world – the wonderful scientist-poet Rebecca Elson. Her single collection, ‘A Responsibility to Awe’, is magnificent, not so much for her poems (which are nonetheless excellent) but for the marvellous sequence of extracts from her notebooks, where the cosmic is interwoven with the quotidian to stunning effect. She died young; a major loss.

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