Monday, May 29, 2006

Why Science Fiction is like Diabetes

I like Science Fiction (Sci-Fi). I like it a lot. While in the shower a couple of days ago, I got to thinking about it in a lot more detail than I usually do.

What is science fiction all about? What's at the core of it? How do you classify it? Why do we have a genre of fiction called science fiction at all? Is science fiction about space aliens and laser blasters and space fighters impossibly going 'whoosh' though the vacuum of space? (Well no, that's what crap sci-fi is about, but I'm getting ahead of myself...)

Or is it more?

It's more.

Allow me to broadly classify science fiction into two wide categories. I'll name them in the style of diabetes; Type 1 and Type 2 Sci-Fi. As I discuss this taxonomical system of mine, I hope it'll bring out what I believe is at the core of science fiction.

Type 1 Sci-Fi: Asking the right questions

Good science fiction, like good science, is all about asking interesting questions.

What if...?

What if there was no more scarcity and everyone could have whatever they wanted in whatever quantity they wanted? What if it were possible to indefinitely delay death? What if we faced an immediate, external existential threat? How would human society or a set of human being react to these situations?

You take human society and/or a human protagonist and place them in a new situation and you see what happens.

Individual episodes of Star Trek, for example, when they're not talking about 'reversing the polarity' of some gizmo or another, are usually of this type. So are BattleStar Galactica's episodes (the 're-imagined' series). For example, in the episode "Flesh and Bone" a very interesting issue that was dealt with, was that of torture. It's unethical to torture and summarily execute a human being, but is it ethical to torture an artificial but sapient creature? This raises other interesting questions. If it's ethical to prefer the safety of a human being over that of an animal's because of sentience, then shouldn't we prefer the safety of a machine over that of a human being if it's smarter?

If you start thinking of Sci-Fi in these terms, then many books which you might not have ever thought of as Sci-Fi, can actually be classified under it. A good example would be Orwell's 1984. Not too many people would call it 'science fiction', but it is a very good example of the genre in my opinion. The movie THX 1138 (Lucas' first proper movie) is basically an adaptation of 1984 and it's considered pucca Sci-Fi.

Good Sci-Fi is not about machines or robots or technology, it's about people and society.

Type 2 Sci-Fi: Space Opera

Space Opera is all about splashing about and painting on a broader canvas. Things like Star Wars, Firefly, Lost in Space etc. all fall under this category. Let's take Star Wars for example, since it's the most familiar. The entire story could just as easily have been set in a more contemporary time and 'galaxy', instead of being set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away". Replace light sabers with steel swords, X-Wings and TIE fighters with horses and the space ships with galleons and you don't really lose too much. At its heart, it's a take of adventure, war and magic and would fit right into the 14th century.

Having the story play out across an entire galaxy however, increases the sense of grandeur and 'space', if you will. Why have Vader destroy a village when you can have him blow up an entire planet? Why give him tuberculosis when you can have him breath like an asthmatic horse by putting him in a ventilator suit?

Type 2 Sci-Fi is not as deep as Type 1 Sci-Fi, but it can be a whole load of fun! :-)

Science Fiction: The thinking man's time-pass

Type 1 Sci-Fi is what I really love, though I don't mind Type 2 when I'm in the mood. I find Type 1 Sci-Fi, like the works of Banks or Baxter extremely enjoyable and I can say that some works have significantly broadened my mind. For example, it was one of Baxter's short stories that really helped me understand the concept of Space-Time! :-) My brother thinks it's a waste of time, but I can think of worse ways to relax.


Yehuda said...

Talking about "what if" something were different has much less to do with the "what if" and a lot more to do with the "what now".

In other words, if I suppose an alien with multiple bodies (ala Vernor Vinge), I am not exploring the idea of aliens with multiple bodies, I am by contrast exploring what it means for humans to have only one body.

That is the essential aspect of why sci-fi is relevant. You can write however many books you want about the sensibilities of love and poverty in eighteenth century France, but your perspective will always be limited to comparing different societies within humanity. To truly understand humanity, you have to find perspectives that are outside of humanity.

This doesn't exempt sci-fi writers from having to also be good writers, but it does challenge the accepted ideas of what makes for relevant literature, and I'm sorry to say that most people still don't get it. That's why Margaret Atwood won't describe her literature as sci-fi; she wants to be considered relevant.


Arsalan Zaidi said...

You've put things very well. This is precisely what I was trying to say as well. People who have little knowledge of Sci-fi think it's childish and immature fantisizing, when in fact, good Sci-Fi holds up a better mirror to humanity than more supposedly serious genres.

Or at least, that's what I think. :-)