Why Science Fiction Is Impossible: A Science Fiction Writer’s Confession

When I was still a child, I fell in love with Sci Fi. I stayed up nights devouring stories and then novels by Asimov and Heinlein, Clarke and Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, Poul Anderson, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. van Vogt, Pierre Boulle, Harlan Ellison, and somewhat later, Douglas Adams. Sometimes, I read fat collections of short stories, and these often had introductions. I ate those up, too. Those introductions were the first literary criticism I ever read, though I didn’t know at the time that that’s what they were.

From those introductions, I learned what Science Fiction and Fantasy have in common. Both are imaginative literature dealing with alternate worlds. Often, the reader or the characters or both get to those other worlds by going into the distant past or far future (The Time Machine, The Foundation Trilogy, Planet of the Apes) or to another planet (Dune) or to an exotic civilization in the jungle (King Kong) or far underground (Journey to the Center of the Earth) or to the sea floor (the lost city of Atlantis in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea). You might get there in some sort of vehicle—Ezekiel’s chariot, a whirlwind or tornado, a spaceship or a time machine or a submarine, or you might go through a portal by stepping through a wardrobe or a mirror, falling down a rabbit hole, or traveling through a wormhole. I learned that there was a really ancient tradition of fanciful Traveler’s Tales that posited exotic places full of wonders—the trippy travels described in The Book of Enoch; in works by Homer, Virgil, and Dante; in Herodotus;  in Lucian of Samosata’s True History (second century CE). Nephilim/Watchers, Gorgons and Cyclops and Cerberus, demons and Seraphim, and Amazons and armies on the moon, oh my!

I was a child in the Hippie Era, when lots of middle-class American young people were first experimenting with psychedelic drugs—LSD, mescaline, peyote, magic mushrooms, STP, and so on. Another way you could get to one of those alternate worlds was to take one of these drugs, which were also portals. I learned that shamans had been taking people to alternate worlds for a long, long time.

And yet another way was to experience an extreme state of consciousness, by practicing austerities such as fasting or exposure or by experiencing extreme trauma or madness. Edgar Allan Poe invented a way of structuring stories that became a staple of Fantasy and Science Fiction stories. The entire story would ride on an ambiguity. The strange events and characters in the suddenly strange place of the story could be interpreted in one of two ways—either these were supernatural events and characters that actually existed, or they were figments of the diseased mind—of the madness—of the narrator. Part of Poe’s genius was that he just let the ambiguity ride, never resolving it as many lame screenwriters do today.

Both kinds of story, Science Fiction and Fantasy, bent reality. They asked, “What if?” What if the world were different in this way or in these ways? What if there is a monster under the bed? What if there were a country inhabited only by women? What if there were dragons? What if techie suburban husbands replaced their wives with robots? What if a person could be invisible? or the size of an ant or of a redwood? What if there was a spaceport under the Vatican? What if Social Media were a giant government surveillance datamining operation? (Scratch that last one; it’s reality, not Sci Fi.)

So, the two kinds of story—Science Fiction and Fantasy—both dealt with alternate worlds. That’s what made them so interesting, and it’s also what made them important and critiques of human life, culture, norms. One could argue, for example, as H. G. Wells did in The Time Machine, that if the rich keep exploiting the workers as they do, and living in ever increasing refinement and comfort and ease while the workers live ever more crudely, harshly, and basely, eventually they will evolve into weak, pathetic Eloi (the rich) fed upon by the strong, bestial Morlocks (the workers). Or you could argue, as Orwell did in 1984 (published in 1948), that if the state continued growing more powerful and better at surveillance, propaganda, command, coercion, control, we would end up in a dystopian nightmare. So, alternate worlds provided a means for critiquing this one. What if we extrapolate this trend into the future? What if our best-laid plans, our technologies, go terribly astray, as when Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to conquer death leads to the creation of a hated monster (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the first real Science Fiction novel [talk about genius, at the freaking age of 18!]) or the world is mostly destroyed and thrown back into barbarity (Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon,” the first post-apocalyptic fiction [another creation of a whole genre; again, real genius and still a GREAT read today]).

Fine. But what distinguishes the two types of fiction dealing with alternate worlds? Well, the difference is that Science Fiction has to be possible, given what is known of science or given some future scientific discovery, whereas Fantasy does not. So, The Invisible Man is Science Fiction because it posits the discovery of a chemical that makes people invisible, whereas The Hobbit isn’t because it doesn’t present the hobbits as an actual scientific discovery (European adventurers travel to remote Papua New Guinea and discover the Valley of Mordor). It’s Fantasy. If the great poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge is to be believed, and I think he should be, plausibility is key to making a literary work work–one must be able to create in the reader, to use Coleridge’s phrase, “a willing suspension of disbelief.”

Supernatural Fiction, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Ira Levin’s brilliant Rosemary’s Baby, would be, according to this distinction–plausible vs. implausible–examples of a kind of Fantasy literature. But because it is rooted in religious superstition, it has claims on “realness” that rival, but are different from, those of Science Fiction. If you believe that witches covens that can call up an actual Devil actually exist, then you are very, very indoctrinated and confused but will think of something like Rosemary’s Baby not as Fantasy but as Horror Realism. Lord help you, living in such a demon-haunted world. We have real human demons enough to contend with, thank you. One of them was recently in the Oval Office in what he turned into the Whiter House.

I will admit to disliking a lot of Fantasy literature because much of it seems, to me, just stupid, the stuff of childhood. Yes, I like “Jack and the Beanstalk” as much as you do, and Alice in Wonderland is AMAZING, a work of genius. But a steady diet of this stuff? 900-page books about the wizardress who trains dragons and leads them into battle against the forces of the Evil Zaukon of Xacharia? Uh, no thanks. Hard pass. The problem, it long seemed to me, with Fantasy literature is that it was too easy. It was intellectually flacid. You could simply make up anything without having to worry about plausibility. Much of it requires readers slow-witted enough that they are willing to suspend disbelief about anything–are capable of entertaining anything as true. (The main character is in a jam, but hey, I didn’t mention this before, but he has this superpower, and he can immediately teleport himself elsewhere because, well, no because, he just can. This is the way seventh-graders write.) I dutifully read to my children all of the Harry Potter books, for they loved them, but I must admit that they mostly bored me to tears. They were derivative and slow paced, and the author isn’t exactly a great prose stylist. But, hey, she’s almost a billionaire. so there’s an audience for that kind of vomitus the reactionary British anti-transexual campaigner pours out by the lavaload (Yes, I am mixing my metaphors).

I must admit I’ve always been a bit snobbish about this distinction between Sci Fi and Fantasy. Science Fiction, I thought but rarely said, was for bright folk, and Fantasy for dummies who didn’t care about plausibility or weren’t bright or educated enough to understand how ridiculous something was (No, you can’t make things fly by uttering incantations). There were problems with this formulation of mine, however. For one, Science Fiction writers tended to be men more interested in science than in other people. The poet Dylan Thomas spoke of meeting a fellow at a party who wanted to be a novelist even though he didn’t know any people well. LOL. That’s a problem. Because Sci-Fi tends to be written by nerdy men, characters in Science Fiction often tend to be extraordinarily shallow. Michael Crichton created Sci Fi novels based on current scientific work (DNA extraction—Jurassic Park; nanotechnology—Prey), and because the ideas were interesting to people and the books were full of action, they sold well, even though you could literally exchange the names of characters, making this man a woman and that woman a man, for example, and it would make no difference, for they had almost no interior lives, certainly not interior lives that were deeply explored.

However, this was not the only problem, I’ve come to realize, with my beloved genre of Science Fiction. A problem that Sci-Fi writers are now facing is that the pace of change today is so fast, and the technologies currently being developed are so bizarre, that they typically outpace the imaginations of even the most imaginative, the most far-out Sci-Fi writers. Yes, we have discovered what causes aging, and people are working on curing it. Yes, we shall soon control evolution and be able to create humans vastly different from us, leading, very possibly, to human speciation. Yes, we are working on building microscopic molecular robotic assemblers that can reproduce and take things apart and put them together into other things—a nano-fog that can turn a sofa and some house plants into a cello or (and this is much easier) everything into grey goo. Yes, we are working on technology to read minds and broadcast the results. Yes, we are working on building artificial life forms. Yes, we are working on devices that will enable people to be remotely present anywhere while physically remaining in place. Yes, coming soon, people with super strength who have blue skin with telescopic and microscopic vision in the ultraviolet. Pity Science Fiction writers who try to come up with strange new worlds based on science at the cutting edge when actual science is this weird, is more outlandish than their crazy imaginings are!

But that’s not the only problem. One problem goes to the heart of the definition of the genre—plausibility. Remember, to be a Sci-Fi story, and not a mere Fantasy, the story has to be plausible scientifically.

Sci-Fi posits scientific breakthroughs (Orwell’s two-way telescreens that are both watched by people and that watch people; Mary Shelley’s animation of dead tissue using “animal magnetism,” aka, Galvanism) and spins yarns based on those. Here’s the problem: really advanced science doesn’t look realistic. It doesn’t look like science. It looks like magic. This is what Science Fiction master Arthur C. Clarke meant when he said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Imagine an airplane landing in a remote area inhabited by tribespeople who have never seen such technology. A strange, enormous, featherless bird lands. It immediately gives birth to strange white beings who carry sticks that shoot fire. A famous example of this happened during World War II on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu, in the Pacific. Natives stumbled upon military supplies dropped on the island from military planes and encountered an American named John Frum who came to collect them. Frum traded with the natives, and then left, and the natives created a whole religion based upon the return of this god, sometimes called John Frum and sometimes Tom Navy, who would bring goods, the “cargo.” This was one example of several cargo cults that emerged in the Pacific after such first contact. In Papua New Guinea, one early explorer returned to his airplane to find that a native had strapped himself to the bottom of its fuselage with ropes made of vines, hoping to travel back to the gods’ abode and see it for himself.

Sci-Fi involves an encounter with or discovery of an advanced technology, but the problem with that is that truly advanced technologies aren’t explicable in terms that we have today and are impossible to envision. It’s funny to read mid-20th-century Sci-Fi because none of the major writers of the time envisioned a world of cell phones and the Internet. In the film Blade Runner, based on Philip Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, released in 1982 and set in the far future (November, 2019), the protagonist at one point runs around frantically looking for a pay phone. The director didn’t imagine that cell phones would become ubiquitous and phone booths a rare curiosity from the past. Yes, Mark Twain and H.G. Wells both foresaw something like an instantaneous worldwide communication system that would allow text and pictures to be sent through wires. H.G. Wells predicted something like genetic engineering and something like the atomic bomb (though he got the mechanisms completely wrong). Arthur C. Clarke invented, in fiction, the geosynchronous satellite, on which modern communications systems are based, long before it appeared in reality. But the point remains that generally, if we actually encountered a truly advanced technology, we would not recognize it as technology because we wouldn’t understand it at all. It would look like magic because its mechanisms would not be explicable in any terms that we can understand. In other words, it would look like Fantasy, not Science Fiction.

This is a kind of death ray for Science Fiction writers, n’est-ce pas? Science fiction stories have to be surprising because they are based on new discoveries or technologies, and they must be consistent with scientific principles. However, science advanced enough to be surprising will look to us as though it violates scientific principles. The more advanced it gets, the more fantastic it looks. This is an example of the more general Sorites Paradox illustrated by the difficulty of defining, according to the Aristotelian theory of Natural Kinds, something like a heap.

I don’t think that this is a death blow to science fiction, like the magical formula to dispel demons from religious fantasy or (this is probably a better analogy) like Russell’s Barber Paradox to Frege’s program to reduce arithmetic to logic, but it is a problem that I, as a Science Fiction writer, have to figure out how to grapple with, if not solve.

Copyright 2020. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This essay may be freely shared/distributed as long as this copyright notice is retained.

For short stories by Bob Shepherd, and more pieces about the short story and fiction generally, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/short-stories/


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why Science Fiction Is Impossible: A Science Fiction Writer’s Confession

  1. Pingback: Criticism and the Common [sic] Core [sic] | Bob Shepherd | Praxis

  2. Pingback: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Notes Introducing a Debate Unit on Transformative Technologies | Bob Shepherd | Praxis

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