Apr 30, 2015

Science Fiction

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov
This month I've been doing a series of blog posts that are meant to provide updated accounts of key character and plot elements in the Exode Trilogy. First and foremost, the Exode Trilogy is my playground for exploring the Exodemic Fictional Universe, an imagined Reality in which aliens long ago came to Earth and continue to influence the fate of the human species. The Exode Trilogy is a science fiction story and in this blog post I explore my preferred definition of science fiction as a literary genre.

To quickly illustrate that we live surrounded by unsatisfactory definitions of "science fiction" I need go no further than arm's length: to my copy of the American Heritage Dictionary.

One source for the Mythology of Science Fiction
"Fiction in which scientific discoveries and developments form an element of the plot or background, especially a work of fiction based on prediction of future scientific possibilities." (1968 edition).

Here is what Isaac Asimov wrote about the role of prediction in science fiction: "There is a general myth among laymen that, somehow, the chief function of a science fiction writer is to make predictions that eventually come true."

My prediction:
most people will remain confused
about the meaning of "science fiction"
Yes, science fiction authors often play around with imagined science and technology, but only very rarely are they concerned with predicting the future. Predicting the future is in no way a defining characteristic of science fiction stories: that is a myth that has been widely spread by misguided "authorities" such as dictionary publishers.

In the previous millennium, the American Heritage Dictionary was one of the books that I carried with me to college. Luckily, my first semester I had an English professor who was scientifically literate (his particular interest was literature about evolution). In that English class, we read only science fiction stories. Just read a dozen randomly selected science fiction stories and you will know that the American Heritage Dictionary was wrong to single out prediction of the future as "especially" characteristic of science fiction stories.

unrestrained fancy
Of course, dictionaries are updated, so here is the online 2014 definition: "A literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background."

Fortunately, "prediction" has been removed from this definition of science fiction. There are two intriguing new additions in the 2014 definition: "cinematic genre" and "fantasy".  Here is their definition of the fantasy genre: "A genre of fiction or other artistic work characterized by fanciful or supernatural elements."

Predicting the future of
cinematic science fiction:
more sword fights!
Their first definition makes the point that fantasy is really "unrestrained fancy", which is NOT found in science fiction. Below, I discuss exactly how imagination is restrained within the science fiction genre. Hint: the word "science" has something to do with what sets science fiction off as a genre that is distinct from fantasy. I've previously blogged about how Asimov described the difference between science fiction and fantasy. 

I went off to college the year that Star Wars hit the Big Screen. For millions of people who have never read a science fiction story, Star Wars provides their working definition of science fiction. However, Star Wars is at best an extremely fringe example of cinematic science fiction. To understand science fiction as a literary genre, it helps to look back through time, past the recent film-making era, to the historical origins of the genre.

Dr. Asimov
The literary genre of  "science fiction" began with a small group of writers who published stories in the first science fiction pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories. The "Golden Age" of science fiction has been described as arising from the influence of John Campbell when he was editor of Astounding.

Asimov's positronic robot stories
Among the science fiction writers who worked with Campbell was Isaac Asimov, one of the influential "Grand Masters" of science fiction. By some measures, Asimov was the master of "hard" science fiction. Here, I'll use some of Asimov's stories as examples of what constitutes science fiction.

Science Fiction Defined
Many readers and writers of science fiction have tried to define what constitutes a science fiction story and how such stories differ from those in other literary genres such as fantasy (a list of definitions).

Carl Freedman has argued that Mary Shelley's story Frankenstein is an example of science fiction that predated use of the term "science fiction". However, there is no doubt that Mary wrote her story after being challenged to create a horror story. I would classify Frankenstein as an anti-science fiction story with fantasy and horror elements. Writing science fiction is a social endeavor and a science fiction author needs to exist within a group of scientifically literate people and be writing so as to please readers who understand science and who are concerned with the issue of how technology shapes cultures.


Science, Technology, Society
Science fiction stories function as social constructs that arise out of a particular shared understanding of the world that exists between a distinct group of writers and readers. To write a good science fiction story you should have an appreciation for science and the power of technology to change human societies.

Science fiction as a literary genre could not exist until after the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. After the arrival of the late modern era, there was a large well-educated audience for fiction that is based on rational speculation rather than the more free-formed approaches to story telling that came before. By "free-formed" I mean not constrained by the type of knowledge of the natural world that is obtainable only by scientific study of nature.

Asimov's Foundation
In the 20th century, there arose a new way of thinking about the world and our place in it. Humanity emerged from a long confused past in which people were profoundly ignorant and speculative literature was commonly built upon on mysticism and magical thinking. In contrast, science fiction stories often deal with imaginary scientific and technological advances and their imagined impacts on people and societies.

4 Science Fiction Examples
1) Asimov's short story Nightfall contrasts scientific understanding of the universe with pre-scientific belief systems such as religion. The plot of Nightfall explicitly involves the science of astronomy and a specific scientific prediction. That prediction is based on mathematical calculations that allow foreknowledge of an impending eclipse-like event that will throw an imagined world into darkness; a sudden darkness that will trigger social collapse on a planet with many suns. Asimov asks us to imagine the psychological impact of sudden darkness on a planet where almost always it is day.

2) Asimov wrote many stories that featured positronic robots. When he started writing his stories, electronic computers were huge, so he imagined that there would by a future science of positronics allowing for miniaturized computers and the development of mobile autonomous robots with human-like cognitive abilities. Asimov imagined and wrote stories about a gradual process by which increasingly sophisticated positronic robots would be developed, a process taking centuries of research and development, that would ultimately result in robots who became guardians of Humanity.

The End of Etenity
3) In his Foundation Saga, Asimov imagined the spread of humans outwards from Earth to 25,000,000 other planets of the galaxy. Asimov imagined a future technology for faster-than-light space travel that would allow people to move from planet to planet as easily as ships can sail across oceans.

4) In his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, Asimov imagined that the existence of time travel might result in a kind of technological and evolutionary stagnation of the human species. If we had the power to go back into our past and prevent catastrophes like nuclear wars, would we create a "safe" but technologically stagnant future for Humanity?

Data and Einstein
"Imagination is everything. It's the preview of life's coming attractions." - Albert Einstein

These four examples (above) illustrate speculative fiction stories that were written by a trained scientist (Asimov) who purposely avoided writing magic and horror into his stories. Instead, Asimov's stories began with a culture of science and a milieu of technological change and then Asimov added in new imagined science, technology and resulting social changes. Asimov's stories can be viewed as thought experiments exploring social changes that might rationally be imagined to occur as a consequence of the imagined science and technology advances.

Locus of fear: amygdala
Magic and horror can appear in science fiction stories, but if they are included as story elements then they must respect the primacy and dominance of science and reason. For example, Clarke noted that any advanced technology might give people powers that seem magical. Faster-than-light space travel, telepathy and time travel might all be due to magic spells in a fantasy story, but if Asimov imagines a future scientific advance that would provide us with "hyperspace jumps" and faster-than-light travel then it is not magic, it is imaginary future science. Some people define science fiction as a "what if?" game being played by authors and readers, a game in which we use our imaginations to explore worlds of imaginary science and technology. However, that game cannot be overwhelmed by its fantasy and horror elements; rationality and intelligence must remain in control.

The Engines of Cognitive Experience
The human brain contains a complex collection of specialized information processing modules that we use to produce our conscious experiences. Story writers can tap into brain components such as the amygdala in order to provoke experiences such as fear in readers. Patients such as S.M. who have damage to their amygdala cannot respond correctly to social cues such as a fearful expression on another person's face.

Another sub-cortical brain structure, the caudate, plays a role in producing feelings of surprise and expectation violation when we witness magic. Writers of horror and fantasy stories long ago learned how to engage readers in fiction by crafting tales that activate sub-cortical brain regions like the amygdala and the caudate.

A Hollywood cheap trick:
the amygdala allows us to recognize
fearful facial expressions.
When story authors write about horrifying things such as a monster composed of dead body parts or magical events, they are, in some sense, using a "cheap trick" that can captivate readers. Such literary "tricks of the trade" can even be used in children's stories since they trigger innate emotional responses that are programmed in sub-cortical brain structures like the amygdala. For a science fiction author like Asimov who avoids the conventional "cheap tricks" that are employed by writers of fantasy and horror, how can a reader's brain be stimulated? What "tricks" do science fiction stories use in order to keep readers engaged and turning the pages?

"Science fiction is knowledge fiction" -Theodore Sturgeon

Cortical areas used for visual imagery.
A science fiction story writer like Asimov wants his readers to think and imagine strange new worlds that our brains never evolved to respond to. Humans need to use the cerebral cortex when they are asked to think in new ways and not simply react to familiar emotion-provoking stimuli. Just how complicated a brain process is thinking? The level of complexity can be appreciated by noting the many cortical brain regions that are involved in a task like mentally manipulating images (see the figure to the left).

In The End of Eternity, Asimov asks readers to imagine a society composed of time travelers. The protagonist of the story, Andrew Harlan, is a Time Technician who can alter the course of historical events on Earth by "stepping into history" at any point in time. One of the "what if?" games of the imagination that Asimov plays with readers is to ask us to imagine what would happen if Harlen traveled in Time and saw a "copy" of himself.

The invention of Eternity.
The exploration of such bizarre imaginary events as time paradoxes is a staple of science fiction. Asimov guides readers through a thought experiment in which the Eternals fear the idea of traveling though time and possibly meeting themselves. When Harlan catches just a glimpse of himself one day, he is horrified. This is an example of how horror can find its way into a science fiction story. Asimov is playing a game in which he invites us to imagine a strange new culture within which Harlan can activate his amygdala in a very unusual way. In order for us to empathize with Harlan, we must play Asimov's game and try to imagine a culture that is quite different from our own. We try to put the cortex in control of the amygdala, not the other way around. Ideas first, emotions second.

Skepticism and Wonder
The Demon-Haunted World
Carl Sagan asked us to think about the power of science as a combination of skepticism and wonder. A social effort to create and share experiences of wonder is common to most speculative fiction. Science fiction is a special genre because it also incorporates the constraint of skepticism. In the science fiction genre we expect readers and writers to learn from the history of science and technology and to be concerned with how science modifies society and the shape of our lives.

Expanded night
What do we have to be skeptical about in a story? Every time we read a science fiction story we play a little game: we ask, could this actually happen, given the imaginary science and technology that have been introduced by the author?

In the case of Nightfall, I was never convinced that people (even aliens) would react to darkness in the way described by Asimov. However, Asimov was playing the "science fiction game" and he created a science fictional thought experiment. Asimov himself did not think that Nightfall was among his best science fiction stories, but it did help make him famous and launch his literary career.

Robots in Space
Science fiction stories are often structured around or guided by a competition between conflicting ideas, just a science expands our understanding of the world through competition between hypotheses. For example, in Asimov's robot novels, the "Spacers" and the "Settlers" have different visions for the future expansion of humanity through the galaxy. In The End of Eternity, the Eternals are devoted to their vision of the future (based on continued use of time travel) while Noÿs Lambent and her people (from 10,000,000 years in our future) want to put an end to time travel and let Humanity develop in another direction.

In Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, the "big idea" is a question: if the universe was created, what form might objective scientific evidence take that supports the existence of a creator? Sagan was playing a particularly fascinating science fictional "what if?" game that conflicts with the idea that we must accept the idea of a creator of the universe on faith alone.

The culture of science fiction assumes that readers will skeptically examine science fiction stories. Fans of science fiction expect interesting ideas and questions to be raised and discussed within science fiction stories. If an author of a story has no interest in science and has no new ideas to offer and instead resorts to literary trickery, then science fiction fans can reject such stories and label them as "pseudo-science fiction".

Cortical regions important for reading
Asimov described the source of his complex plots as being thought, and lots of it. Readers of science fiction stories expect authors to put a lot of thought into creating imaginary worlds. And those worlds of the imagination have to make sense in the same way that our world makes sense. In a science fiction story, readers do not want to be subjected to unrestrained flights of fancy.

Another feature of Asimov's science fiction is a large amount of dialog. It has been shown that while reading stories that contain dialog, brain regions involved in predicting the behavior of other people become activated. Science fiction provides readers with particularly demanding "what if?" puzzles in which we must imagine person-to-person discussions within an imagined technological/social setting. We each get to judge if the author has presented a sensible and interesting story.

A brain following rules: orange cortical regions are active.
By "sensible",  I mean a story that "follows the rules". A science fiction story should follow the rules that we know in real life plus any additional imaginary scientific discoveries that are included in the fictional universe by the author (like faster-than-light space travel). When operating under the constraints imposed by "the laws of physics" and other imagined rules of science, the human brain must adopt a special activity pattern, what we could call the science fiction mode.

Fringe Science Fiction
Of course, there will always by gray and fuzzy boundaries at the edges of the science fiction literary genre. Some stories can contain elements of science fiction and also include features that are characteristic of other literary genres such as fantasy and horror. Scientists such as Asimov and Sagan are likely to be most comfortable when their fiction is firmly within the narrow confines of hard science fiction.

Jack Vance is an example of an author who had very little interest in the boundaries between literary genres. I don't mind calling his Alastor Cluster, Cadwal and Demon Princes series "science fiction" even though Vance's novels have a quite different character than stories like Contact and The End of Eternity.

In the fictional universe created by Jack Vance, science and technology are not very intrusive. Vance had no training as a scientist, so this should be no surprise. Vance's main "use" for science was in the area of imagined spaceship propulsion: Vance needed easy travel between planets that would allow him to take readers on adventures among the stars. As an experienced world traveler, Earth alone was not large enough for Vance's imagination.

A billion years of stasis
In some sense, the science fiction genre is a community effort to explore this question: can science and technology change everything? Science fiction authors take delight in imagining how new cultures and new human (or alien) experiences might arise due to the influence of scientific advances. Vance wanted to write fun stories that would not be inconvenienced by runaway technological change. It was enough for him to imagine how human behavior might be altered if people could live on different planets.

I credit Vance with one of the great science fiction concepts: the Institute. The Institute is devoted to the control of scientific research and the pace of technological change.

I find it fascinating that Asimov found his own ways to prevent rampant technological change in his fictional universe. In his Foundation stories, Asimov depicted very little scientific and technological change during the thousands of years during which Humanity spread through the galaxy. Daneel did not allow human nature to be changed.

Non-Literary Science Fiction
Forbidden Planet
Just when science fiction began as a literary genre, the technological tools that were needed for radio and television programming were becoming available. Already, some early films with science fiction themes had been made. Film and television, as visual story telling media, have usually failed to capture and convey the spirit of the the science fiction literary genre. The social contract among science fiction authors and readers is different than that between video producers and viewers. Science fiction as a literary genre arose among a select group of people who in the 20th century were early adopters of a modern mindset that embraced technology-driven change and the "stars" of science fiction tend to be scientists or at least science-literate authors. In contrast, the television and film industries have always been most likely to target a wider audience that includes people with anti-science biases and interests that center more on magical fantasy and horror stories.

Star Trek
A good example of the perversion of science fiction by television is Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry invented a science fictional universe where space travel and post-scarcity economics allowed for a "Federation of Planets" in which humans and aliens could peacefully explore the vastness of space. Through a series of bad choices that are typical of television, the Star Trek television shows became mired in endless military conflicts, turning their backs on Roddenberry's original vision of a future that would be different quite from the dreary history our primitive planet. Just to get his foot in the door, Roddenberry had to tell television network executives that Star Trek would be a Western set among the stars. Only occasionally has true literary quality science fiction survived the Hollywood sausage grinding machine to reach the viewing public. What most people now call "science fiction" has little in common with the literary genre and culture of literary science fiction that was created in the 20th century.

Ma and Pa science fiction marketing
Even worse, while the 20th century had book and magazine publishers who understood and loved science fiction, the commercial success of science fiction led to the appropriation of the term "science fiction" as a marketing device that could be slapped on any story by cash-hungry publishers. This trend of cultural misappropriation of the term "science fiction" included the efforts of an endless stream of pontificators who have given the world many bogus definitions of science fiction, for example, attempting to redefine anti-science horror stories as science fiction or attempting to blur the lines between fantasy and science fiction in favor of some homogenized "speculative fiction" genre that in many people's minds has replaced the original meaning of science fiction. A sorry phenomenon of my lifetime was the rise and fall of book superstores that had integrated "fantasy and science fiction" book shelves and that conspired with publishers to ignore science fiction as a specialized and unique literary genre. Lucky for us, after the boom and bust of fantahorrorscifi mass marketing, there are still some people who continue to defend and develop science fiction as a literary genre.

If you put a Scientist in a Horror Story does that Make it Science Fiction?
Carl Freedman set a low bar for status as a science fiction story. He made the claim that if a reader can believe that something like the scenario described by an author might possibly happen, then we are in the domain of science fiction. Specifically, if you can imagine a scientist going into his garage some day and magically animating dead body parts then that makes Frankenstein a science fiction story. Of course, if you imagine a wizard magically animating dead body parts then that would be fantasy.

Sorry, but I don't buy Freedman's argument. Mary Shelley wrote a horror story and then more than a century later some historical revisionists started trying to claim that she invented the science fiction genre. I also would not trust an English professor to tell me at what point in the past the human species came into existence.

Hollywood magic: Watson today, Ava tomorrow.
"...the book just doesn’t seem 'scientific'."

Picture an 18-year-old of today who hears about Watson and then writes a story in which a scientist goes into his basement and creates an "artificial man" by stitching together a copy of Wikipedia and a few billion internet search results. You'd end up with something like Ex Machina and a couple of million other 18-year-olds who have no problem imagining that Apple, Inc. could soon create an artificial intelligence like Ava. That kind of thinking sells movie tickets, but it is not scientific.

As a novel, Frankenstein was written in the Gothic literary genre. Inserting a scientist or a spaceship or a robot into a horror story does not magically transform that horror story into a science fiction story.

"Gothic horror novels are science fiction in reverse"

Mary Shelley played a shell game with readers. By throwing in some pseudoscience mumbo-jumbo she hoped to make readers imagine that her horror scenario was possible. Even now, more than a hundred years later, I'm sure that there are many English professors and millions of other scientifically illiterate people who believe that scientists behave like Victor Frankenstein. Thank you, comic book writers and Hollywood, for endlessly including mad scientists in your stories.

dehumanize me!
If you want to run a Turing Test, you don't learn anything useful about machine intelligence by going out and recruiting the people who are most likely to be fooled by a computer program into thinking that they are interacting with a human being. Similarly, when looking for an understanding of science fiction as a literary genre, we don't have to let scientifically illiterate people be our guide. If someone in Hollywood decides to market horror or fantasy as science fiction then I don't have to buy it. Yes, C-3PO, I'm looking at you.

Broad vs Narrow
"[Science fiction is] the attempt to deal
rationally with alternate possibilities in a
manner which will be entertaining."
So, you can see that I prefer a narrow definition of "science fiction". You can find many people who advocate broader definitions of the genre (example).

I have a very pragmatic reason for adopting a narrow definition of science fiction. I don't enjoy other literary genres such as fantasy and horror where rationality is compromised. I can understand why people who don't mind letting go of logic and reason might prefer a broader view of what constitutes science fiction.

People with training in science learn to appreciate and apply narrow definitions, so to some extent my preferred definition of "science fiction" must be expected to conflict with pop culture world views that flourish among the scientifically illiterate. And that's fine with me.

"..... one single positive dream is more important than a thousand negative realities" -Adeline Yen Mah
Related reading: Recursive Science Fiction
More commentary on The End of Eternity 
Time warp 2010: comments on science fiction and fantasy
Commentary on anti-science fiction by Steven Lyle Jordan
Skeptical Readers by M R Mortimer
Science fiction writing considered as a disease

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