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Worlds Without End Blog

Should Science Fiction Be Rational? Posted at 8:00 AM by James Wallace Harris


In the book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen catalogs countless ways in which America is irrational. Andersen is an admirer of Philip K. Dick, and quotes/mentions him more than once, including one very long passage where Andersen says he couldn’t explain things better than PKD. However, Andersen connects science fiction several times to irrational thinking, and sometimes I get the feeling he thinks science fiction is a catch-phrase for nutty ideas.

Here’s one quote, “Like so much pseudoscience, mesmerism was faulty science fiction, a fantasy inspired by a misunderstood bit of reality” – is Andersen defining science fiction as fantasy literature that misunderstands reality?

The last science fiction novel I read was Chocky by John Wyndham. Its premise is telepathy exists and works instantaneously across the vast distances of space. Wyndham in his story proposes that matter is limited to the speed of light but not mind, and thought has no speed limit. Chocky is a far distant alien that possesses a 12-year-old British boy. Of course, this idea is descended from Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. I consider alien mind travel a fun meme for fantasy stories, but the philosophical disciples of Shirley MacLaine would testify under oath that’s how reality actually works.

Here’s another quote, where he talks about L. Ron Hubbard:

“Hubbard had a brazen indifference to the line between nonfiction and fiction—specifically science fiction, and not just e-meters. Scientology’s theological backstory is staggeringly ridiculous sci-fi, 2001 meets Star Trek meets Star Wars meets The Matrix meets Prometheus. In short, each of us contains a thetan, one of the ethereal beings who created the universe but each of whom, after being shipped to Earth and hit with nuclear bombs by the evil dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, was brainwashed to forget its godlike origins and believe in the false reality most people consider real.”

You have to admit that Scientology is whacked, but then so are the ideas in those TV shows and movies. We think of them as fun. Andersen claims 2/3rds of our society think of them as gospel.

Fantasyland is a book everyone should read because it defines our times better than any book I’ve read in the 21st-century. However, as science fiction fans we need to ask ourselves some very serious questions. Andersen makes an overwhelming case that America has become irrational with about two-thirds of its citizens rejecting science and rational thought. How much has science fiction contributed to the emerging paradigm of believing anything is possible because believing is what powers our reality?

If you don’t think this is true, then I plead for you to read Fantasyland. It is the Future Shock of this generation. To show I’m not holier than thou, I wrote “22 Dumb Fantasies I’ve Tried to Believe” at my blog. I’ve since realized I could have easily doubled or tripled that number.

Science fiction is as tainted as New Age philosophies when it comes to pseudo-science. Cleaning up the genre will be just as hard as convincing society at large to think scientifically. I doubt it’s even possible. But shouldn’t we try? Should science fiction take a position in the current war of the irrational on the rational? If you think that last sentence is hyperbole, then read Fantasyland.



Scott Laz   |   10 Nov 2017 @ 16:01

My favorite SF writer of childhood was Isaac Asimov, and I think it was in part his embrace of rational thinking in his stories that was so attractive. In the background of Asimov’s stories was the feeling that rationality would ultimately triumph, because it actually works. I think that was also a tenet of John W. Campbell during Astounding’s Golden Age (1940s), which is why the fact that he and his magazine ended up helping Scientology get started seems so odd.

Glenn   |   12 Nov 2017 @ 02:47

At first glance, he sounds like one of those politicians that blames violent video games for inner city violence, without mentioning guns, inequity, race, etc.

How many of the current PhD holders/engineers/scientists grew up on SF novels/shows? How many would say that a good SF story inspired their imagination and ultimately led them to the career they currently have? Most is the answer.

I see SF as a idea generator. It plays with things and asks what if? questions.

If we have anything to lament, then lets lament that most SF today is not rooted in “hard” SF concepts. But that’s a dog chasing it’s tail: which came first – the society that’s turned away from hard science or the SF that’s turned away from hard science?

Perhaps a lack of Scientific understanding is simply a reflection of the following trends in todays world:

That science is the bitch of politics. Any political position, no matter what, can be “backed” by some “scientist” from some where. Which of course means “experts” pointing in diametrically opposite ways, saying this way is “true”. It’s no wonder lay people turn away from science.

And that science itself doesn’t know what science knows. Meaning, the pace of scientific advancement is so fast, no one, let alone those whose specialize in such things, can keep up. The understanding of science 20 years ago, is far out of date today.

And that’s not even talking about what appears to be avenues of science carefully covered over and ignored; “nothing to see here” say the “guardians” of main stream science. I’m specifically thinking of (repeatable) anomalies in the data, which are willfully ignored since they don’t fit the existing paradigms; paradigms which seem to be jealously guarded these days rather than open to revision, open to new and far more comprehensive understandings.

And if this is the way science operates, it’s no wonder nonscientist turn away from it all.

I’d also object to any comparisons of Hubbard and Scientology to SF. Scientology is presented and marketed as religion, so you should be comparing it to other religions. Even then, does it stand out from the crowd with the number of whacked ideas it presents or is it about average on that bell curve?

Last objection is more fundamental: since when is humanity rational? We can put on a good show of rationality (at times) but that irrational side is forever lurking. Another bell curve: back and forth we go between the irrational and the rational. And, of course, it’s who you talk to, and about what. Many, if not most, can be completely rational about some things, but wholly irrational about others.

Laying any of that at the Feet of SF seems just silly. It’s SF that’s fundes the idea machine which has changed the world several times over during the last few generations. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a separate question. Like anything else, SF has it’s distinct epochs. And just from the POV of someone who does enough writing to know how hard it is, doom and gloom, distopic work, is far far easier to write than utopic work.

So there you…

A.R.Yngve   |   14 Nov 2017 @ 08:34

There was a movement a while back about trying to “keep SF more realistic”, i.e. the “Mundane SF” Manifesto:

Make of that what you will, but some readers will always demand “fantastic dialled up to 11” and there will always be writers willing to give them just that.

As for me, when I write SF I try to avoid some genre cliches not just because they are “unscientific,” but because they lead to bad writing — and particularly ESP. “Mind powers” is such excessively powerful Handwavium, that it can be used to fill any plot holes and paper over any characterization issues.

(Side note: TV sci-fi will never give up “ESP” because it’s the cheapest of all special effects — just tell the actors to stare and look constipated. ;-))

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