"Is it it really Science Fiction, or just Fantasy? What is that pulp you're chewing on made of?"

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

The other day we talked about Stanisalw Lem and the lack of literary criticism in SF, and today I‘d like to revisit that a bit. I've been thinking about SF a lot lately. Obviously, I'm a fan, but also I've kind of been goaded in this direction by some literary criticism I've been reading by other SF writers (Basically Lem and Ellison), and I've hit on something that's an interesting paradox in SF, or at least in pulp SF.

For sake of argument, let's say there are two grades of SF - the good stuff, and the pulp stuff. The pulp stuff isn't necessarily bad, mind you - Philip K. Dick wrote more than his share of potboilers, as did Vonnegut, Ballard, Disch, and others - I don't think any author fits entirely in the 'good' school, likewise even turd authors usually have at least one really classic book in 'em, so I'm not being exclusionary or highbrow here. If we extend this into movies and TV, then Blade Runner and CE3K and Babylon 5 and maybe two season of the new Galactica and Silent Running and Solaris and that kind of thing would be considered the 'good' or 'serious' stuff, and all the Star Wars movies and most, if not all of the Trek movies, and Buck Rogers and Space: 1999 and the original Galactica and that kind of stuff would all be considered "pulp".

The difference is, I guess, that the Pulp stuff - Both movies and fiction - generally is all about entertainment, and the “Real” stuff is all about ideas. Ideas and big, serious questions, ramifications, etc. That's fine: I don’t mind that pulp avoids the weighty stuff; I loves me a good ID4 Explosion-fest just like everyone else now and again, but I think that a steady diet of bubblegum isn't healthy, and every once in a while you need something like "Twelve Monkeys" to sort of clear out the intellectual colon, you know? Still, it's not surprise that pulp is more popular than the more esoteric stuff.

Anyway, the reason I'm mentioning this is that it's becoming increasingly apparent to me that Pulp hasn't got all that much to do with SF. That’s the paradox I mentioned earlier: that the most popular form of Science Fiction really isn’t even Science Fiction.

Science Fiction is, by definition, fiction about science. Generally, it’s science that is plausible, but hasn't happened. Thus, War of the Worlds was plausible in 1897 when it was published, and From the Earth to the Moon was plausible in 1869, but both are a bit silly and simplistic today. The point being that their authors attempted to get stuff right, to the best of their ability: there was actual *science* in their Science Fiction.

Compare this to the pulp stuff, in which stories frequently ignore any kind of plausibility, but in which the fictional universes they're set in are more-or-less at odds with the universe in which we live. In Trek, for instance, the universe is full of ridiculous numbers of Earth-like planets (Actually, Southern California-like planets), all of whom are inhabited by aliens who look and act pretty much exactly like humans with unfortunate prosthetic makeup. Likewise, in the Stargate universe, the universe is full of ridiculous numbers of Cascadia-like planets. Even in the 1960s, it was apparent that the universe wasn't exactly brimming with life. If it was, we'd have been hearing the alien equivalent of "Amos N' Andy" the moment they turned on the SETI and Ozma recievers. Here we are 50 years later, and nothing. There is, at this exact moment, no more proof for the existence of extrerrestrial life than there is proof of the existence of God. (And just like God, there may really be aliens, but we can’t prove it. As of right now, it’s simply a matter of faith)

We also knew full well that the universe wasn't made up of earth-like worlds, and while I realize this was a budgetary concession, the fact of the matter is that divergent evolution is way the hell more common than convergent evolution. To wit: sentients on an alien world are more likely to evolve to look like giant squid or orangutans or baseball-diamond sized caterpillarey-stingray things than they are to evolve to look like us.

Trek is far from the only offender in this category, but I do think it's probably the worst of the bunch. Other shows have at least made an effort to justify it in some plausible fashion (For instance, in Stargate humans were seeded on other worlds by a race of slaver-aliens thousands of years ago). Likewise, Technology in Trek (Treknology), or in Dr. Who, or what have you, is basically indistinguishable from magic in that it has no basis in the facts of the rules of the universe we actually live in. (Mr. Scott may say he "Cannae break the laws of physics," but in fact the laws he cites are clearly not the ones that we all live under here on earth). The Doctor’s time travel violates the laws of Causality, and don't even get me started on the whacky sheist that goes on in most even lower-quality shows.

So follow along here: We've got a fictional universe that bears not the slightest relationship to the real universe we live in, we've got physical laws that are entirely the product of the author, and generally inconsistently applied at that. In fact, in both cases, the way pulp SF runs is deliberately contrary to the way the real world runs - not imaginative, but contrary - where's the "Science" In this science fiction?

Kirk and Company come back in time to grab some whales and take them to the future, where whales are extinct in an attempt to repopulate the species. That's science fiction. Kirk and Company play out a sloppy 'breakup of the soviet union' allegory, securing peace between the Federation and the Klingons - that is *not* science fiction, even though it involves space ships. But, of course, if every movie that has space ships is automatically science fiction, then every movie that has horses is automatically a western, right? So Gone with the Wind and Dracula and the Aneid are all westerns, right?

Well, obviously not.

The question then becomes one of what the stories are even about. If the setting is at odds with the real world, or any logical extrapolation or antecedent of the real world, and if the physical laws are ignored in favor of fake ones in a capricious manner, if the universe is teaming with life that's indistinguishable from human life, excepting for the broadest (illogical) generic comments like "We're a race of warriors" (Really? Who washes your clothes?) or "They're a species of poets" (Yeah? Who makes their cigarettes?), it becomes apparent that nine times out of ten, the aliens themselves are simply sloppy allegories for races or racial problems on earth. Aliens as beleaguered black folk, or aliens as foreigners having trouble integrating into society, or aliens as gay people or what have you. The makers of these things are not looking outward, though they pretend to, in fact they're looking inward, telling us "Timeless human stories" which, though that may occasionally be the case (And generally isn't), can not escape the fact that there's nothing science fictional about them at all.

SF deals with what we are, what we can plausibly become, and how new technologies, politics, ideas, and life may affect that, but Pulp has kind of avoided doing that, hasn't it? At least on TV, and increasingly in books. I'm not saying it isn't fun, I'm not saying it isn't worthy of existence, but in fact, it's not really any more science fiction than Tolkein's Lord of the Rings is.

I've been ruminating on this for a few days now, and I'd like your opinion - whether I'm right, full of crap, mostly full of crap but with an undigested cucumber seed of rationality wedged in with the crap here and there, or whatever.