?

Log in

Recent Entries Friends Archive Profile Tags Jeamland
 
 
 
 
 
 
The latest New York Review of Science Fiction (#202, June 2005) is a 'Special Edges and Over Them Issue!' and contains a number of articles that relate, directly or indirectly, to positioning and categorisation of various types of fantastic fiction. The one that particularly intrigued me is 'Traitor to Both Sides' by Karl Schroeder, author of Ventus, Permanence, and other books I should probably have read. The summary:
Science fiction is disreputable [...] SF writers tend to want to solve this problem of disreputability. There are two ways to do this: court literary respectability or court scientific accuracy. I think that both are bad strategies, because the old dichotomy of science vs. the humanities no longer holds true. In fact, sf fits the emerging picture of twenty-first century thought much better than the entrenched academic cultures of either big science or literary studies. The roots of our bad reputation lie in the ideas of another century.
Schroeder then runs through what he sees as these outdated ideas. On the side of Literature, he cites Virginia Woolf, and her contention that 'emotion must come first' in literary art. He then looks at how scientists, or in general people who value objectivity over subjectivity, traditionally react:
Part of my own interest in any argument lies not in whether it's true but in why its advocates want 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 in 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 Mankind is Man'. I don't think Woolf would have approved of such a simplification of the art. Nevertheless, her stand against the oversimplified techniques of literary realism has been used over the years as ammunition for 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.

[...]

By contrast, many in the scientific and engineering communities share an essentially Platonist 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.
The next thing Schroeder has to do to build his thesis is to demolish these two positions, and show how they are outdated. He does so entertainingly. Against Platonist scientists he cites, of course, quantum mechanics, arguing that its implication that science, although it seeks and can find privileged results, is not itself a privileged or unique process, and is not quantifiably different from other avenues of human activity, has not been fully accepted. His argument against literature is a stroke of either genius or insanity:
On the side of literary art, cognitive science has developed to the point where we can determine whether the very notion of character used in literature is valid. Literary artists have been saddled with pseudoscientific notions of human nature for centuries [...] Cognitive science is making quick strides in determining how people think; as it proceeds, a wider and wider gulf is appearing between its findings and the model of personality used in mainstream literature. For instance, while 90% of human thought is unconscious, there is no subconscious--no realm of seething animal 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 is such a thing.
I think we can accept that Schroeder has done his research in this area. I have no idea whether this particular conclusion is valid--and even if it is there's an obvious, if weaselly, counterargument, which is to say that Literature is about the experience of being human, not the truth--but as a piece of rhetoric I love it.

So what's his conclusion?
To me, this means writing about the spirituality of the physical and the physicality of the spiritual. Exploring how character and meaning are mechanisms of the physical world and exploring how this physical world is just another story we tell ourselves. Not picking sides; betraying both, in fact, on the way to something new. [...] 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.
Having started out by saying that existing scientific and literary traditions are both outdated, Schroeder's finished up by asserting that sf is Special After All, or at least that it should be. Stirring stuff, and obviously seductive for those of us in love with the form, which is one reason I immediately distrust it. To be fair, Schroder explicitly says that he sees sf as just one of many endeavours that should happen in this no-man's-land; but even so, and as fascinating as I find the idea that most of the criteria we use to evaluate sf are obsolete, I can't quite sign up to his argument. I can't quite escape the feeling that he decided on his conclusion first, and then worked out the argument he needed to get himself there.

As a postscript, Schroeder has a blog dedicated to exploring these ideas, called Age of Embodiment (this entry explains some of his thinking). And on his main blog, he's talked a little about how he sees his ideas relate to those of the mundanes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Wow, at a superficial glance he seems to be operating in just the areas that I am most interested in. Thanks you very much for that link, I will follow that blog with great interest. I've never read any of his books, when you mentioned two 'and others I should have read' did you means you had read those? What did you think?
No, sorry, I wasn't clear: I meant that the list of books written by Schroeder that I should probably have read includes Ventus and Permanence. I don't think I've actually read anything by him, although he's been on my to-seek-out list for a while, and has moved up a few places now.

I think sbisson may be able to give specific recommendations.
His third solo novel is just out: Lady Of Mazes. It's a standalone prequel to Ventus.

I rate him highly. If we ever run Lexicon II it'll have The New Space Opera as its theme, and I'd do my damndest to get him as GoH.

Permanence is an excellent place to start. Ventus starts as a fantasy novel, and then suddenly changes. I'd compare it to Linda Nagata's Memory.
Thanks sbisson, I'll check it out next time I'm at Ottakers
A moderately interesting read but didn't it strike you as a bunch of strawmen raised up and then knocked down with very little regard for the real world?

What SF writers wants to solve the problem of disreputability courting scientific accuracy? SF is a type of literature, not a type of science and it is bizarre to claim it as some magical synthesis of the two which, in that old chestnut, "fits the emerging picture of twenty-first century thought." Hey, wasn't SF the literature of the 20th Century as well? As for that insanity about cognitive science and character, wtf? Since he has demonstrated he knows nothing about literature now is probably the time to stop reading.

And his finally conclusion is just "SF was right all along, everyone else was wrong!." Well, that's relief. Carry on everybody.
A moderately interesting read but didn't it strike you as a bunch of strawmen raised up and then knocked down with very little regard for the real world?

I think that's what I was getting at when I said it felt like he'd decided on his conclusion first and on his argument second.

That said...

What SF writers wants to solve the problem of disreputability courting scientific accuracy?

Depends on who they want to be seen as reputable by. You know as well as I do that the Old Guard still has a sizeable fanbase.

As for that insanity about cognitive science and character, wtf?

See, I thought immortalradical would be first off the blocks to huff about that. I was doing my best Bernard Wooley impression, too (BERNARD: five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... HUMPHREY (bursts through door): WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?)
Depends on who they want to be seen as reputable by. You know as well as I do that the Old Guard still has a sizeable fanbase.

I was coming at from the fact that people don't think SF is disreputable because of its lack of scientific accuracy in the first place hence this is trying to solve an imaginary problem.

See, I thought immortalradical would be first off the blocks to huff about that.

Poor immortalradical, for so long the lone voice of reason in a cabal of genretards.
I was coming at from the fact that people don't think SF is disreputable because of its lack of scientific accuracy in the first place

Again, define 'people'. Schroeder's proposition is that there are two audiences sf writers try to please: the literati, and the geeks who like scientific speculation (think of all the people who complain about slipstream diluting the core of the genre. They're wrong, but there are plenty of them). The literati aren't going to complain about inaccurate science, and the hardcore aren't going to complain about the characterisation. But Schroeder's suggestion is that they shouldn't be trying to please either audience, because both are using obsolete models of what writing should be doing and how it should be doing it.
Schroeder's proposition is that there are two audiences sf writers try to please: the literati, and the geeks who like scientific speculation (think of all the people who complain about slipstream diluting the core of the genre. They're wrong, but there are plenty of them).

This just makes him more wrong. His proposition is simply bollocks. Hardly any SF writers are writing for the literari and only slightly more (the Stross/Doctorow Faction) are writing for the Slashdot tendency. And these geeks aren't interested in the science so much as the technology, particularly a subset of technology that they are familiar with. Consider Vernor Vinge: Slow Zones aren't anything to do with scienctific accuracy but because he has Usenet In Space he is revered. The people who complain about slipstream aren't complaining that the science is wrong but that it isn't about engineers in rocketships

Finally, even if Schroeder's proposition was true then "disreputability" would still be entirely the wrong word.

The literati aren't going to complain about inaccurate science, and the hardcore aren't going to complain about the characterisation.

Again this strikes me as not true and designed to invent a false dichotomy. Both sides might have less interest in certain aspects than others but that is not the same as no interest.

Schroeder's suggestion is that they shouldn't be trying to please either audience, because both are using obsolete models of what writing should be doing

This is hilarious: the literati and computer science geeks both had equally valid models of what writing should be but they have both been rendered obsolete by my even more outdated model.
On the side of literary art, cognitive science has developed to the point where we can determine whether the very notion of character used in literature is valid.

Um, wtf? I don't claim to be an expert in this field by any stretch, but the last time I looked, the ovrwhelming impression I got was that researchers in this field are at the "every answer prompts a gajillion more qustions" stage, rather than the "we know what you're thinking and how and why" stage.

I think that you're right (for once :-p) - he has reached a conclusion, and then built an argument to support it; indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that he has (to a certain degree) crafted the entire "problem" to fit his solution. He does make some interesting points about subjectivity and objectivity - especially that simplification of either approach results in a flawed conclusion. Neither view alone can reveal the whole truth about the human experience, becuase we are both physical and emotional cratures. I'm not entirly sure why that is news, though.

this means writing about the spirituality of the physical and the physicality of the spiritual

This is hardly the exclusive province of the SF writer, though is it? The average psychological crime thriller writer could lay claim to exploring the world through a combination of hard science, systems/processes and the extremes of human nature. On a more "literary" level, I seem to recall reading a short story recently that explored exactly what Schroeder is referring to.
but the last time I looked, the ovrwhelming impression I got was that researchers in this field are at the "every answer prompts a gajillion more qustions" stage, rather than the "we know what you're thinking and how and why" stage.

But he's not saying they are--he's saying that we know enough to invalidate certain models. I don't think we yet know exactly which interpretation of quantum mechanics gives the best model of reality, for instance, but we know enough to know that Newtonian mechanics is incomplete.

Of course, Newtonian mechanics is still a good approximation in some circumstances ...

This is hardly the exclusive province of the SF writer, though is it?

No, but again, he's not saying that it is. His exact words are
It follows that there could be another human endeavour, neither exactly scientific nor exactly artistic, that also uses this toolkit. Or, really, there could be any number of them. One such endeavour is called science fiction. It happily plunders both science and art for its materials, but it has a slightly different purpose than either and organises the materials in a different way.
But he's not saying they are--he's saying that we know enough to invalidate certain models.

Well, the bit I was talking about was about cognitive science and our understanding of literary concepts of character - so quantum mechanics isn't particularly relevant. And yes, cognitive science is increasingly understanding the processes and physicality of thoughts; it is beginning to explore the interactions between the brain and the mind - but in terms of "character" I don't think we're learning much that an observant person with access to a reasonably diverse selection of humainty couldn't have already established. What we're learning is medical, biological, physical - yes, how those things relate to thought and feeling and understanding, but not stimulus A creates physical reaction B which must result in thought C.

No, but again, he's not saying that it is

I must be missing something (not unusual) - he simply seems to be stating the obvious; that for fiction to best address the totality of human exprience, it must address both the physical/real/scientific and the emotional/spiritual/artistic. To which, surely, the most obvious response is a hearty "well, duh".
I must be missing something (not unusual) - he simply seems to be stating the obvious; that for fiction to best address the totality of human exprience, it must address both the physical/real/scientific and the emotional/spiritual/artistic. To which, surely, the most obvious response is a hearty "well, duh".

Name five literary classics that actually do that.

Name five science fiction novels that actually do that.

I don't want to set myself up as defending the Word of Schroeder, because it's not like I don't have issues with the article, but I think he'd agree with you entirely, while expressing amazement and frustration that the rest of the world, and in particular the Establishment (on both sides of the divide) doesn't seem to see it that way.
he's saying that we know enough to invalidate certain models.

This is what is so bizarre. He seems to regard literature as a type of phrenology: is he really that clueless?

When he talks about "the old dichotomy of science vs. the humanities" he seems to be missing a vital piece of the puzzle. Although all three are inter-related science is not the humanities and the humanities are not the arts. Literature is not a psuedoscience and it is not a social science.
he's saying that we know enough to invalidate certain models.

For example, Alfred Hitchock movies are based on a psychological model that is false: crude Freudianism. Modern high-brow literature is based on notions of the individual which are false (IMHO).
An accusation of crude Freudianism is exactly what Schroeder's piece put me in mind of.

Modern high-brow literature is based on notions of the individual which are false (IMHO).

I'm intrigued: could you expand on this?
(all this IMHO) Mainstream realist literature is based on an accepted, shared view of reality. Its intelligence is evaluated by its exposition of that core middle class graduate consensus. It might stretch it here and there, but the model is like this: realism=orthodoxy=quality. In a sense realism must always utilise a consensus model of what reality is, and therefore reinforce it.

There have been a couple of upheavels in this equation. One was the gradual seep-in of working class (and later minority ethnic) realism. Zola, kitchen sink drama etc.

The second I think is now, when some element of non-realism is seeping in to the mainstream. That probably started with magical realism, so it piggy-backed on the voices of people excluded from the mainstream culture.

Anyway, this is getting to be a long answer, and not a definitive one in any case. I suppose to summarise, I think that the idea of 'realism' will always have disadvantages as well as advantages, and complacency and orthodoxy are some disadvantages which SF can and should avoid.
No RSS feeds for the blogs. Damn.
What about

http://www.kschroeder.com/blog/rdf

and

http://www.kschroeder.com/rdf

?

(Thanks for the recommendations, though I think I'll check out his short story collection first.)

Ah! Couldn't see links on the pages...

Now in my aggregator.

Thanks!
(Deleted comment)
DAMMIT THERE'S THE GHOST OF C.P. SNOW AGAIN! ((beats at it with a stick))

The correct procedure is to invoke the shade of FR Leavis, and let them go mano-a-mano until they disappear in a puff of smoke.
I know lots of doctors and scientists and I think there is a very big split between their theoretical model of scientific practice (for example many scientists quote Popper as if he was a model of actual practice) and the actual social practice of medicine, engineering, agricultural research etc. I think we are hampering our minds if we limit ourselves to talking about an ideal model, and ignore the factors (such as where research money comes from, or the linguistic structures we use to frame our questions) that influence the social (rather than the abstract) practice.
Quite. 99% of scientists don't give a toss about the philosophy of science - they just do it. 0.99% do give a toss, like to give the impression that they do, but are stuck with daft Popperist nonsense. The other 0.001% are Quinians or practitioners of other obscure metaphysical arts. We have a secret handshake and everything.

ISTR some saying to the effect that the philosophy of science is to scientists as water is to fish. Or maybe it was something else.

-- tom
Everyone seems to be doing a pretty good job of pointing out that Schroeder's argument is nonsense from top to toe, so i'll keep this brief.

If i hear one more person claim that quantum physics means science has lost, i'm going to start tearing out kidneys.

Also, this:

"I don't think we yet know exactly which interpretation of quantum mechanics gives the best model of reality"

Quantum mechanics is a model of reality. Interpretations of quantum mechanics are not - they're simply ways to explain that model to people without scaring them so much.

-- tom
Quantum mechanics is a model of reality. Interpretations of quantum mechanics are not - they're simply ways to explain that model to people without scaring them so much.

Hrm. What about the many worlds/or not debate? I was under the impression that came about because there are multiple solutions for some of the QM equations. Or something. It's a long time since I read anything on the subject.
Hrm. What about the many worlds/or not debate?


What about it? Whether there really are many worlds or not, in the version of this theory that physicists take seriously, makes absolutely no observable difference to our universe. This is why the interpretations are interpretations and not theories. It's a lot like the danger hypothesis in immunology - it's a conceptual framework for understanding the facts, not a statement about the facts themselves.

It's a long time since I read anything on the subject.


Read away (http://www.hedweb.com/everett/everett.htm)!

-- tom
Why does LJ hate me so much? I mean, fine, turn links from anonymous authors into parenthesised URLs, but for christ's sake, take care of the </a> properly!

-- tom
Well, I've got to say that, contrary to everyone else,. I think it's true that traditional Western literature relies on a cognitive model which is false: the cohesion of the 'self' as a unitary entity, the existence of the subconscious as a coherent 'force', for example.
I think it's true that traditional Western literature relies on a cognitive model which is false: the cohesion of the 'self' as a unitary entity, the existence of the subconscious as a coherent 'force', for example.

Thought: perhaps this tradition is why some books that don't conform to this cognitive model get pushed to the edge of the mainstream and over into genre? I'm thinking of something like Set This House In Order which is, to all intents and purposes, a fairly standard thriller with two main characters who happen not to be examples of unitary selves.
Oh really? that's interesting. Anyway I agree that a non-orthodox theory of mind makes a work non-realist, because 'realist' is defined by current orthodoxy.
Good post. Sounds like I need to read the entire article. Does he back his comments on consciousness up? I think the brain is still a huge mystery, so I'm rather dubious on his assertions. As for Mundane (capitalizing may help distinguish), I've been meaning to refute this for awhile. It's fairly easily dismantled.