Realism in Science Fiction

Annalee Newitz recently asked “Why Is Hard Science Fiction So Unrealistic?“. Newitz is interested in the tradition of literary realism and she says: “realism in fiction and film has generally been an effort to represent the experiences of ordinary people”. Is there a shortage of “ordinary people” in hard science fiction stories?

The definition of “hard science fiction” is problematical because it is at risk of changing in response to evolving conceptualizations of science. We live in the age of science, an age characterized by cultural change that is due to science and technology. As recently as 30 years ago science fiction was a much simpler part of human culture than it is today. In 1978, William Bainbridge and Murray Dalziel were able to comfortably divide science fiction into three parts: hard science fiction, fantasy, and new-wave. (see: “The Shape of Science Fiction as Perceived by the Fans“) Today, there is a much broader collection of well-recognized sub-genres in science fiction.

In the data set analyzed by Bainbridge and Dalziel, Isaac Asimov was ranked as the most distinctive hard science fiction author. In 1978, Asimov was one of the iconic figures of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Larry Niven is a good example of the next generation of hard science fiction authors. Science fiction is “hard science fiction” to the extent that it concerns itself with scientific advance and technological change and does so in a way that respects the nature of the universe and how science allows us to understand the universe. In my experience, authors with a personal interest in science and an understanding of how science works are the most likely to write interesting hard science fiction.

There are two common misconceptions about hard science fiction. Bainbridge and Dalziel explicitly stated one of these misconceptions. They wrote that hard science fiction: “refers to stories built around certain facts or speculations concerning the ‘exact’ or ‘hard’ sciences”. It is true that the exact sciences dominate research expenditures, press coverage and popular concepts of what constitutes science. It is true that icons of hard science fiction such as Asimov and Niven were trained in mathematics and “hard science”. Those truths are a consequence of the fact that the historical development of science is shaped by working scientists who tend to “divide and conquer”. Scientific problems are sorted according to ease of progress and many physical science problems are the easiest and so have been tackled first. Simple problems like how to describe the nature of electromagnetism were studied first. More complex and challenging biological and social science topics are only now starting to receive adequate attention from scientists. Thus, identifying hard science fiction is not a matter of distinguishing between fiction that involves “hard science” or “soft science”. Hard science fiction can certainly involve “soft science”; what is important is only that science and technology elements be present as a core aspect of the fiction.

Annalee Newitz raised (in her article) a second major misconception about hard science fiction. In discussing hard science fiction she equates hard science fiction with scientifically-accurate storytelling. This is simply wrong. There are sub-genres of science fiction within which scientific realism is prized highly. For example, the restricted comfort zone of mundane science fiction never pushes us beyond the current facts of science. However, both Asimov and Niven often extrapolated far beyond the “facts” as currently known to science. Two examples are Niven’s stasis field and Asimov’s Eternity. These two imagined technologies are “space/time bubbles” within which the known laws of physics explicitly do not apply. Science can tell us nothing about Niven’s stasis field or Asimov’s time travel device, yet they are both plot devices that exist comfortably within the genre of hard science fiction. They are depicted as the products of future science and technology and they are incorporated in their respective stories in a scientific (if entirely speculative) way.

Realism in science fiction is not to be confused with scientific realism.

Having raised the red herring of “scientifically-accurate storytelling”, Annalee Newitz turns to another issue that seems to be her main concern: the types of characters and plots that we find in hard science fiction. Newitz constructs a dichotomy between science fiction with

1) “rebel heroes and extraordinary leaders” and “unrealistic megabeings with superpowers” and “alternate realities…focusing on technologies”

and fiction with

2) “ordinary people” and the “regular guy” and “building up social worlds” by showing “everyday life”.

Newitz is asking: can’t there be a better mix of realism and hard science fiction? We can ask, why does hard science fiction tend to be divorced from realism? These questions only make sense if you adopt a conventional definition of literary realism, and for the moment we can do so.

I think the fundamental source of the perceived split between realism and hard science fiction is that there are two fundamental directions from which science is approached in literature, a split that has variously been characterized as involving The Two Cultures or Culture Wars or postmodernity. This split involves a “glass half empty?” argument about the nature of science and its impact. Hard science fiction was born as a genre that was often “optimistic about the value of scientific and technological progress” and it remains so optimistic that its great works often depict dramatic transformations of human culture and human existence. In contrast, much of what counts as literary realism in science fiction is pessimistic and depicts imagined worlds where science and technology are powerless to change human existence for the better.

Hard science fiction stories traditionally extrapolate a scientific idea or technological power in such a way that we are transported to an imagined culture where the ordinary has been transformed into the extraordinary by science or technology. That is often the whole point of the story: science changes everything. Newitz is suffering from her misconceptions if she imagines that it makes sense to hope that hard science fiction will become more realistic in the literary sense. It would be paradoxical and self-defeating for a hard science fiction author to imagine a wonderful bit of technology and then write a story in which that technology changes nothing and people simply remain as the “ordinary people” of our everyday experience.

I sympathize with Newitz when she complains about science fiction television programs that strive to deliver realism. Most of these television shows are produced by people who think that they can cash in on the popularity of science fiction by putting a spaceship or a cloned human or some other “wiz-bang” plot device into a story and have it constitute interesting science fiction. Such television shows tend to be mind-numbingly “realistic” by endlessly showing people who are unable to change themselves for the better no matter what wonderful technologies are available to them. These programs depict conventional literary realism but the methods and workings of science are almost never realistically depicted.

Transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary is often a central part of hard science fiction. The typical protagonist of hard science fiction is an ordinary guy, but that guy often does something great or is transformed into something great by the application of science and technology. That is why hard science fiction is often so unrealistic…if you define “realism” as a depiction of current everyday existence. Hard science fiction is often about showing the ways by which science can lift us out of our current reality. Newitz specifically mentioned Asimov and she claimed that he was a failure at realistically depicting everyday life. Some of his science fiction was set in the 20th century and I’d challenge Newitz to explain how those stories (particularly many of his robot stories) failed to be realistic.

Hard science fiction authors such as Asimov are probably best known for taking readers into strange new lands where the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary and that probably takes some people out of their comfort zones, particularly television executives. If hard science fiction is done well, then even a world in which the ordinary has become extraordinary can be realistic about the nitty-gritty of everyday existence. Literary realism may have originated among non-science fiction writers and it may have originally been restricted to realistic depictions of current-day existence. There is nothing preventing science fiction authors from bringing realism to imagined cultures where everyday life is extraordinary if viewed from our perspective. Some types of hard science fiction can certainly seem unrealistic if you restrict your concept of realism to the perspective of one culture at one point in time. Science fiction is very much concerned with challenging those kinds of conceptual limitations. I’m willing to redefine and broaden the meaning of “realism” in the context of science fiction.

It is fun to follow hard science fiction authors like Asimov to distant imagined cultures. While doing so, we can be transported to places where everyday events are far from ordinary (according to our standards) and ordinary people (according to the standards of the imagined culture) get to do extraordinary things (measured by our standards). In The Start of Eternity, Gohrlay is an ordinary person in her culture. She just happens to be a Neanderthal who lives on the Moon. It is still possible to write about her life with realism. Cellular Civilization is set more within our everyday reality, but it is still possible for even the most ordinary characters like Charlie Parker to be transformed into something extraordinary by technology. In such stories I do not feel any conflict between hard science fiction and realism. Of course, I don’t feel the need to adopt a restrictive view of realism.

Nor do I expect most people (including Newitz) to understand and appreciate hard science fiction. The narrowness of the Golden Age of Science Fiction provoked the “new wave” struggles to broaden the scope of science fiction. That led to the current popularity and diversity of science fiction and a state of affairs where we have hoards of “experts” on science fiction who do not understand science. Most of what passes for science fiction in popular culture is parasitic on the genre and endlessly tells us the same boring story: people living in the age of science who do not understand science are like deer standing transfixed by the head lights of an on-rushing car. I suspect that hard science fiction is a sub-genre that can only be understood and appreciated by people who are part of the scientific sub-culture. People familiar with science are comfortable with imagining alternate realities and can develop a flexible conceptualization of “realism”. Once you make those moves, you are not left in the past with a narrow view of literary realism and you will become aware of the large amounts of realism that does exist within hard science fiction.

Image. Cover image for Cellular Civilization. Image credits.

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