Taking the Science out of Science Fiction

If your idea of good SF is re-reading the Star Trek Technical Manual or if you worry about whether an ansible would actually work, then this talk is not for you. My thesis is that the science in SF is at best irrelevant, and at worst a definite hindrance. I don't give a monkey's if nanotechnology works or not. FTL or ramscoops? Who cares?

I am not going to argue for a return to the days of pulp fiction where the captains of spaceships, armed only with a cutlass, would rescue the princess from the tentacled slime monster. I shall try and show that "hard" SF (often even well written hard SF) is often no different from this in that it uses crude tricks to fool the unwary reader into mistaking window dressing for the important part of any parts of any fiction: that of plot and, above all, characterisation. What I enjoy most about SF is the ability to explore ideas without many of the constraints imposed by mainstream fiction.

The non-importance of "Flashy Effects"

The difference between pulp SF and "non-science" SF can be quite subtle, but it is usually easy to spot. One excellent example springs immediately to mind: the film Total Recall and the Philip K Dick story on which it is based We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

Film Plot : Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man with big muscles. Special effects. Gratuitous violence. The end.

The short story is only twenty pages long and is set entirely in two small rooms in New York City. It is far more complex and alien.

It is an almost painful detailed examination of a man recovering suppressed memories, and the reactions of those involved in his "therapy". I don't think it can be a coincidence that Dick himself was in therapy at the time of writing the story. The essential difference between this story and one told in a "realistic" format is the lengths he is able to go to. He does not write about unearthing some childhood trauma, or a deep psychological flaw. This would probably have been too painful - both to write and to read. But by using a "fantastic" form of words he is able to express himself much more honestly. He also allows us to understand the pain of his experiences without the trauma of revelation. I should also point out that I thought that it was a really good story before I analysed it for its psychological insights.

Characterisation is where it's at

The other major aspect of SF which science has very little to with is its ability to come up with genuinely interesting characters. Again, not the whiter than white pulp heroes of the pulps, or even the players in a brilliant novel such as The Dispossessed. Shevek, Sabul and the rest are really well drawn, memorable individuals, but they are essentially human characters, reacting to very human situations in very human ways. LeGuin tries occasionally to make them feel different (e.g. when Shevek describes Einstein's ideas as alien, but this only reinforces their humanity).

The sort of characterisation I find most interesting is the sort found in the novel A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge. The aliens are really different. Alien. Take the Skrode Riders; Blue Stalk and Green Shell. They have no limbs and no short term memory. Their race has crossed the galaxy. The Powers; civilisations of one individual which evolve so fast that they cannot live for more than a few years. The Tines. A believable hive-mind. The important thing about these characters is they are not merely window dressing. The plot depends on their reactions. If they were human characters the plot could not and would not work. Also the reactions between the humans and the non-humans is genuinely interesting. The meeting of two completely different mind-sets, two different ways of thinking is really interesting, at least to me.

Science as window dressing

This is the most common and the worst aspect of Science Fiction. It is hard to know where to start. There is a quote form a late Heinlein novel (Number of the Breast??) which goes "If you're not interested in the mechanics of space flight, please skip the next few pages". I think that about sums up many novels for me. The science is incidental to the plot and I often get the feeling that the author is using whizzing wheels and flashing lights to cover up deficiencies in the book. It makes no difference if the science is right or not. It makes no difference if the Space Elevator in Red Mars would actually work or not. All I read was what seemed like four or five pages of padding which did nothing for the plot. Why couldn't it just be there and fall down on cue. It's almost as if Kim Stanley Robinson had done some research, and was going to make damn sure that the reader was going to read it. Strangely, the name Michael Crichton has just entered my head.

by Colin Wilkinson.
[To be] presented by Tim Adye as an introduction to the OUSFG discussion meeting of 1st June 1994.