Science fact: Planet Earth has a thin layer of iridium, distributed rather evenly around the crust as part of the KT boundary. That’s the only place the element is found.  It likely got there as the result of a massive meteor impact, perhaps the one that killed the dinosaurs. The meteor vaporized on impact, sending iridium dust high into the atmosphere as part of the clouds that blocked out the sun for a millennium , and the element settled on the surface of a rock that otherwise lacked it completely. Iridium would definitely be suited to the task of smacking our world into a quasi nuclear winter. Iridium is a very dense metal with a very, very high melting point. Maybe it’s precious in the universe. Maybe it’s rare.

Science fiction: Sure would suck if someone wanted to strip mine the earth for its iridium layer and we were all just … in the way.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I made it a point to pop off the other day, but failed to provoke anyone into telling me what I don’t know (which was my objective) and calling me an idiot (a price I was willing to pay). So, I’m going to continue talking to myself and see if it means anything. It’s the internet, after all.

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All of This has Happened Before

Davewill, at dKOS, suggested I read E. E. “Doc” Smith’s work, and I had never heard of it before. I poked around wikipedia and was shocked at what I found. Let me say this very clearly:

if you read/watch/dream sci-fi and you have never heard of E. E. “Doc” Smith, you are a puppet on a string and you’ve never seen your puppeteer

Smith didn’t invent anything from scratch. He drew together common adventure story elements already common, for instance, in boilerplate wild-west fiction. But he also added other elements common to his early-20th-century milieu that continue to permeate much of the sci-fi you’ve consumed in your lifetime, gentle reader.

And he started doing it before 1920. Our sci-fi paradigm* is approaching its centennial. I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry.

See if you recognize these elements:

  • Ancient races.
  • Ancient wars.
  • Teleological evolution, resulting in a life of pure mind (whatever that would be).
  • Genetic manipulation.
  • Race of supermen.
  • Competitively-selected guardians of the universe.
  • Psychic amplification gear.

Parody is just God’s way of telling you you’ve become too predictable. Consider this old internet hoot:

Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Carl Harris, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had more important things to think about than the neuroses of an air-headed asthmatic bimbo named Laurie with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago. ” A.S. Harris to Geostation 17,” he said into his transgalactic communicator. “Polar orbit established. No sign of resistance so far…” But before he could sign off a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship’s cargo bay. The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit.

You recognize it because you’ve seen it before. Again. And again.

Just to give you an example of how dated this should all look to you, consider how dated Smith’s attitudes were concerning gender:

As the breeding program reaches its ultimate conclusion, Kimball Kinnison, the brown-haired, gray-eyed second-stage Lensman of Earth, finally marries the most advanced product of the complementary breeding program, Clarrissa MacDougall, a beautiful, curvaceous, red-haired nurse, who eventually becomes the first human female to receive her own Lens.

But wait! It gets worse!

…each of the Kinnison girls knew it would be a physical and psychological impossibility for her to become even mildly interested in any man not at least her father’s equal. They each had dreamed of a man who would be her own equal, physically and mentally, but it had not yet occurred to any of them that one such man already existed.

Now, I am not saying “see? he wrote sexist things! we must disown him!” What I am saying is that the conventions of science fiction are as dated as the drek you just read, and it’s time to reconsider them.

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What Is and What Should Never Be

First off, I should say what I think science fiction does. I’ll try to keep it from sounding like a manifesto, knowing that I’m doomed to fail. Science fiction must speak to the present, because your audience is alive now. You might find a future audience after languishing, unappreciated, like J. S. Bach, only to be rediscovered in the future you wrote about as the greatest (dead) writer of your time, but what’s the point of that? If you are afraid of being mugged by the future, worried that your story set a hundred years in the future might be overtaken by events next month, you’re torturing yourself, or maybe just procrastinating.

Earlier sci-fi writers needed to be well-informed on speculative science and emerging technologies, and that will never go out of style. But, since your audience now is very well acquainted with technology (if not science) and its impact on their lives, the sci-fi writer must also now be very well-informed about people and societies. Heroes perfect in body and mind fighting wars with clear-cut good and evil have no appeal, I think (I might be wrong, could be escapist), in a time of setbacks and uncomfortable ambiguities. Right now, your audience out there spent years listening to leaders lecture about good and evil, only to find out said leaders were engaging in torture and the mass murder of non-combatants. If art is the business of speaking clearly to mixed feelings, you are living in a target-rich environment.

But, are you comfortable enough with ambiguity to address that audience? The engineers, like Smith, who were drawn to sci-fi were not. Smith’s contributions to WWII command-and-control schemes were part of a larger extension of the mechanistic program to military thought in the twentieth century. Traditional military hierarchies and cultures were far behind the donut industry, where Smith worked, in organizing the gathering of information, formalizing the decision-making process, and ensuring that decisions had consequences at every level of an organization, not just rote obedience at the very bottom.

Campbell relayed Captain Cal Lanning‘s acknowledgment that he had used Smith’s ideas for displaying the battlespace situation (called the “tank” in the stories) in the design of the United States Navy‘s ships’ Combat Information Centers. “The entire set-up was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in — more communication channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique and proved how advantageous it could be. You, sir, were 100% right. As the Japanese Navy— not the hypothetical Boskonian fleet— learned at an appalling cost.”

But the same managerial strategies that were celebrated after WWII would be blamed for shortsightedness in Vietnam.

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From Up Here, You All Look Like Little Ants!

Human history did not end with the industrial revolution or the Cold War. Nor are changes in human societies linear enough that we can project them into the future without making fools of ourselves. Gerry Anderson, working on the series “UFO” in 1969, thought that race would cease to matter in the US by 1980. Considering the social changes that Anderson lived through, I can see why he might have assumed those changes would continue. And perhaps it’s unfair to seize on 1980 and race, when characters of color actually became more rare in American entertainment in that decade, as the great white revanche provided cover for Grand Theft Economics. Race relations deteriorated, social liberation was at least supposed to have been rolled back and for a while, that was supposed to be a good thing. We might as well pick on Anderson for thinking that wigs would return to men’s fashion, too, by 1980. Other than Reagan’s shoe-polish head, Gerry was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Our freedoms, our standard of living, even the space program itself, all of these things have suffered miserable setbacks in my lifetime. So why should I assume that “the future” entails “improvement”?

what is this thing you Earthmen call genre?

what is this thing you Earthmen call "genre"?

Instead, in the act of world building, science fiction should take into account how mass society will react to the physical environment we’re constructing. What previous, latent elements will reemerge? How will these changes influence the future’s representation of the past? How will they mis-remember us, for instance? What prejudices will supplant which other prejudices, since it’s reflexive to despise what you don’t know/can’t have, and easy to make power out of dimmer people’s fears?

Same shit, different century. New toys to accessorize the ceaseless games of hypergamy. New schemes to con the many into subsidizing the luxury of the few under the pretense of the natural, the good, the just, or the divine, all the usual lies. Lies, suffering, distruction, false starts, misrepresentations and disappointments: all the things that make for good drama.

Even physics began to cope with the same ambiguities that soft sci-fi has abused (Einstein denounced quantum physics for its vagueness; paradigmatic shifts are often generational ones, says Kuhn). These are just further examples that show how long ago their era has passed.

But Smith’s portrayal of the future was mired in his modern past. “Mind” is some abstract force that can be divorced from physical being. Humanity is bred to remove “weaknesses,” whatever those are supposed to be. Maybe Smith should have called his series “The Lenzmen”? The force for good is transcendent. The force for evil is materialist. The war is two-sided and the sides are clear. The good manipulates humanity to serve good through means that are incomprehensible to all but a select, purified few.

Great. You’ve just reinvented dualist cosmology. Zarathustra’s lawyer is on the phone. They’re threatening to sue. Since George Lucas just settled with Jesus Christ for an undisclosed sum, I think we should cooperate.

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Angels, Mutants, Aliens, You’re all Very Boring.

The aliens are always stronger, smarter, imbued with weird powers rarely explained (and even more tedious when they are). They come from older civilizations. They’re almost always united as a race under one political authority. They mean well or they mean trouble, there’s rarely a middle ground. One of the great moments in TV sci-fi, for me, was when Captain Archer of the Enterprise NX-01 made first contact with a race and they replied “So? Whaddaya want?”

Priceless. And perfect.

And why do we call it a “race”? Are we all the same species? Well, there are a lot of humanoids (which the Star Trek universe attempts to explain), but that’s just because of limitations in special effects and makeup. We got human actors. They’re cheap. Slap a couple of extra sinuses on his forehead and tell him to use a British accent. Yeah, that’ll work.

If I met an alien, with their alien pharygia et al. (may I call you pharynx?), I doubt that I could pronounce whatever it is that they call themselves, assuming they could understand my question, assuming that our contact would involve communication at all.

Mutation I get. Pyrokinesis requires explanation. If humanity is evolving, why all these different [shudder to write this stupid word:] “powers“? How do I get from DNA to shooting rays out of my eyes? Where is the energy coming from? Don’t you get tired? Is this a good way to lose weight? What the fuck is going on?

Wish-fulfillment. Nothing more. The whole conceit of The Other is one, big Mary Sue. Gee, I sure wish I could live a life of total logic or grow giant bird wings or live in a cheesy plastic sphere and inhabit one body after another. That would be swell! Oh! A new race! Tell me what your no doubt more ancient and wise civilization has to tell me! Take up the space-man’s burden and provide the exposition! Deploy your hitherto undisclosed [chokes down vomit] … powers at some critical juncture, and we’ll give you another chuck of dialog! Dance, monkey! Dance!

To anticipate what first contact is likely to look like, we should consult not only our own history but our planet’s fauna. First contact is most likely to look like “To Serve Man” with a healthy heaping helping of “Independence Day.” H. G. Well’s “War of the Worlds” may have been an allegory about colonization, putting the Imperial subjects in his audience on the receiving end for a change, but the lesson extends beyond turn of the century white guilt. When civilizations of disparate abilities collide, one becomes the slave and the other the master. “… [R]ight, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they canand the weak suffer what they must.”

But that is the case between what we used to call men. A conquistador can put a person to work doing work a person would do. In collisions between different species, not “races,” the inferior is at best going to be put to work as food or other productive livestock. At worst, they’ll just be in the way.

That’s a story that would make sense.
* I should point out that when I say sci-fi, I’m talking about “hard” sci-fi, since I’ve already dismissedsoft” sci-fi as “fantasy with mechanical toys.” I confess that this is merely a personal choice of arbitrary taste.

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