Science Fiction Repair Shop: I Opening Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-02-25 10:00:00-05:00 No comments

The Awesome Irrelevance And Vast Amorality Of You - Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Atlantic

Our sciences (in which I am including history) don't ennoble us. They don't reflect well on humans, instead they confirm a kind of powerlessness, a deep moral weakness, and sense of futility.

At least that's the start. I'd argue that when we can get past our own vanity, as scientists, there comes something else--Wonder.

The sword of knowledge has two edges. One of them cuts you down, because it lays bare the staggering insignificance and irrelevance of human endeavor and ego. The other edge, though, also cleaves through everything else around you — if it dissects you so ruthlessly, that is only because it is so good at dissecting the rest of the universe. You are, after all, as much of it as it is of you.

Science fiction, and some fantasy as well, seems to break into two camps when it comes to how the universe is seen. At the risk of caricature I'll call them the Dick and Heinlein camps. The former sees the universe as indifferent at best and implacably hostile at worst, which gives us all the more reason to love one another. The latter sees the universe in much the same way as the pioneers saw the West, as a bounty to be exploited and tamed, where only the strong survive (which of course raises the question as to what "strength" actually is, since it can take many forms).

Neither are complete and neither are wholly incorrect, which is why either one alone is not enough. The timidity of the former needs the confidence of the latter, and the arrogance of the latter needs the humility of the former. But from what I see, many SF writers end up stuck in either one of those positions. The "universe-as-antagonist" writers can slip into what I could call the Lovecraft mode, where the futility and meaninglessness of existence itself becomes an overwhelming preoccupation. The "universe-as-bounty" writers can end up as saber-rattlers stumping for what amounts to a cosmic Social Darwinism (which is neither Darwinism nor particularly social).

One of the things Coates notes in the linked essay is that "history was not made to make us feel good, or to raise our self-esteem. On the contrary, an humble engagement  with history--one not rooted in opportunism--is, initially, going to be a downer." I sometimes wonder how many of the SocDar camp are fighting back against this notion in a not-very-informed way: history is written in blood and the masses are sheep, but the fact I, the enlightened one, can tell you this is proof I stand above it all.

It constantly amazes me how many SF and fantasy authors are profoundly reactionary and not a bit ashamed of it either, but that does explain how some of the books I've read were written with straight faces. There are a few people who can smell the baloney frying and do not flatter their readers with appeals to their alleged superiority (Harry Harrison comes to mind). But they rarely end up being the ones who sell to millions.

When I set out to write Flight of the Vajra, I was dimly aware of how incompatible these two polarities were, but I wasn't sure how to reconcile them. My attempt to do so lasted me through the three drafts of the book. I can't say I got it right; I leave that to other people to decide. I will say that I wasn't about to not try.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra Philip K. Dick Robert A. Heinlein Science Fiction Repair Shop science science fiction