Science Fiction -- Narratives That Let Us Grow

September 22, 2008

Science Fiction. I like reading it. But I find just about anything calling itself that in video form to be very disappointing.

Why do I like science fiction? Well, one could pick any of numerous tropes and assume it has some attraction to me. Perhaps it’s space, or aliens, or AI. Maybe I’m just attracted to the futurism aspect, the extrapolation of current circumstances and the examining of possibilities. Well, although the last one may approach what SF means to me, none of these reasons really captures its appeal.

Let’s start with what bothers me about most SF in Movies and on TV. In just about every case, I create a description such as “Soap Opera… IN SPACE” (that’s Star Trek) “Jesus/Harry Potter/Frodo Baggins*… IN SPACE” (that’s Star Wars). Well, what’s the problem with that? Assuming whatever I put before “IN SPACE” or “WITH LASERS” or “IN THE NOT TOO FAR OFF FUTURE” is valid and valuable, there really isn’t a problem, right?

Various form of narratives, be they prose, poetry, movies, tv series, oral histories, what have you, attempt to present and explicate some aspect of humanity, the universe, and our experiences in it. Since this encompasses just about everything, well, there aren’t real limits. Much of what we would call “fiction” or “drama” works within the bounds of the “real world”. This means that although the characters may have never existed, their experiences are set within an environment that we right now, or in the past, may have found easily possible. Science Fiction, and really just about everything one could call Speculative Fiction, instead sets the interactions within a reality stretched somehow. Perhaps it’s stretched into the future. Perhaps it’s stretched merely beyond the bounds of the mundane (as in magical realism).

So, in both the SF I like and the SF I dislike, this stretching seems to take place, so what is my problem? Well, it is that the stretching of reality must serve a purpose. Just like most narratives cannot be truly mundane for we could not extract something to add to our lives from them in that case, the stretching of reality cannot have utterly no effect on the narrative itself. This is, however, exactly the case in my “…IN SPACE” examples. The same lessons, ideas, memes, and emotions can be just as easily be gleaned from the narrative with even vast shifts in environment.

The SF I enjoy most, however, makes the stretching of reality integral. That is the whole point. It means to stretch reality in some way, and then examine, speculatively, the effects on the aforementioned humans, the universe, and their mutual interactions. Change the environment, and suddenly things just don’t make sense. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series may have been roughly patterned on Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, but without pretty serious revisions it can’t be easily placed within another context. His Robot stories fundamentally examine the interactions of robots and humans. You can’t merely replace “robots” with something else and retain narrative cohesiveness.

My point of view is limited by what I can experience. “Plain” Fiction can provide many new points of view, which is truly necessary, in my opinion. SF, however, goes even further beyond that. It provides not only new ways to view similar things, but it creates wholly novel things and shows different ways of looking at those. This means that not only does it train one to perhaps see things as others see them, but it also allows a better understanding of how others might see things that are not yet existing. That is, faced with different choices, not only can the consequences be plotted, but also a more complex set of potential multiple understandings of the choices.

Yes, this may sound like an overly practical end for narratives. But I believe that whether we want to or not, we internalize the narratives we consume and then proceed to reapply them as sorts of priors. If we merely wallow in archetypes the narratives that we ourselves create will be constrained.

I want our minds to be free, our future to be thick with possibility, and our past to be replete with the ambiguities that it truly contained rather than the mere certainty of what came to pass.

* young orphan-ish male living mundane life discovers that his father (or uncle) are rather greater than they seemed, and receive relic/gift from him (usually arbitrarily). Proceed to go on adventure of discovery, gaining much wisdom in the process.

Science Fiction -- Narratives That Let Us Grow - September 22, 2008 - Michael Katsevman