“Tropes that have escaped into the real world”
November 4, 2012, 1:19 pm
Filed under: Books

For a while I’ve been meaning to write something – a post or a column or whatever – about the widespread fallacy that science fiction and the real world are in some way exclusive realms: that if something is happening in the real world it is not science fiction, and vice versa. This is obviously a mistake: there’s a robot with laser beams zapping rocks on Mars, there are debates about creating kids with deliberately arranged genomes, humans are changing the climate, etc. These are all the stuff of science fiction as it was constituted from, let’s say, 1925 to 1975, and they don’t stop being science fictional just because they are happening.

One of the reasons I haven’t actually written about this is that I’m not quite sure what this says about the world. I’m putting up this sort of placeholder, though, because I was struck by what Paul McAuley has to say about it means for science fiction in this excellent blog post on the distinctions people make between literary and genre fiction.

Too much science fiction looks ‘inward’, but I wouldn’t make a strong distinction between science fiction that attempts to revitalise genre tropes and science fiction that attempts to inject new ideas for ‘outside’; some of those tropes have escaped into the real world, and by engaging with them and using them to discover new meanings science fiction is in dialogue with both its own ideas and with the real.

That’s very true of Paul’s work: his The Secret of Life, for example, is a dialogue between science fiction staples (life on mars) and the real world (an ever more commercialised biology); The Quiet War is about what green politics could mean long term as well as dogfights in the rings of Saturn. The bravura “invasive species” moment in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 brilliantly plays a staple of science fiction off against real-world ecological concern. These are exciting ways that science fiction can deal with the fact that some of its traditional subject matters are now part of the reality of the world — in Paul’s words,

laying the groundwork for all kinds of debates that stimulate writers and readers, and refresh the field and widen its possibilities, and crack open the limitations and boundaries (too often self-imposed) that, according to critics like Krystal, consign genre fiction to the outer dark of the second-rate.

So science fiction has ways to deal with the fact that it has infected/invaded/annexed the real world, and Paul is clearly right that the prospect of using and developing those means is an exciting one. But it’s not yet clear that the real world has good ways of talking about the fact that it is in part science fictional, which is the deficit that I really want to address.

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“it’s not yet clear that the real world has good ways of talking about the fact that it is in part science fictional”

Nicely put – I used to teach a whole unit on sci & fiction which would bring up stuff around this quite a lot. Found some old narrative based public engagement with science policy materials from a UK gov “Horizons” thing (c.2007) too when I was clearing my desk last week, which reminded me of the ways in which policy planning can be quite explicit in this (though I suppose Willetts’ ref to jetpacks in his Bernal lecture were to distance himself from this).

Anyway, you know David Kirby, I assume? Review of his book about scientists in the film industry, but he’s done quite a lot more on science fiction in society, been around these debates a lot: http://alicerosebell.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/david-kirbys-lab-coats-in-hollywood/

Comment by alice

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