David N. Samuelson
Botching the Science in Science Fiction
Michael Shallis, and Michael Shortland. Close
Encounters? Science and Science Fiction. Bristol, UK: Adam Hilger, 1990.
NY: American Institute of Physics. xiii+184. $26.00, paper.
Gregory L. Zentz.
Jupiter's Ghost: Next Generation Science Fiction.
NY: Praeger, 1991. xxx+159. $39.95.
The role of science in science fiction is difficult for
critics to address. Most students of literature, however curious about and even
sympathetic to certain scientific disciplines, are expert in none of them. Critics with
scientific credentials are often equally inexpert with tools for examining prose and film
narrative, let alone expressing their finding in language acceptable to literary critics
or lay audiences.
The scientist's regard for scientific information as
privileged, a status claimed for it in discursive non-fiction, breaks the plane of
fictional reality. Asserting for science the status of truth in the world outside the
frame abrogates the usual compact between creators and audiences of fiction. Like sacred
literature, however, SF may demand assent to truths, theoretical or empirical, as part of
the mimetic base against which the behavior of fictional characters is evaluated.
The narrative compact, however, typically treats
information, whatever the source, as part of the belief structures of characters
(including narrators and cameras). Audience reactions to characters in virtually all
narrative stem from their appearances, actions (including speeches), and thoughts, as well
as reactions by others. Audience reactions to SF derive from how characters (and
narrators) relate to itwhether emotionally or rationally, naively or
knowledgeablywith the ever-present threat of irony intervening at any stage.
The difficulty of reconciling incommensurate views is
compounded by other problems. SF creators do not always do their homework or understand
it. Research behind SF speculations may be faulty. Scientific speculation, which
distinguishes SF from other narratives, typically has a short shelf-life, deteriorating
rapidly into fancyor fact. Even if the scientific information is both accurate and
timely, moreover, writers and filmmakers are conscious liars, whose lies must be familiar
enough to command recognition, yet original enough to secure a copyright. Furthermore,
while narratives may conform to formulas or contribute to consensus constructions of
reality, there are strict limits to what can be determined about the world from examining
even a large number of fictional texts.
These problems bedevil even critics who read widely and
sensitively, and temper their judgments with prudence, conditions not always in evidence
in criticism either inside or outside SF circles. Those conditions hardly obtain in the
books under consideration. One is a collection of mismatched essays about science, SF, and
cinema; the other a farrago of half-understood clichés about history, science, and
metaphysics. Their attempts to tell us about science and SF say little of use about
Far from a seamless whole, Close Encounters? Science
and Science Fiction amalgamates essays by popularizers with disparate backgrounds,
styles, and goals. Robert Lambourne and Michael Shallis have experience with physics,
Shallis and Michael Shortland with film. All are university lecturers, in England and
Australia. From their interest in science and SF comes a broad survey of the relationship
between them in the introductory chapters. Three chapters on what films of the 1950s are
said to reveal about science, scientists, and the "real world" separate sweeping
considerations of time travel in SF from equally general surveys of religion and
environmental concerns in SF. In all of these succeeding chapters, this book far exceeds
its demure claim of "a slight tendency to favour film" (x).
The introductions are passable. A simplified history of SF
emphasizes how it parallels and sometimes embodies the history of science. Devoting five
pages to its prehistory, nine to the 19th century, and nineteen to the 20th, it divides
the latter near 1960. The proportions are decorous, but the last section concentrates on
publishing and visual media and a perceived drift away from science, rather than on the SF
produced, or an analysis of texts in any medium. In such brief compass, points of emphasis
are debatable, but no gross misstatements of facts leap out.
At two-thirds the length, the essay on science in SF is
clearly organized. Ruling out fantasy (irrelevantly included) and New Wave SF (far too
broadly conceived), and dismissing "imaginary" and "pseudo-" science, it focuses
mainly on physics in hard SF. It groups six kinds of uses of scientific information,
extrapolations, and processes in the creation of environments, puzzles, and backgrounds.
It refers primarily to authors who actually write hard SF: Benford, Clarke, Clement,
Forward, Hoyle, and Niven. Summarizing the breadth of disciplines found in SF, it also
addresses problems of accuracy, including dated data, tunnel vision, and attenuated
possibilities which have become staple SF conventions.
The brevity is regrettable, since these sections are the
best written in the book, which fails to build on them. Unlike Vivian Sobchack's Screening
Space (1987), which shows how productive close examination of SF films can be, the
remaining essays consist largely of easy generalizations on individual films and books, on
SF overall, and on contemporary history, rendered in global terms, with limited support
and often peripheral relevance to science (i.e., SF films rarely feature scientific
accuracy). If the argumentation is thin, so is the continuity, even in the sequence on the
1950s. All these chatty chapters really establish is that a number of films and books
treated a variety of themes and images roughly connected with chapter titles. Rather than
illustrate points in the essays, moreover, the 36 still photos from films serve mainly as
The major problem lies in the claim, largely honored, to
avoid "aficionado's language and assumptions that would limit the readership to those who
are already versed in science fiction" (ix). Largely ignoring literary, cinematic, and
genre conventions, they avoid any critical apparatus needed to make sense of their
subject. Even their excursus on filmic realism is an excuse to shift attention away from
text to audience; shifting from realism to verisimilitude to believability, they fail to
explain what the audience contribution is. Calling their book an exercise in "popular
culture" (xi) does not justify rejecting limits on the definition of SF or the scope of
research, or failing to establish any hierarchies of significance (if aesthetics is too
nebulous, popularity, accuracy, or influence might do). Thus their treatment is roughly
equal of SF classics and monster movies, both popular and obscure, as well as The China
Syndrome, Silkwood, and Krakatoa, East of Java, which few responsible
observers would call SF.
Such a superficial treatment makes it impossible to live
up to the hype of raising consciousness of "the complex picture of science that is
presented by this popular genre" (ix). Indeed, it is difficult to see this book as much
more than an attempt to cash in on the popularity of SF film. Though it lacks hard covers
and color plates, Close Encounters? is little removed from a "coffee table book."
Evoking nostalgia and offering the ignorant a pretense of information, it does not reward
a careful examination.
Where Close Encounters? is shallow and calculated, Jupiter's
Ghost is incompetent and confused. Lambourne, Shallis, and Shortland at least show
acquaintance with their subject and reasonable standards of expression, qualities not
always present in university teachers. Recognizing limitations on their expertise, they
write a generally serviceable prose. Neither virtue is true of Gregory L. Zentz, a
technical representative for Fischer Scientific (astronomical instrument makers), officer
in an astronomical society, and unpublished SF novelist. Though his credentials are
modest, his book is not, attempting to outline the history of SF, its roots in Western
intellectual history, and its potential connections with Eastern thought.
Covering these subjects in 152 pages would invite
superficial abstraction even from a polymath. Zentz is the worst sort of generalist, as he
reveals in what is from him a relatively straightforward piece of labored prose:
generalist I mean that due to the reductionist complexity of most fields of study today,
and given that the subject being addressed incorporates so many different disciplines, an
overview analysis, omitting many details and less obvious scientific and philosophical
branchings, is necessary" (xvii). An alert reader will see that the parts don't quite
connect, a common event in this book.
Based on his notes and citations, his command of each of
his weighty subjects rests on a half dozen popularizations, many of which he apparently
misreads. Unsurprisingly, his integration of these disciplines is incoherent as well as
superficial. Zentz rarely establishes a point before going on to the next, his attention
span drifting after a few paragraphs. Sentences challenging comprehension are riddled with
misplaced adverbs and embedded with abstractions and allusions of questionable logic and
relevance. The book resembles a compilation of errors on freshman history exams shoehorned
into a flimsy excuse for an essay.
His diction rings with self-conscious elegance, like
"laud" (as a noun) and "tome"; with rhetorical questions, to which he offers no
answers; and with clichés, sometimes signaled by quotation marks. Besides rhetorical
questions, to which he offers no answers, it features demonstrative pronouns of no fixed
abode and mixed metaphors of dubious ancestry and destiny. The prose is so poorly written
that I am tempted simply to quote him at length, letting his words serve as self-parody.
That few absolute breaches of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are visible reflects
credit on his copyreader, who could hardly be expected to straighten out the sense of his
sentences as well.
The central argument of Jupiter's Ghost, never
expressed quite so baldly, is that a revival of interest in hard SF requires that it
express the "new physics" in metaphors comparable to those of Eastern thought. While his
quaint notions do not fit the facts, unpacking his thesis might be mildly interesting, but
that would be too easy. Instead, Zentz traces science from "humankind's early
prehistory" (2) through the 6th century BC to the present, dragging along texts
elements from a modern paradigmatic perspective" (8) from Plato through Aquinas to
the 17th century, as "the gaze of philosophy turned inward" and "things became ever
more confusing" (19). Such tortuous chronologies yield "First Wave" SF, with Verne and
Wells (and perhaps the Poe of "engineering fiction" and the Dickens of A Christmas
Carol) unaffected by quantum electrodynamics or QED for short.
By way of Turgenev and Nietzsche (don't ask how!)
"modern" SF came to address the new physicsin words he says are doomed to fail.
Then we are told that Clarke leapfrogged Nietzsche's gap, Bradbury used "Hegelian
dialectic against humankind's place in the universe" (46), and "SF readers were
demanding a holistic treatment of ideas," this demand making a best seller out of Stranger
in a Strange Land (47). What Zentz calls "Newtonian" SF (i.e., the old physics) may
continue to grow, but not "traditional hard SF," which one might be forgiven for having
thought was the same thing. The "next generation SF" must assimilate the new physics,
but its writers need not resort to fantasy or become physicists themselves (56-57).
After this eccentric history, which never really shows
what he thinks hard SF is, let alone demonstrating its demise, Zentz progressively loses
what little coherence he has. He also loses congruence with reality at nearly every point
where I am familiar with the concepts he reviews. Given adequate support, some of his
generalizations might be defensible though hardly revelatory. Unfortunately, they
typically lead to more generalizations or off-the-cuff misstatements or both, as in the
SF is still, after all, a literature of science. Yet it is
also a literature of ideas, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and, in fact, a literature
that, as much as any other, takes in the entire "human tradition." It must therefore
reflect what is considered "good science" for the period in which it is written. For,
after all, is not modern science, that is, the worldview paradigm of the day, something
that all can agree on?
The second sentence of this loose-limbed paragraph
counteracts the first, then virtually decomposes before our eyes. The third asserts an
unearned logical connection and the fourth declares something not in evidence, while
defining "modern science" in terms that only flirt with sense. Just sorting out what Zentz says, without pointing out how it errs, could take more words than this book
Abandoning Eastern wisdom, he treats as parallel
alternatives for the new constitutive principles for SF the Anthropic Cosmological
Principle and the idea of alternate universes. Assuming human beings are necessary for the
universe we know was an old conceit in fiction even before Fredric Brown's What Mad
Universe (1949) and L. Ron Hubbard's Typewriter in the Sky (1951); the new
physics is neither needed nor able to justify this solipsistic metafiction. Also an SF
commonplace is the many-worlds scenario Zentz confuses with multiple dimensions. In doing
so, he yokes some strange bedfellows with Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass
(considerably before the new physics). The texts listed (not analyzed)by Aldiss,
Asimov, Clarke, Delany, Heinlein, and Vonneguthave little in common with each other,
let alone with a nebulous "new" paradigm for "hard SF." Advancing these new
principles, he would allow a story to feature leaping between universes and time travel,
though physics rejects both and he ostensibly rejects fantasy.
The final four chapters fragment unmercifully. His
grasshopper jumps between science and publishing, SF and theology, misrepresent all four,
as he reiterates his dislocated demand for indistinct kinds of "innovation" and
ways of thinking." Without them, what he concludes SF will become is not too far from a
description of his own book: a tedious repetition of mechanistic stories or involvement in
increasingly reductionist scientific paradigms requiring vast amounts of explanatory
knowledge, the effect being that the stories become pedantic and unreadable (142).
In sum, Jupiter's Ghost is by far the worst book I
have ever read about SF, and there have been many demonstrations of incompetence with
which to compare it.
On the bright side, the appearance of books from nominally
respectable publishers indicates there may still be a general market for SF criticism
beyond the circle of fan publications and some university presses. These books also
suggest, unfortunately, that general publishers might not know good SF criticism if it bit
them. It's painful to consider the possibility that they sent the manuscripts out to
academic readers familiar with SF who saw no problems with them. I'd rather believe they
were edited in house by people as ill-equipped and uninterested as the authors in meeting
critical standards. Why should publishers of SF criticism be more knowledgeable or
intelligent than publishers of SF itself?
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