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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Safe Exoticism, Part 1: Science

Note: This 2-part article is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Readercon 2011.

I originally planned to discuss how writers of SF need to balance knowledge of the scientific process, as well as some concrete knowledge of science, with writing engaging plots and vivid characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this discussion runs a parallel course with another; namely, depiction of non-Anglo cultures in Anglophone SF/F.

Though the two topics appear totally disparate, science in SF and non-Anglo cultures in SF/F often share the core characteristic of safe exoticism; that is, something which passes as daring but in fact reinforces common stereotypes and/or is chosen so as to avoid discomfort or deeper examination. A perfect example of both paradigms operating in the same frame and undergoing mutual reinforcement is Frank Herbert’s Dune. This is why we get sciency or outright lousy science in SF and why Russians, Brazilians, Thais, Indians and Turks written by armchair internationalists are digestible for Anglophone readers whereas stories by real “natives” get routinely rejected as too alien. This is also why farang films that attain popularity in the US are instantly remade by Hollywood in tapioca versions of the originals.

Before I go further, let me make a few things clear. I am staunchly against the worn workshop dictum of “Write only what you know.” I think it is inevitable for cultures (and I use that term loosely and broadly) to cross-interact, cross-pollinate, cross-fertilize. I myself have seesawed between two very different cultures all my adult life. I enjoy depictions of cultures and characters that are truly outside the box, emphasis on truly. At the same time, I guarantee you that if I wrote a story embedded in New Orleans of any era and published it under my own culturally very identifiable name, its reception would be problematic. Ditto if I wrote a story using real cutting-edge biology.

These caveats do not apply to secondary worlds, which give writers more leeway. Such work is judged by how original and three-dimensional it is.  So if a writer succeeds in making thinly disguised historical material duller than it was in reality, that’s a problem. That’s one reason why Jacqueline Carey’s Renaissance Minoan Crete enthralled me, whereas Guy Gavriel Kay’s Byzantium annoyed me. I will also leave aside stories in which science is essentially cool-gizmos window dressing. However, use of a particular culture is in itself a framing device and science is rarely there solely for the magical outs it gives the author: it’s often used to promote a world view. And when we have active politics against evolution and in favor of several kinds of essentialism, this is something we must keep not too far back in our mind.

So let me riff on science first. I’ll restrict myself to biology, since I don’t think that knowledge of one scientific domain automatically confers knowledge in all the rest. Here are a few hoary chestnuts that are still in routine use (the list is by no means exhaustive):

Genes determining high-order behavior, so that you can instill virtue or Mozartian composing ability with simple, neat, trouble-free cut-n-pastes (ETA: this trope includes clones, who are rarely shown to be influenced by their many unique contexts). It runs parallel with optimizing for a function, which usually breaks down to women bred for sex and men bred for slaughter. However, evolution being what it is, all organisms are jury-rigged and all optimizations of this sort result in instant dead-ending. Octavia Butler tackled this well in The Evening and the Morning and the Night.

— The reductionist, incorrect concept of selfish genes. This is often coupled with the “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” evo-psycho nonsense, with concepts like “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. Not surprisingly, these play well with the libertarian cyberpunk contingent as well as the Viagra-powered epic fantasy cohort.

— Lamarckian evolution, aka instant effortless morphing, which includes acquiring stigmata from VR; this of course is endemic in film and TV SF, with X-Men and The Matrix leading the pack – though Star Trek was equally guilty.

— Its cousin, fast speciation (Greg Bear’s cringeworthy Darwin’s Radio springs to mind; two decent portrayals, despite their age, are Poul Anderson’s The Man Who Counts and The Winter of the World).  Next to this is rapid adaptation, though some SF standouts managed to finesse this (Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite).

— The related domain of single-note, un-integrated ecosystems (what I call “pulling a Cameron”). As I mentioned before, Dune is a perfect exemplar though it’s one of too many; an interesting if flawed one is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Not surprisingly, those that portray enclosed human-generated systems come closest to successful complexity (Morgan Locke’s Up Against It, Alex Jablokov’s River of Dust).

— Quantum consciousness and quantum entanglement past the particle scale. The former, Roger Penrose’s support notwithstanding, is too silly to enlarge upon, though I have to give Elizabeth Bear props for creative chuzpah in Undertow.

— Immortality by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul and/or design-by-god – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. As I discussed elsewhere, this is dualism of the hoariest sort and boring in the bargain.

— Uplifted animals and intelligent robots/AIs that are not only functional but also think/feel/act like humans. This paradigm, perhaps forgivable given our need for companionship, was once again brought to the forefront by the Planet of the Apes reboot, but rogue id stand-ins have run rampant across the SF landscape ever since it came into existence.

These concepts are as wrong as the geocentric universe, but the core problems lie elsewhere. For one, SF is way behind the curve on much of biology, which means that stories could be far more interesting if they were au courant. Nanobots already exist; they’re called enzymes. Our genes are multi-cooperative networks that are “read” at several levels; our neurons, ditto. I have yet to encounter a single SF story that takes advantage of the plasticity (and potential for error) of alternative splicing or epigenetics, of the left/right brain hemisphere asymmetries, or of the different processing of languages acquired in different developmental windows.

For another, many of the concepts I listed are tailor-made for current versions of triumphalism and false hierarchies that are subtler than their Leaden Age predecessors but just as pernicious. For example, they advance the notion that bodies are passive, empty chassis which it is all right to abuse and mutilate and in which it’s possible to custom-drop brains (Richard Morgan’s otherwise interesting Takeshi Kovacs trilogy is a prime example). Perhaps taking their cue from real-life US phenomena (the Teabaggers, the IMF and its minions, Peter Thiel…) many contemporary SF stories take place in neo-feudal, atomized universes run amuck, in which there seems to be no common weal: no neighborhoods, no schools, no people getting together to form a chamber music ensemble, play soccer in an alley, build a telescope. In their more benign manifestations, like Iain Banks’ Culture, they attempt to equalize disparities by positing infinite resources. But they hew to disproved paradigms and routinely conflate biological with social Darwinism, to the detriment of SF.

Mindsets informed by these holdovers won’t help us understand aliens of any kind or launch self-enclosed sustainable starships, let alone manage to stay humane and high-tech at the same time. Because, let’s face it: the long generation ships will get us past LEO. FTLs, wormholes, warp drives… none of these will carry us across the sea of stars. It will be the slow boats to Tau Ceti, like the Polynesian catamarans across the Pacific.

You may have noticed that many of the examples that I used as good science have additional out-of-the-box characteristics. Which brings us to safe exoticism on the humanist side.

Part 2: Culture

Images: 1st, Bunsen and his hapless assistant, Beaker (The Muppet Show); 2nd, the distilled quintessence of safe exoticism: Yul Brynner in The King and I.

Related entries:

SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Miranda Wrongs: Reading too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

20 Responses to “Safe Exoticism, Part 1: Science”

  1. Caliban says:

    Excellent essay, as always.

    Unfortunately many of the physics tropes in SF are also sloppy. The main problem, as with your biology examples, is that often they are merely vehicles of convenience. Space travel is expensive, and that’s just a matter of energetics; that’s why we don’t have routine spaceflight even to low earth orbit (LEO).

    I don’t mind violating the laws of physics, but it needs to be done with thought and not sloppily and just for convenience. One of the examples you gave, Bear’s “Undertow,” is physics-wise specious–how can a mineral have entanglement–but she makes it (mostly) work because the whole novel is about entanglment, not just physics but also in ecology and in politics. Similarly the “skip drive” in Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War,” is dubious but it also works in part because it ties in to that potboiler’s theme, such as it is, of identity.

    You left out one biological theme that’s routinely very badly done: clones (although you have written essays on it). Clones in SF often appeal to the baldest and very worst kinds of essentialism. Personally, and I’d be interested to hear your take, I think the clones in “Brave New World” are better done, in part because (a) although crudely done, it emphasizes environmental factors as key and (b) the system doesn’t always work, as shown by Bernard.

  2. Athena says:

    You’re right: FTL and its cousins are definitely vehicles of convenience, to permit space operas with galactic empires. Clones fall largely under gene determinism, but it’s worth making it explicit. So I added a clause to the relevant paragraph.

    The Brave New World clones were indeed done well, especially taking the era of the novel’s writing into account. Having them responsive to food ingredients follows such paradigms as PKU or queen bees, which fulfill my criteria of being both valid and far more interesting than the usual lazy essentialism.

  3. zarpaulus says:

    I don’t recall any “Lamarckian evolution” in the Matrix, though if there was it was overshadowed by their gross ignorance of basic thermodynamics.

    Though I’d like to note C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen as a good representation of realistic clones, the inventor of jump drive’s clone became a musician and all the other clone characters (except the azi whose education and personalities came from tapes) were rather different from their “originals”.

  4. Athena says:

    The Matrix reference was in connection with VR “stigmata”.

    I recall Cherryh’s azi from the Cyteen novels — they’re not very realistic, though I agree that the “high-end” clones were at least one cut above the usual depictions. Valerie Freireich’s Alexander/August in Becoming Human are also good portrayals.

  5. Asakiyume says:

    I very much enjoyed this–liked the analysis of the problematic science. One very minor point that I was unclear on, though, from the beginning of the essay. You said you were against the old dictum to write only what you know, but then you added, “I guarantee you that if I wrote a story embedded in New Orleans of any era and published it under my own culturally very identifiable name, its reception would be problematic.”

    I just wanted to be sure I understand: you’re not saying that you shouldn’t write such a story; you’re just making the pragmatic observation that people’s conceptions being what they are, people would be less accepting of your story because you’d be assumed to lack firsthand experience (based on your surname)?

    –I’m not arguing with that, if that’s what you’re saying; I just wanted to be sure I understood.

  6. Athena says:

    Yes, exactly! I delve more into this in Part 2.

  7. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > I guarantee you that if I wrote a story embedded
    > in New Orleans of any era and published it under
    > my own culturally very identifiable name, its
    > reception would be problematic.

    Well, you could always use a nom-de-plume like, uh,
    Rice. Or how about Tapioca? ;->

  8. Athena says:

    The point is, of course, that Anglo authors don’t bother to use “native” pseudonyms when they write (ignorantly and sloppily) about non-Anglo cultures. Rice, at least, is Channel Irish — she was born and lived in New Orleans when she wrote her books.

  9. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > Next to this is rapid adaptation, though some SF
    > standouts managed to finesse this. . .

    An example of this I read as a kid and which stuck with
    me forever was in a paperback I had of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s
    “A Martian Odyssey” and other stories.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/44823747@N02/4157950571/

    There’s one in there called “The Adaptive Ultimate” about
    a plain Jane (with the distinctly unplain name “Kyra Zelas”)
    who has a brain operation to save her life, which
    affects her pineal gland and makes her a superhuman who
    can adapt instantly (her hair changes instantly from platinum
    blonde indoors to black outside in bright sunlight, like
    those fancy sunglasses). She has a hypnotic effect on
    people (especially on men) and this, together with her
    newly-minted combination of beauty, intelligence, confidence,
    and ruthlessness, makes her a menace to humanity. (I offer
    no comment on the subtext here — I was a kid when I
    read this, not a feminist. ;-> ) Needless
    to say, the doctors who made her have to subdue her and
    reverse the effect. I see in Wikipedia that this story
    actually had a film adaptation and both TV and radio
    dramatizations.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_G._Weinbaum

    > Its cousin, fast speciation. . .

    Nevertheless, I’ve always found stories about instant
    superhumans irresistible, like Olaf Stapledon’s _Odd John_,
    J. D. Beresford’s _The Hampdenshire Wonder_, and
    for that matter George Turner’s _Brain Child_” (the
    latter about engineered superhumans — it’s a **really** good
    book, very moving and sad in between the obligatory
    action scenes, and kind of nasty at the same
    time). And “The Sixth Finger” remains my favorite old
    _Outer Limits_ episode.

    > FTLs, wormholes, warp drives… none of these will
    > carry us across the sea of stars. It will be the
    > slow boats to Tau Ceti, like the Polynesian catamarans
    > across the Pacific.

    You know, Arthur C. Clarke did this quite well and
    heartbreakingly poignantly in _The Songs of Distant Earth_.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Songs_of_Distant_Earth

  10. Athena says:

    Kyra Zelas sounds like an early version of the X-Men’s Mystique (though the archetype has been a male fantasy since the Stone Age).

  11. Brian M says:

    Weird. I’ve never had a comment trapped by Bad Behavior software (Over at Science in My Fiction) Sorry to post an off-topic comment here. You can delete if you want.

    On topic….though, given “modern” history, isn’t atomized neofeudalism somewhat understandable as a trope? Or is it your belief that post-peak-oil, post-asteroid collision, post-whatever dystopian future society will actually return to more of a pre-modern, non hierarchical society?

  12. Athena says:

    You can always post your comment here, Brian — I check everything. Did you also post the comment from SiMF here? Because I don’t see it anywhere.

    The malaise mode is being beaten to a pulp by US/UK SF authors. Although I understand that fiction mirrors its time/place, speculative fiction would be more interesting if it broke a few parochial moulds. In particular, SF/F falls into imperialist tropes disproportionately often, whether it’s “deconstructionist” fantasy (if only) or “revisionist” space opera (ditto). What might happen in real life is a completely different topic, and the outcome will depend on the details. Frankly, I doubt technological civilization will survive a major asteroid hit.

  13. Brian M says:

    Yes, I can see why you would find the dystopian themes “beaten to a pulp”, Athena. 🙂

    He may be a major reactionary crank in many respects, but James Howard Kunstler’s post-oil dystopias do share the charm of being not all doom-and-gloom (while worshipping small town ruralism, of course). I kinda agree with him on the idiocies of drive-in Americana too.

    Gosh….I keep trying to convert you to the writings of reactionaries. I really am NOT a reactionary, I promise!

    My post at SiMF never made it through the filter. Weird. 🙂

  14. Athena says:

    Yes, why do you keep trying to do that? (said with a smile) I’ve read after-the-catastrophe-du-jour works that manage to sidestep the by-the-numbers shoals. Jetse de Vries assembled such an anthology (Shine) which I reviewed for SF Signal.

    As for Kunstler, he seems to suffer the congenital malady of “futurists” — namely, having zero knowledge and credentials in the domains he makes predictions about (and the US footprint far exceeding resources is neither new nor unique to him).

  15. intrigued_scribe says:

    I enjoyed this, and its highlighting of how the belief in “write what you know” leads to almost automatic rejections of works, if it’s assumed that the writer harbors no firsthand experience with the subject particularly stands out.

    Wonderful essay, as always.

  16. Lars says:

    I agree with you with regard to Anderson’s The Winter of the World – I remember asking him if he’d been aware of the concept of sibling species when he wrote it, but apparently nobody had ever mentioned it to him before and he’d had no idea that there was such a thing in nature. I found it rather impressive that he’d replicated the idea independently – the Rogaviki fit the bill rather well. However, I was wondering how the idea of rapid speciation came up in The Man Who Counts. As I recall, the Diomedean indigenes were all conspecifics; differences in reproductive strategy were elicited by differences in exercise regime.

  17. Athena says:

    Fascinating to know that Anderson was unaware of the founder effect and speciation.

    In The Man Who Counts, the Diomedeans have split into two populations (migratory and stationary) that are no longer interacting and have developed different sustenance and mating patterns, starting feedback loops. If separation prevails for a few more generations, genetic drift will start — and unless they break it consciously, they will stop being able to interbreed fairly quickly. One bottleneck (example: different ovulation patterns) will suffice.

  18. Lars says:

    Have to correct you here, if I read you aright – Anderson was undoubtedly aware of speciation, and probably the founder effect – he was rather anomalous among those SF writers of a right-wing persuasion in not only knowing quite a bit about biology, but in thinking it important to get it right in his fiction. In fact, as I recall (it’s been a while), his Rogaviki were the subject of some speculation along these lines by another character in the book – small founder population, isolation, etc. What surprised me, when I met him, was that he was unaware of the concept of sibling species, which the Rogaviki seemed to fit, from his description – morphologically indistinguishable from the basal human species (at least by the technologies available to the cultures in the book), but behaviourally and physiologically distinct, and not interfertile with our species.

  19. Athena says:

    Now we’re on the same page. I remember the story very well, because it’s the only SF work (besides mine) that shows true polyandry and also because it illustrates (very rapid) speciation. Hence my surprise when I misread your original sentence. Also, if someone is aware of speciation, genetic drift and reproductive isolation they must be aware of sibling species as well, even if they don’t know the formal term for them. On a larger note, I can still read Anderson without grinding my teeth, in part for his knowledge and intelligent use of biology, anthropology and history.