The Ten Errors of Science Fiction

Paul Raven @ 28-06-2010

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines – nothing tends to rile science fiction folk so much as folk from outside the ghetto loudly pronouncing that OMFG UR DOIN IT RONG, and this piece by Dr Sam Vaknin should provide great fodder for some hard sf advocacy and righteous ire. So fetch your popcorn, kids, as we find out the ten hidden and fallacious assumptions about extraterrestrials in science fiction!

In all works of science fiction, there are ten hidden assumptions regarding alien races. None of these assumptions is a necessity. None of them makes immanent or inevitable sense. Yet, when we read a sci-fi novel or watch a sci-fi movie we tend to accept all of them as inescapable. They amount to a frame of reference and to a language without which we seem to be unable to relate to all manner of exobiology. We evidently believe that life on Earth is a representative sample and that we can extrapolate its properties and mechanisms of action wide and far across the Universe. The principles of symmetry, isotropy, and homogeneity apply to the physical cosmos: Hydrogen behaves identically in our local galactic neighbourhood as it does in the furthest reaches of the Cosmos. Why shouldn’t life be the same?

“In all works of science fiction”? Vaknin must have a whole lot of reading time on his hands…

Snark aside, Vaknin’s major FAIL here is the classic outsider’s misconception of sf, namely that it’s supposed to be taken literally rather than allegorically*. In other words, he’s quite right in that sf makes assumptions about alien life, but quite wrong in thinking that it matters to sf’s function as a form of entertainment**. Put it this way: if you read science fiction for the pleasure (rather than as a stand-in for a doctorate in exobiology, say), I’d guess there’s a 95% chance Vaknin’s article is a classic case of TL;DR. SETI geeks with time on their hands may get a kick from it, though.

Anyway, George Dvorsky takes Vaknin at something closer to face value than I have the time, expertise or motivation to pull off, and manages to do a pretty good job of popping his tyres:

Sure, I agree that ETIs may be dramatically different than what we can imagine and that they may exist outside of expected paradigms, but until our exoscience matures we should probably err on the side of the self-sampling assumption and figure that the ignition and evolution of life tends to follow a similar path to the one taken on Earth. Now, I’m not suggesting that we refrain from hypothesizing about radically different existence-states; I’m just saying that these sorts of extraordinary claims (like alternative intelligences spawning different quantum realities) require the requisite evidence. It’s far too easy to fantasize about some kind of energy-based hive-mind living in the core of asteroids, it’s another thing to prove that such a thing could come about through the laws of physics [my example, not Vaknin’s].

[…]

Nice try, Vaknin, but the Great Silence problem is more complex than what you’ve laid out.

For all my bitching above, I do actually find things like the Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence to be lots of fun to think about. If you’re looking for an accessible introduction to the idea (and some of the hypotheses presented as solutions), Dvorsky’s blog is a good place to start… but I’d also recommend the book Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb, which is full of great starter seeds for Baxterian space opera stories.

[ * Yeah, yeah, hard sf is driven by scientific rigour and plausibility, sure, but it’s still stories told by humans about what it’s like – or may at some point in the future be like – to be a human in a big confusing universe; even Watts’ Blindsight speaks to the human condition and the state of our understanding of life in the universe more than it does the raw facts we have regarding life in the universe, and that’s about as hard an sf novel as I’ve ever read. You can argue that rigidly hard sf (factual to the detriment of story) is the apogee of the genre if you like, but you’d be wrong. ]

[ ** An essay deconstructing the false assumptions made about gender and race in science fiction, however, would be something worth writing, because humans are the true subject of human literature, even when they’re not the subject that takes the limelight on center stage. False assumptions about people need taking apart far more urgently than false assumptions about hypothetical beings we may never meet, IMHO. ]

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7 Responses to “The Ten Errors of Science Fiction”

  1. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    Wow. Even sidestepping the SF Allegory Error, his assertions are just flat-out wrong. I don’t even have to cherry-pick obscure works to do it, either; I can pull examples from widely-promulgated mass media.

    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had superintelligent shades of the color blue! Green Lantern had an abstract mathematical progression as a space cop!

    A garish toy commercial turned summer blockbuster like Transformers immediately contradicts his “sf writers always depict the natural as complex and the artificial as simple” assertion.

    Star Trek: Deep Space Nine not only had entities with a completely different perception of space-time, they were a major driving force of the series.

    This guy is trying to make sweeping assertions about science fiction when he hasn’t even paid attention to STAR TREK, much less writers like Stanislaw Lem, Vernor Vinge, or H.P Lovecraft.

    Feh, I agree. There’s no need to waste any more time on this.

  2. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    Pretty clear that Vaknin hasn’t read any of Sheri Tepper’s work.

  3. Apesofmath says:

    Counterpoint: Every single book written by Stanislaw Lem.

    A recurring theme throughout Lem’s work is the difficulty of communication between intelligences that share no common references. In most cases communication is impossible and in many the attempts to communicate lead to disaster. The psychological unraveling in Solaris, the theoretical stalemate in His Master’s Voice, the destruction of the alien world in Fiasco, and so on. TL;DR indeed.

  4. Giulio Fontana says:

    Using the word “all” in the carelessly liberal way that Sam Vaknin clearly prefers, I could say that “all” of Vaknin’s statements about aliens in SF are wrong 😛

  5. Jakey says:

    The term “all” should be used with extreme parsimony. It’s a trivial exercise for anyone well-read in sci-fi to refute most of these points by quoting counter examples, and it’s the first reaction of any fan who reads the article. But that would miss the point somewhat. I think most well-read fans would agree that there is a ton of derivative, lazy and inconsistent sci-fi out there, particularly in the TV/Movie field, and it pisses us all off.
    On the other hand, there are also a ton of stories where the aliens are really just MacGuffins and there is no purpose to be served in a major investgation of alternate biologies, hierarchies etc. It’s not necessary, or even desirable, for every alien to come complete with backstory.

  6. Stephen J. says:

    Counterexamples don’t invalidate the pattern. Yeah, there *are* more than a few fictional SF aliens that hit some of Vaknin’s notes, but truthfully, more aliens are more human-like than not — more than we are quite justified in assuming. If you grant Vaknin a little room for sloppiness and assume “all” means “the majority of examples and by far almost all of the most popular”, then his points remain valid.

    (Conversely, I’ve read more than a few SF authors who have less idea how to understand *people* than your average shopkeeper. Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein are all blown out of the water by Tolstoy, Shakespeare and even Tolkien when it comes to human insight; Watts’ BLINDSIGHT is brilliant at everything except creating sympathetic and understandable human protagonists, which is why it fails as a *story* for all its conceptual dazzle.)

    As for the legitimate defense that SF aliens were always more important as allegorical metaphors than literal speculations, we’d probably get cut more slack for that if SF fandom hadn’t spent sixty years boasting about how speculative and imaginative its authors and ideas are.

  7. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    Yeah, but there are a LOT of counter-examples. Vankin has made sweeping statements about the genre, but he doesn’t seem to have any direct familiarity with it. He’s read ABOUT science fiction, most likely through the stereotypes found in OTHER popular culture, but I doubt he’s touched the stuff himself.

    His tone is not that of someone who is pointing at the “majority” or “most popular” examples. It’s the smug self-congratulation of the person who thinks he’s the first one to touch on these amazingly brilliant ideas, when, really, they crop up over and over, individually and in combination. Hell, the sidebars of role-playing games talk about these issues in at least as much depth.