Saturday, March 26, 2016

Science Fiction is not a Future Projection

Science fiction is a lure that attracts many people to the concept of star flight. Granted, there are many, many different themes in science fiction, but the ones which involve star flight have not been neglected. Either it is aliens traveling to Earth, or earthlings or their descendants traveling to other planets, or settings far removed from Earth where there are aliens, some surprisingly like us, traveling from star to star. This then is a broad canvas upon which a science fiction author can paint many intrigues and adventures. The intrigues and adventures make the story exciting, but the backdrop also captures a great amount of attention.

Maybe there are star ships discussed in great detail, or perhaps only mentioned in passing, but there are star ships. As in any good story, there is conflict, either within a central protagonist, or between two individuals competing for some fame or fortune, or between two groups, such as bad guy aliens and almost human good guys. All kinds of trappings can be added, such as robots or monsters, deserts or subterranean passages, characters who act friendly and those who act fierce. There is no limit to the creativity that this theme can provide.

The authors may have either of two motives: they either love story-telling and do it, or they like making money, and they try to do that with their stories. The fortunate ones have both motives, and they live in the happy place populated by people who love their work and can't get enough of it. For some, everything flows like a river almost effortlessly, and others have to slowly build their stories, painstakingly, as someone builds a house.

As a juvenile and a young adult, I was one of those readers who couldn't find enough time to read all the stories that were written. I combed libraries and bookshops, picking up what I could find of my favorite authors. These stories were a large part of the basic underlayers of my interest in alien civilizations. I was very happy reading those stories, and now I am very happy trying to think clearly about how alien civilizations would develop and what features they would have to have.

The big problem with science fiction is that some readers don't understand why a science fiction story was written, and somehow think that the tapestry of exotic worlds or star travel or alien interactions are somehow connected to what might be called 'alienology'. A good science fiction story-teller has to understand what appeals to his audience, or his stories won't be read. So the amusement of the audience is what drives the details of the stories, not the science or the projections of how civilizations would develop.

Interest in a reader is not engendered by something that is 100% novel. Instead, a reader must find a context to interpret the actions in the story. The context must be familiar, so that the reader can anticipate behaviors. This allows surprise to be introduced. Surprise is a key element in the attractiveness of a story, and how it is orchestrated is a measure of the skill of the author. But surprise cannot happen without a great deal of context, as the reader must be able to anticipate, incorrectly. Without a strong amount of very familiar context, the author's skill would not be recognized.

This means that a science fiction story has to carry along in the frame it develops a myriad of assumptions that things are very similar in the science fiction venue as they are here on Earth. In fact, that should be strong enough so that the novelties of the venue come as a slight surprise to the reader. Things are done differently on the alien planet, but the same things are done. Aliens have some idiosycracies, but their motives are measurable by the motives of human beings. And most important, society on the alien world is like society here on Earth.

Because of the necessity of composing a science fiction story with mostly familiar elements, it is not possible for a science fiction author to project something into the future which is wildly different from Earth, so different that it is unrecognizable to the reader. The reader must be able to interpret the words he reads in terms of the experiences he has had, and that means the story must be set in a frame which does not depart too much from the readers' frame. Cleverness in an author might make the familiarity invisible, but it must be there. Otherwise how could a reader follow the story and be surprised at the ending?

Novelty must be rationed out in a science fiction story. But in an evolving alien civilization, everything changes. Even if one assumes they go through a phase which is analogous to where Earth is now, everything changes as they go forward century by century. To try an understand how this progression must happen, or how it might happen, a different mode of thinking than story-telling is needed. Different tools are needed. A strong background in science and engineering is desirable, and design work would help as well.

If the vast majority of people here on Earth develop their ideas about alien civilizations from reading or watching science fiction, they will have many incomplete and inadequate assumptions brought along as baggage. To take a science fiction story, no matter how well written, and how interesting the plot, and how extensive the details, and assume the future of star travel is going to be like this is to make an unsupportable assumption. The necessary use of current Earth contexts is going to distort any future projection, as civilization evolves and develops on all fronts at once, not necessarily at an identical speed, but in many ways at once, maintaining some consistency across the changes, as the civilization has to continue to function. This calls for consistency in projection.

If there is anything to be gained from reading or watching science fiction, it might be to use the story as a device to pluck out the multitude of assumptions of similarity to Earth than are embedded in it, and then ask how this particular feature might have developed during the same interval of time it takes to develop the novelties that the story introduces. This exercise would be good preparation for trying to reason about the future and about alien civilizations who are already experiencing that future.

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