Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Filling in the gaps

Words written c35500
Stories completed 5
Rejections 80
Acceptances 1

So, I learnt recently, but only by reading month-old news, NASA’s best candidate for a ‘twin’ for Earth, a planet orbiting its star in the so-called Goldilocks zone, Kepler-452b, is only possibly rocky (and equally likely to be gassy), and then only possibly has an atmosphere and liquid water.  And then, and only then, may it possibly have life.  Oh, and its 1400 light years away.

Face it, we’ll never make it to the stars.

Not that I’m personally bothered; I found commuting from Devon to Edinburgh back in the springtime taxing enough.  However, my thoughts turn to the implications for science-fiction.  Not so much the implications of what we know is out there, but the avenues that, one-by-one, close off. 

Let me explain.  It strikes me that SF is, and always has been, ‘filling in the gaps’.  As knowledge increases our scope for speculating shrinks.  For example, until faster-than-light travel is proved impossible (if a negative can ever be proved) stories will still be littered with inexplicable sleight-of-hands in the shape of portals and wormholes lifting our protagonists to impossibly-faraway worlds.

But something curious happens when a hitherto possible gets crossed through in red ink. Once we know what is or is not, it is hard to posit what could have been.  If a proof is ever offered and accepted of the impossibility of FLT then all such story devices will become somewhat silly.  They feel that the author is cheating.  But - and this is the curious aspect - stories written before the bar dropped somehow seem exempt.

There is something about ‘period’ SF (or any fiction) where we naturally find ourselves reading it in the context of when it was written.  It seems impossible for the brain to tell itself to ‘pretend this story were written in 1950’ whereas it happily copes with a story genuinely written in 1950 with all its accompanying pre Moon-landing clunk?  I mean, it’s all a fiction anyway and we have to buy into a fictional storyverse, so why is it so hard to buy into then-current truths being circumvented, even when done in a non-cheating way.

Compare two books, one I’m reading, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain, with one I finished a few hours ago, Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness.  Both, in different ways, fictional anthropological studies, the former of a society on another planet, the second of the dark continent of Africa.  But I can read Haggard in the context of it being written with the mores as well as knowledge of the Victorians, whereas LeGuin’s 1960s novel has to move its unknown society into space.

A regards the books themselves, in both cases I find their fictional anthropological studies interesting intellectually, but ultimately hollow.  Both sag when the story doesn’t move forward - the novel as shark.  It reminds me of a point made in my (largely linguistics) masters degree: that there are savants who can master any real language in days, but find artificial, man-made languages impossible.  The point there is about a need for Chomskian deep-grammar; the point here is about documentary needing to ring true.

For my money, world-building is only of interest in the context of story telling, then the test becomes whether the story is consistent with the rules of the fictional world rather than whether the rules of the fictional world are themselves internally consistent.  I find some SF authors and editors too interested in the science not the story - I once had a story praised by an editor for speculating on unmanned mining ships set to come down in the Australian desert, but rejected for the not being enough of such conjecture.  To me, that was just a throwaway bit of background travelogue; what about the story?

But, whatever the story, prepare for it to become archaic should anything you posit turn out not quite to be the case.  Haggard could build his world on this planet; LeGuin had to, literally, push the boundaries.  As SF always does.

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