Distal Muse Archives

Pseudo Science Fiction

by Mark W. Tiedemann

     This Distal is just a ramble.  I considered writing a column about September 11, but frankly better voices than mine have and will continue to address that issue.  I'm not in the mood to be particularly lighthearted, though, so I thought I'd do something of a follow-up on the last Distal Muse, and continue some speculations about SF, albeit from a slightly different perspective.
     Often, science fiction is measured against science--the "quality" of a given text is determined by how well or closely is parallels our understanding of science, how effectively and honestly it uses science, and how accurate the science in the text is.  None of this has much to do with "literary" qualities, but every school has its principle, and SF is stuck with this one.  Born out of "engineering fiction" in the 20s, there is a reliance on slide-rule veracity that can often be exhilirating.  A well-written SF novel  should be consistent with the universe as we understand it, at least as a starting point from which to begin a journey into the bizarre.
     But to confuse SF and science is a mistake.
     However, this misapprehension is indicative of a larger sociological trend which does affect our comprehension of science and our confusion over how to grapple with the universe.
     With that in mind, I participated in a panel discussion a few years ago concerning what I called pseudo science fiction--it comes under many other labels, the most famous (and now all but obsolete) of which is Science Fantasy.  An oxymoron if ever there was one.  But the thrust of the panel also dealt with pseudoscience, and the public attitude toward both, it seems to me, represent parallels.  Why isn't "Star Wars" science fiction?  How come SF fans often find SF films contemptible and most television SF deplorable?  The general public shakes its head in bafflement.  Isn't this just nitpicking?
     Well, for the most part, sure.  Unfortunately, there are some interesting--and critical--things to say about the whole mess.
     I suppose to an extent this has to do with our ability to apply reason.  It's not easy and often the results are uncomfortable, so we rely on a kind of group sign language to get by.  Right now, though, it would seem that a huge dose of applied reason would be the best thing for us, to sort out the myth from the truth, and come to grips with What Is rather than What Is Wanted.
     So maybe tangentially this does say a few things about September 11, if only by inference.  What follows is primarily a series of observations, working notes from which a panel discussion was assembled and given.  These comments are intended to spark thought and commentary.  In a way, they represent a kind of assessment of where we might be right now.

Panel Notes--Pseudoscience and SF

     "...there is no special reason for amazement at the avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp in paperbacks, midway between Nazi nostalgia and occultism.  A country able to produce Dianetics can do a lot in terms of wash-and-wear sorcery and Holy Grail frappe'."
     Umberto Eco, Travels In Hyperreality.

     "Science fiction is one of the branches of literature most concerned with meaning.
 When meaning is successfully made clear, we call it 'sense of wonder'..."

     (Really?  I always assumed sense of wonder came first, then meaning.)

     "[The search for grandeur] often leads writers into wistful, less-than-scientific inquirers.  Gullibility, laziness, and self-delusion, even hoax and fraud, divert some writers from real science...toward the false claims and fake magic of quick-and-dirty wonderments that can be sewn from whole cloth."

     Eugene R. Stewart, "Science Fiction,
     Skepticism, and Reality"
     The Skeptical Inquirer, Sept/Oct 1996

     For the most part, SF seems concerned artistically with the consequences and ramifications of a scientific worldview.  That the world changes, that scientific understanding currently drives a lot of that change, and that the change, while causally connected with such discovery, is often unpredictable in any scientific sense does not require of most people that they have an understanding of science in order to be affected by the change.  It's possible that such understanding might alleviate some of the shocks.  But most sf writers seem quite aware that change and the knowledge of change are often unrelated.  What both sides of the science versus antiscience or pseudoscience debate are talking about is desirable versus undesirable change and in the tension between these two poles a lot of very good sf has been written, quite often without a single bit of actual science on the page.

     "What science fiction can profitably do to counteract superstition is to explore the wonders of real scientific possibilities as they relate to the real world."
      Frederik Pohl.

Novels that admirably demonstrate a principle of science

The Gods Themselves  Isaac Asimov
Emprise  Michael P. Kube-McDowell
Timescape Gregory Benford
Inherit the Stars James Hogan
A Million Open Doors John Barnes
Heavy Weather Bruce Sterling
The Time Ships Stephen Baxter

     "We can describe hard science fiction as that variety...which highly prizes faithfulness to the physical facts of the universe, while building on them to realize new fictional worlds."
      Gregory Benford

     "At its best, science fiction tends to be about the emotional experiences of discovering what is true, often represented by scientific discoveries of great consequence."
      Kathryn Cramer

     "Hard sf is about the beauty of truth...[it is] about the emotional experience of describing and confronting what is scientifically true."
      David Hartwell

    Above from "Ascent of Wonder"

Science & Pseudoscience

     The National Science Foundation survey [National Science Board Science & Engineering Indicators of 1996] showed that fully 70% of the American public loves science, supports its goals, etc. and that this number has been more or less steady for decades.
     It then goes on to show that 93% to 97% of that same public is scientifically illiterate.  Also, other surveys as well as this one, have shown an increase in the public presence of active antiscience movements from 1% to 10% in the last decade.
     Regular science columns in national newspapers have been reduced by half in the same period.  It has only been in the last four or five years that most newspapers carrying astrology columns have published a disclaimer to the effect that there is no basis in science for astrology and that these columns are intended strictly for entertainment.
     Almost every state now has a lottery, which has been called a tax for stupid people, and gambling is becoming a national pastime despite the solid mathematical (and experiential) evidence stacked against it ever being a paying endeavor for the individual.  The House always wins is more than just a cliche.

     In debates over the issue of a scientific ideological hegemony, critics of science argue that it is dogmatic, conservative, and supportive of the status quo.  Of course, these are political arguments, but taken at face value the rhetoric casts the forces of pseudoscience in the light of the outsider, the revolutionary, the lone voice crying in the wilderness for change.
     Quite the contrary, pseudoscience is not destabilizing and revolutionary.  It is reactionary.  It appears novel and new to the uninitiated and seems momentarily liberating.  In reality, what we call pseudoscience--and everyone may have a different idea about what is or is not pseudo--seeks above all else stability.  Astrology suggests that we can at least know our destiny and plan accordingly; creation science strives ardently to suggest that the answer of the past has always been known and that we're wasting our time digging into it; New Age mysticism is old-fashioned Calvinist predestination all wrapped up in a new suit; homeopathy tries to suggest that any materialist approach to medicine is in error; and of course all the psychic mish-mash is there to assure us that there will always be an area of knowledge closed to rationalist inquiry.  Taken altogether, pseudoscience seeks definitive answers that will eliminate all future questions, even if one of those answers is that a question cannot--or may not--be asked.
     Science, on the other hand, is fundamentally destabilizing.
     So it seems to me that the task of SF is to continue to encourage exactly that instability.

     Pseudo science has succeeded for the moment in seizing a rhetorical high ground only, by declaring that science no longer has any answers for us.  It makes this claim without substantiation and with considerable disingenuity, since the kinds of answers it is talking about were never within the purview of science to begin with.  What it offers instead is a cabalistic approach that it takes no responsibility for--if what we tell you fails, then it wasn't meant to work; the fault is in you--lack of faith--and in the stars--destiny--and out of anyone's ability to effect.

Media SF

     The lessons to be learned from television SF of the last decade or so are mixed at best, but certainly very little has to do with science and its capacities.

     From the X-Files we learn that the truth is out there, but like the great Snipe we are destined never to capture it.  Our best option is to simply Believe.

     From Dark Skies we learn that virtually nothing from the Korean War to the death of John Lennon is our fault, but the result of Other Powers.  Very comforting in a way, I suppose.

     Star Trek teaches us that the only thing necessary to solve a problem is to get the technospeak right, and then, like a magical incantation, shows us that it never works that way twice.  One solution per babble.

     And nearly all the examples since E.T. have returned to the Cold War idea that They, the aliens, aren't interested in peace and dialogue.

     Perhaps I'm nitpicking--I certainly watch and enjoy some of these shows--but these are the models for an aesthetic.  These show us, in some small way, a glimpse of the world we may live in, and what the future may be like.  On the mundane side of the channel we're deluged with cop shows that give us endless justifications for civil rights violations in the name of law & order, talk shows that offer us the flake of the day, mindless sitcoms, and magazine programs that disregard most of the necessities of sound news gathering and unbiased presentation.
     All of this, it can reasonably be argued, is only supposed to be entertainment.
     But Chip Delany pointed out in an essay that the word entertainment has two meanings--at least.  The one we're all familiar with--to entertain, to make merry, to enjoy, to cause pleasure.  The other is to entertain ideas.  To play with them, turn them over in our minds, contemplate them, and at several points this definition joins up with the first one, and in its best forms we get great science fiction.

     At the level of anthropology, the question is this:  since a culture sustains itself, its identity, via the stories it tells itself, what are the stories we're telling ourselves and how does sf contribute to this?
     According to the National Science Foundation survey, we seem to want to be a culture that embraces truth as it has been defined through science, but we seem, by and large, to have no idea what that means.  When we look at many of the stories we're telling ourselves, on this point the message seems mixed.
     One thing to remember is that the stories we tell ourselves and each other shape the way we confront life and reality.  They are about that confrontation, and they can be and often are critical, in the sense of trying to find answers to Why questions.  Science fiction has the capacity--and in its better examples, fulfills that capacity--to teach us how to think "outside the box."  When confronting the new, the different, the unforeseen, this is the only kind of thinking that yields positive results.
     You don't learn how to do that from myth cycles about things that never change.


copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann