The Many Roads – and Solitary Path – to Believable Science Fiction

Jonathan McCalmont @ 17-09-2008

Back in black like an Australian hard rock band long past its sell-by date, it’s Blasphemous Geometries.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

This month, Jonathan McCalmont addresses the issue of believability in science fiction – is the truth of a text based in its scientific accuracy, or somewhere else?

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There are times in a critic’s life when only a ‘Lady Bracknell Special’ will do. The term comes from Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) wherein Lady Bracknell, upon hearing that her prospective son in law was found in a handbag at a railway station, shrieks “A haaaaaaandbag?!”. This is by far the most famous line in the play, and its comedy stems less from the situation than from a century’s worth of actresses screeching like pterodactyls in their attempts to sell what is ultimately a rather weak line.

A Lady Bracknell Special, therefore, is a piece of criticism that stops being about the thing being reviewed and instead becomes a platform for the critic to descend into weak puns, cheap shots and hyperbole tinged with violent and sexually graphic imagery. In fact, some critics are capable of little else. One of the more venerable clichés to be wheeled out by critics looking to generate a few laughs is “you’ll need a crane/winch/team of horses/Chinook helicopter to get your disbelief off the ground”. This brings us the subject of this month’s Blasphemous Geometries column; how do you judge whether a work of science fiction is believable?

The term ‘suspension of disbelief’ was first coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who proposed it as a kind of quid pro quo between the creator and the audience, whereby the audience agreed to not look too closely at the claims the artist was making in return for being entertained. This has proved to be a remarkably popular way of thinking about truth in fiction, as it nicely captures the way that a ridiculous plot twist or a gross violation of the piece’s own rules of engagement can jolt the audience out of a receptive state and into a more critical and hostile one.

Take, for example, the ape Abraham Lincoln at the end of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes or Highlander 2’s revelation that the immortals were in fact aliens. Suspension of disbelief is reliant not just upon the good will of the reader, but also the extent to which the text feels like the truth. This is a property known as verisimilitude and – as you would expect from a literary genre that frequently involves rampaging robots, aliens and space-ships – it is one of the most fundamental building blocks of a successful science fiction story, regardless of that story’s medium.

The centrality of verisimilitude to science fiction is due largely to the complex relationship that science fiction has with science fact. This is due to SF’s roots as what Charlie Stross calls, “the fictional agitprop arm of the Technocrat movement“. As such, SF found itself trapped between the desire to inspire by painting fantastical vistas of other places and times and its philosophical commitment to the constraining rigours of the scientific method. Fail to be fantastical enough, and you produce a work destined to be embraced by the mainstream (such as Mitchell‘s 2004 Cloud Atlas or Ishiguro‘s 2005 Never Let Me Go), but allow your vistas to get out of control and your whole story risks tipping over into outright fantasy (as with Ryman‘s 2005 novel Air).

With the end of the Second World War, technological horrors such as the nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese and the Nazi industrialisation of genocide showed that science was at least as likely to destroy us as it was to save us. This has lead to the agitprop side of the equation withering away leaving only the censorious spectre of scientific correctness as sole guardian of what is and is not SF:

  • Fail to reach minimum standards of scientific literacy and your work is fantasy.
  • Sacrifice narrative and characterisation to scientific thought and your work is hard SF.
  • Fall somewhere in between and your work is soft SF, science-fantasy or one of a myriad of imprecisely defined generas and species of SFnal organism.

A few months ago, I pointed out that genres are supposed to help us understand texts. They are not there as proscriptive frameworks. As a result, the fact that something fails to obey the rules for SF should in no way make it unbelievable. SF’s relationship with truth and science is not a narrowly quantitative one that fits along a spectrum but rather a qualitatively diverse range of attitudes, relationships and footings that can be satirical (as with Harkaway‘s 2008 novel The Gone-Away World) and paradoxically paranoid (the works of Philip K. Dick) as well as one of detailed intellectual engagement (as with the works of Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan).

So rich and changeable is SF’s relationship with the world that it would be impossible for a column such as this to do justice to the sheer range of philosophical footings. However, what I can do is propose a different yardstick to that of mere scientific correctness, and that is one based instead upon depth of engagement.

SF is still widely seen as a literature of ideas (even if the ideas we get are the same ones endlessly recycled). Traditionally, those ideas flowed from the hard sciences prompting SF authors to fall over each other creating new drive systems, new types of craft and new types of alien. However, in recent decades, SF has started to draw its ideas from further afield. For example, Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is widely hailed as a classic not because of its perfect grasp of physics or even its feasibility but rather its deep engagement with the traditionally sociological and anthropological subject of gender. Similarly, WattsBlindsight (2006) features a space-ship and a vampire but its real subject matter is the philosophical repercussions of certain developments in neuropsychology. Furthermore, Ryman’s Air (2005) explores the personal and cultural changes that come in the wake of free and universal information exchange through the means of a story that features a woman giving birth from her stomach.

The key to producing credible SF is not staying on the right side of scientific trends or even producing worlds that are possible futures that humans might inhabit. Much like the need for “strong characters we can relate to”, these are but the demands of those with stunted imaginations. The true key to producing believable SF is engaging fully with your subject matter and saying something intelligent and insightful about it even if that thing turns out to have little basis in fact, let alone the scientific world-view. Believable science fiction is not a question of scientific literacy or even consistent plotting, it is a question of analytical skill.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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One Response to “The Many Roads – and Solitary Path – to Believable Science Fiction”

  1. A.R.Yngve says:

    I’ve read BLINDSIGHT and AIR…

    AIR works brilliantly both as literature and SF.

    BLINDSIGHT fails as both literature (awful, clumsy characterization) and SF (the text fails to describe its central idea and ends up just dancing nervously around it).

    But that’s just me… ;-)

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