The Science of Fiction
What is science fiction, asks Bo Fowler
The debate concerning the proper definition of SF is extensive. The 1979 edition of the The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction gave over twenty definitions. By 1993 editorial staff had whittled it down to eleven. The Science Fiction Reference Book quotes sixty-eight definitions. The majority of such definitions of SF are unsatisfactory, some are flippant and most miss something crucial. One cannot say that SF is realism because it is not limited to the methods of realistic description: for the same reason SF cannot be classed as naturalism. To define SF as "narratives of the future" is also mistaken. As Philip K.Dick writes, "it is not the job, really, of Science Fiction to predict. Science Fiction only seems to predict. It's like the aliens on Star Trek, all of whom speak English. A literary convention is involved. Nothing more."Dick gives another very simple reason why SF cannot be defined as fiction of the Future; namely there can be science fiction set in the present; the alternate world story or novel.
If SF can neither be defined as narratives of the future, nor as technological fiction and if it is not realism, naturalism or myth, then what exactly is it?
Hugo Gernsback's definition "of a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision" identifies only SF's "lower stages of development", in the view of Darko Suvin, as does any definition which focuses on advanced technology, rather than on the "social arrangements these advances give rise to." "Getting the technical details right" is not, according to Parrinder, the defining feature of SF. This is because SF writers deal with non-technologies namely social and institutional extrapolations: living arrangements, norms of sexual behaviour, religious cults, even future art forms and board games. Williams makes the same point when he states that SF, in addition to exploring new technologies, can explore a new set of laws, such as new abstract property relations what he terms "new social machinery."
Kurt Vonnegut's alter ego the fictional SF writer Kilgore Trout "was bored stiff by technical details". If Kilgore Trout can be a SF writer and yet know "almost nothing about science" what is the relationship between science and science fiction?
Ben Bova, Burroughs, and Broderick, define SF as fiction which deals with modern myths. Why such a definition is, in my view, erroneous will become clear later.
If SF can neither be defined as narratives of the future, nor as technological fiction and if it is not realism, naturalism or myth, then what exactly is it?
The compilers of the 1993 edition of The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction concluded that a single all encompassing definition was more than likely impossible. However in the introduction to The Last Frontier: Imaging Other Worlds From the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction, Karl Guthke explores a definition which I believe reveals the philosophical principles behind works of SF.
One of the most prominent and vocal advocates for this definition of SF is Darko Suvin, who insists that: "SF is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment." While there is estrangement or "displacement from the Naturalistic" in all fiction, what distinguishes SF from other genres is the fact that its estrangements are cognitive scientifically possible or believed to be scientifically possible. Suvin gives another definition of what is meant by the "Literature of Cognitive Estrangement":" Sci Fi is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional 'novum' (Novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic."
The central novum of any SF work, according to Suvin, has to be within the bounds of scientific reason. If a work contains a novum outside "cognitive logic" it would not be correct to classify the work as an example of SF. Crucially it is not the mere presence of a novum that distinguishes SF from the rest of literature, since as McHale points out; "any fiction of any genre involves at least one novum a character who did not exist in the empirical world, an event that did not really occur. What distinguishes SF is the type of novum it utilises. SF concerns itself with novums based on our understanding of logic and science. SF novels or novels with SF elements are constructed around such particular novums. The worlds created in SF novels are not empirical in the sense that they accord to the external world as we know it; they are empirical in the sense in which the writer has gone about constructing the alternative world.
SF works are not empirical because they describe the outside world as the writer experiences it, they are empirical in their methodology: they are constructed so that they are compatible with a scientifically plausible empirical world, a world where scientific investigation is possible and fruitful. "It is the premise of science fiction that anything shown shall in principle be interpretable empirically and rationally", states Lem. That is to say the SF story must be written in the spirit of empirical knowledge, with what Rabkin terms "the scientific habits of mind." Popkin prescribes that the only source of "information about the world" available "is the impressions that we gain through our senses". The fiction the SF writer creates must be empirical to those beings within it. For Russ SF "addresses itself to the mind, not the eye. We are not presented with a representation of what we know to be true through direct experience rather we are given what we know to be at least possible."
A further defining feature of SF is the role the scientific novum plays in the narrative; it must function as the nucleus for the whole project, the thing from which plot, structure and even style flow. The novum, Suvin formulates, "is so central and significant that it determines the whole narrative logic." It is the special type of novum, one validated by cognitive logic and the central role it plays, that defines a work as SF according to Suvin and his supporters.
The SF writer and theorist Philip K. Dick defines Science Fiction in much the same way as Suvin. Dick asks if a concern with the future and technology are not necessary and sufficient to define SF, what is? "what then do we have that can be called SF? We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: It is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our own society that is, our known society acts as a jumping off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which is not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society or in any known society present or past." Dick, like Suvin and Scholes, sees as the crucial factor the way in which the fictional world is different from ours the type of novum that is used. "There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation: that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one not merely a trivial or bizarre one."
The Suvin-Dick Definition of SF, therefore, has a mainframe of three points:
- We have a world in one or more ways unlike the real world. (Fiction)
- This Otherness (Dislocation, novum etc., etc.) has to be conceivable within modern scientific philosophy. (Empirical)
- This cognitive dislocation has to act as the heart of the narrative. (Central)
There are many other writers and critics who define SF in much the same way even if they use different terminology. Rabbin states that: "A work belongs in the genre SF if its narrative world is at least somewhat different from our own, and if that difference is apparent against the background of an organised body of knowledge." McHale claims that SF confronts "the Empirical givens of our world with something not given, a strange newness." This "strange newness" is importantly not beyond empiricism, it is not metaphysical. Rather, it is a possible physical phenomena not experienced in our world. Other theorists whose definitions of Science Fiction are similar to cognitive estrangement include Pavel, Dillard, Gass, and Cioffi who states that in works of SF the "baseline of social order", is different to our own "empirical reality". The alien social orders in SF may not be our empirical reality but they are empirical nonetheless: they are another empirical reality.
It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which is not yet
Pavel sees works of SF as ontologies, "as theoretical descriptions of a Universe" like, but not identical to, our universe. Provided that such universes are compatible with cognitive logic and that their estrangement acts as the centre of the narrative there is little difference between Pavel's definition of SF as models of fictional universes and the Suvin-Dick definition.
Definitions that talk of possible worlds (notably Eco, Borges and Dillard), can also be assimilated into the Suvin-Dick definition, provided the "possible worlds" are possible within cognitive logic. The playwright Bertolt Brecht, a strong theoretical influence on Suvin, identified estrangement with the scientific outlook and saw it's role as being the dislocation of what Brecht called "our stock associations". Stanislaw Lem writes; "SF involves the art of putting hypothetical premises into the very complicated stream of sociopsychological occurrences." Like Suvin and Dick, Lem is selective about the sort of hypothetical premises that can be used in SF: they cannot be any sort of hypothetical premises; they cannot be fairy tale premises for example what Dick refers to as a "bizarre dislocation" and what Suvin calls "Metaphysical Non cognitive Estrangement" nor can they be realist premises what Dick would define as "trivial dislocations", and Suvin as "Naturalistic." Suvin's and Dick's ban on bizarre dislocations or metaphysical Non Cognitive Estrangement extends from the very centre of Empiricism. As Hume pointed out in his Enquiries, Empiricism and science can only work in a world that is susceptible to observable laws. To create a universe that is not susceptible to logic, to reason, to create a world with no cause and effect, a world run by magic is anathema to the agenda of Empiricism for it is tantamount to an admission of defeat. We have to believe that the world (and any world) is comprehensible on some level. "Logic," as Nietzsche would say, "by its nature, is optimism".
Like Dick and Suvin, Lem also sees the putting of hypothetical premises into the very complicated stream of social psychological occurrences as the "core and meaning" of SF. For Lem, as for Suvin and Dick, the novum of serious SF must be empirical. "In science fiction there can be no inexplicable marvels, no transcendences, no devils or demons." Lem's outlawing of devils and demons is identical to Dick's stipulation that "Religion ought never to show up in SF except from a sociological stand-point."(which is to say from an empirical, scientific stand-point.) Suvin too will only allow for the religious to be a subject of SF if it is examined "as a scientifically observable human phenomenon." There must be no "dabbling with religion beyond its purely historical or anthropological interest." Prince makes the same stipulation: "SF cannot be scandalous if by scandalous we mean that which is unexplainable," e.g., unempirical, unscientific, in principle.
All this suggests that at the centre of the Suvin-Dick et al definition of SF is a very serious commitment of some kind to science and it is this commitment that sets SF apart from all other literary forms. Prince summarises the situation thus: "Science Fiction is linked to science; as such, and however fragile the link may be it can furnish a privileged setting for the adventures of reason, its defeats and its triumphs."
But what precisely is this link between science and SF? Lem's term "hypothetical premise" suggests that what the SF writer is up to at his desk is similar to what the scientist gets up to in his lab. SF is fiction written scientifically, written from a scientific way of looking at the universe(s). What SF takes from science, according to the Suvin-Dick definition, is its methodology. Suvin states that the novums of SF are "postulated on and validated by the post-Cartesian and post-Baconian scientific method.". SF narratives, serious SF narratives, are written in the spirit of science. SF is not fiction about science but fiction by the scientific method.
The central notion of science for Moyer, that is "Methodological rules operate and develop independently of the scientist's broader cultural and social environment" and that such methodological rules "function universally" must be held by SF writers for SF is a "mental experiment" (Suvin's term) following accepted scientific, that is cognitive, logic. Rabkin puts it all wonderfully clearly: "what is important in the definition of Science Fiction is not the appurtenances of ray guns and lab coats, but the 'scientific' habits of mind."
The basis of the scientific method of experimentation is the control of all variables excluding the one under investigation. This is precisely what SF, according to Suvin-Dick, does; it imagines the world as it is with one significant scientifically plausible (cognitive or non-trivial non bizarre) difference (novum), and imagines what changes this would make to the stream of "sociopsychological occurrences". For Rabkin, "A good work of science fiction makes one and only one assumption about its narrative world that violates our knowledge about our own world and then extrapolates the whole narrative from the difference."
If one accepts for the moment that SF is founded on a belief in the scientific method, something else of importance becomes clear. What that is can be gleaned I believe from Lem's term "stream of socialpsychological occurrences". Seeing the social, psychological and physical world from a scientific perspective is to see it as a certain set of variables. The scientific perspective is a profoundly kinetic view of the world, a world view predisposed to change. Such a perspective, that sees paradigms as transitory, is diametrically opposed to certainty and absolutes. It is not that SF writers just use scientific methodology, they take it as their philosophical outlook on the world. Within SF there is a philosophical commitment, a belief in the rational method. Parrinder refers to the debt SF writers owe to scientific "ideology", what Aldous Huxley called the "ethical spirit" of science, or Tanner "the morality of flexibility". For Huxley a writer is either a propagandist for "pure science and analytical philosophy" or for "nationalistic idolatry, organised lying [e.g.: religion] and non-stop distractions". This is why SF cannot be classified as modern myth: myth is static, eternal, repeating; "the ontological character of myth is antiempirical...Science Fiction lives in but strives to emerge from this antinomical state of being,"challenges Lem. Traditional fiction "shares the illusions (myths) of the society which produces it...it is science fiction which makes the conscious effort, sometimes quite successful, to stand outside," echoes Nicholls. Broderick writes that "SF is principally a diachronic medium that is, a medium of historical, cumulative change, in which each step is unlike the last. Myth, by contrast, operates typically and primarily in a synchronic or 'timeless dimension.'" It is the job of SF, according to Bachard, to break down immediate intuitions and to deconstruct a universe of "archetypical clichés". Cioffi believed that "Science fiction is an understandable expression of a society in which world views can change.", and Campbell agrees that "SF unlike other literature assumes that change is the natural order of things."
There has long been an obvious association between scepticism and empiricism. Anthony Flew states the relationship between the two: "Empiricism has characteristically seen the acquisition of knowledge as a slow, piecemeal process, endlessly self-correcting and limited by the possibilities of experiment and observation, and has been characteristically sceptical about the claims of all embracing metaphysical systems." This sceptical frame of mind that accompanies the championing of the scientific method insists that everything can be de-centred and inverted and regards the belief that absolute truth is knowable as erroneous and anachronistic. Scientists do not inscribe truths on stone and nor must SF writers, for, as Broderick cautions, the methodology they subscribe to does not allow it; "Virtue lies, rather, in smashing up the stone and scattering the words."
Philmus makes the simple but telling point that whereas SF requires and allows for scientific explanation, fantasy (myth, metaphysics) cannot allow it. Myth is anti-empirical precisely because it does not see the Universe as a set of variables, but as something absolute. Mythic world views do not accept the scientific method, the rational process, do not want the universe to be reasonable. Myth twists on a Nietzschean aphorism: "The unexplained should be thoroughly inexplicable, the inexplicable thoroughly unnatural, supernatural, miraculous so goes the demand in the souls of all religious men and metaphysicians... Whereas the scientific man sees in this demand the 'evil principle.'"
Suvin puts the dichotomy between myth and scientific method thus; "Mathematically speaking, myth is oriented towards constants and SF towards variables." SF is consequently, as Nicholls suggests, "pre-eminently the literature of change", and, as Suvin concludes, "sees the mythical static identity as an illusion, usually as fraud, at best only a temporary realisation of potentially limitless contingencies."