Science fiction, prediction, and satire-ction

It seems like discussions of science fiction among non-fans always end up examining the predictive successes and failures of the genre. This approach strikes me as counterproductive. To be tautological about it, fiction is inherently fictitious. Fiction necessarily abstracts certain aspects of the real world, correctly or not. If fiction was perfectly accurate, it would be real life (à la Simulacra and simulation). Why, then is it so popular to take fiction, especially fiction that is at one additional remove from the “real world” and critique it for what it got “right” or “wrong”? If science fiction was intended to be predictive, it wouldn’t be science fiction. It’d be prophecy.

I realize that this issue has been discussed many times, by better writers than I, but it’s an issue that still continues to come up. I’ve encountered it with patrons, but I’ve also encountered it on Tor of all places.*

*One particular Tor blogger, who happens to be a multi-award winning author, is an especially egregious offender.

This tendency is especially pronounced when reviews look back on older science fiction novels to examine the predictive successes and failures. I’ve seen quite a few reviews of The space merchants that go that route. Hell, it’s practically mandatory that anybody even mentioning Stand on Zanzibar focuses almost entirely on how terrifyingly prescient it is. Not to say that Stand on Zanzibar isn’t terrifyingly prescient. Dystopian sf in general seems to suffer from this treatment at the hands of sf fans (e.g. to some extent in James Nicoll’s Millenial reviews), whereas science fiction in general gets this focus from mainstream critics.*

Yes, I’m making a huge generalization. It’s my blog, I’m entitled to do so, neener neener.

I tend to prefer the Ursula K. Le Guin approach as explained in her introduction to The left hand of darkness: “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. ” This is probably why I’m not a huge fan of “hard” science fiction – once the predictions are settled, what’s left? I feel the same about criticism of faulty science in sf. It’s a novel, it’s obviously not set in the real world, so who’s to say that the laws of physics aren’t different there? It’s when a science fiction novel attempts to become completely scientifically rigorous or predict what the future will “really be like” that I completely lose interest.

The other problem with hard science fiction that attempts to be scientifically rigorous is that, inevitably, something ends up being wrong and the book is severely damaged by it. A great example is the original Ringworld, where the detailed description of the habitat includes a gross misunderstanding of how the forces of gravity work and would result in said habitat being sucked into the sun. Niven attempted to address this in later books in the series, but was too busy being sexist to come up with a really convincing explanation.

To repeat what I said above, fiction is necessarily innacurate. No matter how detailed an in-depth a “realistic” novel might be, it still won’t be a perfect portrayal of reality. If it was, it would be real life. Some degree of abstraction is necessary for an enjoyable read. Science fiction and fantasy novels simply take that idea to its logical extreme. If a novel can’t be exactly like “reality”, why restrict oneself to writing like it can? Completely rejecting realistic presentation is not unique to fantastic fiction. Beijing opera uses highly stylized costumes, makeup, and movements to portray a great deal of information with minimal exposition. An even more extreme example is Noh. Modern pop culture occasionally takes this approach as well. La familia P. Luche is ostensably set in the “real world”, it takes place in a town where everything is covered in brightly colored shag.

Abandoning a realistic setting enables the author to focus more tightly on whatever issue they seek to address. By inflating its importance, an author can create a Swiftian take on any issue. Ursula K. Le Guin frequently uses this technique, examining issues like gender (in The left hand of darkness), capitalism and anarchism (in The dispossessed) and environmental issues (in The word for world is forest).

This is one of the strengths of The space merchants. It’s so hyperbolic that it would be a stretch to think of it as predictive. Instead, the reader is presented with a cutting satire of consumerism, presented in an engaging manner from an insider’s perspective. Pohl worked in advertising, and could easily have given the novel a contemporary setting. He chose not to. It’s a significantly stronger novel as a result, since the reader is not distracted by apparent dissimilarities with the world as they experience it.

If all fiction is to some extent innacurate, then science fiction, fantasy, and related genres is fiction that acknowledges and embraces this potential limitation. I realize as I write this that it’s essentially a re-hash of what Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her introduction to the more recent editions of The left hand of darkness. Go read that instead of this, she’s expresses herself far better than I do.


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