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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.

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