Failure modes of science fiction

There are several popular ways to look at science fiction as a genre. I have my own preferences. That said, the major opposing perspective — what I’d term the ‘machine-lit’ school of thought — has its merits, insomuch as it highlights a set of common tendencies in science fiction. I’d like to take this space to highlight the basic premise of machine-lit, the tendencies it breeds, and why I find most machine-lit to be relatively uninteresting.

(The third major perspective, what I call the spaceship-on-the-cover style, I find wholly uninteresting and is the subject of other essays; however, this perspective is becoming historically important lately because of some drama surrounding the Hugo awards being gamed by groups who prefer this style, so it’s worth mentioning in passing.)

Machine-lit is, in a general sense, the construction of a narrative around a concept invented by the author, as a capsule intended to introduce the reader to the concept. Lots of early science fiction is machine-lit for actual machines (Ralph 124C41+ being an ideal example of how this can go wrong yet still be very influential). The works of Ayn Rand are machine-lit for the Objectivist philosophy. Big-idea science fiction novels tend to be machine-lit for the ideas they represent.

One failure mode of machine-lit is that, because the narrative is intended as a delivery mechanism for the concepts, the narrative can itself be weak or nearly nonexistent if the author thinks the ideas themselves are interesting enough. (Ayn Rand, again, and Gernsback, again — but also major dystopian novels like Zamatayin’s We and 1984). Likewise, style can be a major issue in machine-lit, with The Unincorporated Man’s borderline-fanfic-quality-prose depending upon its intended audience of libertarians to forgive lack of technical skill in writing because the ideas are sufficiently in-line with the ideology, and PKD’s writing so heavily leaning on the ideas (not to mention the amphetamines) to pull it through (outside of rare stylistically-polished books like A Scanner Darkly).

There are definitely instances where books intended as machine-lit end up having well-developed plot and characters and a coherent and polished writing style (pretty much every Neal Stephenson book meets these criteria, as does Brave New World), but to some extent, doing so depends upon a kind of imagination and intellectual honesty that brings the book into the middle-ground between machine-lit and the world-building-based style of science fiction that I tend to champion, whose most extreme and visible example is seen in the post-Neuromancer works of William Gibson.

Another major failure mode of machine-lit is that, because of the dependence upon the central conceit of the book, if that conceit is uninteresting or unoriginal, the book as a whole fails along with it. With big-idea novels related to politics (Rand again) or philosophy (a handful of PKD books that lean too heavily on solipsism or philosophical zombies, and nearly every film adaptation of a PKD work), interest in these works falls evenly along either political-ideological or philosophical-education lines — a communist is, largely, going to find The Fountainhead or Anthem uninteresting; someone who is familiarenough with the idea of solipsism to find it fairly uninteresting will likewise find The Matrix uninteresting, while someone who rejects Serle’s Chinese Room paradox and the idea of philosophical zombies as based on an erroneous deification of consciousness will find the host of films about robots being incapable of emotion or of morality to be uninteresting. When the same idea is recycled into dozens of machine-lit works, the popularity of the idea itself can suffer, because while no longer wholly novel it will often be framed in similar ways, with similar changes based on the needs of the story or premise, by nearly identical stories (The Matrix has more in common with Simula-3 and its major film adaptations, World on a Wire and The Thirteenth Floor, than it does with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from which all of them were derived). Today, talking about solipsism will make people think of The Matrix rather than, say, Descartes’ “evil genius” — and despite my general feeling that The Meditations failed to be adequately convincing, we as a society are favoring an action franchise with major and obvious plotholes over a fairly heavily considered work by a brilliant philosopher.

Again, if a text develops its characters and plot adequately, the central conceit can essentially be ignored — a good ghost story is good even to people who don’t believe in ghosts, while a bad ghost story will fail to entertain enough to motivate people to suspend their disbelief.

Machine-lit shares with the rest of speculative fiction a basis in a counterfactual model of the world. That is to say, we start our world-building by setting some axioms that, in our world, are not true, and work from there. The difference is that machine-lit, by definition, performs the basic world building then immediately jumps to narrative, then stops as soon as something resembling a completed text is produced. Within world-building-based science fiction, a much more complex world is built, and the narrative and characters stem from that world organically.

This requires a dedication to completeness and intellectual honesty, in part because genuinely following the logical progression of the central mechanism of a counterfactual world can point out flaws in its structure.

In cryptography, the first and most important rule is never to roll your own crypto — always use a well-known and well-tested algorithm, at the very least, and ideally also use a well-known and well-tested implementation. The reason is that flaws are never intentionally introduced into crypto by people who want the crypto to succeed, and thus fatal flaws can only be identified by other people — and the more people there are looking for flaws in an algorithm, the faster such flaws are found (and the longer it takes to find fatal flaws in an algorithm, the more likely it is that such flaws are difficult to find). Everyone who designs crypto professionally is also skilled in trying to break crypto: you learn to avoid the flaws that you have discovered how to exploit. Likewise in computer security — the research arm of the computer security community consists of people who figure out how to break security and then figure out how to patch those holes.

In fact, this is a common pattern in legitimately serious enterprises. The scientific method is exactly this: suggest a model of the world, and then recruit people to attack it. The adversarial justice system is based on two groups of people presenting different models of the world and attacking each others’ models. Even in philosophy, philosophers engage in critiques of the ideas of other philosophers, rather than ignoring any idea they don’t agree with.

Any functional member of any of these communities will attempt, before putting their ideas out into the world, to stress-test them personally — formulate simple attacks, determine which portions of the idea are weak and whether they can be strengthened without complete restructuring.

Machine-lit, by and large, fails to perform these sanity checks. Machine-lit is the domain of people who are so in love with their ideas that they cannot bear to test their mettle before pushing them out into the world.

An ideology at the core of machine-lit, if properly investigated, would collapse upon itself or mutate such that it fails to be an ideology. A utopia at the core of machine lit would, upon close inspection, become a dystopia; a dystopia, upon close inspection, would yield some happy and fulfilled people, making the message of the book ambiguous. An actual machine at the core of machine-lit, if properly and rigorously tested, would become at worst a patent application but possibly an actual invention.

I’m perfectly in favor of optimism in science fiction. Nothing is to be gained from keeping the genre grimdark as a rule, in the same way that nothing is to be gained from keeping superhero movies grimdark. However, utopian science fiction represents a failure to take the medium seriously — and a shallow dystopia or cozy apocalypse is no better. Science fiction should be a genre of ideas, but there’s no point if we allow our ideological biases and our love of shiny toys to turn it into a genre of shallow ideas shielded from unforgiving reality. The real world has problems, and while escapism is fine, a work cannot simultaneously be an escapist fantasy and a serious analysis presenting a serious solution to the problems it fantasizes about escaping from.

Science fiction always starts as machine-lit. But, machine-lit is a larval stage that adult science fiction works outgrow.

This article was originally published at First Church of Space Jesus under the title “Utopianism and sci-fi as machine-lit”.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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