"Not Science Fiction"

Interesting editorial on bioterrorism over at The Washington Post. I find the article's language more interesting than its specific claims (yes, bioterrorism is complex and we are woefully underprepared, and yes I agree that the Senate committee hearings for Chertoff should probably raise the issue more explicitly). But the way that the author(s) choose to express the urgency is by using a quotation from one of the organizers of a mock bioterrorism exercise:

"This is not science fiction…The age of bioterror is now."

Think about that for a second. The sentiment seems to be that policy should deal with the realm of facts, not of speculative possibilities. But isn't every disastrous event a mere possibility before it happens? Indeed, aren't many of them "impossible" (or the close relative of impossibility, "so unlikely as to be practically impossible") up to the moment before they occur? The disintegration of the Soviet Union was "science fiction" (meaning, in this context, a speculative possibility rather than a present fact) up until the time when it actually took place. Chernobyl? SARS? Ditto.

In fact, in a further irony, policymakers trying to think through how bioterrorism might be effectively combatted might profitably examine the examinations that serious novelists have made of this issue. The beginning of Stephen King's The Stand comes to mind; I'm sure that there are others but I'm brain-dead from book manuscript revisions. Feel free to make comments to this post suggesting other authors and titles, and make me feel like an idiot for having forgotten them in the first place.

Perhaps policymakers should pay more attention to science fiction, not less.

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There is a Vulcan philosophy called Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations; it's kind of a super-multiculturalism supposedly dictated by logic or at least so closely related to the way that Vulcans practice logic that the two are indistinguishable. Not being Vulcan myself (at least, not as far as I know :-) I can only present a surface-level account of the stance, but it seems to me to involve a healthy respect for contingency and the uniqueness of actually existing situations. Things are the way that they are, and take the course or action that they actually do take, not because of cosmic natural necessity or because of any innate dispositional character of the materials at hand, but because the possibilities of the universe constitute a countable infinity of potential combinations. Hence one has to appreciate the particular way in which things come together, because there is a potentially limitless number of other ways that they could have come together, and thus a potentially limitless number of alternative pathways.

I bring this up not just because it's relevant to my s/s/f class' ongoing discussion of Star Trek this week and next week (since Star Trek is in many ways a depiction of an analogical America, IDIC is kind of a utopian extrapolation of what American respect for diversity might become -- this utopian extrapolation is the usual role played by the Vulcans in the Federation, and also underpinned Roddenberry's conception of characters like Spock. Do not get me started on how this gets completely frelled up in Enterprise). I also mention it because it seems an apt account of how class discussions proceed, especially from year to year. This semester I am teaching two courses that I have taught before: the s/s/f seminar, and my Conduct of Inquiry course for the Ph.D. students. The syllabi for each course changes slightly from repetition to repetition; s/s/f this year features a new unit on the politics of scientific knowledge, and C of I features the addition of Andrew Abbott's brilliant book Chaos of Disciplines. But in basic outline and design the courses remain broadly similar across time.

What fascinates me -- along the lines of IDIC -- is how a discussion of the same material can be so radically different with a different group of people at a different point in time. This week s/s/f discussed Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and focused largely on the feasibility of the (libertarian) society that he outlined; two years ago the discussion was much more centered on Mike the intelligent supercomputer. C of I discussed Wittgenstein's Tractatus last week, and discussed Hempel's essay "The function of General Laws in History" this week; the discussion centered on the practical implications of these broadly positivist stances for conducting actual research, whereas past years' discussions have been more concerned with the ontology of logical positivism or the socio-political project embodied in the drive to eliminate metaphysical claims from our stock of putatively "scientific" knowledge.

What changes? The text(s) remain the same, in the sense that the same words appear on the same pages; I keep teaching the courses, although I know that I'm not exactly the same person I was last time around (are we ever?). Obviously the group of students is different, bringing with them different individual and communal concerns, and the environment within which we discuss things is different. Talking about space as "the final frontier" and examining how the notion of Manifest Destiny is explored in the Star Trek megatext, as well as in Heinlein's novel (which might just as easily have been called Manifest Destiny on the Moon), is obviously a different matter during the War on Terrorism and in the presence of a newly aggressive vindicationist American foreign policy. And the blogging changes classroom dynamics in unpredictable ways too, since people can provisionally formulate and advance ideas outside of class in ways that they couldn't before.

Sometimes -- often -- I just want to step back and watch the grand panoply of joint action unfold. Conversations are collective products, and their variety is endlessly fascinating to me. IDIC indeed.

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Battlestar Galactica

I'll date myself if I admit that I was an ardent fan, as a little boy, of the original TV series Battlestar Galactica during the year that it was on prime-time network television. (I lost interest in the successor series Galactica 1980 after the first three or four episodes -- partially because it stunk, partially because I was very into the original configuration of the show and couldn't quite wrap my mind around Boxy as a viper pilot. I mean, Boxy had been this battle-scarred kid with the coolest robotic dog ever in Moffit, and now he was doing what Starbuck and Apollo had done in the old series? Um, no.)

Well, I was an ardent fan. Loved the cosmology of the series: twelve tribes of humans whose homeworlds had the same names as our zodiac, the idea that there were more humans in the galaxy someplace, and the tremendously cool ship designs and colonial military uniforms. It was basically space opera, but did explore some interesting issues about authority and legitimacy whenever Adama had to deal with the ruling political council, and the Cylons were a pretty well-done race of killer robots chasing after Our Heroes every week.

The newly re-imagined version of the series, showing on the Sci-Fi Channel on Friday nights, is a bit different. It's grittier, less space-operatic, and because it's a Sci-Fi Channel show there is more sex. The addition of human-looking Cylons is an interesting twist (although if memory serves there was a Galactica 1980 episode that also went here, so it's not that much of a radical departure), especially since Sharon ("Boomer," who used to be a fun-loving African-American guy and is now an Asian woman -- still not sure whether I like the fact that they changed almost all of the old character names to call-signs for people whose actual names are somewhat more ordinary-sounding, although I understand the logic of making the characters seem more like regular human beings to promote identification by the viewers), who we know to be a Cylon, seems to have two independent personalities that occasionally struggle with one another. That, together with the apparition that Gaius seems to keep seeing (is she real? a figment of his imagination? projection of his guilt at having unwittlingly made the Cylon destruction of the colonies possible in the first place?), opens a number of intriguing avenues that I hope the writers will explore in future episodes. The Cylons also appear to have a strong religious belief system of some kind, which would be a very interesting thing to hear more about. Given Sci-Fi Channel's past track record I am not optimistic (look what they did to Sliders, and I still haven't really forgiven them for canceling Farscape several years too early). But there's potential there, especially since the head writer is Ronald D. Moore, who cut his sci-fi chops on Star Trek and so presumably knows a thing or three about what good serial sci-fi should look like.

And the graphics are very impressive. The things one can do with CGI these days!

I'll give it another month or so, and in all likelihood will watch it for the rest of the season. We'll see by that point whether it's good enough to keep watching. All new shows should probably get a full season to hit their stride and find their audience; this goes double for complexly-plotted sci-fi shows. After all, it took ST:TNG at least that long to figure out what it was about, and the series didn't really get consistently good until season three.

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Course Blogs

As promised, here are the addresses for all five of the course blogs from the social/science/fiction course. Read and enjoy!

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We had the "what is sci-fi?" discussion in s/s/f on Tuesday. I find it fascinating to observe how a conversation with the same basic starting-point evolves very differently with a different mix of people involved; last time I taught this class it was almost entirely full of self-proclaimed sci-fi geeks, so basically everyone was familiar with certain canonical works in the genre. In this class, there were two people who hadn't seen Star Wars (yes, it's true), and about a third of the students admitted to be interested in sci-fi but not having read/watched much of it. This made for a very interesting conversation indeed. Normally I like to have genre-discussion conversations in an empirical-ostensive way: here are a set of works, let's see what kinds of criteria we can use to cut them into "sci-fi" and "not sci-fi." So the definitions in question are about finding criteria that allow us to preserve and refine our intuitions, and ultimately derive their sense from the works to which they point. Obviously, if the level of common knowledge in the group is more limited, this makes for a somewhat different flavor of conversation.

Nonetheless, three points emerged that loosely correspond to my own working definition of "science fiction." These are individually necessary but insufficient criteria, jointly sufficient to classify something as a work of science fiction.

First, a futural orientation. Science fiction for me is about an imagined future or an imagined alternate present, rather than about an imagined past. This is mainly a tonal issue, I think: fantasy, the principal "other" against which this criterion is directed, tends to evoke a sense of a world long gone, while science fiction looks towards something that is to come, or could have come had something been slightly different.

Second, a thematic of technological difference. There has to be some kind of change in technology, and this change -- and its implications, usually including social implications -- has to constitute an important thread that the novel/film explores. It's not enough for there to be different technology, though; something like Star Wars certainly has different technology (lightsabers, hyperdrive, etc.) but these things don't seem to affect the conditions of possibility for action in any significant way. One could tell Star Wars without the spaceships and laser guns and the like and not lose too much of the story (although you'd lose the special effects); the same is not true with Star Trek, as the technology both enables the whole cosmos (no warp drive, no Enterprise) and forms a significant issue that is addressed in numerous ways throughout the megatext of films and TV episodes and novels -- most notably in the continual return to the Prime Directive as a way of handling relationships between the Federation and less technologically advanced civilizations.

Contrast also the Star Wars use of faster-than-light travel with what Stephen R. Donaldson does with the notion in his Gap series; where Donaldson gets into sociological and other implications of the technology, Lucas treats it like he treated the internal combustion engine in American Graffiti: people jump in their cars/spaceships and turn the key, and off they go (broken hyperdrive issue throughout ESB aside, since Han Solo tinkering with the engine is kind of like a teenager tinkering with his car: neither one is about the technology per se).

It's also important for me that the difference be technological, and not magical. The difference is that technology inhabits a "disenchanted" world -- one in which there are mundane rules that reliably produce results, and there is nothing that can't be known in principle (although there might be things that are empirically not known or incompletely understood -- a common theme of much science fiction, actually). Weber points out that living in a disenchanted world means that even if you don't know how the train works, you have a sense that you could find out -- and that the explanation would not involve supernatural forces or mystical/divine intervention. Now, one can have disenchanted worlds that aren't science fiction, even disenchanted worlds that involve "magic." Harry Potter comes to mind, since "magic" there is just another subject in which people specialize and are educated (I do not think that the notion of "being born with the gift" makes HP less disenchanted, since the same might be said of the ability to program a computer or play baseball; talents and inclinations don't mark a system as "enchanted" in the way that an absence of calculable rules and procedures does).

Third, a plausible connection to the present. This is the trickiest criterion, I think, since the definition of "plausible" is a matter of some dispute. It might mean that the technology depicted in the film/novel can't be inconsistent with what we presently know (the Heinlein criterion from his definition that I posted earlier -- although Heinlein pushes that a lot in his later works with his creation of the Burroughs Improbability Bus that permits passage between alternate timelines, which is a pretty extreme interpretation of the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics…), or it might mean that we need some kind of developmental path from our science to that of the novel/film (often mediated by that conventional sci-fi narrative device, the Man From The Past Who Finds Himself In The Future, glossed as John Chriton in Farscape [Man From Earth Who Falls Into A Wormhole And Ends Up On The Other Side Of The Galaxy] or as the future character with an oddly convenient interest in Old Earth, a.k.a. our present). The basic point is that there has to be some way that the imagined future looks like it might have developed from ours, or that it is connected to ours in such a way as to make it a legitimate modification of some of our world's scientific rules.

This is a fuzzy criterion. Heck, all three of these are fuzzy. The point of a genre-bounding discussion like this, I think, is not to answer the question as much as it is to elucidate points of debate and contention that can be explored in connection with specific works later on; the definition in question is ideal-typical in the Weberian sense, and deviations from it, or ambiguous cases that push its boundaries, are where it demonstrates its interpretive utility.

As an exercise, consider whether the following works are science fiction or not, and why:

  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
  • Iron Council, by China Mieville (see the discussion over at Crooked Timber about this precise issue, among other things)
  • Star Wars, with and without the expanded universe novels
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle
Or add your own borderline cases.

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Tomorrow in the first session of the social/science/fiction course I want to have a discussion about what "science fiction" is and what "social science" is, and what we might gain by juxtaposing them as I have tried to do in the syllabus. So naturally I've been thinking a great deal about this issue over the past few days, especially in terms of the definition of "science fiction" ("social science" is easier, since there's a nice definition that I like and am in print as using and advocating).

Here's the dilemma: this is what I've been thinking about so logically I should blog about it here. (I do have an anonymous blog out there too, but reflections like this aren't so appropriate for that forum.) But if I do, then someone in the class might read my reflections here and that might shut down the conversation in class tomorrow. After all, what I want to do is to have the discussion, not simply provide the class with a definition and have them scribble it down in notebooks. (Truth to tell I'm not certain that there is a final answer to the question "what is science fiction," anyway. But a course on science fiction and social science needs to have working definitions of its subject-matter, if only to rule works like The Lord of the Rings out of consideration.) What to do, what to do…

A compromise: three definitions of science fiction by respected science fiction authors (would anyone deny that these three are science fiction authors? I think not -- even if those who aren't fans of the genre might not recognize John Brunner's name off the bat, and might not know his classic exploration of overpopulation Stand On Zanzibar) that I think are interesting. Not necessarily right or wrong, but interesting.

The first is by Ursula K. LeGuin:
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. … The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is to tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. … All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, draw from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor. [“Introduction,” The Left Hand of Darkness (1976)]
A second comes from Robert Heinlein:
Science Fiction is speculative fiction in which the author takes as his first postulate the real world as we know it, including all established facts and natural laws. The result can be extremely fantastic in content, but it is not fantasy; it is legitimate—and often very tightly reasoned—speculation about the possibilities of the real world. This category excludes rocket ships that make U-turns, serpent men of Neptune that lust after human maidens, and stories by authors who flunked their Boy Scout merit badge tests in descriptive astronomy. [“Ray Guns And Spaceships,” in Expanded Universe (Ace, 1981)]
Finally, some thoughts by John Brunner:
As its best, SF is the medium in which our miserable certainty that tomorrow will be different from today in ways we can’t predict, can be transmuted to a sense of excitement and anticipation, occasionally evolving into awe. Poised between intransigent skepticism and uncritical credulity, it is par excellence the literature of the open mind.
And just for the heck of it, some thoughts by the editor John W. Campbell, Jr., whose magazines helped to create the genre as a sociological category of the American publishing industry a half-century ago:
The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along … The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition--then develop its consistent, logical consequences.” [“Introduction,” Analog 6, 1966]
That should be enough food for thought for now. I'll weigh in again on this after we have the class discussion tomorrow.

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Cutting the cord

As of today, I resolve (I know it's a little late for New Year's resolutions, but what the hey) not to assign traditional weekly journals in any of my courses again.

I have been using the "weekly response paper" as a pedagogical technique for years. Having students write short essays reacting to the material every week helps to stimulate class discussion, since people have at least the contents of their weekly response to share; also, presumably, writing the response has forced them to think about the material outside of class, and hopefully stimulated some novel insights. Traditionally I have students e-mail me their weekly papers, and then I embed comments in the documents and return them.

There are two problems with this procedure: the student was simply having a one-on-one conversation with me, and if I got behind on returning the responses (which always happened, every semester) then the dialogue flagged. The problem with a one-on-one conversation between myself and a student is that it often devolved into the student asking questions about the material, or tossing out an interpretation for me to correct, which is precisely not what I wanted to happen. And when the student got five or six papers back at the end of the semester after I'd been up for three straight days dealing with all of them, even that aspect was less than helpful -- since they'd usually already finished their final exams or papers by then.

So the problem was: how to promote conversations outside of class, while also ensuring that people were keeping up with the material and developing a defensible interpretation of it? The solution, I have discovered, is blogging: having students maintain a blog during the course, post to it once or twice a week, and also encourage them to comment on other people's blogs. I kind of stumbled into all of this, having caught the blogging virus from a former student and then tried it out as a pedagogical strategy this summer during a study-abroad program. This past Fall semester I used blogs quite a bit in my section of World Politics, and now for the Spring I am cutting the cord and adopting the "all blogs, all the time (except for final semester papers)" strategy:

  • my Ph.D. seminar "The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations" is using this blog as a way of circulating insights and comments about the week's readings before class, and to reflect on class discussions afterwards -- as well as sharing their insights with the wider 'Net, including perhaps some of the authors whose works we are reading.
  • my Honors seminar "Social/Science/Fiction" is going to be setting up several course blogs -- one per blogging group, with groups being determined by me on the first day of class next week -- to do much the same thing, although their requirements are a bit more stringent. (I'll post my "blogging rubric" in a subsequent entry if anyone wants to see it -- let me know.)
I will post the urls of the s/s/f blogs as soon as they exist. Obviously, since these are public blogs, anyone is welcome to join in the conversation(s) by following the links and chiming in…

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