Perspectives and Particulars

by Mark W. Tiedemann

In this week’s blog post, Mark W. Tiedemann ponders the old notion that works of science fiction should portray accurate science—lest they be called science fiction at all. Check out his latest story, “If Evening Found Us Young,” in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]

Once more, recently, I participated in an old argument. I was surprised how much I simultaneously enjoyed it and resented it. I wondered about the utility of continually going over the same ground. 

(Why engage the same issue again and again? Well, to be honest, it’s fun. Sometimes.)

Occasionally, a new tack presents itself and you go at it from a different angle, a fresh perspective—

And that was the answer. 

What argument? Oh, the one we’ve been wrestling with in science fiction practically since the beginning: Does the science have to be right? And if the science is wrong, can it then be considered science fiction? 

Perhaps I should use scare quotes. “right” and “wrong.” I’ve always been a little impatient with that proposition, because in my gut I always recognized that the accuracy of the science was not the point of any given story. (I mean, the science, what there was, shouldn’t be so badly portrayed that suspension of disbelief became impossible, but that’s an aesthetic question, isn’t it? Besides, when reading work from the past, in which the science is inaccurate simply because we didn’t know as much, we still recognize it as science fiction. It hasn’t morphed into something else, or less, because we learned better.)

So in this instance, I turned it around and asked if the same standard held for historical fiction. If the history is “wrong” do we then say it is not historical fiction? (Which can lead to a further wrinkle when talking about Alternate History . . .)

In many ways science fiction and historical fiction are rough mirrors for each other. The directions are opposite, but fundamentally we’re exploring alien worlds in both. By and large, if the writer has gotten the “feel” of the period “right”—at least insofar as the reader is concerned—we can happily surrender to the work. (Interestingly, if we do find that the history in a given text has been poorly handled, we tend not to dismiss the work as Not Historical Fiction, but only as bad historical fiction. We implicitly acknowledge that the attempt is still in line with what we consider historical fiction. But in science fiction there seems a tendency for one to exile a work with poor science.) 

Personally, I’ve long since excused many a borderline work by adopting a perspective that reflects a similar attitude—the essence, the Gestalt, if you will, of the work must be recognizably consistent with the essence of Science as a philosophical practice. 

The philosophy of science, according to the Oxford Guide to Philosophy, “can be divided into two broad areas: the epistemology of science and the metaphysics of science. The epistemology of science discusses the justifications and objectivity of scientific knowledge. The metaphysics of science discusses philosophically puzzling aspects of the reality uncovered by science.” SF has, generally speaking, indulged the metaphysical aspect for effect, but structurally, as essentially problem-solving fiction, it is the epistemology that has provided the framework. It is the struggle of character to come to terms with a reality understood or amendable to understanding by the tools and criteria of science that underlies the SF endeavor. Characters seeking justifications—explanations—for the problems set for them by the world they move through drive the thematic and plot concerns of SF. The assumption that the world, in such instances, is in fact knowable, manipulable, and therefore “real” in the sense understood by science gives SF the unique effect readers seek.

For me, therefore, the presumed impossibility of FTL does not by its presence render a story Not Science Fiction, because of the way it is used in the story is consistent with a universe understood “scientifically” in which it is not impossible.

From such dry propositions come the underpinnings of our particular sense of wonder. 

(Why, one might ask, does this not make the starship and the magic carpet the same kind of thing? Because the magic carpet is never justified, so no attempt is ever made to explain it in terms of a materially consistent universe. It is emphatically Outside, which, of course, is the whole point of Magic.)

The argument (such as it is) intrigues me because variations of it can be applied to our understanding of many things, but in this case the whole of history. Because if science fiction is, as it has been overwhelmingly deployed, a projection of what might be called historical epistemology, then it matters how what we choose to validate our speculations are understood. The perspective produced by science is, in this case, much greater in effect than the minutiae of particular scientific propositions (which change all the time given new discoveries).  It is that perspective, that view, which gives science fiction its essential framework. 

For the most part, this is a specialized debate within a specific community. As such, it can rightly be asked why it matters, and for the most part it doesn’t. Except . . . the question over the viewpoint offered by science, the principles of skepticism, the tools of inquiry and examination valued within the genre, yes, these certainly have much wider values to the general enterprise of civilization itself. Inculcating an appreciation for these things, under the broad canopy of Science, does not require that we all understand science in its myriad details, only that we understand the idea of science.

That, to me, is the essence of science in science fiction, and to that end, science fiction can be an excellent way of opening that perspective to us.

Mark W. Tiedemann began publishing professionally in 1990, after attending Clarion in 1988. Since then he has published over 60 short stories, several collected in the book Gravity Box, and nine novels, including three in the Asimov’s Robot universe. In 2001 he published Compass Reach, which was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award. Remains (2005) was shortlisted for the Tiptree.

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