The Science Fiction Event Horizon

Science fiction has always been about speculation, and some old SF writers even called it speculative fiction. Humans have always speculated about what’s possible, with what if scenarios, so even though the word science had not been invented, I believe there were science fiction “writers” since the dawn of time. We know the ancient Greeks speculated on the existence of other worlds and life on them. Gods, god, immortality, sin, justice, and so on, are all theories invented by speculation. Our brains have had a mechanism for speculation for a very long time.

Regarding science fiction I believe that three things happen to speculative ideas. First, they can come true like submarines imagined by Jules Verne. Second, they will be discounted as impossible, like H. G. Wells idea of time travel or E. E. (Doc) Smith’s theory of faster-than-light travel. Third, believers can be trapped inside of the SF Event Horizon always living with the speculation that their idea is true, like true believers of the first speculative theories, religion.

For science fiction to remain vital it must stay above the event horizon or be pulled down into the gravitation hole of fantasy. Unfortunately, most science fiction ends up being fantasy, and believers end up stuck inside the SF Event Horizon. Take for instance the Star Wars series of movies, much loved by a generation of SF fans, and even non SF fans. Star Wars is essentially recycled SF from the 1930s and 1940s, the space opera of Edmund Hamilton, the aliens and mysticism of the Lensmen series, and the historical politics of the Asimov’s Foundation series. As speculative ideas, these were all born within the event horizon – anyone with a good education could have shot them down back in the 1930s, but few people had that education and they were exciting ideas that made legions of converts. Outside of the SF Event Horizon, writers in the 1950s and 1960s took SF in new directions leaving galactic empires behind, even though the general public didn’t discover galactic empires until the 1970s with Star Wars.

Science fiction of the 19th and early 20th century helped promote the reality planetary exploration, rocketry and manned space travel. Above the SF Event Horizon, we know a lot about space travel, a whole lot. Subscribe to Sky & Telescope for a year and study the articles and you’ll see our knowledge of astronomy is going through a renaissance of epic proportions. What we know about physics and astronomy puts nearly all speculative fiction about space travel inside the SF Event Horizon. If you are a true believer in Star Wars, then you are trapped inside and can’t see out. Is it any wonder that the generation after the Star Wars generation embraced Tolkien mythology and Harry Potter?

Science fiction as true speculative fiction is going through a morbid period right now. Has science thrown most of science fiction or speculative fiction into the gravity well of fantasy? How many stories are written about slower-than-light travel to the stars, and how many people do they inspire? Life extension is still valid speculation. So is artificial intelligence, robots, nanotechnology, the singularity, genetic modifications, and so on. We have lots of room for real speculation, but are we seeing it in science fiction stories? I don’t know, but I’m going to go look for it. I know I don’t see it on television or at the movies. Movies have always lagged far behind the speculative fiction of written science fiction. When will we see media fiction based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy? Most kids today live in a world of SF video games that are stuck in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds speculation from the 1890s.

If your idea of hard SF is military FTL epics then you are trapped inside the SF Event Horizon with Edmund Hamilton and Hobbits. Go read Charlie Stross’ The High Frontier, Redux which just scratches the surface of reality. If all you want is entertainment, then live inside of the SF Event Horizon and be happy. No problem, at all. I have no intention of attacking entertainment, but I would prefer to call what most people call science fiction as fantasy.

A long time ago, back in the Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell eras, science fiction was promoted as serious speculation about what we might discover in this universe. Even then it was 99.99% entertainment and .01% speculative fiction, but they sold the science and speculation angle hard. I know what’s called science fiction today is really just entertainment. The Science Fiction section in bookstores should really be called Fantasy Books, because science essentially disappeared from science fiction a long time ago.

That doesn’t mean that speculative fiction is dead, just mostly forgotten. Go watch Wired Science, a science news show on PBS. Its part modern Mr. Wizard show and part on the scene news with cutting edge science dudes doing far out work. Science and scientists have taken speculative fiction and run with it. If you flick around on your digital cable TV you’ll find a lot of science and technology shows. The real world makes Astounding Stories look dull and faded. When are we going to get a science fiction magazine that uses now for its fuel for speculative fiction, rather than living on stories that depend on variations of ideas long trapped in the SF Event Horizon?

When are we going to get a 21st Century Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, E. E. Smith or Robert A. Heinlein? They don’t have to invent speculative ideas that will end up being real and true, just new ones, based on ideas that haven’t already been proven false. It’s better to be a Jules Verne and nail a few with your imagination, but hitting one out of the park by inventing a concept like time travel is worthy too. My worry is most of humanity and its imagination is trapped within the SF Event Horizon. I worry that most people feel if they can’t cruise around the galaxy like Hans Solo or Captain Picard, then they’d rather live on fantasy inside the SF Event Horizon than to explore the dirty grim reality of an airless, lifeless rocky Mars.

Final note. If you want to read a beautiful speculative fiction story that is a metaphor for what I’ve written above, read The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Depending on which ending you believe is true, it will tell you whether or not you are living within the SF Event Horizon.

JWH

5 thoughts on “The Science Fiction Event Horizon”

  1. Nice article.

    I’m not sure that the term “event horizon” really helps you but there’s a real sense in which fashions change from generation and what is considered “scientifically plausible” also changes.

    For example, psychic powers have definitely jumped ship from SF to fantasy and FTL is in the process of doing the same. Ditto for all the FTL-related sub-tropes such as pan-galactic empires.

    These have been replaced with more modern ideas such as the idea of the Singularity.

    What’s interesting though is that to a certain extent we’re seeing a fracturing of the SF genre dictated partly by the tropes. For example, what is MilSF if not an attempt to retain a lot of no longer scientifically plausible tropes? it’s a ghetto within a ghetto.

  2. Good points. And I think we’re in agreement here, especially when you talk about written SF. Media SF, that is television, movies, video games, etc., hasn’t evolved, or at least from what I can see. In fact, what the general public calls science fiction is really comic book fantasy. So does the term science fiction mean what the public thinks it is, or what sophisticated writers want it to be?

    Basically, I was using a fantasy black hole as a fun metaphor for how we think in general. To often we prefer the fantasy view to the real view. Look at many of the shows on the History Channel – it looks like they couldn’t sell solid history, so they took to marketing more fun stuff.

    I also worry that the general public gave up on the dream of space exploration. When NASA got going, the public lost interest. When space exploration turned into geology and not Buck Rodgers it lost its fun appeal. I worry that people may prefer living off the old fantasies rather than seeing what really happening and getting excited about that.

    Jim

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