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Worlds Without End Blog

An Expostulation on Mundane Science Fiction Posted at 12:47 AM by Jonathan McDonald

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Though known most of all for his Narnia and Cosmic Trilogy works of fiction, C.S. Lewis was also an avid writer of poetry, much of which apparently remained unpublished during his life. As I was browsing through his Poems collection, I came across one such piece of verse that I thought deserved to be shared on the site, as it is a rather insightful critique of many popular forms of science fiction.

An Expostulation
Against too many writers of science fiction

Why did you lure us on like this,
Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,
Building (as though we cared for size!)
Empires that cover galaxies
If at the journey’s end we find
The same old stuff we left behind,
Well-worn Tellurian stories of
Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,
Whose setting might as well have been
The Bronx, Montmartre, or Bethnal Green?

Why should I leave this green-floored cell,
Roofed with blue air, in which we dwell,
Unless, outside its guarded gates,
Long, long desired, the Unearthly waits
Strangeness that moves us more than fear,
Beauty that stabs with tingling spear,
Or Wonder, laying on one’s heart
That finger-tip at which we start
As if some thought too swift and shy
For reason’s grasp had just gone by?

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8 Comments

Rico Simpkins   |   30 Dec 2011 @ 18:22

I like the nod to Shakespeare in the opening lines of the second stanza. For Hamlet, all of Denmark is a prison and the world, whose sky is "fretted with golden fire," seems "only a sterile promontory." For Lewis, terrestrial fiction is so binding that he expects sci-fi to give us an escape from those guarded gates. Perhaps this is why he borrowed from science fiction so much when discussing theological concepts. In his introduction to The Great Divorce, Lewis freely admits that he stole some ideas from a story about time travel. The Space Trilogy, of course, put the most fantastical concepts on other planets. This does seem to run counter to the practice of other authors, who simply see sci-fi as a setting for everyday narratives. Star Trek was originally pitched as "Wagon Train to the stars," because Roddenberry saw his project as a simple western translated into a futuristic backdrop. Trekkie though I am, I do wish more science fiction stories would explore how the future will be DIFFERENT, instead of just focusing on the universality of human experience.

Emil   |   31 Dec 2011 @ 07:04

I can’t help but to echo Rico’s sentiment about SF needing to show us HOW the future is going to be different. Universality of human experience? I guess that’s the cornerstone of all fiction. And perhaps the limits to which SF can express "different" futures when humans take center-stage.

Rhonda   |   31 Dec 2011 @ 10:42

I started writing a comment to this earlier, but it was turning into an essay. So I think I will try again with what I learned from writing the "essay." Both of your comments reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s article Innovation Starvation that WWE linked to on your Twitter feed. http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/fall2011/innovation-starvationSo, I will just pose a question. If we think about the binary that you’ve offered: showing HOW the future will be different vs. showing the universality of human experience, do you think that *part* of the difference is between hard SF and soft SF, where hard SF should be showing us the HOW and soft SF should be showing us WHO we are? I’m not sure that I totally believe this, but my "essay" was starting to go in that direction.

Thomas Baughman   |   31 Dec 2011 @ 12:29

I am confident that the future will be different in that it will be far worse than the present. There will be no evolution, just devolution.

Scott Laz   |   01 Jan 2012 @ 17:32

Rhonda’s dichotomy does reflect the hard/soft difference as I understand it. I never liked the distinction, though. Technological change (the province of hard SF) and social change, or changes in "who we are," can’t really be separated, and the best SF recognizes this, looking at the potential affects of technology on human development.I think even Star Trek is a step beyond the sort of thing Lewis is complaining about, though (early space opera?), since Roddenberry added to his "Wagon Train"/Horatio Hornblower concepts a specific view of humanity’s potential future development.

Emil   |   03 Jan 2012 @ 04:11

Phew, the topic certainly leans towards essay writing! I can do it no proper justice in a short few sentences. @Rhonda, yes, I like that distinction. You probably are aware of Aldiss’s definition of SF (from 1972 "Billion Year Spree"): "[SF] is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science)….", and Damon Knight’s phrase "A Sense of Wonder" from 1956 "In Search of Wonder" where he speaks of "A sense of wonder, awe at the vastness of space and time, [which] is at the root of the excitement of [SF]… [SF]‘s appeal lies in its combination of the rational, the believable, with the miraculous." Now take Gene Wolfe’s immensely complex work "The Book of the New Sun", the quintessential (my bias opinion) sf novel(s), whose theme and area of exploration is not so much the physical or historical universe as the texture and meaning of sf itself. Greg Egan is currently for me one of the most innovative "hard sf" writers. We see how borders between science and metaphysics shifts, as he writes about extending science into territory that was once believed to metaphysical, not about abandoning or transcending science at all, as exponents of the Singularity would like us to believe. Egan and Wolfe show’s me a lot of the HOW, albeit with a good dose of the human experience, but it is very dissimilar to what Silverberg, Clarke and even Asimov have produced. Rockets and space stations remain marginal to most people’s lives, but hand-held global communicators and connectivity in general have passed into the mundane (cyborgs, virtual environments, genetic engineering, climate change, quantum computing – many wild ideas has been annexed by the everyday). I guess one should rephrase: HOW the future should be different should not necessarily be removed from the human experience, but the HOW should certainly include the changes to the human experience (which is a lot more than Singularity) – the encroachment of reality generally reveals the absurdity of the science of SF, which is what I believe you refer to with "hard." One can argue the the human experience, despite the absurdity of the science, is probably the only constant in SF? Which will then yet again call for another rephrasing of my original sentiment. The very "Mainspring" (thanks, Jay Lake!) of SF is awareness of change on every level. Do we really have any idea what will happen next? Okay, maybe plenty ideas (hard and soft), but no certainty. And this makes for SF’s openness, and why I read it.

Mattastrophic   |   03 Jan 2012 @ 11:50

Great convo all. @Rico I think of the human experience as the grounding element that we need in order to do something productive with the new and innovative science stuff. The openness is great, I agree, and we need something familiar to help us manage all of the new stuff out there @All: I’m sure all of us have read a hard-sf story or two that left us feeling cold, thinking "well that’s a neat idea, but I didn’t connect with it." This goes all the way back to Gernsback and the pulp SF days when Science Fiction was a way to explain the science in an understandable way to a popular audience. We are narrative- and story-driven beings, that’s how we take in our news and it’s how we relate to one another, so we need something familiar (the story of the universal human experience) as a touchstone. Without it all the science would be alienating to a mainstream audience (pun intended, bad dum tish) @Rhonda and Scott: I think you have the right distinction, Rhonda,but along the lines of what Scott is saying I think it’s not between hard and soft SF necessarily. Good SF, IMHO, provides a vision of HOW things will be different, but great SF ALSO tells us WHO we will be. @All: In response to Lewis’ poem, I like what SF critic Andy Sawyer writes: "Many of the basic tropes of SF – artificial intelligence, time travel, faster-than-light travel – are certainly scientific extrapolations but also re-invent in terms of the modern, technological world basic folk-tale motifs: the demon or golem, the dream-vision, the magic carpet." In a correlating claim, Adam Roberts writes that SF is a literature of nostalgia, allowing us to try to come to terms with old questions in new ways. We have to locate who we are and where we are now if we are going to be a receptive audience to these visions of the future. Sorry for the essay; if you’ve read all the way through this you are a champ!

Scott Laz   |   03 Jan 2012 @ 12:53

On the role of SF in speculating on how the future will be different, Cory Doctorow has a nice essay in the new Locus on this very topic.http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2012/01/cory-doctorow-a-vocabulary-for-speaking-about-the-future/In considering what SF can do in a world where technology overtakes fiction at a faster rate than ever: "Taken together, inspiring, inoculating, reflecting, and exposing are powerful capabilities, and much more interesting than mere prediction."

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