Monday Original Content: The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

by Athena Andreadis; originally posted at Starship Reckless.

“Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful.”

Philip K. Dick

When Margaret Atwood stated that she does not write science fiction (SF) but speculative literature, many SF denizens reacted with what can only be called tantrums, even though Atwood defined what she means by SF. Her definition reflects a wide-ranging writer’s wish not to be pigeonholed and herded into tight enclosures inhabited by fundies and, granted, is narrower than is common: it includes what I call Leaden Era-style SF that sacrifices complex narratives and characters to gizmology and Big Ideas.

By defining SF in this fashion, Atwood made an important point: Big Ideas are the refuge of the lazy and untalented; works that purport to be about Big Ideas are invariably a tiny step above tracts. Now before anyone starts bruising my brain with encomia of Huxley, Asimov, Stephenson or Stross, let’s parse the meaning of “a story of ideas”. Like the anthropic principle, the term has a weak and a strong version. And as with the anthropic principle, the weak version is a tautology whereas the strong version is an article of, well, religious faith.

The weak version is a tautology for the simplest of reasons: all stories are stories of ideas. Even terminally dumb, stale Hollywood movies are stories of ideas. Over there, if the filmmakers don’t bother with decent worldbuilding, dialogue or characters, the film is called high concept (high as in tinny). Other disciplines call this approach a gimmick.

The strong version is similar to supremacist religious faiths, because it turns what discerning judgment and common sense classify as deficiencies to desirable attributes (Orwell would recognize this syndrome instantly). Can’t manage a coherent plot, convincing characters, original or believable worlds, well-turned sentences? Such cheap tricks are for heretics who read books written in pagan tongues! Acolytes of the True Faith… write Novels of Ideas! This dogma is often accompanied by its traditional mate, exceptionalism – as in “My god is better than yours.” Namely, the notion that SF is intrinsically “better” than mainstream literary fiction because… it looks to the future, rather than lingering in the oh-so-prosaic present… it deals with Big Questions rather than the trivial dilemmas of ordinary humans… or equivalent arguments of similar weight.

I’ve already discussed the fact that contemporary SF no longer even pretends to deal with real science or scientific extrapolation. As I said elsewhere, I think that the real division in literature, as in all art, is not between genre and mainstream, but between craft and hackery. Any body of work that relies on recycled recipes and sequels is hackery, whether this is genre or mainstream (as just one example of the latter, try to read Updike past the middle of his career). Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults.

Now before the predictable shrieks of “Elitist!” erupt, let me clarify something. Adult is not a synonym for opaque, inaccessible or precious. The best SF is in many ways entirely middlebrow, as limpid and flowing as spring water while it still explores interesting ideas and radiates sense of wonder without showing off about either attribute. A few short story examples: Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree’s A Momentary Taste of Being; Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life; Ursula Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea; Joan Vinge’s Eyes of Amber. Some novel-length ones: Melissa Scott’s Dreamships; Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows; C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station; Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite. Given this list, one source of the juvenile feel of most SF becomes obvious: fear of emotions; especially love in all its guises, including the sexual kind (the real thing, in its full messiness and glory, not the emetic glop that usurps the territory in much genre writing, including romance).

SF seems to hew to the long-disproved tenet that complex emotions inhibit critical thinking and are best left to non-alpha-males, along with doing the laundry. Some of this comes from the calvinist prudery towards sex, the converse glorification of violence and the contempt for sensual richness and intellectual subtlety that is endemic in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Coupled to that is the fact that many SF readers (some of whom go on to become SF writers) can only attain “dominance” in Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. This state of Peter-Pan-craving-comfort-food-and-comfort-porn makes many of them firm believers in girl cooties. By equating articulate emotions with femaleness, they apparently fail to understand that complex emotions are co-extensive with high level cognition.

Biologists, except for the Tarzanist branch of the evo-psycho crowd, know full well by now that in fact cortical emotions enable people to make decisions. Emotions are an inextricable part of the indivisible unit that is the body/brain/mind and humans cannot function well without the constant feedback loops of these complex circuits. We know this from the work of António Damasio and his successors in connection with people who suffer neurological insults. People with damage to that human-specific newcomer, the pre-frontal cortex, often perform at high (even genius) levels in various intelligence and language tests – but they display gross defects in planning, judgment and social behavior. To adopt such a stance by choice is not a smart strategy even for hard-core social Darwinists, who can be found in disproportionate numbers in SF conventions and presses.

To be fair, cortical emotions may indeed inhibit something: shooting reflexes, needed in arcade games and any circumstance where unthinking execution of orders is desirable. So Galactic Emperors won’t do well as either real-life rulers or fictional characters if all they can feel and express are the so-called Four Fs that pass for sophistication in much of contemporary SF and fantasy, from the latest efforts of Iain Banks to Joe Abercrombie.

Practically speaking, what can a person do besides groan when faced with another Story of Ideas? My solution is to edit an anthology of the type of SF I’d like to read: mythic space opera, written by and for full adults. If I succeed and my stamina holds, this may turn into a semi-regular event, perhaps even a small press. So keep your telescopes trained on this constellation.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds: Why SF needs…

…science (or at least knowledge of the scientific process): SF Goes McDonald’s — Less Taste, More Gristle
…empathy: Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
…literacy: Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
…storytelling: To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Images: 1st, Bill Watterson’s Calvin, who knows all about tantrums; 2nd, Dork Vader, an exemplar of those who tantrumize at Atwood; 3rd, shorthand vision of my projected anthology.

Athena Andreadis brief bio:

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.


9 thoughts on “Monday Original Content: The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

  1. On your conclusion: The potential of myth-making, and the truth-telling possible in the creation of myths, is probably the only interesting opportunity that remains for the genre of Fantasy – as opposed to the impossible structure of secondary-world “realistic” stories currently in vogue with today’s big fantasy authors, who all appear ready and willing to bear George R. R. Martin’s ideological babies. These works appear to me increasingly absurd adventurism – realistic-as-secondary-world in all technical respects, but utterly lacking in any truths worth telling or hearing to/by real humans. The last fantasy book I read was Abercrombie’s “The Heroes;” and, even though it was very entertaining, it made me realize how fruitless reading fantasy has become for me, because “real” or “gritty” fantasy characters have no actual emotional purchase: they live in made-up worlds whose conflicts and conflict-resolutions are based, almost without exception, on violence, but a violence that has none of the horror – despite authorial efforts to the contrary – of real-world violence. Then again, if we wrote fantasies about peasant boys who became peasant mean, instead of becoming Saviours, would they be interesting? I’m not certain; the modern realistic novel has certainly made minutiae interesting. But I think that if fantasy authors embraced a craft of myth-making – where characters are consciously more than just characters, for example – they’d probably succeed better in producing emotionally and intellectually resonant secondary-world stories, rather than mere adventurism.

  2. Funny you should mention the ersatz-edgy grimdark fantasy strain, Ben. I happen to have a view of it:

    A Plague on Both your Houses

    Revisionist mythmaking is a rich and still undertapped vein. And authors can write about peasants (or equivalent) who become fascinating even if they do/don’t become saviors: read Louise Erdrich or Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). Or Jim Harrison’s Dalva.

  3. The potential of myth-making, and the truth-telling possible in the creation of myths, is probably the only interesting opportunity that remains for the genre of Fantasy

    I really disagree with this. I think there are a lot more options in fantasy than the dichotomy you seem to be presenting above, of myth-making vs grimdark. For starters, how about stories that focus on the realities of war on a small scale or a large scale? Or stories about domestic lives. Or stories in secondary worlds that have very different cultural outputs to the continual killing of the grimdark type – trade-focused, arts-focused, etc. Or, indeed, myths, in all their wonders. There is so much untapped – in the real world, its history and its present and all its myths, as well as in authors’ minds – that I think fantasy has a potential that’s impossible to capture. The biggest problem is that the mainstream industry is not as supportive of these stories as it could be – but I do have hope.

  4. Alex: If there is a dichotomy, it is between “realistic” and “mythic” fantasy, with pretty much everyone – the grimdarks, the epics, the sword-and-sorcerers – on the realistic side; and by realistic I intend what is usually referred to as “rigour” in fantasy, as in, “the magic system must be rigourous” (*lip fart noises*). Those who I would call mythic might be called “weird:” I’m thinking of the ephemeral character of Dunsany or Peake’s prose, which screams “unreal” even as those non-realities synthesize deep sub/metatextual messages.

    For me, anyway.

    I also am truly skeptical of the possibility for deeply meaningful realistically-oriented non-traumatic secondary-world fiction because of the immense amount of work that would have to be done by an author to give the art or work or religious or domestic lives of a rigourous secondary world the poignancy that even the simplest elements of our own primary-world lives possess. After all, it wouldn’t be magic realism, but realistical magicalism, and how can my soul relate to that when I know for certain it isn’t real?

    That said: Athena, I’m going to start in on some of your suggestions. And your other article was fantastic, too!

    1. Ben: Ah, I see your distinction now.

      I also am truly skeptical of the possibility for deeply meaningful realistically-oriented non-traumatic secondary-world fiction because of the immense amount of work that would have to be done by an author to give the art or work or religious or domestic lives of a rigourous secondary world the poignancy that even the simplest elements of our own primary-world lives possess… and how can my soul relate to that when I know for certain it isn’t real?

      I certainly agree that it is much harder work, as Athena says, than the typically very simple black-white-red of many stories.

      But you seem to be saying that a “realistic”/rigorous setting requires a level of violence to feel real? And by extension – and perhaps this is not quite what you meant, so I’m sorry if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick – a story that shifts the focus away from the violence and onto something else, whether peaceful trade, the production of art, etc, would not feel real? This I would certainly disagree with. Especially if we place our focus on personal stories, rather than society-wide ones, there is a great deal of potential for very real – ie based on what we know of historical/present-day reality – stories that do not feature violence as a pivot. I believe a lot of literary fiction deals with such focuses, and I see no reason why fantasy cannot tell similar types of stories against different backdrops and with different plots. This sort of story could easily be “mythic”, by your definitions above, but I strongly believe it could be “realistic” too. Limiting our ideas of reality in fiction to those that contain violence is a rather telling commentary on our society; I believe we have other stories to tell, too.

      I hope I haven’t misread your argument!

      1. As examples of riveting stories that discuss the genesis of art, I recommend Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn; for equivalent stories about science, Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever and Karl Iagnemma’s On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction. And of course we have David Mitchell’s tour de force Cloud Atlas.

        Mind you, these are deemed mainstream (and rightly so, if judged by quality of fiction). However, they take place in worlds that blur reality, fantasy and/or science fiction and do a spectacular job of being both seamless and immersive — with nary a goring or violating in sight, whereas they do include sex, of the nuanced human/e kind.

      2. I was rather saying that violence is the go-to item, and definitely NOT the item par excellence, for conflict in fantastic fiction; and that this state of affairs has left me groaning. I’d really like to see more non-violent fantasy; the only example of such I can remember reading is Jeff VanderMeer’s “Shriek: An Afterword.”

        That said, your arguments and Athena’s recommendations have assaulted my pessimism in the most positive of ways. I haven’t really known the right places to look before, and I would definitely like more models; therefore, to the library!

  5. Ben, I’m glad you enjoyed the other article! As for this interesting exchange, I think we’re running into slightly different definitions of what “realistic” means.

    I agree with Alex that resorting to war as the default trope for fiction creativity is a cop-out. Of course, it immediately fulfills the “conflict” quota so beloved of workshops and gives emotional adolescents the opportunity to play savior and indulge in a little casual rape (for verisimilitude, dontcha know… in worlds that have made-up magic, yet).

    I agree with Ben that a writer has to do a lot of “submerged iceberg” work to create immersive secondary worlds. This has its own dangers — primarily that of sequelitis, which is now endemic in fantasy.

    One reason that war is the refuge of the meagerly talented is that it’s relatively easy to do the good-versus-evil stuff. It only requires three colors: black, white and red. However, the most interesting stories are those that portray dilemmas between two strains of good (Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the ur-texts for this). These fall into the modes that Alex listed; they have been attempted in SF/F and when done well they etch themselves in the reader’s memory.

    I love Dunsany (way, way superior to Tolkien and far more original, with neither the straight mythology transplants nor the stereotypes). I also love Mary Jakober, whose one “realistic” fantasy (Even the Stones) I found amazing. And I love Elizabeth Lynn, who did both “mythic” and “realistic” fantasy equally beautifully and effortlessly (The Woman Who Loved the Moon stories, versus The Chronicles of Tornor).

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