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Okrzyki, przyjaciel!

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[Jun. 20th, 2005|10:26 am]
Okrzyki, przyjaciel!
So Slashdot had an entry about Mundane Science Fiction, which is a bit like the Dogma 95 manifesto for movies. You can read up on MundaneSF on the link -- the idea at its root is that there should be speculative fiction that speculates on the likely future, instead of having a 'fantasy escape hatch.'

As someone who consumes SF indiscriminately as an alternative to hard drugs, I can see their point, and the point they're missing. Their point is to some extent political -- Science Fiction that uses the trope of fantasy escape hatch over and over again could lead to complacency about the real threats humanity poses to its continued existence. To write about a future that is scientifically possible, and the danger in what people are actually doing and how their actions extrapolate, is probably a good thing.

On the other hand, it diminishes Science Fiction considerably to put it in the position of being a sort of Public Service Announcement. Instead of Skittles, it will be Broccoli.

And the fundamental flaw in the Mundane manifesto is that all Science Fiction is FICTION. It's not really about space aliens and interstellar travel -- it's about the only thing it can be about -- human beings, and about fiction itself. In my comparative literature classes 25 years ago Sci Fi's core technique was given the name 'estrangement' -- no matter how foreign to our everyday experience SciFi is, its fundamental purpose and effect is to comment on our real lives. How can it do otherwise, because who among us has any first hand experience of space aliens and teleportation?

The Mundanes can go ahead and write whatever they want according to their principles, but their sort of SciFi is only one part of the larger genre, and any claim they make on having greater validity than any other flavor of SF is specious.

Writing is like music -- genre and manifesto are a lot less important than good writing. Good writing can take any form, any subject, any language, and it's all an artificial construct of the human mind. It can be about what we call 'the real world,' to a greater or lesser extent, but to grade it's validity against the actual is ridiculous and beside the point.

[User Picture]From: speicus
2005-06-20 10:02 am (UTC)
I read Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness recently, and in the introduction she makes a very interesting point -- that science fiction isn't really about the future, it's about the present. Writing about the present in a fantastical, deeply metaphorical/allegorical way allows writers to talk about the present in ways that ordinary fiction can't. In that way, it's the exact opposite of escapism. (I'm paraphrasing/editorializing very liberally here.)

Saying that unrealistic science fiction is escapist makes about as much sense to me as saying that all fiction is escapist, and we should only write autobiographies from now on.
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[User Picture]From: chaircrusher
2005-06-20 10:25 am (UTC)
For that matter, autobiographies are narratives too, which means even the most factual and reliable of autobiographies are assigning a structure ex post facto that is completely artificial.

A good autobiography (or biography) is about what a life means as much as it is about what happened. And 'meaning' is an irreducibly slippery concept. As the bumper sticker says "shit happens," and imposing meaning on it is every bit as artificial as any text self-identified as fiction.

All fiction _is_ escapist, but it doesn't mean it isn't valuable. People look to fiction (and the bible, koran, etc) for the patterns of the lives described, and people apply those patterns in their own lives all the time. Something you read probably isn't as powerful as the programming you get in your early life from your parents and surroundings in governing your reactions to events, but it's powerful enough. People read the Alcoholic's 'Blue Book' and are able to conquer an addiction they're otherwise apparently powerless to curb, and yet the Blue Book has never passed any rigorous test of its veracity or logical consistency.
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[User Picture]From: speicus
2005-06-20 10:50 am (UTC)
Well, the more convincing and consistent the world in a book is, the more effective of an escape it is. And yet, paradoxically, the more convincing and consistent it is, the more it reflects reality!
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[User Picture]From: chaircrusher
2005-06-20 11:09 am (UTC)
Long ago I took a class called 'Writing For Business And Industry,' which despite its dour name, was maybe the best class I ever took with respect to understanding writing. We went through Aristotle's Rhetoric, and talked a lot about persuasion in writing. The lesson I took away from that -- and the lesson anyone who is on a debate team in high school learns -- is that persuasion is its own thing, and it can be used just as effectively for false propositions as true ones.

The properties of convincing-ness (!?) and consistency are orthogonal to reality-conformance. To convince a reader, you don't have to conform to or reflect reality, you just have to tell a compelling story, one that is pleasurable to imagine as you read it.

The most compelling idea in the world is that there is a God, and that he cares what happens to you. Without getting into the truth or falsity of that idea, it is compelling because it feels good. If you feel God loves you, that there's a purpose to your existence, your day is brighter. Completely independent of whether it is the case that God exists and that he loves you.

I can even argue that belief in this undecidable proposition improves the lives of people who are able to accept it wholeheartedly. They live longer. Some of them use their belief as the basis for behaving altruistically. Some of them fly jets into buildings, but they're a vanishingly small minority.

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[User Picture]From: speicus
2005-06-20 12:33 pm (UTC)
I see what you're saying but I'm not sure it holds in all cases. The example you chose, belief in God, I find compelling but not convincing, personally speaking. Though the need for belief in God speaks volumes about human nature, so in that sense there is a convincing truth inside it. This is why fiction frees us up to tell the truth. You can write a religious book purporting to tell the truth about God which is actually, inevitably, a pack of lies. Or you can tell a story about God which points to something true about people. But they're both probably the same book in the end.
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