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The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

“Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful.”

Philip K. Dick

When Margaret Atwood stated that she does not write science fiction (SF) but speculative literature, many SF denizens reacted with what can only be called tantrums, even though Atwood defined what she means by SF. Her definition reflects a wide-ranging writer’s wish not to be pigeonholed and herded into tight enclosures inhabited by fundies and, granted, is narrower than is common: it includes what I call Leaden Era-style SF that sacrifices complex narratives and characters to gizmology and Big Ideas.

By defining SF in this fashion, Atwood made an important point: Big Ideas are the refuge of the lazy and untalented; works that purport to be about Big Ideas are invariably a tiny step above tracts. Now before anyone starts bruising my brain with encomia of Huxley, Asimov, Stephenson or Stross, let’s parse the meaning of “a story of ideas”. Like the anthropic principle, the term has a weak and a strong version. And as with the anthropic principle, the weak version is a tautology whereas the strong version is an article of, well, religious faith.

The weak version is a tautology for the simplest of reasons: all stories are stories of ideas. Even terminally dumb, stale Hollywood movies are stories of ideas. Over there, if the filmmakers don’t bother with decent worldbuilding, dialogue or characters, the film is called high concept (high as in tinny). Other disciplines call this approach a gimmick.

The strong version is similar to supremacist religious faiths, because it turns what discerning judgment and common sense classify as deficiencies to desirable attributes (Orwell would recognize this syndrome instantly). Can’t manage a coherent plot, convincing characters, original or believable worlds, well-turned sentences? Such cheap tricks are for heretics who read books written in pagan tongues! Acolytes of the True Faith… write Novels of Ideas! This dogma is often accompanied by its traditional mate, exceptionalism – as in “My god is better than yours.” Namely, the notion that SF is intrinsically “better” than mainstream literary fiction because… it looks to the future, rather than lingering in the oh-so-prosaic present… it deals with Big Questions rather than the trivial dilemmas of ordinary humans… or equivalent arguments of similar weight.

I’ve already discussed the fact that contemporary SF no longer even pretends to deal with real science or scientific extrapolation. As I said elsewhere, I think that the real division in literature, as in all art, is not between genre and mainstream, but between craft and hackery. Any body of work that relies on recycled recipes and sequels is hackery, whether this is genre or mainstream (as just one example of the latter, try to read Updike past the middle of his career). Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults.

Now before the predictable shrieks of “Elitist!” erupt, let me clarify something. Adult is not a synonym for opaque, inaccessible or precious. The best SF is in many ways entirely middlebrow, as limpid and flowing as spring water while it still explores interesting ideas and radiates sense of wonder without showing off about either attribute. A few short story examples: Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree’s A Momentary Taste of Being; Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life; Ursula Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea; Joan Vinge’s Eyes of Amber. Some novel-length ones: Melissa Scott’s Dreamships; Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows; C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station; Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite. Given this list, one source of the juvenile feel of most SF becomes obvious: fear of emotions; especially love in all its guises, including the sexual kind (the real thing, in its full messiness and glory, not the emetic glop that usurps the territory in much genre writing, including romance).

SF seems to hew to the long-disproved tenet that complex emotions inhibit critical thinking and are best left to non-alpha-males, along with doing the laundry. Some of this comes from the calvinist prudery towards sex, the converse glorification of violence and the contempt for sensual richness and intellectual subtlety that is endemic in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Coupled to that is the fact that many SF readers (some of whom go on to become SF writers) can only attain “dominance” in Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. This state of Peter-Pan-craving-comfort-food-and-comfort-porn makes many of them firm believers in girl cooties. By equating articulate emotions with femaleness, they apparently fail to understand that complex emotions are co-extensive with high level cognition.

Biologists, except for the Tarzanist branch of the evo-psycho crowd, know full well by now that in fact cortical emotions enable people to make decisions. Emotions are an inextricable part of the indivisible unit that is the body/brain/mind and humans cannot function well without the constant feedback loops of these complex circuits. We know this from the work of António Damasio and his successors in connection with people who suffer neurological insults. People with damage to that human-specific newcomer, the pre-frontal cortex, often perform at high (even genius) levels in various intelligence and language tests – but they display gross defects in planning, judgment and social behavior. To adopt such a stance by choice is not a smart strategy even for hard-core social Darwinists, who can be found in disproportionate numbers in SF conventions and presses.

To be fair, cortical emotions may indeed inhibit something: shooting reflexes, needed in arcade games and any circumstance where unthinking execution of orders is desirable. So Galactic Emperors won’t do well as either real-life rulers or fictional characters if all they can feel and express are the so-called Four Fs that pass for sophistication in much of contemporary SF and fantasy, from the latest efforts of Iain Banks to Joe Abercrombie.

Practically speaking, what can a person do besides groan when faced with another Story of Ideas? My solution is to edit an anthology of the type of SF I’d like to read: mythic space opera, written by and for full adults. If I succeed and my stamina holds, this may turn into a semi-regular event, perhaps even a small press. So keep your telescopes trained on this constellation.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds: Why SF needs…

…science (or at least knowledge of the scientific process): SF Goes McDonald’s — Less Taste, More Gristle
…empathy: Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
…literacy: Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
…storytelling: To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Images: 1st, Bill Watterson’s Calvin, who knows all about tantrums; 2nd, Dork Vader, an exemplar of those who tantrumize at Atwood; 3rd, shorthand vision of my projected anthology.

46 Responses to “The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction”

  1. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Biologists, except for the Tarzanist branch of the evo-psycho crowd, know full well by now that in fact cortical emotions enable people to make decisions. Emotions are an inextricable part of the indivisible unit that is the body/brain/mind and humans cannot function well without the constant feedback loops of these complex circuits.

    You are totally right!! Somehow, somewhere, those who preach about the supremacy of A.I.’s became convinced that a purely logical machine making decisions through purely rational though processes, unfettered by emotion or sensation, was the supreme form of life. Humans are weak, emotions make us inferior, they said. Little did they realize that a machine or human without emotion could not make decisions.

    The book that really drove this home for me, ironically enough, was The Science of Star Wars by Jeanne Cavelos.

    Jeanne explored the requirements for building a robot capable of independent thought and complex decision making. Eventually, she came to the conclusion that a purely logical computer will never understand its priorities the way a human does. An intelligent robot will need to mimic the loop of instinctual/emotional/rational circuitry that makes up the human brain. Otherwise computers will never be able to sort out their priorities and make decisions.

    This is directly in opposition with the claims of certain futurists. Many SF writers and futurists predict that humans have to “get smarter”, and that when it comes to rational thought processes “more is better”, and when it comes to emotion, “less is better”. However, according to this neurological research, every intelligence needs emotions, be it biological or computerized!!

    So, even our supreme A.I. overlords will have emotions. This idea has already been discussed in fiction. Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey made decisions based on fear, mistrust, and a guilty conscience (according to the book, at least). The robot explorers in the Discovery TV show “Alien Planet” had individual personalities- Leo is adventurous while Ike is cautious and tends to observe from a distance. A.I.’s don’t seem so bland when described this way.

  2. David Duffy says:

    I nod vigorously in agreement…except there really are novels of ideas, where the emotions induced in the reader are those associated with understanding a concept in physics, mathematics, or philosophy (and even perhaps religion). Those emotional states include awe: “sensawunda”; what I guess one would call intellectual pleasure or pleasurable surprise: “aha”; the other emotional component of one’s response to the sublime: “oceanic feeling”;
    and philosophical resignation. The last is my way of describing stories where
    the suffering of the participants (and us as we identify with them) are made acceptable by a big idea. I see them as positive emotions associated with understanding of the non-human world. The equivalent negative emotions are “horror vacui” and related dysphoric responses to concepts such as determinism, and of course, bafflement ;).

    I think these emotions are ones that historically people have obtained from religious experiences, but also get from intellectual practices like science. And they are not provided by much “ordinary” literature, including “ordinary” SF.

    A “superior” novel of ideas should invoke those emotions better than a simple textbook statement or essay on the same ideas would. Sure, it might also have good writing, plotting, characterisation. But I don’t think those are what people remember after reading _Starmaker_, _Childhood’s End_, _Flatland_, _Schild’s Ladder_, _Sail On, Sail On_.

    Cheers, David.

  3. Athena says:

    Christopher, I dedicated an entire chapter to this particular issue in the Biology of Star Trek.

    David, you are referring to what I call “epiphanies”, which indeed happen in scientific research and are not that high in the hierarchy of needs: they satisfy our deep need to discover patterns and connections — sometimes even where none exist, as witness constellations… numerology… tarot cards…

    Of course, plenty of mainstream literature can elicit such emotions: Virginia Woolf comes to mind, as do Barrett’s stories (I could name many more). I wrote about this feeling (which I’m lucky enough to have felt while reading and in the lab) in my essay The Double Helix. When all is said and done, novels of ideas are like neutron bombs: they leave structures intact, which may evoke feelings of awe as ruins often do — but these structures were meant to be inhabited.

  4. Sovay says:

    My solution is to edit an anthology of the type of SF I’d like to read: mythic space opera, written by and for full adults.

    I like this plan.

    I love Iain Banks when he’s writing The Wasp Factory (1984). I have never heard that his space opera was as good.

  5. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > [Chris Phoenix wrote:]
    >
    > Somehow, somewhere, those who preach about the supremacy of A.I.’s
    > became convinced that a purely logical machine making decisions through
    > purely rational though processes, unfettered by emotion or sensation,
    > was the supreme form of life.

    Hm. You don’t suppose that (at least proximately, during the
    ’40’s and ’50’s “golden age” of SF) Ayn Rand could have had
    something to do with this? Or L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics”, with
    its glorification of the “analytical mind” over the “reactive mind”?
    Or A. E. Van Vogt, with the “Null-A” adept’s “cortico-thalamic
    integration” (with stress on the cortico- part)?

    Or the fact that a lot of engineering types and SF aficionados
    have a touch of Aspergers Syndrome? Oh wait, nobody but a few
    specialists knew anything about Aspergers Syndrome before about
    2000. Never mind!

  6. Athena says:

    I’m pleased you like the plan! It’s a tall order, but I will do my best to make it real.

    The early Banks space operas were interesting. The quality has steadily gone downhill since, in part because he’s become too famous to be properly edited.

  7. Athena says:

    I believe Hans Asperger identified the syndrome in the late forties, though the diagnostics got standardized much later. That time coincides with the start of the Leaden Era in SF (and with the after-WWII triumphalism/Cold War jitters in the US as well as the perceived need to push women back into housewifery). So masculinism, culturally defined, was on the absolute ascendant at that point.

    I’ve read no Hubbard, SF or other; he was considered a lame writer even by the lax SF standards of that era. I read one van Vogt novel, which I never finished (very rare for me) — almost certainly because I recall it as a terrific cure for insomnia.

  8. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > [Chris Phoenix wrote:]
    >
    > Eventually, [Jeanne Cavelos] came to the conclusion that a
    > purely logical computer will never understand its priorities
    > the way a human does. An intelligent robot will need to mimic
    > the loop of instinctual/emotional/rational circuitry that
    > makes up the human brain.

    It’s kind of amusing that Olaf Stapledon anticipated this
    (the rediscovery by Antonio Damasio et al. of the importance
    of emotion in human cognition) in _Last and First Men_, where
    the Fourth Men (the “Great Brains”) decide on their own
    that they’re missing something critical, and redesign the
    human race (the Fifth Men) on a more balanced plan by
    reincorporating the emotional traits of earlier races.

    But somehow the on-line transhumanists and AI “designers”
    don’t talk about Stapledon **at all**.

    Athena wrote:

    > I believe Hans Asperger identified the syndrome in the late forties,
    > though the diagnostics got standardized much later.

    Yes, that’s true, but it doesn’t seem to have burst onto
    the public scene until around the time of that _Wired_
    article “The Geek Syndrome” a few years ago.
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aspergers_pr.html
    Since then, there have been many, many books, newspaper
    articles, TV shows, and self-diagnoses. ;->

  9. Dylan Fox says:

    Interesting stuff. For a long time, I was in the ‘emotions are icky and not worthy of being included in SF’ camp. Up until very recently, I was very poorly socialised and the world of Other People happened somewhere behind a glass screen. I could observe, but I couldn’t understand nor take part. SF offered a space that kind of said, ‘hey, that’s okay… your intellectual observation is actually superior to those getting their hands dirty!’ So I guess over the years it’s become something of a self-perpetuating cycle. People like me feel isolated and so turn to SF, and then we create SF for other people who feel isolated.

    The sad part is that, through out all those years of feeling isolated, I never was. I was never on the outside. I was a part of everything I thought I was watching from behind glass. Understanding and acknowledging that has entirely transformed my outlook. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a society that encourages people to understand themselves in relation to other human beings or recognizes the value of shared experiences/ideas/works (just look at our strict and punitive copyright laws). It’s entirely possible to go your whole life in a self-contained little bubble, and no one is going to try and tell you it’s a bad thing.

    So I guess stepping outside that bubble is a terrifying and lonely thing to do, and you get no encouragement from society to do it. And, when you’ve got all these people around you telling you that you’re actually a somehow empirically better human being for living in the bubble, why would you leave it?

    We can only hope that the inevitable decline in power of the Anglo-Saxon mindset will allow the ‘each individual exists in isolation and is sole master of their own destiny’ dogma to be slowly eradicated…

  10. Athena says:

    Jim — I suspect that many people airily suggest they have Asperger’s because they don’t want to be bothered with social niceties (and the stigma associated with the syndrome has lessened). Most jerks (from fundie “leaders” to MRAs… who, come to think of it, largely overlap) don’t suffer from Asperger’s: they say they do (trivializing serious issues) because they can get away with it.

    On the other hand, there is no question that autism spectrum disorders have a strong genetic component. If two people with Asperger’s have children, the chances of autism in their children do increase. It’s the same as Lesch-Nyhan, Tay-Sachs… except far more complicated, because brain development and brain function are as far from monogenic as you can get.

    Dylan — When you thought that emotions are icky… didn’t you want to love/be loved? Or did you deem that to be part of the Four Fs during that time?

    When the Nazi occupiers of Hellas herded villagers inside their schools, burned them alive and scattered salt over the ruins, like the Romans did with Carthage, there was nothing wrong with their intellect. But they were able, if only for a short time, to suppress emotion. Serial killers do the same. Contemporary tyrannies are based on the atomizing impulse that tries to substitute individual will for mutual support — just look at all the exhortations of the plutocrats to “Just work harder and you can live in Peter Thiel’s seastead, leave all imperfections behind!”

  11. Caliban says:

    I think it’s important to distinguish sociopathy and psychopathy from autism and Asperger’s. An interesting article on this is from Simon Baron-Cohen:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/01/anders-breivik

    Rather than paraphrasing let me quote:

    “Empathy divides into at least two components: “cognitive” and “affective”. Cognitive empathy is the drive to identify someone else’s thoughts and feelings, being able to put yourself into their shoes to imagine what is in their mind. Affective empathy, in contrast, is the drive to respond to someone else’s thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. People with autism typically have difficulties with the cognitive component (they have trouble inferring what other people might think or feel), but have intact affective empathy (it upsets them to hear of others suffering)…

    In contrast, those with antisocial personality disorder (including psychopaths) typically have the opposite profile: they have no trouble reading other people’s thoughts and feelings (intact cognitive empathy) but other people’s suffering is of no concern to them.”

    I’m sure the issue is even more complex and nuanced than this (so those with better knowledge, please forgive me) but I find this a useful start.

  12. Athena says:

    Calvin, there is no question that these are crucial distinctions. However, Baron-Cohen has blind spots that I find troubling in a spokesperson for these issues: for example, he is a firm believer in gender determinism for brain development. On the larger canvas, let’s just say although there is much we still don’t know about brain function, we do know that emotion is not surplus baggage whose suppression leads to “clear” thinking.

    Edit note 1: Here’s a passage from a blurb on Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain (!) which speaks for itself:

    “Underlying these subtle differences, Simon Baron-Cohen believes, there is one essential difference, and it affects everything we do: Men have a tendency to analyze and construct systems while women are inclined to empathize. // From gossip to aggression, Baron-Cohen dissects each brain type and even presents a new theory that autism (as well as its close relative, Asperger’s syndrome) can be understood as an extreme form of the male brain.”

    Edit note 2: The people I was referring to in my original essay are neither sociopaths nor people with ASD, but people who have accidents or degenerative diseases that damage their frontal cortex (representative respective examples are Phineas Gage and people in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia).

  13. Caliban says:

    Yes, that was a slight derail from the original essay. Sorry.

  14. Adam says:

    Hi Athena

    Combining ideas stories and real characters is a tricky art, but I am pretty sure I have read more than a few novels like that. Most SF is IMO a long way from either end of the scale – for example I find Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who franchise novels uninteresting, though I read the occasional interesting summary which makes me wonder if I have missed the occasional diamond in the coal pile.

    Spec-Fic, Hard SF and the like are worthwhile when they explore new possible worlds through a character I can identify with – thus the appeal of Heinlein’s juveniles when I was a teen, and my lack of interest in his later books which became self-parodies of his work. I loved Phil Dick when I felt like I was Joe Chip or any of his other alienated characters, but now I am not sure I would enjoy them as much.

    And I have absolutely no excuses or explanations for why I liked “Twilight” or the Sookie Stackhouse novels/serials. Or for that matter why I like Clive Barker’s horror fiction but avoid Stephen King like the plague…

  15. Athena says:

    Calvin, not at all. It’s just that to do this fraught topic justice we need to carefully define our terms, in addition to still having inadequate knowledge of the complex phenomenon we’re discussing.

    Adam, I agree: combining interesting ideas with engaging characters (and some style flair) is what makes it art instead of hackery. Franchise novels, aka sanctioned fanfic, can be unexpectedly good if written by capable craftspeople. Of course, this does not set up the bar very high, since such novels are expected to be unmitigated crap enjoyable only by faithful members of that particular fandom; also, let’s face it: when 5 cents a word is today’s pro rate, people have to make a living.

    As for liking Twilight et al, according to Baron-Cohen it must be your “female-like gossip-prone” brain (*snerk*). Most fully grown women view these series as poison and/or coma-inducing sugar. To me, they’re the equivalents of the m/m slash written by (often conservative straight) women. It’s another way to condition people into narrow easily-serviced comfort zones, especially when literature taught in schools is half a dozen books endlessly recycled because the teachers don’t feel like reading past their own college texts.

  16. Adam says:

    On hackery, Piers Anthony’s interminable series seemed to read like the same book after the first couple of books. When I read through “Bio of a Space Tyrant” I felt like I could predict how each book would develop after reading the first two or three. Peter Hamilton’s ponderous tomes, with his detailed world-building, also read like that. He writes trilogies, but I get impatient after 700-1200 pages of one book and just skim the next two. Much shorter books would still tell much of the same story, but without the exhaustive travelogue.

    As for conditioning and comfort zones, all social discourse serves some such role. We live in an ocean of divergent voices, breathing and excreting narrative. Some narratives are fresh air to fill the lungs, others are best treated like a good sitdown on the loo.

  17. Dylan Fox says:

    Very interesting question, Athena… If nothing else, I’ve been thinking about it for the past day and I’m still not sure I know.

    At the time, love was something that I desperately wanted but felt I didn’t have. When it appeared in SF, I was annoyed and disappointed. When love appears in popular media, it generally consists of one or two stories that keep getting recycled. I felt that love had the entire rest of our culture to dominate, and writers using it in SF was tantamount to lazy hackery–“Ah, crap… I haven’t got any ideas this week… it’s okay, I’ll just write a love story.” (Not an entirely unfair idea, given the way most female love interests are written as paper-thin foils that conform to very specific ideas of what a ‘good’ woman should do and be.)

    I guess I found stories that focused on emotion–well, not *all* emotion as anger and revenge were more than welcome–exclusionary. It was a world I didn’t feel part of and certainly didn’t feel comfortable with. SF was a place I came to because I didn’t feel that sense of exclusion with it. The people who had trouble with emotion and relationships were always mis-understood geniuses or special in some way (Star Trek in, I think, all of its incarnations was particularly good for that).

    So, I wanted love but didn’t feel I had any, and I didn’t want to see it in SF because it was supposed to be better than that and seeing it there sharply reminded me I didn’t have it–like a friend suddenly turning into an enemy. And, of course, I brought into that whole ‘dividing, uncrossable line between intellect and emotion’ thing that SF seems to love so much.

  18. Anil Menon says:

    Athena:

    Thought-provoking as always.

    While I agree there’s a long tail of rubbish in genre writing, I’m sympathetic to the notion of “a story of ideas.” Yes, its something of a kangaroo, and ugly though it may be by most aesthetic measures, perhaps its form is well suited for its function. I remember reading Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder” as a kid and knowing I’d read something new. It’s a silly story and not very well written but it was perfect for a 15-year old. To paraphrase Sterling, perhaps the golden age of a literature of ideas is fifteen. For a kid who’s never thought of space, time, personhood, the Other or any of that deep pool stuff, SF comes as a revelation.

    True, there’s not much highbrow SF for the older, more experienced reader. Personally, I think it’s more or less useless to speculate on demand or the lack of it. But I don’t think its because SF writers are afraid of emotions or because they’re are mostly men or because they’re mostly from “the” West.

    There are other possibilities. It could be that highbrow SF is really, really hard– insanely hard. Or it could be that the readers who love nuance *and* love ideas move on to read speculative non-fiction. If I need to think about the future of war, it’s far more efficient to read John Mueller or Max Boot or Max van Crevald than SF novels based off their ideas. If I want to think about the immigrant, why thrash around with novels that touch upon the Other when I can read Bonnie Honig’s work? Such examples could be multiplied on almost any issue, be it consciousness, religion, poverty, migration, environment, etc. If what I’m looking for *is* an info-dump, fiction is just so much syntactic sugar. On the other hand, if I crave an emotional experience, then all of literature awaits.

    I saw your piece as a call for a more nuanced SF, as a call for more supply: raised glasses to that!

    Anil

  19. Athena says:

    I see some revealing distinctions being made in the comments; revealing, because they speak to assumptions about several types of boundaries. It’s also interesting that so far all the commenters to this piece have been men.

    Dylan, you separated love from all other emotions when you discussed exclusion — and it looks like you also made it synonymous with romantic/sexual love. I agree that women are (still) often used as window dressing in SF. But how can inclusion of emotions be considered exclusionary and their exclusion the sign of a better state — or superior fiction merely by definition?

    Anil, there are plenty of novels of ideas in “mainstream” literature that are written well, craft-wise; some are the best literature has to offer. High-quality fiction and high-quality ideas are not mutually exclusive. The problem is that the term “novel of ideas” is used too often to excuse all the other lapses. Also, if you conclude that SF is not the right genre/medium for “that kind” of complexity, you do define it as stories for adolescents (including the I-feel-alienated-and-special common overlay).

    What is wrong with combining as much as one’s talent can bring to bear? Le Carré has done it for the spy novel; P. D. James and Umberto Eco for mysteries; etc, etc. Why not the same for SF/F? In particular, what is wrong with hybrid works that combine the best of whatever worlds they bridge? “Monotheism” and purity fetishes are bad choices in such contexts.

  20. Walden2 says:

    For those who may be unfamiliar with this author, Stanislaw Lem definitely fits into the realm of SF that has graduated past the Star Trek/Star Wars mentality.

    Two of his better known examples, Solaris and His Master’s Voice, flip on their heads the usual first contact with alien intelligences scenario. Instead of a Captain Kirk who saves an ETI society and gets the hot blond in the end, or the nice aliens who only want to help the young human species join the Galactic Federation, we have truly alien aliens who not only do not need or want humans, we cannot even relate to each other because we are so different.

    As Lem has said, humans really just want to find copies of ourselves, just like people and the media go nuts every time an even vaguely Earth-like/size exoplanet is found, even though there are a vast majority of other alien worlds that are truly bizarre and fascinating, such as the worlds larger than Jupiter orbiting their suns in a matter of days!

    A good essay on Lem’s works here:

    http://www.themodernword.com/scriptorium/lem.html

  21. Christopher Phoenix says:

    @Jim Fehlinger

    I don’t know where this concept came from, exactly. I only know that belief in the superiority of rationality over emotion exists among transhumanists and A.I. “designers”. The reasons you list in your comment could have something to do with it but I never read those particular authors.

    I don’t understand this “rationality vs. emotion” thing anyway. How can a person even function while lacking a major part of their personality? How could you expect a person to somehow be “improved” by losing all emotional response and feeling? It just does not make sense!

    Taken to extremes, this concept becomes alarming – just look at Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John. Apparently, the superior man is allowed to seduce, exploit, manipulate, dispossess, and even murder “lesser” people who get in the way of the supermen’s plans due to the higher moral deeds of advancing the interests of the superior race. Needless to say, this idea really went down the tubes after a certain group of would-be supermen put such ideas into practice.

    The idea of “superior” men with “big brains” ruling the world is still with us. In his book The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking thinks that artificial wombs and genetic engineering will allow us to grow improved embryos outside of a woman’s womb – thus allowing these budding super-embryo’s heads to grow much larger than us “inferior” humans who have to pass through a birth canal. He does not advocate this as something desirable, but rather as something inevitable.

    Speculation continues on schemes to improve our intelligence with genetic engineering, neural implants, transitions to computerized intelligence, etc. However, neuroscientists and psychologists hypothesize that humans can’t get smarter without unintended consequences.

  22. Dylan Fox says:

    Well… yes, I made love and romantic/sexual love the same thing. As Troi once mentioned, teenage boys are wont to do that.

    Interestingly, I’m watching Jericho at the moment and I find that part of my brain is still frustrated with the relationship-based storylines. You can tell relationship-based stories through any medium; SF is one of the only mediums where you can tell stories about the end of the world. Of course, this is a distraction from the more fundamental issue, which is the fact that the same few stereotypes and cooker-cutter relationships get recycled again and again in both soap-operas and SF. I guess I just get frustrated because SF should be, well, better than that.

    I used to say that if I wanted to watch a show about relationships, I’d watch a soap-opera. I don’t think it was because I felt the relationships were artificial. Emotional connections were something I felt that I didn’t understand, and didn’t have. They had their own language, one I didn’t speak and was never explained to me. I didn’t feel like I could relate to them, couldn’t see myself there. Technology and ideas, on the other hand… They had their own language, but it was explained. Technobabble was inclusive because I understood it. Big ideas were explained and offered something grander, more important than all those relationships that excluded me.

    In SF, the sort of person who was happier with tech and ideas than with people were the sort of people who were the focus of the shows, the special ones, the interesting ones. They were the ones who were free to pursue more noble goals and advance the human race. The socially-underdeveloped genius is such a staple of SF it’s hard to imagine the genre without him (it’s always a him).

    So, I guess the short answer is that I was quite happy in my treehouse. Not that I had anything against girls, I just didn’t want anything to do with emotional connections. I didn’t understand them, I didn’t speak the language. Of course, I didn’t realise that my life was full of emotional connections and I couldn’t survive without them, but that’s youth I suppose. You’re the most important person in the world and no one understands you.

  23. Christopher Phoenix says:

    @Dylan Fox

    I can imagine SF that does not glorify the socially underdeveloped genius. It sounds like you are discussing very old and pulpy science fantasy where the misunderstood genius whips up a hyperdrive out of an old tin can, a rusty paperclip, a few wires, and a car battery while having all the personality of a used train ticket.

    Real scientific research relies on teamwork and communication between scientists, not sudden leaps made by one superior genius. Kepler formulated his Laws of Planetary Motion after studying years worth of exhaustive observations made my Tycho Brahe. Newton’s Three Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation were great insights- but Newton was building on the work scientists such as Galileo had done in mechanics. Einstein created his theory of Relativity to reconcile the conflict between Newton’s Laws of Motion and Maxwell’s Electromagnetism.

    If a team of researchers build an inertialess starship, it will be because they finally discovered the cause of inertia, a phenomenon that Isaac Newton first codified with his Laws of Motion. This breakthrough is probably based on earlier research.

    I think it is important that SF authors get the cooperative nature of scientific research right. People don’t make breakthroughs by being socially underdeveloped. Your comment seems to have the unwritten assumption that the lonely, socially inept genius is male. A number of young students who are interesting in advanced propulsion research nowadays are female, and I’m sure the same is true of all other areas of research. If you can’t talk to girls, you can’t go to scientific discussions. Your ideas sound firmly rooted in the “Leaden Age” of SF- who says girls can’t make scientific breakthroughs?

    Relationship-based stories aren’t just the same recycled cookie-cutter relationships and stereotypes recycled over and over again. A good example is the Star Trek TOS series and TOS movies. Kirk and Mr. Spock repeatedly demonstrate that they have great love for each other and will do anything if one of them is in danger. The apotheosis of this comes in The Wrath of Khan and its sequels, in which Kirk destroys his career, blows up his starship and becomes little more than a rogue ex-Starfleet officer, but he is fully content as long as he has Spock back. Only a very biased person would no recognize this as a rather romantic story – if Kirk or Spock were female, what would you conclude?

  24. Athena says:

    Larry, I agree. Lem is one of the few SF writers to go past clichés as far as aliens (and Big Ideas) go.

    Dylan, the question to ask is whether solitary “geniuses” advance the human race and what is meant by “advance”. Also, you can relate the end of the world in any genre, including history. Just read Mark Mazower’s Inside Hitler’s Greece or Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly.

    Christopher, I think Dylan mostly agrees with you. I should add to your important point about science being cooperative that scientific advances rarely arise out of contextual vacuum: when the time/setting is ripe, the same discovery is often made simultaneously by several people in the field.

    As for the Kirk/Spock relationship, it’s a classic “bromance” with barely concealed homoerotic streaks (after all, that’s where “slash” got its name: from the Kirk/Spock fanfiction works that made the romantic portion explicit).

  25. Walden2 says:

    Christopher Phoenix says on January 3, 2012 at 11:10 pm:

    “The idea of “superior” men with “big brains” ruling the world is still with us. In his book The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking thinks that artificial wombs and genetic engineering will allow us to grow improved embryos outside of a woman’s womb – thus allowing these budding super-embryo’s heads to grow much larger than us “inferior” humans who have to pass through a birth canal. He does not advocate this as something desirable, but rather as something inevitable.”

    Hawking is doing the time-honored tradition of speaking on subjects where he is not an expert because he is an expert in at least one field. Doesn’t always mean he is wrong, but I have seen and noted that when it comes to subjects out of his main field, such as extraterrestrial life, his insights are no more profound than most other people.

    Unfortunately, the media and general public think that guys like Hawking and Einstein, because they deal with some of the ultimate questions in science, are then experts on all subjects, including aliens and God.

    As for science geeks not doing well with emotions, if I may use a cultural reference as an example, I think the portrayl of ubernerd Sheldon is one big reason why this happens. In his case, he grew up in a dysfunctional family and his high IQ was a detriment to his environment (he spent his childhood in Texas). As a result, Sheldon closed off the majority of his feelings – except towards the ones which remind him of his few happy points in childhood, such as comic books – and is socially inept to the point you might think he was autistic.

    I know that is a television example and a stereotype to a degree, but there are enough real examples out there to make this generally true.

    What I don’t see are schools, especially universities, doing much beyond tokenism to cultivate a person’s full range and not just their intellects. However, it seems most colleges when it comes to the hard sciences are designed to weed out the intellectually inferior. Thus we continue to have the so-called stereotypes of the socially clueless nerd.

  26. Walden2 says:

    Oops, forgot to add – Sheldon is a main character on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. The series is about four science geeks, two of whom live across the hall from a very attractive woman who represents all the other emotions and social abilities they lack. The two groups often attempt to understand each other, but of course the comedy comes from the clash of their social and science awareness, and lack thereof.

  27. caliban says:

    “What I don’t see are schools, especially universities, doing much beyond tokenism to cultivate a person’s full range and not just their intellects.”

    Unfortunately, what we have these days, especially with the soaring cost of tuition coupled to the stoked hatred of “intellectuals,” is pressure on universities to become vocational training program. It’s happening prior to universities as well. Growing up in California, I had access to excellent arts teachers (and there was good music and drama programs as well, but I didn’t avail myself of them) at a middle-of-the-rod high schoo. But this was prior to Proposition 13 (which slashed property taxes). Arts education has all but disappeared.

    There are occasional programs to try to tie these together. My university even has one. But when faced with massive budget cuts (my department has half the faculty it did ten years ago, with more students streaming through our classes) things like that are thrown out as we desperately try to keep from sinking.

  28. Athena says:

    Larry, The Big Bang Theory is a perfect showcase of what I discussed in the article. While on vacation just before my plunge into the grant due next week, I saw a marathon run of the program. It’s funny in small doses, and its explicit science-friendly stance is a rarity in pop culture; but the cumulative effect is depressing, because of its implications. Halo and celebrity aside, Stephen Hawking is an exemplar of the expert in one domain who assumes this makes him an authority in all others: his views on biology, women, aliens and the future of reproduction are frankly cringe-worthy.

    Calvin, indeed. For a brief, shining moment, schools and universities tried to ensure that young people got at least a modicum of exposure in a wide gamut of knowledge: sciences, arts, humanities. Now, education has become a series of discrete narrow funnels explicitly designed to maximize monetization.

  29. Walden2 says:

    Athena, I have been told by a friend who watches TBBT more than I do that Sheldon is slowly coming around to accept the fact that he is a human being with feelings and needs and not some superior life form as he sometimes thinks of himself as due to his high intelligence.

    Whether the series makers will allow Sheldon to evolve (or just plain grow up in this case) at the expense of losing his original character remains to be seen. The characters on M*A*S*H and All In the Family were allowed to evolve, so there is hope. Sheldon really is a product of emotional abuse, which the series, being primarily a sitcom, has only made allusions to, especially in terms of recovering from his past.

    For those who think I am getting carried away about a fictional television character, Sheldon could serve as an example for those viewers in the real world with similar problems on how to overcome the dysfunctional pasts that made them such introverts. I know the main goal of CBS is to make money via entertainment, but ironically television may become the one place for people with poor family dynamics to learn how to be socialized human beings.

    Speaking of education, Thomas Jefferson once envisioned a university where everyone could go there for free to learn anything they wanted. What a liberal hippie.

  30. Athena says:

    Actually, Larry, it’s not just Sheldon. All four of the main characters, although they’re distinct, suffer from similar dysfunctions — and the “abused childhood” argument will only take you so far. To give just two examples, Raj will not speak directly to women and Howard fancies himself a pickup artist. Also, Penny is an essentialized feminine stereotype: she doesn’t even have a last name and all her education seems to come from People magazine. There are occasional glimpses of brainy girls (Amy, Bernadette) but none is allowed a lengthy presence.

  31. Walden2 says:

    I was mainly focusing on Sheldon because of all of them, his character is the one that has a truly dysfunctional family and other issues that made his personality as abrupt as it is.

    Now that I think about it, TBBT might actually make a good if not better drama. It would certainly allow the characters to be more fleshed out and examined more in-depth, instead of having to go for the laugh. But just like the TV series that “mainlined” gay characters starting over a decade ago, general audiences need to be introduced to such so-called outsider types, which apparently includes geeks, even though some of them run the biggest companies on Earth.

  32. Walden2 says:

    I forgot to add (the brain is slipping, apparently) that outside the mainstream characters are often introduced to general audiences via television sitcoms rather than dramas. Laugh at them at first, then start to understand, then sympathize, then steal all their culture. :^)

  33. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Women, like everyone else, are individuals. Girls have interests beyond what society thinks a female should be interested in. Some are interested in advanced physics, chemistry, geology, biology, advanced propulsion research, starships…. you name it. And like other individuals with such interests, some girls pursue careers in science. The stereotype that boys are more interested in science than girls is simply not true.

    These stereotypes are not harmless- they are very harmful and turn girls off of science. The media seems to be do its best to turn everyone off of science by perpetuating untrue stereotypes about scientists and women in science. Persistent stereotypes and biased science teachers turn girls off of science every day. A more supportive educational environment for girls is more supportive for boys as well. A school that recognized students as individuals and supported their interests would go a long way toward improving science education. A less supportive environment widens the gap between students and science education.

  34. Dylan Fox says:

    @ Christopher

    Athena’s right: I do mostly agree with you that scientific advancement is a result of co-operative effort, building on what came before and, as Athena says, a result of need, culture and timing. However, the ‘solitary genius’ trope is still very much alive and well in popular culture. Take Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica. After Head Six shouts at him for a few minutes, he pulls a Cylon detector out of thin air. Because, him being a computer scientist, he obviously has an intricate grasp and understanding of particle physics, biology and anything else he needs. ‘Cause, you know, science is all the same thing really. He develops into a more complex character, but the trope is still there. There’s Doc Brown, from Back to the Future, too. Just the two who spring first to mind.

  35. Athena says:

    I considered doing a dissection of the Galactica reboot, but gave it up because the mere contemplation of it caused me serious hives. They started with a lot of promise and threw it all away: from science to gender roles to religion and politics — you name what can be done wrong, they did it. Suffice it to say that I now refer to the series as Battlestar Galumphica.

  36. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    Fascinating and well argued as always.

  37. Walden2 says:

    A take on science fiction as literature from a Royal Society of Britain blog post from November of 2011 here:

    http://blogs.royalsociety.org/history-of-science/2011/11/17/science-fiction-literature/

  38. Athena says:

    I’m happy you liked the article, Kathryn! You and I have had similar discussions which I recall with great fondness and pleasure.

    Larry, I think Benford’s binary distinction is facile. Literature needs an observer, regardless of genre, and a shift in focus does not excuse shit-poor writing.

  39. Christopher Phoenix says:

    @Dylan Fox

    I’m glad we agree. Science fiction should not be a mushy, putrid pulp of predigested literary devices mixed with garbled science words and technobabble.

    BTW- I’m already insulted after reading the first few sentences of “Can Science Fiction be Literature?”. My taste in literature is not impaired by being 18 years old. Nor was I impaired when I was younger, either. I had the Narnia series, The Wind in the Willows, the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, and so on. I also read Jane Eyre- which is set in a period of time as strange to modern day readers as many fantasy stories. Whatever I read, be it fantastic or contemporary, I demand well thought out characters and interesting plots.

    All good story-telling illuminates the human condition, and sometimes a story set in an alternate steampunk Britain where the mastery of Djinn is used by magicians to control a world empire can illuminate just as much as a story set in a contemporary setting does- maybe more. A lot of it is the skill of the writer. Grouping fiction by the setting of the story is just silly.

  40. […] the amazing Athena Andreadis (whose A Plague On Both Your Houses you might have read): The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka […]

  41. pheeed says:

    You know, when I was very young (about ten or eleven), I’d write short stories and show them to my parents. Their response was usually along the lines of this “What is this crap. This isn’t a story, it’s a video game on paper,” Eventually I realized that much more life experience is needed to write believable stories that actually resonate with people, as opposed to just describing something I think is cool. Nowadays, I don’t read much S/F-F because for every book I pick up from those categories I keep thinking “this would be sooo much better as a video game,” Funny, that.

    I loved the article, btw. I’m definitely going to read the archives and follow the updates. There’s quite a bit to gained here for aspiring writers like myself.

  42. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

    Reading will fill some of the experience gap, but not all of it. I agree with you that far too many SF/F stories resemble video games (especially the finding-oneself-quest-with-arbitrary-magic clones).

  43. pheeed says:

    I should probably point out that I think it’s very much possible to tell a good and meaningful story through a video game, but it’s a completely different medium than literature. A good example of one will pretty much never flow like the other. Yet, when reading a book acclaimed as worthwhile, I always seem to find myself thinking “oh our hero is level grinding. How wonderful that the author has chosen to bless me with the most boring experience of a game through the medium of text. Never again will I see anything else as ‘the biggest waste of time ever’,” It says a lot about the S/F-F genres that the finding-oneself-quest, just previously described, is considered one of the most important plot archetypes.

    Filling the experience gap is the toughest part about being a writer. It’s the toughest part about most things, really, but with writing it’s absolutely essential. I think the biggest problem with a lot of geeky S/F-F writers is that they have a hard time really getting outside their comfort zones. As such, they have a small pool to draw from when it comes to conveying anything meaningful, so they stick to what they know will be familiar to most of their audience. In modern readers, this includes things like action movies, and video games, and oh look a circle.

  44. […] back to Athena Andreadis’ The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction: Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka […]

  45. DylanFox.net says:

    […] ago that wouldn’t have bothered me. Now it does. Deeply. I almost wholly blame thank Allegra and Athena. They made me believe that spec-fic can and should have emotional […]