Tuesday, March 4, 2014

It's a cold, cold, specifically-made-up-to-be-cold world

"Every once in a while you find yourself in a lifeboat where a single stupid move can kill everyone. But a science fiction writer whose story’s boundary extends to the boat’s gunwales, and no further – not to the poleconomy that convinced a nation to build backyard bunkers rather than rising up en masse against Mutually Assured Destruction, say – is a science fiction writer who has considered the car and the movie and invented the drive-in without ever thinking about the sexual revolution or the database-nation [...] Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation. [...] Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation."
Cory Doctorow at Locus Online on Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold and Tom Godwin and John W. Campbell's classic of hard science fiction, "The Cold Equations."
"Ender's Game is effectively a series of literary thought experiments designed to generate a particular moral outcome: each act plunges Ender into a savage new environment that can only be mastered with a clear mind and a cold heart."
Jonathan McCalmont at VideoVista on "The Cold Equations" and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. (And a note on his blog).

Two great articles, which also feed my sense that hard science fiction can still be a useful normative idea, not just a sort of historical and descriptive one -- but that it would need a little updating. And perhaps that update would have to do with the rigor with which you select what is and isn't in your narrative, not just the rigor with which you work with whatever is in your story?

Instead of Ender's Game, watch Starship Troopers:

Also see this bit from my (still unfinished, though I've actually written some more now, ha!) review of Doctorow's Pirate Cinema:
I’ve also grumbled a bit about realism too. But literary realism always has twin obligations – (a) correspondence and (b) contradiction. It’s not enough to reflect reality. Realism needs also to be able to fight whatever is suppressing the self-evidence of that reality. It has to energetically contradict falsehood -- that could mean false representation, seductive cliche, distraction, and even the “intrinsically” wearisome or finnicky or bathetic nature of some topic or other. On these counts, Pirate Cinema scores highly. 
Or to put it crudely: you may lose a couple of Realism Points if you plump for a streamlined, fabulist London replete with intuitively laid-out resource nodes for the merry runaway. "What fun." #quote But you will gain many hatfuls of Realism Points when you give weight in your writing to what has weight in the world. When ynou give mimesis priority over imitatio, you could say. By my somewhat eccentric standard of realism, Pirate Cinema is an unusually realistic book.
PS:  Just found a great essay by Farah Mendlesohn which also talks about "The Cold Equations," & about Iain M. Banks, singularities, etc.; coins full science fiction, and feels like it has a far more supple conceptual vocabulary for what often gets construed as axioms (the "one tooth fairy" of even hard SF), and extrapolative worldbuilding, not least because it (a) brings in a sense of the interdisciplinary but not totalising knowledge which underpin the legitimacy of SF extrapolation; and (b) doesn't kind of hypostasise extrapolative worldbuilding as something which happens prior to and/or separate from worldtelling -- i.e., the start of the story.

Also like the note to the editor. A peek behind the scenes!
Yet the question-narrative of the sf tale can be enormously powerful. The basic question of the sf narrative is “What if….?” It can be about engineering: what if you need to build a railway on a planet which has miniature volcanoes erupting every couple of hundred yards? It can be philosophical: what happens if you introduce Christianity to a culture with no belief in original sin? Or introduce Christianity to three species who already share a trinitarian symbiosis and in which the death of one member of the trinity is supposed to lead to the suicide of the other two? Or wonder how five intelligent species stranded on a single planet might get on? Or it can question the impact of new physics on social relations, “What happens if a quantum event opens up a new universe on your doorstep, and the things coming through are doing strange things to your society and your body?” In each case, there is an assumption, not that human beings can fix anything, but that the relationship between humanity and the universe is that between engineer and environment. It is a fierce, dialectical relationship and it is conducted through a four-note strategy that I have (impertinently) called Full Sf.  
This strategy can be summed up as: Dissonance, Rupture, Resolution, Consequence. (this is an indented statement so it is set apart. Centre it please?)
PPS: What would fantasies egregiously loaded to demonstrate the rightness of dogmatic versions of other co-ordinates on the political compass look like? (Don't say West Wing).

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