Monday, May 19, 2014

The Implications of Science-Fiction

The technology in science-fiction is capable of having the same kind of metaphorical implications as the magic in fantasy. As I mentioned last week, the two kinds of literary device are the same in many ways. But, what makes these pairs different from each other (fantasy and magic on the one hand, science-fiction and technology on the other) bears some further investigation.

The primary difference I mentioned before was that the technology in science-fiction is meant to be within man’s grasp, although it is beyond our current capacity, whereas magic and the other things that appear in fantastical literature posit a radical difference between the real world
and the world of the story. So, for instance, in The Lord of The Rings, Mr. Tolkien implicitly asks us to accept that, in Middle Earth, eagles talk and make political alliances. This is not intended to be somehow aspirational. Tolkien doesn’t intend to inspire zoologists to investigate the secret language and societal habits of predatory birds; this is just how it is in Middle Earth. While, on the other hand, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is about a supposedly possible future (rather than a legendary past) in which we discover effective means of interstellar space-travel and spread out into the wider universe. (“Supposedly” in the literal sense that we are meant to suppose it).

So, that is the difference, and it is an important one. But, it is more a matter of difference in degree than kind because there is always something fantastic in science-fiction. Even if the author thinks it is a good guess, and probably the way things will work out, unless he is writing a story involving only current technology (e.g. a story set in modern day about a manned mission to Mars), he is making something up, and to that extent the story is a fantasy. And, as I suggested before, this means science-fiction is fantasy with the implication of possibility, which, if we don’t have our wits about us, can lead to superstition (or at least be a vehicle for it).

One way we can keep our wits about is by trying to figure out what exactly is being posited by a work of science-fiction. People sometimes make the distinction between “hard” science-fiction and, well, not hard science-fiction (we’ll call it soft, but I don’t know that anyone else does). It’s a good distinction, because “hard” science-fiction uses the fantastical elements of the story to bridge the gap between what we know or can accomplish, and what we might know or be able to accomplish in the future, and then takes seriously the mechanics and implications of what is imagined. Soft sci-fi, on the other hand, is much closer to simple fantasy and magic, in that it posits things and runs with them (ray guns, battle-cruisers, teleporters, fair and stable economic systems), and leaves the theoretical underpinnings to fend for themselves.

In the first case, we’re dealing with something like an argument with a couple holes that we’ve been asked to accept for the sake of following the argument through. In the second case, something has simply been taken for granted, and the implications of granting it aren’t necessarily clear.

I’ll end with an example. The recent critical failure starring Johnny Depp, “Transcendence”, posits that a human person could be somehow “downloaded” into a computer. This is not a new idea (Lawnmower Man had it, X-files had it, even the new Captain America movie had it). One might understand the appeal of such a thing (immortality by promethean, Tower-of-Babel-esqe means) or the lurking horror of it (a corrupt perversion of immortality by promethean, Tower-of-Babel-esqe means). Understanding and thinking about it in those terms is treating it like any fantastical element of any kind of fiction. But, this is science-fiction. Johnny Depp’s soul didn’t migrate into a Golem by means of the incantations of a cabalistic rabbi. They built a supercomputer, and scanned the electrical activity in his brain. Then, when the computer started acting like him (at least him texting, or making a Skype call) they said it was him living in the computer.

Now, supposing this to be a possibility in the sci-fi sense has radical implications. It fundamentally determines what you can think a man is. It equates the electrical activity in the brain with the activity of the mind, which implies that the mind is somehow a physical byproduct of electrical activity (this is an obvious impossibility, which I invite you to tease out if you haven’t already. It’s a hoot). Not only that, it also implies that not even this electrical activity happening here is what constitutes the person’s mind, but says rather that any reproduction of the electrical activity is as good as the original, and that this reproduction is possible. This, in turn, implies that human beings have no identity or soul, but are simply carbon-based computer algorithms. I find this untenable and nightmarish. But, regardless of what one might think of it, one should at least realize what kind of minefield he’s stepping into by positing that Mr. Depp could live in a computer.

© 2014 John Hiner III

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