Tuesday, August 13, 2013

On the Particular Qualities of Good SF

Science fiction is in the subtitle of this blog, but I haven’t really talked about it beyond flaunting my nerd cred. It’s been on my mind lately, however. So here’s a post in which I pontificate on what I think makes good SF. Feel free to tune out if you came here for more than just my opinions dressed up as theory.

I’m a little late on the review bandwagon, but this post is more or less inspired by my thoughts on star: trek Into darkness. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should cover your eyes while you read this part because here’s the spoiler to the earth-shattering final twist of the movie: Kirk doesn’t die. I know, I know—shocking. How the writers managed to keep a lid on that one is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, why doesn’t Kirk die? It turns out the reason he doesn’t die is because the brilliant physician Bones McCoy has made a monumental discovery in medicine that will change every life in the Federation forever and surely be the focal point of the next Star Trek movie. Yes, Bones has managed to discover the secret to immortality in the blood of a man created with 200 year old technology.

At least one thing I said in the preceding paragraph is true. (There will be another Star Trek movie.) But let’s put aside the snark for a moment. Why does this grate me so? Because it’s a missed opportunity. If Bones really had discovered immortality, and it really did change the Federation in some way, then that would make for some pretty interesting science fiction. Instead it will likely never be mentioned again, because it was only a gimmick to create suspense at the end of the movie.

But who cares about discussing immortality, right? It’s never going to happen, or life is only meaningful because of death, or it’s just some nerd boy’s fantasy, right? Well, yes, immortality isn’t real, but that would seem to make it excellent fodder for fiction. Good fiction is traditionally supposed to explore the human condition, and that’s a nearly endless fount from which to plumb. There’s love, hatred, war, jealousy, and all that other good human condition stuff. But those elements of the human condition are the low-hanging fruit; they’ve been picked. What else is being human about?

If there are examples we can point to that are solidly within the domain of the human condition, then the next place we can look is outward at the edge cases. Edge is a good word here. After all, how do you identify objects you can see? You look to the edge of the thing, see where it stops, trace its shape. If you want to know what something is, find out where it stops and draw a line.

I’m reminded of a topic from linear algebra that might make for a useful analogy or might just confuse people even more. Stick with me. Take a matrix with, say, 10 columns. If this matrix is full of unknowns, then there’s a method for figuring out every single way to add those unknowns together and come out with 0.

This is called the nullspace of a matrix. In essence, it tells you everything a matrix is not. The nullspace of a matrix is described by a number of dimensions. Let’s say we have a matrix with a nullspace of 6 dimensions. One of the neat things about linear algebra is that the number of columns (10) minus the dimensions of the nullspace (6) is always equal to the dimensions of the row space (4). What’s the row space? Well, in short, it’s everything a matrix could be. What does that all mean? It means that you can find out what something is by figuring out what it’s not.

Which takes us back to science fiction. Good science fiction tells us about the human condition specifically by telling us about something other than the human condition. It tells us about things near the human condition, at the edge, making up the border. And by doing so, it lets us create a rough outline of what the human condition really looks like.

So, then, magic is science fiction, right? I mean, it’s definitely not human, which means stories about it tell us about what is human, right? Ah, uh, no. The key here is that you have to look at the edges of a thing where you think it might be. The reason is that there’s generally a lot more that a thing isn’t than a thing is.

If you’ll allow me, let’s return to the linear algebra example. If the nullspace of a matrix is infinite and the row space is finite, then I can start calling out random numbers and have a pretty good chance of giving you a number in the nullspace rather than the row space. But what does this tell me about the matrix? Basically nothing. However, when you’re done finding the nullspace of a matrix, you’re left with a formula that tells you how to figure out what’s in it. The formula lets you extract useful information from the problem.

A formula is basically just a set of rules to follow. And it’s these rules that get to the heart of good science fiction. They let you find the line between what’s human and what’s not. Technology in fiction might follow rules, but it also might not. That’s the difference between your hard SF and something like Star Wars. Star Wars has lasers and spaceships, but they don’t follow any rules, which means they’re not telling you anything about the boundaries of the human condition.

And it’s also the difference between good science fiction and the most recent Star Trek movie. Because we’re never going to see Khan’s immortal blood again, it’s not following any rules; it’s essentially magic. If it had been explored as a topic, we could have learned something from it.

Now, magic systems in high fantasy might have intricate rules, but if those rules are describing something completely alien, they’re not telling you about what it means to be or not be human. In linear algebra, it’s akin to knowing the formula for a different matrix. It tells you something, but it doesn’t tell you what you want to know.

By the way, I’m not bashing Star Wars or fantasy. Both of them can be good fiction, and both of them can tell you things about the human condition. But they’re really only doing so the old-fashioned way—by looking at what we know for certain is human. They’re not doing it by exploring the edge cases.

But we need to explore the edge cases; we need to find the rules. Why? Because eventually we’re going to pick all the low-hanging fruit and we’re not going to have anything new to say about the human condition. The only way we’ll be able to keep learning about ourselves is by finding our boundaries and pressing up against them. And the best way to do that is by writing good science fiction.

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