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Artist, Heather Oliver             

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Eleven years ago, Harvard Alumni Magazine asked me why I wrote The Biology of Star Trek despite my lack of tenure.  My answer was The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction.  In it, I described how science fiction can make science attractive and accessible, how it can fire up the dreams of the young and lead them to become scientists or, at least, explorers who aren’t content with canned answers.

syfyThe world has changed since then, the US more than most.  American culture has always proclaimed its distrust of authority.  However, the nation’s radical shift to the right also brought on disdain for all expertise – science in particular, as can be seen by the obstruction of research in stem cells and climate change and of teaching evolution in schools (to say nothing of scientist portrayals in the media, exemplified by Gaius Baltar in the aggressively regressive Battlestar Galactica reboot).

This trend culminated in the choice of first a president and then a vice-presidential candidate who flaunted their ignorance and deemed their faux-folksy personae sufficient qualifications to lead the most powerful nation on the planet.  Even as the fallout from these decisions deranges their culture, Americans cling to their iPods, SUVs and Xboxes and still expect instant cures for everything, from acne to old age, seeing scientists as the Morlocks that must cater to their Eloi.

Science fiction is really a mirror and weathervane of its era.  So it comes as no surprise that the dominant tropes of contemporary speculative fiction reflect the malaise and distrust of science that has infected the Anglosaxon First World: cyberpunk and urban fantasy have their feet (and eyes) firmly on the ground.  Space exploration is passé, and such luminaries as Charlie Stross delight in repeatedly “proving” that the only (straw)people to still contemplate crewed space travel are deluded naifs who can’t/won’t parse scientific facts or face unpalatable limitations.

Jack of ShadowsI’ve been reading SF since the early seventies, ever since my English became sturdy enough to support the habit.  In both reading and writing, I favor layered works that cross genre boundaries.  This may explain why I have a hard time getting either inspired or published in today’s climate, in which publishers and readers alike demand “freshness” as long as it’s more of the same.  Yet old fogey that I’m becoming, I do believe that people who write SF should have a nodding acquaintance with science principles and the scientific mindset.

So imagine my surprise when the following comment met with universal approval on a well-known SF blog: “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into SF that you need to know real science to write good SF. Which is of course rubbish.”

Let me rewrite that statement for another genre: “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into historical fiction that you need to know real history – or at least the history of the era you plan to portray – to write good historical fiction or alternative history.  Which is of course rubbish.”

Cell phones in a Renaissance novel?  Tudor court ladies on mopeds?  Why should anyone notice or care?  Likewise, “cracks” in the event horizon of a black hole?  Instant effortless shapeshifting?  Only an elitist jerk would object, spoiling the fun and causing unnecessary angst to the author!  Never mind that such sloppiness jolts the reader out of the suspension of disbelief necessary for reading the story – and is particularly unpardonable because a passable veneer of knowledge can be readily acquired by surfing the Internet.

Many of today’s SF writers and readers don’t just proudly proclaim that they don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no science; they also read only within ever-narrowing subgenres – and only contemporaries.  When I attended an SF workshop supposedly second only to Clarion, a fellow participant castigated me for positing the “completely absurd” ability to record sounds off the grooves of a ceramic surface.  Of course, this is essentially a variation of sound reproduction in phonographic records.  No wonder that much of contemporary speculative fiction tastes like recycled watery gruel or reheated corn syrup.

Downbelow StationPlease understand, I don’t miss the turgid exposition, cardboard-thin characters and blatant sexism, parochialism and triumphalism of the Leaden… er, Golden Era of SF (though the same types of attributes and attitudes have resurfaced wholesale in cyberpunk).  My lodestars are Le Guin, Tiptree, Anderson, Zelazny, Butler, Cherryh, Scott – and Atwood, despite her protestations that she does not, repeat not, write science fiction.  They all prove that top-notch SF can incorporate gendanken experiments that contravene physical laws: FTL travel, stable wormholes, mind uploading, a multiplicity of genders and earth-like planets, anthropomorphic aliens, to name only a few.

Fiction must be the dominant partner in all literary efforts.  Imaginative storytelling trumps strict scientific accuracy. Nevertheless, SF requires convincing, consistent worldbuilding.  This in turn demands that the author stick to the rules s/he has made and that the premises adhere to known laws once the speculative exceptions have been accommodated: if a planet is within a red dwarf sun’s habitable zone, its orbit has to be tidally locked barring incredibly advanced technology.  If a story contravenes or doesn’t depend on science, real or speculative, it’s not SF.  It’s magic realism or fantasy.  Not that it matters, as long as the plot and characters are compelling.

Avast, Impure Cooties!

Avast, Impudent Cooties!

There have been recent lamentations within the tribe about SF losing ground to fantasy, horror and other “lesser” cousins.  Like all niche genres, speculative fiction further marginalizes itself by creating arbitrary hierarchies that purport to reflect intrinsic worth but in fact enshrine unexamined cultural values: hardcover self-labeled hard SF preens at the top, written mostly by boys for boys; print-on-demand SF romance skulks at the bottom, written almost exclusively by girls for girls (though the increasing proportion of female readership is exerting significant pressure on the pink ghetto walls).

The real problem is not that science is hard to portray well in SF.  The problem is impoverished imagination, willful ignorance and endless repetition of recipes.  In short: failure of nerve.  Great SF stories are inseparable from the science in them.  A safe, non-demanding story is unlikely to linger in the readers’ memory or elicit changes in their thinking.

If science disappears altogether from SF or survives only as the gimmick that allows “magic” plot outcomes, SF will lose its greatest and unique asset: acting as midwife and mentor to future scientists.  This is no mere intellectual exercise for geeks.  To give one example, mental and physical work on the arcships so denigrated by Stross et al. would also help us devise solutions to the inexorable looming specter of finite terrestrial resources.

Rick Sternbach: Solar Sail

Rick Sternbach: Solar Sail

The political and social pseudo-pieties of the US cost it several generations of scientists, some in their prime.  The full repercussions won’t appear immediately, but already the US is no longer the uncontested forerunner in science and technology and its standard of living is dropping accordingly.  Breakthroughs in physics and biology are happening elsewhere.  Of course, all empires have a finite lifespan.  Perhaps the time has come for the Chinese or the Indians to lead.  But no matter who is the first among equals in the times to come, I stand by the last sentence in my Double Helix essay: “Though science will build the starships, science fiction will make us want to board them.”

Update 1: Huffington Post just re-posted this article (without the accompanying images, though, which add texture to the story).

Update 2: The article is now also on the new blog I Like a Little Science in My Fiction.

39 Responses to “SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    Fantastic piece Athena.

    I personally think that postmodernism and the rise of ‘theory’ has to shoulder a lot of the blame. Postmodernism’s deconstruction of fixed points of reference is effectively about being smarter than the person who wrote a particular text. This means that critical thinking has been replaced with a kind of academicised cynicism whereby it is okay to sneer at the sciences for purporting to discover truths about the universe.

    Obviously, this cynicism is extremely limited and it sits cheek-by-jowl with a complete lack of critical thought when it comes to fashion, hype and marketing. Thus you have people turning their noses up at science whilst lusting after iPods and XBoxes.

  2. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jonathan, and I entirely agree with your assessment: there’s no question that postmodern deconstructionism has given cachet to the shallowness that substitutes attitude for knowledge.

    Picasso may have greatly simplified his bulls as he progressed through his career — but he knew how to paint them perfectly in half a dozen styles. There’s a fundamental difference between shorthand arising from experience and/or knowledge and ersatz hipness. I invite the professional sneerers who insist that there’s no objective reality to test this assumption by jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

  3. Caliban says:

    You’ve heard me express my experience:

    ASPIRING SF WRITER: Hi, uh, Dr. SciencePerson? I need some scientific justification for my really really cool idea.

    ME (as gently as possible): There’s no f*****g way this is scientifically viable. However, I can give you some not-too-distant suggestions…

    ASFW (pouting): What do you mean? I thought the whole purpose of science was to justify cool ideas!
    .
    .
    .
    .
    I’ve also note two other trends:

    First, people think *their* specialty has to be treated carefully, but are willing to be cavalier about other specialties. Linguists flip out if a made-up language is too close to English, historians go ballistic if an alternate history violates their personal ideology…but don’t care about getting the physics or biology right.

    Second, even more germane: as the short fiction market has dwindled and become more and more a boutique discipline rather than a paying profession, rather like poetry, short fiction has actually become *like* poetry: The Voice Is Everything. Now, I happen to appreciate strong, idiosyncratic voices in fiction and I try to conjure distinctive voices in my own work. But it seems like the plaudits and the publishing, even in alleged SF, often goes to those authors who best can conjure The Voice.

    The very best authors can do Voice and more; but because the Voice is the most obvious trick, a lot of aspiring writers try to imitate it. And to hell with everything else.

    Let me reiterate: I’m not against strong narrative voices; I rather like them. But the narrative voice isn’t everything…

  4. Athena says:

    Yes, my experience parallels yours since we’re both practicing scientists who also write SF/F. In fact, you and I have fielded pouting ASFWs in the same venues and lists.

    Your two points are excellent. Of course, a story that depends almost entirely on The Voice will date fast — especially if The Voice is the snarky smart-ass mosquito whine that has become de rigueur in today’s SF.

  5. Athena, that’s an interesting article, but I have a couple of comments.

    First, I don’t believe the nation took a radical shift to the right. In fact I don’t believe it’s possible for the culture as a whole to make radical shifts in general. The decline in respect for scientists that you ascribe to right-wing regression I would chalk up to an overall erosion in respect for authorities of all sorts. Left-wing counterculture in the 60s and 70s had just as much disrespect for science. The only difference is the choice of what branches of science to particularly scorn.

    Given my disagreement there I obviously don’t see a discontinuity in science fiction either, at least not nearly so large of one. We look back at the 40s and 50s and think of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. But for every one of their stories there were twenty stories published that were non-scientific drivel. After all this time, those stories have been forgotten. Even from “surviving” work we can see that hard SF was hardly the only thing out there. There’s no science whatsoever in Princess of Mars or the Lensmen books. Now it’s true those books have a lot of imagination (that’s why they’re remembered), but if those no-science-all-imagination authors were writing today I think they’d be writing fantasy. In fact many argue they were back then.

    One final note: even if you think the US has turned to the right, has regressed, and so forth, has Europe? I think British authors have a huge influence on modern SF, far out of proportion with Britain’s population, and I think Europeans in general clearly experienced a major psychological turn away from optimistic views of the future due to their direct experiences with World Wars I and II.

  6. Athena says:

    Matt, regarding the shift to the right we’ll have to agree to disagree. I concur that Princess of Mars and its relatives are fantasy (as is Star Wars). There’s no question that Sturgeon’s law applies to speculative fiction — but at the same time, editors were far more adventurous back then. For example, Tolkien would not have the remotest chance of publication today.

  7. Kay Holt says:

    Fortunately, there are many ways to approach these problems. As an editor, I’m free to bias my selection process in favor of informed spec-fic, for example.

    -Girl-inclusive science programs in schools would help.
    -Pre-K science education would help – I’ve found that basic science concepts are easier than reading for the very young to acquire.
    -Bringing science education together with creative writing would be a more direct step against entropy in the Science->SFF->Science cycle.

    There are probably a million small ways we can build a science-loving generation, but we’re going to need a lot more people working on it than SFF can usually draw. The trick is consistently reaching blockbuster audiences without selling-out the science.

    Clearly we need to put our heads together. We’re probably going to have to build a theme-park for it, too. ;)

  8. ZarPaulus says:

    I shouldn’t have to point out that the most popular science-fiction has always been movies and TV shows, neither of which is particularly known for scientific accuracy. But I admit to actually liking “space fantasy”, as well as cyberpunk (though post-cyberpunk is still better) if only because it’s cool.

  9. As the fellow workshop participant who thought the idea of grooves in ancient pottery being actual recordings of concurrent sounds was absurd, I hang my head in shame. While this now appears to be a proven fact, I can only say in my defense that, like many real-life events, it seemed impossibly far-fetched at the time.

    The problem of bad science in science fiction is a real one. I’m not a rigid stickler about requiring every aspect of “hard sf” to involve currently plausible technologies (where would we be without our FTL hyperdrives?), but when plots involve making science look evil, or serve as a stalking-horse for junk science and woo-woo pop psych, it makes my teeth hurt. And I’m really sick of the word “quantum” being waved around like some kind of magic wand by writers who have clearly never taken even one semester of college physics.

  10. Athena says:

    Kay, I agree. All your ideas are very good and eminently feasible — as long as there’s a larger collective will to implement them. The fusion of science education and creative writing brings us to Snow’s two cultures. Personally, I don’t see any conflict between the sciences and the humanities (barring postmodernist deconstructionism, as Jonathan briefly discussed in an earlier comment).

    ZarPaulus, I like space fantasy and some post-cyberpunk very much. Respective examples are Iain Banks (the early works, before his stories got bloated and repetitive) and Richard Morgan (the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy is superb, and another great example of crossed genres).

    We learned to like and appreciate each other, Jeannie, despite that rough start! As you point out, even the “hardest” SF has at least one impossible or unknown scientific premise (otherwise it would run the danger of becoming just a vividly written textbook). As for the abuse and fuzzing-out of the “quantum” term/concept in ways that have nothing to do with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, I expressed my views about it here.

  11. Caliban says:

    Oh, yes, “quantum” is one of the most abused terms in spec fic, at least as far as physics. I wonder what the most abused biology trope is? Cloning? Real-time evolution (e.g., individuals “evolving”)? We should have a contest.

    The political left certainly has had its share of idiotic disdain for science, and still does in its horror of GMOs and other topics. However, given that in the US there is still a battle over evolution–one of the most established scientific principles, ever–I give the nod to Athena’s concerns here.

    Part of the problem in science literacy is that science still is not “cool.” Society likes the blessings of science, but still see it as something unnatural to pursue. A young person can spend endless energy pursuing money, or a career in sports (more money), or a career in entertainment; but to spend energy pursuing knowledge? That’s weird.

    It does not help that the scientific establishment itself insists upon an unwavering, almost inhuman devotion to the career. Early science education, especially girl-friend science education, would be helpful for general science literacy. The biggest barrier to more women as active scientists is that academia is unforgiving about the smallest pauses in one’s career; and if you make any choice that places something else (e.g. family) as more valuable than your career, you are deemed unworthy. When I left one mid-level university for another, less regarded one, because my wife got a better job elsewhere, I was roundly criticized (fortunately I also had a network of friends and supporters who helped to keep my career and grants alive). Another colleague moved his wife–who had career and friends in one city–to another country where she could not find employment–he also didn’t want to have kids or even a dog because they were too much of a distraction–this is seen as a “model” for young scientists. No wonder many women and men leave science, and those who are left provide the cold stereotypes. And in this poor economy, as research jobs grow scarcer, there will be even more pressure to be monk-like in ones pursuit of knowledge.

    Hmm, I seem to have drifted a bit…

  12. Kay Holt says:

    “…there’s a larger collective will to implement them.”

    I’m working on it! I’ve hooked a few other publishers and writers on the basic idea, but we’re still putting together our ‘plot’.

    Rules: Don’t be a jerk just to be one, and art and science are omnipresent. Then all we really need to do is market the concept as if it tastes better than candy, and is better for you than vegetables.

    That’s all.

  13. Athena says:

    Perhaps you can market it as complete nourishment for the spirit, Kay, better even than bittersweet chocolate and its phenylethylamine!

    Experimental science is an art in itself — it requires dexterity, grace, aesthetic as well as rational judgment. To say nothing of the breathtaking images from telescopes and microscopes. And of course really inspired science harnesses imagination and informed intuition to its chariot.

  14. Athena says:

    Calvin, I think that “Darwinism” may be the most abused and misunderstood biological term. Lamarckian evolution is probably the most common fallacy, closely followed by the concept of the selfish gene.

    Your point about evolution answers in part Matt’s earlier objection to my statement about the rightward drift in the US. It’s the only First World country where evolution isn’t taught as the de facto truth that it is. Americans inherited the British bias against “showing effort” (the gentleman dilettante was the ideal of the British Empire) to which they grafted the brutal heroics of Manifest Destiny. Neither mode values knowledge or scholarship. The blooming of science in mid-century US arose from geopolitical circumstances.

    You’ve read The Double Helix, so you know how strongly I agree that scientists have contributed to their indentured existence and poor public image. I took a stand myself against being dehumanized. I have never regretted it — but I still don’t have tenure and it’s increasingly unlikely that I ever will.

  15. Athena says:

    THe Huffington Post just re-posted my article minus the accompanying images (their image-entry engine is worse than that of WordPress, if that’s possible!).

  16. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    “Great SF stories are inseparable from the science in them. ”

    I love this sentence. Thar be truth! But then I find science in my speculative fiction exciting because it implies possibilities that are actually meaningful.

    (plus, if I ever see another vampire book I’m going to vomit)

  17. Athena says:

    Yes, vampires, werewolves and zombies have sucked the life out of the genre (pun intended). I have nothing against any of the species per se, as long as the stories they appear in are imaginative. For example, beyond the groundbreaking work in Buffy, I found the premise of Underworld interesting and harbor a guilty liking for The Rise of the Lycans (in part because the two leads were true equals and there was real chemistry between them). But Twilight? Talk of regression!

  18. ZarPaulus says:

    Stephanie Meyer seems to have proven once again that: a. people like stuff written on their intellectual level, and b. teenage fangirls are idiots.

    Seriously most vampire fans hate Twilight with a passion generally reserved for Harry Potter slash-fics.

  19. Athena says:

    Teenage fanboys are equally idiotic — their crushes get dignified and cosseted because they sell more violence porn in the guise of “action movies” and the lunch boxes/plastic weapons/action figures thereof. See my numerous articles on relative values placed on female and male interests by society. For example, torture versus sex in films and TV or, for that matter, fashion versus sports in the media.

    But I’m with you on Twilight, which I never touched in either book or movie incarnation.

  20. Eloise says:

    A little comment in the form of an anecdote…

    I just visited the NYTimes website and came across the magazine preview, “Can Anybody Make A Movie For Women?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/magazine/20Meyers-t.html?_r=1&ref=movies). I have not read it yet, but I found the idea (and the catch-line) interesting enough.

    But even more interesting was the ad sliding on the right-hand side of the page, for the new Sci-Fi series Caprica (a unkown quantity for me). Since my Flash skill are pretty abysmal, I did an screen capture of it and uploaded it here: http://img96.imageshack.us/img96/3842/capricaad.jpg . It is quite significant, I think, that a series envisioning the future would make use of such an old cliché as the Original Sin. And, obviously, it is still always women’s fault. How is it that, after all is said and done, people still go for shortcuts and perpetuate sexist attitudes, in a medium which should promote all kinds of social and scientific advances, no less?

    Perhaps some of you might have the beginning of an answer to that question…

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  21. Athena says:

    I do have some (well, many!) thoughts on this issue, Eloise. But while I gather those thoughts, did you read Calvin’s article The Sins of the Children: Caprica? It’s interesting you should touch upon the angle of original sin, given that the Caprica civilization is polytheistic. I wonder if Zoe Greystone is meant to be Pandora, rather than Eve — which of course is just as bad in terms of women’s images!

  22. Caliban says:

    I doubt it’s as well thought-out as your postulate; I think they’re just pouring a bag full of metaphors into a blender and hitting puree. The image of Zoe eating an apple is meant to be eye-catching, not a deep theological position.

    Notice the tagline: “The future of humanity…” Except we know from the (spoiler alert!!!!!) finale of Battlestar Galactica that this all happened 150,000 years in our past. So they aren’t even consistent with their own world-building.

  23. Athena says:

    Yes, it became painfully obvious in BSG that they were making it up as they went along. So not only do we have “don’t cramp my style with trivial concerns about scientific accuracy” but also “don’t cramp my coolness with trivial concerns over plot/character consistency and story flow.” Most Hollywoodians are surrounded by a miasma of sycophants, so they are convinced they’re geniuses.

  24. andy says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with you about Stross’s essays on the feasibility of space travel. You have already stated that you think science fiction without the science is a bad thing, yet you seem really opposed to the attempt to investigate the feasibility of one of the most familiar of concepts in science fiction. You bemoan the lack of radical concepts, yet his conclusion that space travel would require a radically different solution to the commonly-imagined space ships is for some reason something to look down on.

  25. Caliban says:

    Robot Chicken did a great send-up of Ron Moore’s herky-jerky plotting for BSG

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujWdg7d-6Xk

    (Don’t miss the Wrath of Khan opera:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9C-WrWRDYrc )

  26. Athena says:

    Andy, I would agree with your take if Stross said “Let’s explore alternatives.” However, his conclusion seems to be “Despair and die, carbon slaves! Only nanobots will take to the stars.” That’s what I object to — as well as the implication (and accompanying attitude) that before Stross, nobody had thought of these problems.

    I’ve written and spoken about these topics extensively and continuously since 1998, to audiences ranging from SF writers to NASA engineers. And I’m not the only one, though it’s true that NASA would rather not deal with long-term biological problems primarily for political reasons. If each of us goes around proclaiming that we just discovered black holes and that everyone else is willfully ignorant and/or stupid, we’ll go nowhere fast.

  27. Walden2 says:

    NASA’s say on things is going to become rather limited I think when we finally start setting up colonies in the Sol system. These colonies will have to become self-sufficient and add in the fact they will be quite far from Earth, any grip NASA has on them will slip away, especially with future colony generations.

    Unless of course Earth governments start up some kind of Terran Empire in the galaxy with battlecruisers and such.

  28. Terraforming Tobias Holbrook says:

    Perhaps schools could start by, instead of teaching people *what* to think, teaching them *how* to think. Instead of teaching them facts and theories, teach them the scientific method. Someone who can design an experiment from square one to measure the speed of sound is more useful than someone who can recite the speed of sound off the top of their head. Someone who can work out why the speed of sound varies with altitude is more useful than someone who simply knows that it does. Besides, being taught the scientific method is a lot more interesting than being given a textbook and just told to answer the questions. No wonder not many people go into science; in high school, it’s boring.

    More accurate SF would be helpful, of course. Perhaps a companion to each Hard SF film/book/animation, explaining the concepts to Mr and Mrs A. Joe?

  29. Athena says:

    I agree that critical thinking and the scientific method are more important than facts, which change as we discover more. I also think that scientific companions to SF are a good idea. At the same time the “science must be fun” mantra holds little water. Becoming good at the piano or basketball takes much time and effort and involves endless numbing repetition. And science is more important to most lives and to civilization collectively than basketball, if only because we’re now completely and irreversibly dependent in the technology it engendered.

  30. Mick says:

    Hear! Hear! Once we graduate to a real world (five guys smoking cigars, watching football, and discussing politics), the cacophony is caused not by what they think, but by how they think. Skimming over contradictions like adolescents unaware that there is no wind beneath your wings in space. Spewing nuggets of “fact” like hacking dogs and declaring the result a stew of knowledge. And of course resorting to sexual ad hominem when high reason fails to convince.

    In Joyce’s Voices, Hugh Kenner identifies the Pyrrhonic mode as a quintessential Irish voice, then traces the “discourse” of a pub scene in Ulysses from one red-faced insult to the next. The Irish, he comes near saying, believe in nothing but the power of words (I’m Irish, so I claim sanctuary from charges of racism). Not a great insight, but he goes on to say (paraphrase), If you don’t believe in what the words are about, then the exercise of eloquence is just melodious barking. We have become a nation that believes in nothing. So we howl derision at people trying to think.

  31. tigtog says:

    @Caliban

    I wonder what the most abused biology trope is? Cloning? Real-time evolution (e.g., individuals “evolving”)? We should have a contest.

    My vote definitely goes for real-time evolution, especially the horrid misrepresentations of organisms “mutating” right before your eyes into an entirely new phenotype.

    C’mon! “Metamorphosis” is a perfectly cromulent word! We know it happens (not to mammals on our world, but at least it happens in other clades)! Just use the word!

  32. Athena says:

    Viv, agreed, by Crom! As I discussed in Crossed Genres, metamorphosis wouldn’t happen as advertised in Hollywood. There would be a non-negligible interval of at least helplessness, if not outright liquefaction! Still, shapeshifters seem to have a strong hold in our imagination.

  33. I was a little confused by your reference to “The Selfish Gene” as a fallacy. Can you explain further? Is it related to equivocation of the meaning of “selfish”?

  34. Athena says:

    There are several layers of fallacy to the term “selfish gene”, some having to do with the default lay interpretation of the term, some with the intrinsic science. First, genes never act in isolation but in complex interactive networks. Second, genes are more or less adaptive depending on context. Third, the selection unit is the organism (organisms leave descendants, not genes). Fourth, saying genes are “selfish” anthropomorphizes them and puts a teleological spin on their expression patterns. Finally, many people take the term to justify social Darwinism, which has little to do with genes.

  35. What you say is pretty much true, Athena. I was shocked to read a recent Hugo-winning “science fiction” story that contained about the level of scientific knowledge and “speculation” that I recall reading in early “Golden Age” stories, with the exception that the story wasn’t very connected to the science, and it was a downer, to boot. I never considered myself a “hard science fiction” writer, but I was always inspired by the real science fiction I read growing up. I naturally made an effort to base everything I wrote on real science and speculation and always researched heavily all areas of science that I was working with.

    Now, I have done very few “space” oriented stories, but y’all might enjoy “To Kiss the Star.”

    http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Amy-Sterling/Short-Stories/To-Kiss-the-Star

    I first noticed this problem, where my assumption had been that as a non-scientist, I knew very little science and probably could not understand a lot of advanced science, at Worldcon in 2008. I had volunteered to coordinate what I thought was the young adult programming, but it turned out to be little children . . . but I digress. I was on a panel about “genetic engineering” which was moderated by my friend John Moore, who is a chemical engineer, and there were other panelists, one of whom gets lipservice as a “real” female sci fi writer. And I was ludicrously, by far, the panel expert. John was merely moderating, and did a good job keeping things going. But the others . . .? I’m sure that one of them did know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, but wasn’t able to articulate it at the time. I know we all probably stayed up too late partying . . .

    I can only speak for myself and say that the reason I stopped writing SF was that it didn’t pay, and I would like to receive good pay and have more readers. It’s not like I didn’t put in my time, or didn’t try. One person commented online that the story that won the Nebula award the year “To Kiss the Star” was nominated was “exponentially” better than my story. It was not a science fiction story, and it was also one that I tried hard to finish, but was never able to finish. I also tried to read other stories by the same author and also could not finish them, mostly because I could not follow them. If readers (and that was I think, a reader comment) preferred this type of story and writing, it was something that I knew I couldn’t do.

    Many people in science fiction aren’t aware that I’ve written and published over 100 stories, 3 novels, and also a large number of nonfiction books. My short science fiction has been primarily in F & SF and anthologies, and most interested in “hard science fiction” do not read F & SF – and of course I do not write “hard science fiction.” I just in the past, have written “science fiction.”

    Anyway, Athena – keep writing – keep working on stories. Re: the wanking dope with the “sounds can’t be recorded off a ceramic surface” – those guys are everywhere. Don’t let anything like this bother you, and just focus on the stories. Also, as the author of a Battlestar Galactica book – I wouldn’t take anything that’s on TV too seriously as far as its attitude toward science and scientists. It is all truly for an entertainment purpose, exclusively. Look at the contradictions you’ll see on Science Channel shows. They will show completely contradictory shows and interviews on the same topic on the same night (usually because one is outdated). It’s up to us as individuals to use our minds to think critically and seek the truth.

    And re: “Selfish Genes” – well, anthropomorphism and fitting the data to one’s assumptions rather than the other way around are endemic in science. I self-edited myself out of pursuing a career in science because I didn’t want to be an unpopular “geek” girl – so I majored in art and literature. That was in the 80’s and times have changed. At the higher levels, fantastic science is still being done, but in the meantime at least in the U.S., the weakening of science and math programs in schools is hurting U.S. kids – however, worldwide, it is good to see others coming forward.

  36. Athena says:

    Thank you for the praise and the interesting points, Amy! I read and liked both Perfect Stranger and To Kiss the Star. I also read your article about “bad voice” in BVC. I agree with it overall — and specifically for Tor and cyberpunk, as you can tell by reading two more my articles (links below).

    I suspect that most of the chaff will be winnowed out by mere (lack of) longevity. Also, publishing is undergoing a major shift right now. The landscape will look radically different when that particular dust settles.

    And I’m not giving up on writing speculative fiction — just on making a living out of it! Sad statement, but…

    Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
    Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears

  37. Magento says:

    I agree with ZarPaulus, most of Vampire fans (including myself) don’t see Twilight as a reference or a true movie. In fact it’s even the opposite, it’s really seen as a teenager book and most of vampire lovers hate it.

    Anyway great post, I agree that SF was much more better years ago. The world we are living right now is killing imagination with all movies, TV, mangas and junk video games. There is no place anymore for young people to think and evade in their own world and thus to create great SF stuff.

    Crazy world we live in. Keep on reading old SF books, they are the references.

    Cheers, Jack.

  38. Gustavo says:

    I actually agree wholeheartedly with this one (well, other than the fact that I enjoy the Golden Age stories, despite their disregard for science). I seem to be one of those elitist jerks where bad science is concerned. Glad to see we disagree on some things, but agree on others.

    Haven’t posted on your other two links. I’m waiting to read your response to Sunday’s post, which promises to be interesting indeed.

  39. Athena says:

    The point of sending these links was in partial response to your terms “PC zombies” and “the lunatic fringe” as blanket characterizations for people who disagree with your views. If you take a look at who commented on the Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF you’ll find a stack of names that should be familiar to you from SF/F ToC rosters. And if by Eyre you mean Charlotte Brontë’s book, it was both self-published (oh, those wannabees!) and published under a male pseudonym, for reasons still painfully pertinent to those of us who insist on being “PC parrots”.