Why, Revisited: The KOFAC Presentation

On the afternoon of Thursday, July 22nd I spoke at a short SF-related seminar for KOFAC (The Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science & Creativity) in Gangbyeon. I was asked to lay say a bit about how SF writers choose what to write about.

Basically, to answer that question I felt I had to explain what I think SF is. So I put it this way: SF is how modern, industrialized culture digests the two shocks of technologically-imposed change on society, and the philosophical changes imposed on culture by science. That’s meaty — note that culture and society are differentiated here, society being the practical level of things, the day-to-day business of life (the way that new technologies drove the industrial revolution, globalization, and colonization in the Victorian era and throughout the 20th century), while culture is the philosophical and thoughtful side of being (for example, the challenges posed to consensus reality in the Victorian era by ideas like The Heat Death of the Universe, Erasmus Darwin’s experiments with galvanism and his grandson Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution — cultural shocks we still haven’t really processed).

I proposed a brief caveat that “visual” SF tends to be more about spectacle while literary SF tends to be more preoccupied by ideas, and then suggested there are four things that interestingly drive SF authors’ choice of subjects:

  1. Personal Predilection:
  2. Science
  3. Literary Tradition
  4. Community “Debate” or Dialog

The first couple of points are probably pretty self-evident; the first one is obvious of all writers, but it’s worth noting that I tried to make the point that anxiety is a part of personal predilection. I also noted that for a few years there, the articles in Wired written by people like Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson were a pretty good predictor for what they’d write about in their next novels. (“In the Kingdom of Mao Bell” presaged The Diamond Age, and Sterling wrote about Cyprus for Wired before setting part of his novel Zeitgeist there.)

Literary Tradition and the role of the SF Community in writing decisions is more interesting.

For one thing, and I won’t get into it too deep here, but a lot of the underlying anxieties and issues that we now have combined together into the idea of the Technological Singularity were present in embryonic form pretty far back into the SF literary canon… at least to Frankenstein or, quite clearly (if in piecemeal form)in the early “scientific romances” of H.G. Wells. One reason I highlighted this is because I think it’s important to remember SF is, like any other literary tradition, a massive hypertext. One cannot write a story with a Time Machine in that doesn’t implicitly reference Wells’ machine. After all, Wells invented the “time machine.” Likewise invisibility drugs, animals genetically modified to human-intelligence, humans with their intelligence boosted beyond human levels, alien invasions, future evolutionary iterations of our own species (Morlocks, Eloi, and extinction), and so on. Writing against tradition is still participation in the hypertext.

And then there’s Community: and this is the point that prompted this post, really. SF is a social phenomenon. One metaphor I used for the genre and its fans is this:

SF is a house-party full of people talking about all kinds of ideas. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we get into fistfights, and sometimes we get drunk and look up at the stars. All of those things are important parts of what SF is.

I mentioned two examples of how debate within the community can shape decisions SF authors make. One, basically, is the existence not just of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as an example of military SF, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War as a response to it. (In my outline, I also mentioned Ender’s Game as a response to both.) Nobody can write military space opera in ignorance of those texts and be taken seriously; to write military space opera is to respond to the debate, and to participate in it. What the debate is about depends, of course, on how you frame it: while John Scalzi’s made it plenty clear he’s not crazy about anyone’s politics, he didn’t write the novels set in his Old Man’s War universe absent of a context. When the original novel in the series was published, he apparently hadn’t read the Haldeman novel though obviously that changed at some point — he wrote the introduction for a newer edition that came out earlier last year. And the reception of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is clearly affected by the clash of the two novels, regardless of what Card might have said about it. (To me, the book fairly screams of a desire to resolve the two novels’ stances on war.)

Anyway, all of this led to an interesting observation which I didn’t quite get to voice in the question period, because time was short. I was asked, in (what I think was) the context of SF being more popular in the West than in South Korea, “Why did you get hooked on SF?” And I think I have a sense of why, but I’m going to follow that up in a separate post, soon to come.

14 thoughts on “Why, Revisited: The KOFAC Presentation

  1. Dear Mr. Gord Sellar,

    Don’t surprise! This is not a spam as I think…

    I’m Ko, Jang-won who participated as a SF critic in SF mini-seminar sponsored by Korean Foundation of Scientific Creativity with you yesterday. I sat beside your seat while you were presenting your proposal. You may remember me, ^^!

    I’ve got your email address from Mr. Park, the coordinator of the seminar.
    The reason(that I emailed to you) is to get a favor for the unofficial interview with you by way of on-line. My speaking English is not fast and not perfect. So, I thought on-line interview is more fruitful.

    For longtime since my childhood, I’ve been interested in SF(especially Fiction). In the last 5 years, I published three books of Science Fiction Essay such as , , and wrote a short story for , the anthology of Korean science fiction writers.

    If you permit my request, I want to ask some questions about your , Canadian SF, The Future trend of Science Fiction and so on. The interview with you would be posted on my blog “Review the World through SF”. That would be translated without any alteration and posted with English & original text. I’m sure that the interview with you would be a good information & guide for Korean SF readers.

    Well, I’ll look forward to your answer.

    My Best Regards,
    Ko, J. W.

    p.s.) My Blog address is as follows; http://blog.naver.com/efremov
    (I’m sorry that it isn’t written in English. But you can guess the authors and titles from JPG covers and illustrations.)

    1. Hi there!

      Did you get my email? I replied the other day. (As I said in the mail, I’d be happy to do the interview.) If you didn’t receive my email, please let me know if you have an alternate address, or maybe check your spam mail folder as my email might have going to the spam folder or something…

      Anyway,. hopefully talk to you soon!

  2. Sounds like a nice presentation. Most of all I sort of envy your feeling of being part of a community of people who can get drunk, have a fistfight, and then ponder the stars together.

    Your crucial distinction between “society” and “culture” does seem relevant to the way that these dialogues between writers play out.

    These days, I wish that I could use some science fiction in the classes I teach. Something as basic as “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forester (Eminem Forester?) or “With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson. To make students think a bit more critically about the technology we use and how it shapes us.

    However, what I feel is that somehow society’s discourse about technology is able to marginalize or largely ignore the running conversation that writers have already been having for many decades. The new generation of students accepts the glorious march of technological advance as gospel, with nary a moment available to reflect or to gasp at the immensity of the stars for a nanosecond.

    As a result, the majority of our students are evolving into Morlocks.

    BTW, did you know that things posted on your blog can appear on google? Hence, I really do speak in allegory when I write something here that might be best spared from public consumption.

  3. Bradley,

    Well, it’s harder to join a “community” in Korea, I think. I have SF friends, and am sort of on the periphery of the SF crowd, but then I’m not much of a joiner anyway. The getting drunk and fisticuffs are metaphorical, at least for me.

    Yeah, my distinction between society and culture is perhaps hazy. The best way I can highlight it is that I understand society as sort of the materialist base of human existence–practices, realities, and so on. Culture is more like the stories we tell about society or the world or ourselves, and it changes much more slowly.

    As I’ve written before here, society changes at the speed of birth (or technological innovation, or whatever) while culture changes much more slowly, primarily at the speed of death (of the oldest influential members of a society).

    It’s funny, the paper I’m writing currently ends on a note about that robot fish of Lee Myung Bak’s, and about technophilia and its link to the nationalist-developmental rhetoric of the Park dictatorship (as oppositional to the back-to-roots anti-modernity of the minjung movement and leftist environmentalism in Korea). It’s another example of a disconnect between culture (political) and society (the robotics industry as it currently stands).

    What I’m saying is that seems, in public discussions in Korea, to usually be slotted either into developmentalist technocratic discourse — robots somehow lead to riches and power and whatever — generally to be met by only one counter-argument which is, usually, anti-technological, and conceives of environmentalist work as primarily preservationist in nature.

    What I’m saying is, tech seems like the battleground between two different kinds of magical thinking: tech-fixes-all or pseudo-luddite-horror. And I’ve seen as many students on the anti-tech side as I have on the side that simply and uncritically accepts it.

    That’s the problem: the whole debate is so saturated with Magical Thinking that it’s hard to push through it to say something sensible. I’d like to present them with stories that get them thinking about cost-benefit questions, questions about fundamental risk-inherence in high-risk technologies, and so on, and get them asking somewhat more sophisticated questions. Of course, I have little opportunity for that, but I do touch on some other issues through SF.

    Why don’t you use some SF in your classes? I’m writing a different paper right now arguing that the marginality of SF is one of the reasons it’s so useful in Korean classrooms for exploring both other cultures and Korean culture from a different perspective. (My main example is Avatar, but I could recommend others if you like.)

    By the way, don’t you mean Eloi? The Eloi were the pampered surface dwellers who’d enjoyed the benefits of a developed civilization, while the Morlocks were the ones with their faces in the machines, working down in the mines. (Not the most applicable analogy, really, if you ask me.)

    And yeah, showing up on Google is part of the point of blogging, right? This site is promotional for my writing, at least in part. (Also, it’s blogging for the heck of it.) I do sometimes use allegories when I’m talking about something very touchy, but I don’t do that often anymore anyway!

    1. Hi there,

      I did get your interview questions. I’m working on answering them, but it’s going to take a little longer. I saw the email yesterday, it’s just that Naver’s system of checking people have opened an email doesn’t communicate with Google. Anyway, I’ll get it to you soon! Thanks…

  4. Gord,

    I’m really psyched about this paper you’re writing on technophilia as Korean political ideology. It sounds to me like its right on the mark and it will help me clarify some of my understanding of what’s going on in this country.

    I don’t know about the robot fish but I’m going to google it and see what I can learn.

    Yes, you are right on the mark, the whole way that our students understannd their technology is just infused with magical thinking and there is no realistic evaluation of costs or benefits.

    Perhaps in the US some of that magical thinking can be shattered by the high-tech BP oil spill, but here in Korea, people aren’t getting the implications. They mostly just say, “Oh yeah, we had a bad one in Tean two years ago.” Ho hum, just another routine ecological mishap?

    I am also interested in your ideas for using Avatar as a teaching tool. I am already planning to use it this semester, but I think there’s a lot of potential for Avatar that I haven’t yet worked up yet.

    Although fictional, was a truly anthropological film. Sigourney Weaver’s character was a perfect portrayal of a typical anthropologist granola-head.

    Last semester my students just described the Na’vi as living “close to nature,” which shows their typical reification of Nature into some kind of Gaia nonsense.

    Yeah I think Avatar does basically promote the “magical” categories or manicheanism of technology versus nature. But it could also be a tool for thinking past these superficial categories.

    BTW, your distinction between society and culture is not hazy. It is right in tune with the way we understand it in social science. Not that I imagined you espcially wanted to be in tune with anyone in particular…

    1. Bradley,

      Well, I’ll let you see the paper at some point, if you like. (Feedback might be nice, actually.)

      The basic deal: researchers around the world have been working on robot fish for over a decade. Korean researchers started in 2006 or so. They came up with a prototype in 2009. President LMB rapidly suggested they could use robotic fish to detect pollution in the waterways created or expanded by the “Four Rivers Project.” This was widely mocked, for understandable reasons. Robotics seems to be one of those magic technologies imagined to make everything better, in Korean conservative political discourse. Not sure why…

      I doubt BP will have much impact here… just as most Americans don’t give a shit that the Nigerian countryside has been flooded by oil spills a number of times in the last twenty (or was it 30, 40?) years.

      As for Avatar — again, I’ll let you see the paper. The “nature” vs. “technology” thing… yup, and I’m finding solid, clear reasons why this binary developed in popular Korean political discourse. It’s quite an unfortunate binary, really, but we have a version of it in the West, too. If you search my blog for “Derrick Jensen” you can see an example. Hell, here it is.

      And hey, I don’t mind independent development of the same insight by a social scientist and myself. The idea seems self-evident to me, but then, most people don’t seem to think that way. I’m just glad to know you social scientists got something right!

  5. I alredy sent my questionaire for you yesterday. But you didn’t open my email yet. Maybe Naver portal have a problem with your homepage in network. Would you check it? And then let me know.

    1. I just finished it today, but the internet connection died at my place. Free (on campus) suggests reliability of anything free… not so great. So I’ll try email it to you tomorrow. It’s pretty long, but they were long, and good, questions! :)

  6. Thank you for your reply!

    Unfortunately I found your letter in spam folder today. Well, I can’t understand this missconnection. Longtime ago I could get some real-time replies from a russian scifi community several times.

    Anyway, I’m surprised of the very-long reply letter. I appreciate your serious response.

    As soon as it is translated, I’ll send the translated questionnaire to you again for correction.

    I tried my powerpoint file to upload on line for you, but it is difficult that my file is too big(the data size of it is 26 megabite due to some photos and tables.).

    So, if you have any web hard, just let me know the ID and Password of your web hard. Then I’ll upload there.

    About the information of Korean SF publication market, I would recommend my book . But That is written in korean.

    If you want it regardless of language problem, I’ll send it.

    If you want to know about all the titles of SF stories and essays in Korea, the very very long list in the book would be fruitful. But it is written in only korean, too. If you can get your friend’s help, you may find and check the imprortant titles from to 2004.

    I’m sorry that I could not help you so much.

    I’ll contact again after I translate it.

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