Has the Universe Gotten Too Big for Science Fiction?

District 9 is the much talked about new science fiction movie that was released just days ago.  But I have to ask:  Is District 9 science fiction? Since we get so few new science fiction movies every year why should I even suggest that one isn’t science fiction?  We’re always overwhelmed with comic book movies that are obviously too silly to be science fiction, and ignoring the franchise films, like Star Trek, we were gifted with what many fans would consider two uniquely classic-SF movies this summer:  Moon and District 9.  I enjoyed watching both, but unfortunately I don’t consider either to be science fiction, not by my picky old fart definition of science fiction.

But am I deluded, blowing smoke up my own ass, by worrying too much that science fiction has fallen asleep with alien pods in the room?  I know hordes of old SF fans in their 40s, 50s, and 60s that stopped reading SF after the 1980s, or even earlier, who are all wanking nostalgic for SF from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, living in a retro science fictional paradise.  This new fangled stuff might look like science fiction, it might walk like science fiction, but it doesn’t quack like science fiction.

District 9 uses outer space aliens as a metaphor for a story about immigration xenophobia and racism.  And even though District 9 opens with a magnificent flying saucer orbiting perfectly over Johannesburg, South Africa, with max-gnarly alien aliens, I still don’t consider it science fiction.  Why?  Real science fiction is about exploring the cutting edge of reality, and District 9 uses its aliens like other movies use angels or dragons to tell a fable.  More than that, District 9 models its action after video games rather than modern science fiction magazine stories – but does District 9 model the emerging post-modern SF magazine stories?

Now, I’m not saying that District 9 isn’t a very creative film, I’m just saying it’s not science fiction.  It uses science fiction as a metaphor for human xenophobia, rather than being speculative fiction about first contact with a non-human intelligence.  Sure it’s a fun, gripping movie, with a fascinating storyline and engaging characters, told with stomach churning hand-held camera anxiety.  District 9 is gritty and realistic about human nature, but is totally unscientific, choosing to stay well within the cliché tropes of SF, which are getting moldy-oldie even for me.  Even though the aliens look very different from us, they act just like us, especially at our worse, which I believe was the intention of the film’s storytellers.  District 9 is an allegory about apartheid, and all other political histories where one group of human beings treat another group of human beings with zero empathy.

Then again, am I wrong?  I want to define science fiction by the standards I use in my review of “The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.”  I don’t think I’m the only one sniffing out changes in SF.  Read Jason Sanford’s “The noticing of SciFi Strange,” and his story “The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain.”

Then read the gorgeous “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang, which just won the 2009 Hugo Award for short story.  These are cutting edge stories marketed as science fiction, but are they really science fiction?  I’d call them fantasy, but they aren’t even fantasy like Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, J. K. Rowling or Lewis Carroll.

We’re living in a post-modern science fiction world where science fiction has little relationship to science, or reality.  In our age of tremendous science and technology, science fiction has decided to become fantasy.  Why is this?

An old friend Jim called me this weekend to tell me that he and his wife were watching The Universe, a TV series about astronomy and Stacy decided the universe was too big for her mind to handle, which Jim thought was hilarious.  Reality is big, and the old purpose of science fiction used to be producing sense of wonder about the vastness of space and time.  Has the universe gotten to big for science fiction?

And, has the universe gotten too big for our cozy little minds?  Has science fiction pulled back from the event horizon of reality, fearful of facing the black hole of science fact?  As much as I want science fiction to be about science, the story from The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster, that had the greatest emotional impact on me was “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” by Kij Johnson from Asimov’s Science Fiction. 

26 Monkeys is a purely fantasy tale that is a post-modern science fiction story where the universe is too big, and the only way to comprehend it is with allegory.  The story is scientifically fatalistic, in that the characters give up on trying to understand the sense of wonder in their lives. 

This is even more explicitly stated in “The Ray Gun: A Love Story,” by James Alan Gardner, another favorite from the above collection.  Read this story, but substitute the concept “science fiction” whenever you hear “ray-gun” while reading this story.  This story feels like meta-fiction about giving up science fiction, at least the old modern kind.

And what about Moon, the SF film about where humans refuse to go.  When did mankind decide the final frontier was not for them?

Science fiction has always been about the future, it always embraced modernism, showing absolute faith in science with the relentless belief that we will eventually comprehend reality.  Ivy League intellectuals have always considered the SF genre to be a literature for dreamy adolescents, so maybe it’s just taken science fiction a bit longer than the rest of the literary world to grow up and face the post-modern world of uncertainty.

JWH – 8/18/9

10 thoughts on “Has the Universe Gotten Too Big for Science Fiction?”

  1. Great observation. This is the type of thinking that keeps the standards of literature in pace with advancements. I totally agree. Gone are the days when Asimov would be able to strike wonder and generate discussion with possibilities that would test philosophy and morals. Now, advance species and cutting edge technology is so run-of-the-mill that is almost blends with the background.

  2. “Real science fiction is about exploring the cutting edge of reality.”

    You had me considering your argument until you threw in that absolute. While I don’t believe ‘science fiction’ is some nebulous thing that cannot be defined, I think the definition you use probably is fairly confined to a specific type of science fiction, not science fiction as a whole. And while I would agree that a more broad definition might be a more watered down definition, I still think the realm of science fiction is big enough to not always have to be pushing the envelope forward for the sake of doing so.

    The most successful science fiction writers of today are no different than those who stand the test of time from the ‘golden’ age. They know how to tell an engaging story that makes people want to pass the book on to their friends and revisit it time and again, looking back on it after the passing of decades to lament that ‘they don’t write science fiction like that anymore’. I cannot help but believe that were you to go back to your predecessors time they were saying the same thing you are saying now.

    I only point out my opinion, and opinion is all it is, out of love, because I certainly have these same conversations with friends and will most likely get even more opinionated about it as time goes by. 🙂

  3. Carl, I’ve always thought the term “science fiction” has had two definitions. To the general public science fiction means stories with far out ideas – and they don’t mean far out scientific ideas – just far out ideas. On the other hand, I think some science fiction readers and writers expect something far more specific from the term. Unfortunately, we all expect something a little different.

    It might be because I’m older than you Carl, but when I started reading science fiction it didn’t have the wide public acceptence it does now. Most children are exposed to every major science fiction concept before the age of 5, before they were consciously aware of them. I remember starting around the 6th grade discovering these ideas one at a time, and they were each an intellectual exploration that I contemplated and cherished.

    To me science fiction was a category of literature where the writers loved to think up new ideas about the univese. Now all of those ideas are part of the background radiation of popular culture. There’s no thinking involved. A science fiction writer just assumes everyone knows what he means when he assembles a story of cliche parts. New readers just take all the far out ideas for granted. It’s the stories they love, and the characters. Like how you love Star Wars. Hans Solo is a cool guy. He’s not a scientist or futurist natural philosopher, but a very lovable character living in a science fiction setting.

    I’m not saying that kind of science fiction is bad. Most people want fiction to be good stories. I want all the types of fiction I read to be good stories, but I also want science fiction, what I call real science fiction to be about a speculative conjecture on an unknown aspect of reality. I expect a real science fiction writer to think up something new for their readers to contemplate. I know that after a million SF stories that’s very hard to do, but I still expect it. Look what Ted Chiang did with his new Hugo winning story. It’s not within the realm of real, but it’s such a far out idea. He thought of something absolutely new.

  4. You know that mostly I was just wanting to give you a good natured hard time, especially because you remind me so much of my friend Jerry. You are nearly the same age and have the same interests in science fiction (based on what I’ve read here and in your emails and on what I’ve listened to Jerry discuss).

    I would wholeheartedly agree that the science fictional acceptance you describe today brings with it a great deal of watering down of the genre to gain a wider acceptance. And obviously not everyone has the same tastes about what they expect from science fiction…how else do you explain all the terrible Sci Fi Channel films! 🙂

    My personal feelings on science fiction is that if an idea is far out, be it one from a new story or one I’ve just discovered from the treasure trove of classic fiction, and it is also a good story, then I’m all for it. But I’ve also come across many who lament the condition of science fiction today who seem to uphold some kind of utopian idea that the only good science fiction is that which makes an effort to break boundaries and they seem to not be so concerned with the quality of the writing or an author’s ability to tell a story.

    But that phenomenon certainly isn’t unique to science fiction. Every genre has people who feel that way. I guess in the end I am just not that critical of a reader. Again, I just want a good story. And whether or not I did or do a good job of conveying it, I honestly see nothing wrong with either viewpoint. Like I said, mostly I just saw the opportunity to give you some ribbing. Different people want different things out of their books and hopefully we will continue to have publishers who seek out and publish good works from those who are skilled at telling both kinds of stories.

  5. Carl, you do keep me on my toes, and I know everything you write has a very positive spirit behind it.

    Because I write such a Jim-centric view of things it might imply that I don’t appreciate other people’s take on the world of science fiction, but I do. I also understand I have a particularly skewed view of what I want SF to be. But I’m just needy.

    Think of it another way. Look at me as a desperate junky craving the purest of heroin, but instead of shooting up dope, I inject science fiction into my veins. I’ve been using for a very long time and I know exactly what I need to get off. I can’t stand SF that’s been cut. I need the purest Sci-Fi I can get. My addiction keeps me from the joys of moderation.

    Science fiction is a lot like the elephant being examined by 30 blind men, everyone pictures something different in their mind. I’m cool with that. I’m happy with my specific view of the elephant, I just hope I’m not fondling its ass.

  6. Fucking retard, District 9 is clearly science fiction.

    ‘Science fiction’ is any story which contains speculative or fantastical events that, unlike fantastical events in fantasy, can, in the context of the story, be explained rationally as natural phenomenon. The aliens weren’t magical beings and clearly no human alive has solid evidence for the existence of aliens, let alone any who have visited Earth. District 9 isn’t just science fiction, it’s good science fiction. Prick.

  7. Regarding Ted Chiang, I think, it is far far unfair to call his stories (and in particular Exhalation) fantasy. How is Exhalation fantasy in a world where the scientific method works and when one of the central topics is the thermodynamic concept of entropy?

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