Science Fiction Studies

#56 = Volume 19, Part 1 = March 1992

David N. Samuelson

Botching the Science in Science Fiction

Robert Lambourne, 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 it—whether emotionally or rationally, naively or knowledgeably—with 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 fancy—or 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 either.

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 souvenirs.

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: "By 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 with "sf 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 physics—in 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 following:

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 contains.

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 Vonnegut—have 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 "new 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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