Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What is Science Fiction - Really?

I just noticed we reached 500 posts on this blog. Wow.

From Star Trek V: The Final Frontier:

Near the end, they've finally made their way to the origin of God and a very imposing entity demands their starship.

Kirk: Excuse me, I have a little question. What does God need a starship for?

I may not have the quote exactly right, but to me this question bores to the heart of the essence of Science Fiction.

Science is a method of organizing knowledge, and fiction is a method of hypothesizing, of imagining. They are both cognitive methodologies.

Theodore Sturgeon (the noted SF writer who contributed AMOK TIME to Star Trek: The Original Series) used the symbol of a capital Q with an arrow through it to encapsulate the entire SF reader's lifestyle -- "Ask The Next Question" is the meaning of the Q with the Arrow.

(more detail at: http://www.simegen.com/sgfandom/welcommittee/TedSturg.html )

Theodore Sturgeon wore a silver Q with an arrow through it around his neck for years.

In science and math, we learn that framing the question is actually the biggest part of the answer itself. Ask the question correctly, and you will penetrate to the heart of the matter.

In the study of science, we are drilled with this methodology of question formulation. It is the core of every science course all the way through college. The method of question formulation is the key to every mid-term and Final exam and ultimately Ph.D. thesis defense. The method becomes second nature.

In fact, I believe that it is not possible to LEARN this method. I have noticed that professors of different sciences and arts demonstrate markedly different question-formulation methodologies, and in college I learned to spot a person's major by their method of formulating questions (for example a Math Major and a Physics Major asking questions in a German course).

We are each born with a certain style of thinking. It is an innate trait of personality. It won't ever amount to anything without that honing and drilling and pounding practice given to majors in the subject -- but you won't complete the major unless you have the trait.

For that reason, I have found a number of novels (not all Romances, either) that SAY a character is a physicist -- but he thinks like an anthropologist, so I don't believe in the character. I have read award winning, best selling SF where we are told the lead character is an anthropologist -- but she thinks like a language major, so I don't believe it.

So in STAR TREK: THE FINAL FRONTIER, Kirk illustrates the Science Fiction thinking methodology (which as far as I know isn't taught in any university -- you either come with it, or you don't do well in that school). It is something like "thinking outside the box" -- but it is a lot more than that. The best place I've seen it described and demonstrated is in the winner of the first Hugo Award, THEY'D RATHER BE RIGHT.

That is what Kirk illustrates with this question formulated in the midst of action, threat, overwhelming personal experience.

The key to being able to perform at this level is the ability to keep one's critical thinking faculties engaged despite emotional tsunamis sweeping through the body. And for some people, the key to that is ASK THE NEXT QUESTION. Practice asking chains of questions the next time you hear Barak Obama speak - especially if you're in the audience. Any politician will do for practice, but he's the best I've heard in a long time at disengaging the audience's critical faculties.

Formulating those little questions while under fire should be the cardinal lesson we all take away from any film and apply to our daily lives: ASK THE NEXT QUESTION and please DON'T STOP THERE! Keep asking the next and the next question.

The nature of the universe is such that there is no end to the questions once you've picked up on a curiosity, an incongruity, a discrepancy between your own visualization of the macro-cosmic All and that of someone you are listening to. By asking those questions, you learn more about yourself and the universe than about the person you are listening to.

So using this definition, that SF is a style of meta-cognition blending science and imagination, we see that putting a simple love story in a space ship, or running us around from world to world "out there" instead of city to city on this planet does not make a story into SF.

To be SF at all, the story has to take us from here and now to there and then by a recognizable route (such as If Only ... What if... If this goes on ...) that starts and ends with one of those pesky little questions.

Note that Gene Roddenberry sold STAR TREK as "Wagon Train To The Stars" -- "Wagon Train" was a hugely successful, long-long running TV Series in the anthology format with an ensemble cast plus guest stars each week. At the time Roddenberry first marketed Star Trek to TV, the only shows networks would consider buying were Westerns.

Cable was not a going industry then, so it was only broadcast networks that needed to draw over 20 million HOUSEHOLDS to keep a show on the air. Today it's like I think 3 or 5 million households and the US population has more than tripled - I gave the statistics in a previous post here.

So Roddenberry sold Star Trek as a western in space -- which is exactly what most people thought SF was, just westerns in space (which was in fact sort of true because only westerns in space were bought by editors, unless they made a mistake.)

Then the network INSISTED on eliminating Spock -- the emotionally normal Vulcan-Human halfbreed -- because racial intermarriage was a forbidden topic on TV.

(Uhura kissing a white guy was avante guarde and dangerous enough to get the show cancelled -- but they boldly went ...)

Likewise the network INSISTED on eliminating Number One, the emotionless female First Officer because absolutely nobody would ever accept a woman giving orders to a man (mid-1960's remember? I'm not kidding. This is the way it was.) So Roddenberry made a second pilot in which Spock became the First Office who was emotionless and a half-breed, but they didn't mention that just yet.

Roddenberry had to fight tooth and nail to keep Spock, even then. They HATED the whole idea of Spock. But Roddenberry fought to keep Spock because that character, more than Number One, MADE the Western in Space into SF! Why? Because Spock was also the Science Officer, and non-human. That one character created a show which could not be described as A Western In Space -- the West had Indians and Indian scouts and half-breed Indians, and Oxford educated Indians (like Tonto), but the West had no Vulcans.

And it wasn't until GR asked Theodore Sturgeon to contribute a script that we got Pon Farr and a glimpse of the really alien environment that produced Spock. It took ASK THE NEXT QUESTION to come up with Pon Farr -- and you all know what the 'zines did with that idea.

When the Imagination challenges the generally accepted organization of knowledge, challenges the assumptions behind most people's reality, it produces fertile ground for new SF ideas.

It is the challenging of "the box" from the inside rather than "thinking outside the box" that is the hallmark of the best SF.

Note how THE MATRIX (the movie is a retread of a very old SF concept from pulp days, but I don't have the reference to hand) shows us breaking OUT of the box, as well as INTO it simultaneously. It's popular as SF not because it's new or original, but because it illustrates a metaphor for the cognitive methodology that is at the core of SF.

So, as I wrote above, complete definition of SF:
To be SF at all, the story has to take us from here and now to there and then by a recognizable route (such as If Only ... What if... If this goes on ...) that starts and ends with one of those pesky little questions.

Is that a complete enough definition upon which to create an SFRomance novel? Can anyone define the thinking style behind the Romance novel that has to be synthesized with this definition of SF to produce a precise and comprehensive definition of SFR?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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