Archive for the science fiction Category

Why do I give science fiction so much prominence?

My blog is only about a month old. Why were four of the first links I placed on this site to the web sites of science fiction authors?

Why do I regularly use science fiction stories and novels when teaching economics? Why will the works of science fiction authors like Modesitt, Cherryh, Gibson, and Robinson play such a big role in the book I am writing on “technology and the liberal arts education in the 21st century”?

Well, there are many reasons, but I think the biggest is this: Science fiction authors — the best ones, anyway — are great listeners.

Now I realize that when most people think of science fiction they don’t think about listening. But if you look at the best science fiction writers, they are people who pay an amazing amount of attention to the human condition and its future.

And that’s as true of the great “hard” science fiction writers as it is of any others. Advanced technology/science may be a necessary condition for science fiction, but it is far from sufficient.

Why was Star Trek (in any of its incarnations, save perhaps the first movie) better science fiction than any of the Star Wars series? It had nothing to do with the fact that Roddenberry, et al had technology that had more scientific plausibility than Lucas (though they won in that regard, too). No, it had to do with the fact that the characters in Star Wars, with the possible exceptions of Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, were largely cartoon cut-outs. Carrie Fisher was nice eye candy when I was in college, and Natalie Portman even better in recent years, but neither of these good actresses were given much to work with. By contrast, the characters of Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Sisko, and Archer had depth. And depth in a particular way — these were real people grappling with the changes of their personal future.

And the great writers and editors of science fiction far outdistance the everyday writers of Star Trek. Heinlein, Dick, Tepper, Campbell, Bova, Baen, and dozens of others — they dig deeper still.

It’s not the technology that makes science fiction a magical resource. A few instances from Grandmaster Heinlein (the waterbed, the waldo) and others aside, science fiction writers tend to be pretty bad at predicting the specifics of technological development. But even as the technology of their stories becomes increasingly quaint and obsolete in our world of rapidly accelerating change, the stories that the science fiction writers have told become even more worth our time.

Because those writers’ real insights come through their insight into people and how people respond to technology. And I’m convinced that comes because they listen so damn well to people not in their stories.

Modern fiction of the workshopped variety has become incredibly boring to me. Why? Because everything is written about the writer’s own experience and story. When you restrict yourself to “writing what you know”, you risk giving free rein to your own solipsism. And, I am sorry to say, the great majority of what passes for “literature” today is nothing more than Solipsism 101.

I care about X, and so I’m going to write about people who care about X. And the hell with anyone who cares about X in a different way or who thinks that Y matters more. Bah.

Science fiction writers, however, don’t have that ability. By definition they are writing about something that hasn’t happened yet. About something they don’t know about (because no one, not even Alan Greenspan Ben Bernanke, knows about the future.

And so, to make the story work, the science fiction writer must dig deeper. They have to think about how other people think and respond in ways that other writers can more easily avoid. Listening to points of view other than their own is not just an option, it’s an inevitability.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an empirical exercise. Take your favorite work of contemporary “literature”. And take, say, C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen or Pride of Chanur. Then deconstruct both books, identifying each of the points of view necessary to understand to put each novel together. (That is, look not just to the points of view of the characters — the easy part — but to the points of view of the people/beings each character interacts with off camera.) And ask yourself, which author provides insight into more points of view? Which has dug into those points of view more deeply?

We in the academy talk a lot — some would say incessantly — about the need for diversity. Yet, for all that, we are an incredibly myopic, incestuous, inbred lot when it comes to our understanding. Science fiction authors, on the other hand, live a respect for diversity.

They have no choice. Unless they want to write for the cliches of Hollywood and the networks, they have no alternative.

They must listen a lot more than they talk.

The rest of us would do well to emulate them.

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