Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Descification of Space

Just before this year's Oscars, there was a controversy (a very mild and good-natured controversy) about the film Gravity.  Writer and director Alfonso Cuarón expressed bewilderment that everyone was describing the film as science fiction, just because it was set in space.

Now, I should say I haven't yet seen Gravity, although I hope to, but from everything I've read about it, I'd support Cuarón.  The film's about a fictional space shuttle mission going wrong — not because of aliens, or mysterious forces, or time travel, but simply because of an accident that, given very specific circumstances, could have happened to any of the real shuttle missions.

This isn't the first film to throw up such a conundrum.  Apollo 13 (1995) was not just a plausible fiction set in space, but a retelling of actual events. How could this be science fiction?

SF (or sci-fi, if you prefer that abbreviation) requires some kind of scientific speculation as part of the story.  This can be anything from some barely scientific concept or half-magical technology to something which might well be fact in a hundred years, but a story in which every event is possible according to current science or technology certainly doesn't qualify as SF.

One of the great pioneering novels of the genre, Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under
the Sea, is SF mainly because it's set on board a submarine.  That was speculation when Verne was writing, not because submarines didn't exist, but because the comparison of the Nautilus to the actual submarines of the time was like comparing the Starship Enterprise to the space shuttle.  It doesn't mean that we should class The Hunt for Red October as science fiction.

In the same way, any story written at the same time that featured a journey in a flying machine more sophisticated than a hot-air balloon would count as SF, yet almost any story set in the present day can feature a plane-trip with hardly a thought.

Science fiction is becoming realism all the time, but curiously the opposite has been true of fantasy.  Early literature, such as the great Greek and Indian epics, mixed what we'd class as realism and fantasy with gay abandon.  It isn't really possible now to be sure how much Homer, for instance, regarded the gods and monsters as literally true to life and how much they were just good stories, but it's probably safe to say that he'd have found them a lot more plausible than most 21st century Europeans or Americans.

One of the earliest cultures to make a formal distinction between realism and fantasy was mediaeval Iceland, distinguishing "true-seeming sagas" from "lying sagas".  The former, interestingly, could be either history, biography or historical fiction.  The latter were the tales of the Æsir and the Giants, or of magical heroes like Sigurd the Volsung (also known as Siegfried).  Calling them "lying" wasn't actually as critical and disapproving as it would be now — it simply meant something that wasn't true, not necessarily in a bad way — but it made clear what the Icelanders thought about the veracity of these stories.

Nevertheless, the line they drew between "true seeming" and "lying" didn't come in quite the place we might draw it today.  The Saga of Grettir the Strong, for instance, definitely falls under the true-seeming category: a historical novel, set in 10th century Iceland, about the exploits and eventual death of a great outlaw.

In one episode, though, Grettir fights a ghost.  Not quite our idea of a ghost — this is a reanimated corpse — but definitely someone come back from the dead.  He also suffers from a curse, which unmistakably works and contributes to his death at the end.

The point, of course, is that the average mediaeval Icelander didn't regard these in the same light as gods, dragons and enchanted swords.  Ghosts and curses were very real and present dangers, and of course they'd be included in realistic fiction.

It's been suggested that Latin America's afinity to the magic realism field may come from it being a culture that doesn't regard ghosts or minor miracles in the same way as someone in, say, a UK or US city.  That's not to say the authors or readers necessarily believe in these things, but may find them culturally easier to incorporate into an otherwise realistic story.

Of course, it's not impossible that some elements of fantasy may one day be defantasised, in the same way that space is becoming descifised.  The jury is still out on the scientific examination of paranormal phenomena, and it would only take one verifiable and repeatable proof of hauntings, telepathy or telekinesis for these elements to move from fantasy to scientific fact.

Unlikely?  Maybe, but it might have seemed unlikely at one time that stories about flying could ever be realistic fiction.  Let alone stories set in space.


  1. Interesting thought about the line between SF and reality that I haven't given a lot of thought to. But it's true that some things that were once the stuff of SF are mundane now, though usually not in the way old-time SF writers envisioned.

    There's a lot of debate and hair splitting over the line between SF and fantasy sometimes. An example would be McCaffrey's Dragonriders books. She always insisted they were SF, and the first short story (Weyr Search) was published in Analog, a SF magazine. The setting is a lost Earth colony, and the "dragons" are supposed to be bio-engineered aliens, but many aspects of the stories (the feudal nature of the society, the presence of psychic abilities that might as well be magical, the fact that the dragons can fly and teleport) seem fantastical to the current generation of SF and F readers. But back in the late 60s and early 70s, psi was a more "respectable" trope in SF than it seems to be today.

    It hasn't hurt Pern from being one of the longest-running and successful speculative fiction series in existence.

    So I'm wondering if the location of that blurred line between ostensible realism and the fantastic is as much a matter of social consensus as what our current knowledge tells us is plausible.

    1. Yes, the distinction between Sf and fantasy is a whole other can of worms. Like most things, I think it's a continuum, which gets carved up into supposedly discrete sections at fairly arbitrary points. It's useful to consider marketing and target audience, but I don't think it makes a lot of difference to the story itself.

      I'd agree that the distinction between realism and speculation is largely a matter of social perception. Again, there are extremes which are pretty undeniable, but even the most literal social realism is ultimately set in a world the author and reader agree to accept as reality for the purposes of the story.