Monday, May 12, 2014

Science-Fiction is Aspirational

In my series on magic, I defined magic as using apparently unrelated means to achieve some end. Also, in that same series, I pointed out that, for those without the necessary knowledge and experience, any sort of skill seems “magical” in this sense. Given this, what exactly is the difference between fantasy and science-fiction? I mean, besides the outfits, the shape of the doohickeys they use, and drastically unequal degrees of personability, what distinguishes Snape saying, “Expelliarmus!” and zapping someone with a ray, from Captain Kirk saying, “Set phasers to stun,” and zapping someone with a ray? Quite a few things, you reductionist!

Sci-fi stories say: "our courage and ingenuity will take us
boldly where no man has gone before."
A big one is this: science-fiction presupposes that, although the forces and methods shown in the story may be currently undiscovered and practically “magical,” they are discoverable, and we will use the same kinds of means we've used so far to find them out and use them to our advantage.

This is an important distinction between “gothic” stories (with which fantasy shares quite a bit) and science-fiction. It’s the difference between a standalone episode of the X-Files and one of the main story-arc’s episodes. In the former, it’s unexplained or inexplicable what caused the events – the unknown, forces from beyond, that sort of thing. In the latter, there is a rational explanation for what is going on, we just aren't acquainted with the facts or the knowledge of the physical world necessary to understand it (and they drag it out for years to keep you watching, but that’s only a subset of science-fiction).

Gothic stories say: "You can boldly go where no man has gone before,
but there lies tenebrous madness." 
Why is this important? Gothic stories (and I’m not knocking them) assert an inherent and serious limitation of human capacity; that there are things simply beyond our ken and power (which often threaten us). But, science-fiction (especially a lot of the stuff from the 50s and 60s, as well as things like the original Star Trek) is inherently hopeful about human capacity and the future. I've said before (again, in the series on magic) that every aspiration is a little like magic, because you start where you are, and then imagine where you want to end up, without any of the complicating how to get there stuff bogging you down. Science-fiction is good for that, and it’s good for that in a way that fantasy literature (and magic) is not, because it includes within it the notion that the “magical” things depicted are achievable.

But, it’s only the notion that they are achievable. Some of them may not be, at least by technical means. Writing and reading science-fiction is also a temptation to hubris and wishful thinking. The earth is a pretty tiny ball when compared with Jupiter, or the Horsehead nebula, or the Local Group. But Star Trek says: “Buck up guys! Space is big, but we’ll fold it! Communication on this planet alone is tough, but we’ll design a computer smart enough to translate languages we've never even heard. We can do it! We’re smart, and we have science!”

If we’re not careful, this kind of fiction can lead to an attitude that says something like, “People may be discontent and starving and in pain, and things may be difficult, but eventually we’ll all be immortal demigods flying with jet-packs, you know, because of labs and research and experiments!

And that’s not magic, it’s superstition.

©2014 John Hiner III

1 comment:

  1. The kind of wishful thinking and hubris you mention is all too common and seems like another form of pretentiousness. I like the distinction you draw between science fiction and fantasy.

    Pax Valentin