Traitor to Both Sides
A summary of informal remarks made to LITA, the technology arm of the American Library Association, on June 21, 2003
Science Fiction is disreputable. Despite whatever debates we may have about how to define SF, or about what its influence on history or culture may be, this is one thing we all agree on. SF is not considered Literature in literary circles. It’s too much concerned with the physical world–the objective as opposed to the subjective.
Strangely, SF is equally disreputable within the scientific community, because it is, after all, an art form and not an attempt to represent reality “as it is”. I’ve had many a specialist kvetch at me about how SF distorts the facts; we need look no further than Star Trek to see examples of egregious invention of elements and physical phenomena that are ridiculous if not simply impossible.
As members of the SF community we tend to focus on this little problem a bit too much. It is, after all, merely a symptom of a larger issue, one that cuts to the heart of Modernism itself. The marginalization of SF is symptomatic of the modern war of science vs. the humanities: the “two culture war.” We are caught in the middle, traitors to both sides, hence doomed to be treated as cultural pariahs even while SF in film and television has become the largest money-making genre in Hollywood. Strange. But not surprising, if you look at the entrenched positions on both sides.
To understand the hostility in the Arts to SF, there’s no better place to start than with Virginia Woolf. In her 1925 essay, ‘On Modern Fiction’, Woolf argued that authors like John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells, who primarily use realism, are limiting themselves to a realm of superficiality. Woolf advocates the broad use of modern and even experimental techniques to get under the skin of human life. Literature, for her, is not about the linear exposition of facts but about swimming in the realm of Spirit. In fact, she seems hostile towards the physical world itself:
If we fasten, then, one label on all these books [by eg. H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy], on which is one word materialists, we mean by it that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and transitory appear the true and enduring . . . Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide . . .
Elsewhere she writes that ‘emotion must come first’ in literary art. To many in the scientific and engineering communities, it seems Woolf is turning common sense on its head. The ‘trivial and transitory’ that she speaks of is the physical world; the ‘true and enduring’ is the human spirit. Yet her argument is valid insofar as she is defending the flexibility and expressiveness of literary art. Throughout the long years of the two-culture war, people on both sides have taken extreme positions, with high rhetoric and much emotion. The extremism and passion often hide reasonable arguments.
My own interest in any argument lies not in whether it’s true, but rather in why its advocate wants it to be true. What aesthetic extremists such as Woolf are defending–what motivates them to take a side in the war–is a desire to assert the value and dignity of individual, subjective human experience. Many people see science not as something that gives, but as something that takes away: it takes away people’s right to believe in beautiful and meaningful narratives that illuminate their place in the world--replacing them with mechanical processes. And there is some truth to this. So a stand must be made. Unfortunately, in literature, this stand is represented by the now entrenched notion that literature is about subjectivity; ‘the proper study of Man is Man’. I don’t think Woolf would have approved of such a simplification of the Art; nonetheless, her stand against the oversimplified techniques of literary realism has been used over the years as ammunition for an oversimplified humanism: the realm of the spirit is infinite while the study of the physical world is finite. The revelation of character is the only means to revealing Spirit. Clearly, by this definition, Science Fiction is not literature.
On the other side of the no-man’s land where SF wanders in bewilderment, Science is hunkered down in its own trench. Many in the scientific and engineering communities share an essentially Platonistic view of the world: there are appearances, and there is the Truth. And only the True can really be valuable. This idea is so self-evident within this community that it is rarely articulated directly; revealing this valuable Truth is, in fact, what science is all about.
From this trench, complaints about science stripping away the value of life are nonsensical–perverse, even. Since the True is the valuable, people who advocate for the merely subjective are promoting the useless. Why? The purely subjective cannot be scientifically examined because you cannot perform repeatable experiments on it. It therefore does not exist as far as science is concerned. All that is subjective–and ‘spiritual’–falls within the realm of the Useless. To the extremists in the scientific community, it is people who insist on the reality of the spiritual realm who “spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and transitory appear the true and enduring . . .”
Once again, of course, this is an extreme position. But this is the sort of reasoning that scientists and engineers use when they wish to justify the intrinsic (as opposed to merely practical) importance of what they do. And both sides in the two-culture war have a deep-seated need to view themselves as inherently superior to the other.
Extremists in the scientific camp are not hard to find. Consider Richard Dawkins, in a recent interview (1994, Channel-4 (U.K.)). Here he is talking about what religion really is:
I could write on a piece of paper ‘Make two copies of this paper and pass them to friends’. I could give it to you. You would read it and make two copies and pass them, and they would make 2 copies and it becomes 4 copies, 8, 16 copies. Pretty soon the whole world would be knee-deep in paper. But of course there has to be some sort of inducement, so I would have to add something like this: ‘If you do not make 2 copies of this bit of paper and pass it on, you will have bad luck, or you will go to hell, or some dreadful misfortune will befall you’.
Religion as chain-letter–or, to use Dawkins’ own coinage, religion as meme. What this explanation does (regardless of whether it is “true”) is present an entirely objective description of the process of religious proselytization and conversion. Subjectivity is absent from it–which is Dawkins’ intent. From the point of view of Platonistic science, subjectivity is a kind of crust, like barnacles, that must be chipped away from the truth. And there is merit to this view, because the accomplishments of science are evident all around us, while the benefits of eliminating superstition and venal opinion from human discourse seem clear. If we return to the issue of motivation, it seems that scientists and engineers are motivated by a terror of the uprising of the irrational mob; in assertions such as Woolf’s they see slogans designed to torpedo the advance of human civilization, which can only be guaranteed by cleaving to the True.
Science Fiction, which so often deals with bug-eyed monsters and scientific experiments gone awry, is at best suspicious, at worst a form of superstitious myth-making that uses the trappings of science–an abomination, really. SF is not scientific, and despite the moaning and hand-wringing of many in the hard SF community, it can’t be made to be. It is literature, an art, hence ultimately useless.
Now what’s really interesting is that the war is ending. I don’t think most people on either side realize it yet. And I’m positive that few in the SF community, staggering in the middle as we are, know. But the terms of the cease-fire have been drawn up; the armies are retreating–and the rhetoric and propaganda on both sides looks more and more like face-saving, rather than passionate rallying.
On the side of literary art, science has developed to the point where we can finally determine whether the very notion of character used in literature is valid. Literary artists have been saddled with pseudo-scientific notions of human nature for centuries: do we really need one more Freudian or Jungian revelation of a character’s motives? Cognitive science is making quick strides in determining how people really think; as it proceeds, a wider and wider gulf is appearing between its findings and the model of character used in mainstream literature. For instance, while 90% of human thought is unconscious, there is no subconscious–no realm of seething, sub-human passions waiting to burst out in irrational action.
The unconscious mind is as rational and alert as the conscious mind; it creates and executes elaborate plans all the time. But the actions of this unconscious do not necessarily shed light on the ‘true nature’ of the person, if there even is such a thing; nor does a historical examination of events that occur in someone’s life serve to explain who they are now. You could spend years depressed and in analysis striving to understand the childhood roots of your unhappiness, only to have a daily dose of Paxil clear it up without any psychological breakthrough at all.
Modern literature needs to confront this fact. The true nature of human character is one area that SF should be exploring; few in the SF community have done so recently, with notable exceptions such as Greg Egan.
On the other side of the argument, science has been moving away from the Platonistic model of Truth vs. Illusion for nearly a century. The most important figure in this sea-change is Niels Bohr. Basically, quantum mechanics changes everything. Not only is it weird, you can’t consistently do QM using the old 17th century assumptions about reality vs. appearances–not without tying yourself up in knots. Einstein fought a long rear-guard action to try to preserve the old notion of objective reality entrenched in classical mechanics; Bohr trounced him soundly, but the debate never really reached public consciousness because, during their lives, it was purely academic. That changed in 1987 when Alain Aspect performed an experiment that actually proved Bohr’s position to be in accord with physical reality. There's a great summary of the new situation in the book The Nonlocal Universe by Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos. They sum it up this way:
The philosophical postmodernists were correct in assuming that scientific knowledge exists in human subjective reality and wrong in assuming that this knowledge is not privileged in coordinating our experience with physical reality. Conversely, members of the scientific community were correct in assuming that the mathematical description of nature is privileged and wrong in assuming that this description exists in some sense prior to or outside of human consciousness.
In other words: the politics, the misleading grant proposals, the back-stabbing, jealousy, late nights, failed theories, drug-addled insights, and serendipitous mistakes–they’re not obstacles to be hurdled on the way to the truth. They are the very page on which scientific truth is written. Irrational human experience is the mandatory foundation of scientific truth.
Now as science clings by its fingertips to this cliff, it places its hope for preserving the 17th century, Cartesian view of reality on its one transcendent and truly objective possession: mathematics. Mathematics is still a window to an objectively real world. The chaos of subjectivity can still be kept at bay.
Until we look at what cognitive science has to say about math. The book in question is Where Mathematics Comes From, by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez. In this book, Lakoff and Nunez show how cognitive science has discovered the human thought processes underlying mathematical reasoning. These thought processes, it turns out, aren't just different from the classical and Platonic models of mathematical reasoning--they preclude them. Very briefly put, we reason mathematically by using systems of metaphor that are grounded in our use of the human body and in its sensorimotor system. Studies find that mathematical reasoning (as opposed to calculation) cannot be done in any other way by humans and still be what we would recognize as mathematical. Mathematical thinking, it turns out, has no features that are different from other kinds of thought, it simply organizes these mental activities in a particular way.
At the very root of math lies metaphor; and at the root of metaphor lies the human body, which is both the dictionary and grammar of the metaphor-using brain. Mathematics never breaks free of its grounding in human existence; it can't (although, once again, calculation can be performed by machines, but calculation is not mathematical reasoning). Therefore, science’s last claim to be a privileged or special kind of activity (one we might share with aliens and God) is shown to be a dream. Mathematics uses the same mental apparatus as poker or tennis, and science itself is a human activity like any other–albeit an activity directed to revealing actual physical truths.
Bear in mind what I said above, that I find it much more interesting to look at why you should be motivated to believe in something than whether it’s true. In this case, why should we want to believe that the classical positions of the two cultures are collapsing?
Simply put: SF is already a traitor to both camps. To try to accommodate either side weakens SF. This is where we are. Better get used to it. Better yet, explore what this position we find ourselves in really means–what we’re really saying when we write SF.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be a good enough writer to craft stories that really do walk away from the two-culture war. I’ve taken a couple of stabs at it: the idea of ‘thalience’ in Ventus, and the non-metaphysical religion of NeoShintoism in Permanence are attempts to step forward rather than back.
As to everybody else, it would be presumptuous of me to try to rally anybody around The Cause. This isn’t a manifesto, and I’m not trying to start a movement. At most, I’m trying to articulate why SF writers themselves often feel disreputable: it’s because they’ve taken to heart the standards of one or the other of the two cultures–and the standards belittle their work.
Until recently, there was little we could do. The answer to “where do we go from here?” was inevitably either back to Science or back to Art. That is, you’ll note, the very definition of postmodernism: that there is no way forward. (The postmodern rallying cry is not “only connect,” it’s “only recycle.”)
But the undermining of the 17th century ideologies that created the two cultures suggests that there is a way forward. I personally believe that a literature of the future is the place to start articulating it.
So. If I had one manifesto-like commandment for my fellow SF writers, it would simply be: stop picking sides. If you write SF you’re already in the fertile no-man’s land between the cultures. Follow the path you’ve already chosen. And don’t look back.