On Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Philip Marchand

Posted: August 21, 2009 in Braak, poetics, reviews
Tags: , ,

Recently, Philip Marchand wrote a column for the National Post about how “fantasy” is “taking over” “science fiction.”  The original post is here, and I’m going to talk about it a little bit–though, now that I’ve looked further into the matter, I’m not altogether sure who Philip Marchand is, or why I, or anyone else, should be even remotely interested in what he’s got to say.

He does quote from Robert Sawyer, who is a known science-fiction author, so I guess that’s…something?  Anyway, the issue–the dividing line between fantasy and science fiction, is an interesting one, so let’s consider.

Most serious readers of the genres consider the terms “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy” to be idiosyncratic ones, that are generally best used by bookstore clerks as a tool for recommendations.  If you talk to any six fans about what makes “Science Fiction” science fiction, you’ll get between eight and twelve answers–so, Mr. Marchand is, perhaps unknowingly, stepping into a big pile of crap right out of the gate, and ignores whole tracts of the genre.  Take this description of science fiction, for example:

a genre traditionally opposed to magic and even to such folk-scientific phenomena as UFOs.

That’s just nonsense.  What “traditionally”, first of all?  Are we talking about the 19th century as the origin of Science Fiction?  So, a tradition that’s barely over a hundred years old, and whose early writers (Lovecraft, for instance, or even Bulwer-Lytton) routinely included “magic” or “psychic” phenomena in their stories?  Maybe there haven’t been any UFO stories published, or UFO movies made in the last hundred years?  I don’t know what this means, even–no stories of alien abductions, really?  No stories of aliens coming to earth in flying saucers?  Not even in EARTH VERSUS THE FLYING FUCKING SAUCERS?

But let’s leave that be, and look instead at the crux of his argument:  that two of the staples of science fiction–the “celestial hieroglyphs” that are taken by many writers as “givens”–are actually either scientifically or philosophically impossible.  Positing this in the first place overlooks a vast number of recently published science fiction novels–including four of this year’s five Hugo nominees (though Graveyard Book probably shouldn’t count as Science Fiction at all).

Revealing that his analysis, in addition to being shallow, is simply poor:  in the second place, he’s flatly wrong.  Physicists do indeed think faster-than-light travel is possible–they just aren’t sure how to do it.  And there are at least a handful of philosophically-sound ways to avoid the temporal paradoxes caused by time-travel; hell, even Michael Crichton found a way out of that one.

His supporting material, in addition, is also hilariously wrong.  Look at this quote from Robert Sawyer:

“In every previous Star Trek film, the time travel that had been done had been done with some sort of machine or device that we could understand,” Sawyer points out,

The only original crew movie that had time travel in it was Star Trek IV, where they went back in time by using the sun as a slingshot to propel them faster than the speed of light.  What’s hilarious about this is that it both doesn’t make sense within the continuity established by the world (the Enterprise can already go faster than the speed of light, so what barrier is it breaking, exactly?), it’s also one of the time travel methods that is known to be (and at the time was known to be) impossible–you can’t accelerate matter past the speed of light, no matter how many circles you fly around the sun.

Generations used a flying string of gold crap and nobody knew what the hell that was.  You could just hide out in it while time passed you by, and this is forward time travel, anyway, so doesn’t really count.

In First Contact, they opened up a “temporal vortex” using…I don’t know, presumably a machine that can open up temporal vortices.

But what about the TV series?  In City on the Edge of Forever, they went back in time by going through a giant TV screen inset into a huge rock.  I guess, in the very loosest sense of the word, you could call this a “machine,” but it’s sure as hell not a machine that I, or any intellectually-honest physicist, might claim to understand.  Moreover, I’m not precisely sure what distinguishes this from a “magic mirror” pulled out of Harlan Ellison’s butt.  In Assignment: Earth THEY DON’T EVEN BOTHER EXPLAINING IT.

(Not to get too far into how basically every example that Marchand cites is wrong, but also in Contact, Jodie Foster’s character meets the aliens who are represented by the image of her dead father.  Not actually her dead father.)

So, the supporting material here is flatly nonsense, and it brings me to my third point:

Not only is Marchand’s analysis shallow, not only are his supporting arguments wrong, but he is principally wrong:  the science fiction that he is describing is in no way invested in the actual technology that permits it.

The original series of Star Trek was, even more so than Next Generation, almost completely unconcerned with how any of this nonsense was possible.  It was a show designed to create interesting moral dilemmas (City on the Edge of Forever is a great one; anyone can say they’ll kill Hitler if they could go back in time and do it, but what if you had to kill a completely innocent, good, nice person to stop him?) or to make some kind of obscure social commentary (how was it possible that Earth survived the INSANE PROBLEMS OF 1968!?!?!? ZOMGWTFBBQ!?!?).  So, who cares how you go back in time?  Black holes, the Kirk Jerk, red matter, who gives a crap?  This isn’t a physics textbook, it’s a story.

Even a cursory glance at the history of science fiction would have revealed dozens of similar examples.  Isaac Asimov wasn’t a robotics scientist–he was an ethicist who was using robots as a way to explore human cognition and ethical dilemmas.  Philip K. Dick was (admittedly!) not an authority on any kind of science, and his books are almost thoroughly devoid of the “hows” behind his ideas–because he doesn’t actually care how it’s possible to see into the future, he cares about the existential consequences of seeing into the future.

There are, of course, authors that do care a lot about the science–Neal Stephenson, obviously, Heinlein (a little, but not really), Clarke.  Some of the older writers, like E. E. Smith, were also more invested in science.  All of this brings us to the fourth refutation here, which is that Philip Marchand seems to have a completely backwards idea of how authors actually write.

Look at the paradox that we’ve achieved.  E. E. Smith predicated much (some, at least) of his future world on extrapolations from current scientific thinking.  Many of those extrapolations turned out to be wrong.  Does that mean he’s not a Science Fiction author any more?  Is he a fantasist?

According to Marchand, he doesn’t have to be, as Marchand seems to think that what an author believes is true is instrumental to the world he creates in his books–he marvels that W. P. Kinsella, as an atheist, can write mythic fantasies about baseball.  Kinsella is some kind of madman, able to write about worlds whose rules of operation are distinct from the rules that Kinsella himself believes in–Smith was a Science Fiction writer, because however wrong he may have turned out to be, at least he believed that what he was doing was science.

But the combined intellect of Sawyer and Marchand seems to have this crazy idea that it’s impossible to write Science Fiction without using time travel or FTL travel–as though novelists must consciously build the worlds in their novels in direct relation to what everyone else is writing.  (“Well, everyone’s using time travel these days; how am I going to write a novel without time travel?”  We have to assume that Sawyer said this to himself at one point, else why does he use a device that makes him grit his teeth?  Maybe someone had a gun to his head.)  Science fiction writers, then, are all becoming fantasists, because they have accepted as true things like FTL and time-travel; and once they think these things could be true, it becomes impossible for them to posit a world in which they might not be true.

Moreover, it posits that the way Science Fiction works is necessarily “what does faster than light travel mean” or “what does time travel mean,” rather than using things like that as a vehicle to explore whatever other things you might be interested in (maybe, like Dan Simmons, you’re interested in how human reliance on technology stunts our evolution–but wait, Hyperion has got both faster-than-light travel AND time travel!  ZOMG!).

And, while we’re at it.  Marchand repeats Sawyer’s claim that “wish-fulfillment” is the product of magic and fantasy, where science fiction is a tool to, presumably, talk about new theories in physics, and how they’re going to turn out to be as depressingly boring as every other new discovery by scientists.  This is utterly ridiculous–science fiction can express wish-fulfillment just as easily, and the idea that “magic and fantasy” are purely about that fulfillment, and somehow lack the rigorous complexity and continuity of science fiction, is equally absurd.

Over on Biology in Science Fiction, Peggy points out that if Valentine Michael Smith had been raised by wizards instead of aliens, you could call Stranger in a Strange Land a fantasy without having to change the plot.  This is true, of course, but pointless.  If you replaced the sandworms with dragons in Dune, you could call it a fantasy without changing the plot.  If you replaced the robots with golems in Asimov’s robot series, you could call it a fantasy without changing the plot.  If you replaced the Neanderthals in Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids series with elves, and replaced every mention of “device” with “magic spell,” you could call it a fantasy without changing the plot.

Some people know an awful lot about science, and they want to see more of what they know in the books that they read.  And that’s not wrong, I think.  But in most cases, science fiction exceeds the scientific knowledge of its readers–if that’s the case, then the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy is actually the reader, not the author.  I don’t know anything about genetics, so you could say that all the science in Jurassic Park is made up; if you replaced all the Jurassic Park scientists with wizards, and all their gene machines with magic mirrors made by dwarves living in secret tunnels in Appalachia, it would be the same story; dwarves, to me, aren’t any more or less true than whatever gene-science crap Michael Crichton made up.  The actual rigor behind the elements of the world (what is magic?  What is wizardry?  How does it interact with &c &c &c) is not a question of the innate nature of the elements added, but a question of the rigor applied by the author to the world.  Wizards are not implicitly less complex an element than martians; good writers can write in depth about one as fully as the other.

For most of us, the difference is just one of vocabulary.

  1. Hsiang says:

    Little known fact: Robert J. Sawyer- most despised man in Canadian Science Fiction. When all the Canuck SF writers get together at a diner for poutine they make Sawyer sit at another booth.

  2. braak says:

    Is that really true?

    That would be awesome if it were true.

    Man, I need to go back to Toronto. I am digging on some poutine right now.

  3. Hsiang says:

    Weeallll, not really entirely true. Just mostly.

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Both operate on the allure of possibility outside of current boundaries. Fantasy: Maybe we’ve lost touch with a past that hasn’t been recorded (Dragons!) or maybe Hobbits are currently frolicing on other dimensional planes (a combo, there–two for one: Sci-fi + fantasy!) Science-Fiction: Okay, so we know what we can do, what is potentially possible but how would things operate beyond that—what’s evn further down the line of knowledge? Attempting to imagine something even further beyond the weirdness of current Quantum theories and ideas is fun stuff–sci-fi stuff. We’ve yet to clearly define how to react to these possiblities but excellent stories can emerge from the imagining.

    My brother’s an engineer and we like to imagine what sort of designs could handle specific sci-fi circumstances; but he doesn’t care if every story is matched by the proper technology, it’s not a requirement to get his mind going or to enjoy the human aspect of a story (something everyone’s able to plug-in to). Sci-fi is meant to stretch the imagination beyond current scientific “rules”. How would humans react to such far-out circumstances; intellectually, ethically, practically? The funny thing about sci-fi imaginings, is that sometimes people find themselves in mental places that can, indeed, fit within current scientific boundaries–without ever having the intention to get there. All great discoverers were once considered storytellers of science fiction. Someone like Philip Marchand is unlikely to offer any revolutionary ideas to humanity because he’s already resigned to letting others tell him how and when to imagine.

    And who says scientific discoveries are dull? I quite fancy “dark matter”–the something that is also nothing. COOL…

  5. Kirstin says:

    Actually, Hsaing is the guy who they make sit at another table. First of all, no one knows him and having some random stranger sit at your table is weird. Second, and no one’s had the heart to tell him, but he smells a little funny.

    And Sawyer is one of the most loved. He’s helped too many beginner writers to not have some serious karmic goodness going on.

    Sour grapes, Hsaing?

  6. braak says:

    Are you…did you come here and start picking on Hsiang? That is like asking for trouble.

    I can’t argue that it’s a good policy to be nice to impressionable young writers as they will, apparently, defend you even when you’re some kind of idiot.

  7. braak says:

    Or, wait…you’re not a writer at all, are you? Do you just love Robert J. Sawyer because he tried to help you win the Aurora Award for Fan Achievement–Organizational for Con-Version 23?

    Listen, I understand that he is your buddy, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t sometimes say stupid things. Like here!

    And, for the record:

    It’s not really inappropriate for me to link my own site from io9. I am a contributing writer there, my site is linked on all of my articles anyway.

    Besides that, as I’m sure you can see, I don’t make any money from this site.

    Suggesting that the reason a person won’t be able to find a successful self-published author is because no such author exists does, in fact, implicitly suggest that it is impossible to be one.

    I stand by my assertion that Sawyer’s position is either horribly naive or purposefully misleading. It’s not like “self-publishing” or “traditional publishing” is a choice that authors make. Most authors — many quite good — never even get the opportunity to go through a traditional publisher.

    Finally, I’m not opposed to self-promotion, I’m opposed to Robert J. Sawyer saying dumb shit.

  8. Kirstin says:

    Your logic is flawed and your ad hominem attacks don’t fix that fundamental problem. You fail. Try again.

    And before you try casting about the “saying dumb shit” line, maybe you should stop saying dumb shit.

  9. braak says:

    My…MY ad hominem attacks!?!? Mine? You come here to my house without even the slimmest ghost of an argument, with instead nothing but insult to my friends who are strangers to you and who have never done you harm, and then you accuse ME of ad hominem attacks?

    For the record–and this is how actual argument works–I don’t have to defend my position until you actually engage it in some way.

    Claiming that you might be defending your friend Robert J. Sawyer because he is your friend is hardly an ATTACK. Under the circumstances, it seems like the most plausible explanation for such behavior. That is, if you have come here and can’t muster up a single sentence of refutation, but only defend Sawyer on the basis of his character, it can only be because you consider yourself personally indebted to him.

  10. […] Philip Marchand, who remains inconsequential but whom I enjoy picking on, is generally scornful of Fantasy as a kind of purely-entertaining, fluffy and brainless kind of literature, unable to stand up to the rigorous intellect required of its cousin, Science Fiction.  I’ve already shown that Science Fiction isn’t really as necessarily rigorous as it’s made out to be, but is the compliment to that true?  That is, is Fantasy, historically speaking, quite fully as rigorous, in a literary sense, as anything we would like from literature? […]

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