Monday, March 27, 2017

Idle Thoughts on the Hard Question

The Hard Buds of SF have those of us who find the technical plausibility of fictional tales a distraction at a distinct disadvantage.  Those of us who prefer not to waste our time analyzing works on the basis of their engineering accuracy are caught in a Catch-22.  If we do ignore the concept of “hardness”, then the default status-quo, and all of its built-in assumptions and value judgements, remain in effect.  If we don’t ignore the concept, then we tacitly admit that the concept is worthy of discussion.

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It’s not about the works – it’s about the critical framework!  There’s a lot of plain sci-fi that I really like.  Karl Gallagher’s Torchship comes to mind.  I liked it well enough to throw an ad for its sequel into the back of one of my books.  But I didn’t like it because the engineering behind it made sense.  The engineering behind my Ikea instructions makes sense – that doesn’t make it a good read.  I enjoyed Torchship because the people made sense.  The conflict made sense.  The politics made sense.  Had the Fives Full been powered by madeupium drives or sailed across the aether propelled by the sheer force of the will of its captain I would have enjoyed it no less.
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Of course the chosen terms themselves connote values.  “Hard” is difficult and strong and solid.  “Soft” is easy and weak and ephemeral.  Do you want to write strong works or weak ones?  To ask the question is to answer it.  Imagine if we decided to use different language to describe the two ends of the spectrum.  Would the Hard Buds object to referring to their preferred style of fiction as “Grey” and the other end “Colorful”?  This is how even the language is corrupted to influence readers towards thinking about literal nuts and bolts of engineering instead of the figurative nuts and bolts of heroism. 
Perhaps “Plain sci-fi” versus “Majestic sci-fi” would be a more apt spectrum.  Just for kicks, I’m only going to use the terms “plain” and “majestic” throughout the rest of this piece.  As you read, think about the difference that makes. 

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A Princess of Mars is more real to me than The Martian.  They are both great books, but one is a pointless walk through an Ikea catalog, where the other is a moving journey through life that sticks to you and changes you forever.  In the plain sci-fi tale The Martian, Mark Watney burns rocks to make water is a neat little puzzle that makes me want to be a better scientist, but in the majestic sci-fi story A Princess of Mars, how John Carter reacts to a savage world where slavery is the norm is inspirational and makes me want to be a better man.  Dejah Thoris, fierce and loyal Princess of Mars, is more real to me than the foul mouthed woman who serves as NASA’s spokeshole in The Martian 
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The insidious nature of the Hard Buds of SF is as subtle as it is poisonous.  Questions like, "Did they get the science right?" are phrased with an implicit understanding that answering in the negative is a mark against the work's quality.  That's an example of the underlying assumptions built into the plain sci-fi framework that most people accept without thought.  It sounds like a legitimate question.  It's easy to answer.  But it's a distraction.  It's the magician's flourishing left hand drawing your attention away while his right hand makes the virtue and heroism disappear.
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There’s nothing wrong with enjoying Science Man Solves Engineering Problem, but the suggestion that it represents an elevated form of the genre is laughable.  It strikes out huge swathes of human experience and presents no higher goal than “study math” and “try not to get killed”.  That’s not a step up, it’s a step backwards.
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Plain sci-fi encourages readers to look down at the power of math, majestic sci-fi encourages readers to look up to the higher power responsible for math.  Plain sci-fi speaks to the brain.  Majestic sci-fi speaks to the heart and soul.  As a result, it is majestic sci-fi that is more in-line with the superversive mindset than plain sci-fi.
 
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These observations are disjointed. With more time and motivation, they could be worked into a cohesive whole, but I just don’t care.  I’ve wasted enough time on something that, within the context of my preferred critical framework for genre fiction, just doesn’t matter.

4 comments:

  1. As long as the author isn't stipulating that the warp drive is powered by unicorn farts, the "get the science right" question isn't relevant to how well a story is told.

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  2. This really is a problem of language. It's the implicit moral differentiation you point out.

    "Hard Buds" (we should come up with a name that doesn't have derogatory connotations) are right in trying to defend their literature. I don't hold it against them. But they need to defend it without derogating others variations.

    Arguably, those who want to write "Majestic Science Fiction" may do well to move beyond the science fiction label. The Science Fiction label has associations with stars, planets, and futuristic technology, sure, but "majestic science fiction" is not about these things specifically - they are setting, mcguffins, and trappings to adorn the human story. We may want to revive older titles - Planetary Romance, Sword and Planet, Space Opera (take it back from the "New Space Opera" folk!).

    Perhaps we should let the "Hard Buds" have the Science Fiction term. They are, apparently, the one's who want to emphasize the science.

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  3. 'Load every rift with ore' was good enough for Keats, and it's good enough for me. Getting the science right is one of the rifts you really should load with ore in science fiction. Even good SF writers often fail. Even good SF stories often fail. But the more they succeed the better. Poul Anderson, Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Zelazny succeeded more than anyone before or since. This is a slow period in SF, most people who try to write SF are failing, and most fail so badly they just quit trying. But John Sandford and Ctein succeeded with Saturn Run. Their spaceship cooling system is the best I've seen in years, and yes, they wrapped a good Sandford story around it. It can be done.

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  4. 'Load every rift with ore' was good enough for Keats, and it's good enough for me. Getting the science right is one of the rifts you really should load with ore in science fiction. Even good SF writers often fail. Even good SF stories often fail. But the more they succeed the better. Poul Anderson, Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Zelazny succeeded more than anyone before or since. This is a slow period in SF, most people who try to write SF are failing, and most fail so badly they just quit trying. But John Sandford and Ctein succeeded with Saturn Run. Their spaceship cooling system is the best I've seen in years, and yes, they wrapped a good Sandford story around it. It can be done.

    ReplyDelete