The Point Of It All

Meme Therapy’s latest brain parade asks “What is the job of contemporary sf? Does it have a job?” To which most of the respondents so far say no, not really, or at most no but. Which of course is the correct and proper stance: we all know nowadays that the important part of science fiction is that it’s fiction, that it is an art form, that it has no responsibility, and indeed no ability, to be anything else. We know that whatever value inheres in science fiction is aesthetic value, and that it can and should be measured by the same yardsticks as other forms of fiction.

I’m not saying this is wrong, per se, but it’s interesting to compare that sort of stance to, of all things, the latest episode of Stargate SG-1. I don’t watch Stargate. Once upon a time I would have done—in my teens I was indiscriminate, happily gobbling up whatever BBC2 decided to show in their weekday 6.45 slot—but these days it seems like too much commitment for too little return. But It’s reached two hundred episodes, which is an absurdly high number, and the prepublicity photos suggested they were going to celebrate the fact in gloriously absurd style. And they do, for forty-two minutes and thirty-one seconds of the forty-two minute and fifty-five second episode.

The conceit, by the way, builds on the show’s hundredth episode, which I haven’t seen, in which it transpires that a studio is developing a thinly-veiled (to those in the know) version of the SG-1 team’s story for tv. It’s called Wormhole X-treme!, and in the latest episode we learn that it lasted for three episodes, but that it did well on DVD so now there’s interest in making a tv movie. Cue all the meta ever—not only is Stargate itself based on a film, of course, but two of the current actors, Ben Browder and Claudia Black, were the leads on Farscape, which died and was resurrected as a tv movie—plus various suggestions for how the movie could work, and so on. The movie falls through, but the tv series gets recomissioned, and the last segment is a flash-forward ten years to a behind-the-scenes documentary focusing on the Wormhole X-treme! cast and crew. Cue even more gentle parody, as the actors’ doubles talk about the challenges they faced in such a long-running show, and the producer says that he thinks one of the secrets of their success is how they don’t take themselves too seriously; and then, in the last twenty-four seconds, we cut to an interview with the actor playing the Teal’c equivalent, who says:

“Science fiction is an existential metaphor. It allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, ‘individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today. But the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.'”

End of episode. Fade to black. It’s shameless, it’s manipulative, it’s arrogant … and yet I found myself moved by it, by the simple, whole-hearted belief that it demonstrates in the project of science fiction.

I’ve been reading Mark Budz’s latest novel, Idolon, for review for Strange Horizons. It’s set in a near future on the edge of the sort of shared sensory environment that’s cropped up in recent work by Vernor Vinge and Chris Beckett, among others. People and buildings are habitually coated with electronic skin, programmable matter that allows them to imitate the style of people and places from times past. I don’t want to gazump my own review, but one of the things that’s struck me about it, particularly having just watched that Stargate episode, is the presence of passages like this:

He felt the pressure, too. It got to him after a while. It got to everyone. Each day, reality became a little less familiar … a little more uncertain. Maybe that was why so many people cast themselves in the past. It wasn’t real, but it had been real. Which was more than anyone could say for the future.

Which surely chimes with the prevalent sentiment in that brain parade (not to mention echoing Pattern Recognition). I think it’s Graham Sleight’s review of Rainbows End that suggests the futures of science fiction can be thought of as arguments, works of advocacy. Reading the above passage, I suddenly realised that one of the reasons I was still turning the pages, probably a reason at least as strong as my interest in the characters and plot, was that I wanted to know how Idolon‘s argument resolved. More than wanting to see the bad guys beaten, I wanted to know whether the world Mark Budz was creating would rediscover its belief in the future.

Which I guess means that, on some level, I’m a believer too.

(All of which has nothing to do with international sf, for which I apologise. As recompense, I propose to write about one of the following later this week: “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” by Geoff Ryman (Oct/Nov F&SF); “R&R” by Lucius Shepard; or the special Finncon edition of Usva. Which would you prefer, o readers?)

11 thoughts on “The Point Of It All

  1. I think most of us would agree with this sentiment. We all want Science Fiction to ask big questions and often it does. But I think its safe to say that we’ve all read (and watched) Science Fiction which doesn’t ask big question that we still found worthwhile and enjoyable.

    Excellent commentary, btw.

  2. Interesting. As much as I enjoyed Stargate‘s 200th episode extravaganza and the gentle and not-so-gentle fun it poked at SF and its fans (the DVD comment was surely a jab at Firefly, though), I found the Asimov quote unbearably smug and not a little bit self-aggrandizing. First of all, Mr. Asimov and his underwritten, repetitive puzzle stories will forgive me, but who the hell is he calling ‘trivial’? This is precisely the Gernsback-ian attitude that the genre has been trying to get off its back for decades – the notion that SF doesn’t have to be literature, or even any good, because it deals with loftier things. But coming back to Stargate, my impression was that the show’s writers trotted out that quote as a sort of straw man argument – our show is looked down on because it’s an SF show, not because it’s silly and mediocre. We can argue with Asimov and his attitude, and debate the job of SF, but Stargate doesn’t get to sit at that table – not until its writers actually try to tell stories about the human condition.

  3. This is precisely the Gernsback-ian attitude that the genre has been trying to get off its back for decades – the notion that SF doesn’t have to be literature, or even any good, because it deals with loftier things.

    Sure. What I was trying to get at, I think, is the residual sympathy I have for the sentiment behind that argument; why it’s seductive. Part of me believes that thinking seriously about the future, and trying to express that thought via literature, really is an important thing, or at the very least a worthwhile thing, to be doing. This isn’t an excuse for sf that’s bad literature (and equally, as Jose says, not all sf has to be of this kind), but it’s an appreciation of the things that only sf can give me. And in our eagerness to distance ourself from those making claims for sf as a privileged literature, I think that sometimes we do downplay its particular strengths. (If there weren’t things that sf could do that other forms of literature can’t do, there wouldn’t be any point in sf existing, after all. Ditto crime, literary fiction, whatever division of literature you prefer.)

    I genuinely don’t think Stargate was using the quote as an excuse, though. Maybe this is a result of not having watched much of the show, but the impression I got was very much “we know full well we’re the dumb fun end of the spectrum, but that doesn’t mean we’re not proud of the smarter members of the family.”

  4. I’ve been saying for a long time that sf is often advocacy-as-story. (Which may or may not be used by some writers as a more important goal than “literary quality”. Certainly if you read someone like Benford on the subject, you’ll see a vastly more sophisticated version of the Gernsback argument that sf has duties above and beyond other literatures.) The problem is, we now have a history of 75 years of advocacy, some of which *has failed to come true* – viz, to take the most obvious example which I just wrote about for Locus, 2001. For many readers, sf-as-advocacy is more or less in the position of Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler in Pratchett’s books, promising uniquely flavoursome and nutritious meat pies despite the fact that pretty much every pie anyone’s tried before has brought about an outcome Dibbler didn’t mention. There’s a whole stratum of language in responses to sf – for instance in the Panshins’ The World Beyond the Hill – which treats sf works as if they were in some sense real, in some sense pathfinding a way to the future. Which is almost always rubbish, but which more pertinently is almost always going to disappoint.

    I realise I’ve just more or less summarised my chapter in the Clute festschrift. It’s a good book anyway, though.

    Oh, and I’d be very interested to see your take on “R&R”, Niall.

  5. While I’m on board with the concept of disappointment sf, that’s not really where I was going with the concept of advocacy, so it was probably a mistake to reference your review. It’s one thing to say that sf has woken up to the fact that we don’t have a consensus future; it’s another thing, I think, to do what Pattern Recognition and Idolon do, and engage with the question of whether we can talk about the future *at all*.

    I’m reminded of this comment at making light:

    I got into a rather heated argument a few months back with someone who was insisting that Tooth and Claw was good because “it isn’t really about dragons.” I said that it was too really about dragons, and that it would have been a much worse novel if it had not been really about dragons. “But I mean, really about dragons,” said the other person. And I said yes, really about dragons. It didn’t matter how many kinds of typographical emphasis she attempted to vocalize: Tooth and Claw is about dragons.

    What I think lies behind the Gernsbackian position is the sense that sf is really about the future; yes, really about the future. And I think that it is. Not all of it, obviously, but some of it. And that’s independent of whether or not any particular future comes true or not — it’s a belief that sums across all of sf, which is what I think the Asimov quote captures quite nicely.

    (And you did have to pick the longest of the reading options, didn’t you.)

  6. If there weren’t things that sf could do that other forms of literature can’t do, there wouldn’t be any point in sf existing, after all. Ditto crime, literary fiction, whatever division of literature you prefer.

    Very true, but there’s a difference between saying SF can do something and saying that it should do it, or that it is its job to do it. And while I certainly sympathize with the urge to recoil from the argument that SF isn’t really about the future, it’s about the human condition (which, now that I think about it, strikes me as a possible interpretation of that Asimov quote, albeit perhaps not the one he intended), I’d be wary of equating the genre’s topic with its purpose.

    And yes, I do understand that you’re just waxing nostalgic and not actually making the Gernsback-ian argument. Tell you what – I’ll agree to admire the ambition of the Asimov quote so long as I don’t have to admire the literature it describes.

  7. I’m not sure what that Asimov quote in Stargate was about either. From watching the show parody itself regularly, and reading what the writers have to say, I think they’re definitely aware that they are writing a fun show which is at the action-adventure end of the genre rather than attempting to be serious drama, and maybe they wanted to show that they’re not as daft as you might think.

    Alternative theory: they’re just taking the piss out of actors who take themselves to seriously.

    I would say I’d like to hear your take on Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter, but actually I’d like to read Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter.

  8. And yes, I do understand that you’re just waxing nostalgic and not actually making the Gernsback-ian argument. Tell you what – I’ll agree to admire the ambition of the Asimov quote so long as I don’t have to admire the literature it describes.

    Fair enough. :) I guess the other thing I’m digging down at is what I said about Idolon, the fact that I found myself very consciously reading for things other than plot and character. I would like to think that the concept of “literature” is broad enough that it can encompass works whose primary focus isn’t specific human experience (ie I don’t think any less of the novel because I was reading it that way), but maybe it’s not.

    I shall save my mini-rant about the general use of phrase “the human condition” for another day.

    Liz: that can probably be arranged if, say, I give it to you tomorrow and you give it back to me at the weekend.

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