The Human Condition:

Science Fantasy – October 2, 2016

Crystal ball

For decades—oh, up until the mid-1980s or early ’90s, perhaps—there was a single genre in literature called “science fiction.”1 Also called “speculative fiction,” its stories dealt with themes and developments in the hard sciences: physics and chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology and evolution, and medicine, tempered with some of the softer areas of study like economics, political science, and anthropology. This literature dealt with the issues that human beings will have to face as we progress in the vast cycle of research, invention, development, and commercialization which began with Newton, Descartes, and the other practical scientists of the 17th century in the period called “the Enlightenment” and will continue as long as there is a functioning Western Civilization.

Science fiction as a separate genre actually started with authors in the late 19th century like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, who wrote about new technologies that were just coming over their horizon. Verne described travels and adventures under the sea by submarine, across Africa by aerial balloon, and under the skin of the Earth by exploring extinct volcanoes and subterranean passages. Wells examined biological experiments upon the human form and potential encounters with extraterrestrials, both by our going to visit them on the Moon and by their coming to visit us from Mars.

While science fiction was maturing and getting its popular legs in the mid-20th century, another form of speculative fiction was growing out of more natural or organic roots in folklore and legend. Authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and E. R. Eddison were telling stories of power and conflict based on magical premises and involving creatures that had human form but were different from human—elves, kobold dwarves, witches, and other figments of imagination. Their heroes and heroines were familiar with and often used magic.2 Fantasy became its own literary genre in which the unknown and unknowable power of myth and magic has greater influence than the known and definable power of science and technology.

A third genre, horror, has also grown out of roots in both of these fictional streams. Horror focuses on the negative effects, the willful opening of one’s eyes to the ugly side of science and legend—and then squeezing them shut again. The science roots of this genre go back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and predate the more hopeful stories of Verne and Wells. She describes what happens when a scientist ventures too far into the realm of pure science.3 On the fantasy side, horror probably starts with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where a mythical and ageless creature doesn’t just coexist with human beings but feeds on them.

But put aside horror for the moment—a genre I sometimes read but never tried to write. Put aside, also, the realm of formal fantasy. I once was invited to collaborate on a book about wizards but declined, because I really know nothing about magic. It always seems to me to be too much like wishful thinking.

My head and my heart have always been with “hard” science fiction, primarily because I’m curious about the mechanics behind what we find in the world. That’s just one effect of being the son of a mechanical engineer. My talent as a technical writer was always to take a complicated process, explore it within my own imagination, and break it down into steps that anyone could follow. My talent as an employee communicator was to take the science and technology behind my current company’s products, find examples and analogies from everyday life, and explain these mysteries so that everyone from the accountants to the janitors could find in them something interesting.

My first published novel4 was The Doomsday Effect, about a micro black hole orbiting around and through the Earth, what it was doing to the planet, how it was discovered, and what a team of scientists and engineers could do to stop it. It was a story of pure science—well, except for the end, where I played fast and loose with a vial of antimatter. That stuff is more of a science fiction meme and theoretical substance than an actual material you can put in a bottle. But readers accept it as something we can manipulate, especially when the plot needs an awesome explosion or a powerful starship drive.

My second novel, First Citizen, was hardly science fiction at all—except that it portrayed an alternate history of the United States, including a major war in Central America, the collapse of the federal government through a rogue nuclear attack, and the rise of feuding despots in the manner of the civil wars of the late Roman Republic. I still managed to inject a healthy dose of technology, including the possibilities of mining municipal solid waste and advanced techniques of alternative warfare.

It was my third novel, ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery, that launched me into what I’ve since come to regard as a new genre, “science fantasy.” The premise of the book—and of its sequel, ME, Too: Loose in the Network—is that a piece of computer software written in a version of the Lisp programming language can be both small and large at the same time: small and agile enough to port from one computer operating system to another as a viral infiltrator and spy; large and complex enough to become a self-aware artificial intelligence with understanding, aspirations, and the possibility of a soul. This was not just bending the rules of science, like putting antimatter in a bottle, but throwing them out the window and using the trappings of computer technology to tell stories about a kind of sprite or a wood elf.

More recently, I’ve done it again with The Children of Possibility, and with its prequel (now in production) tentatively called The House at the Crossroads. Both deal with time travel—and not just a solitary inventor who creates a machine of gears and wheels that pushes itself forward through time, but two competing systems, alternate theories of mechanics and mathematics, and the societies that grow up using them for competing purposes. Since time travel, like antimatter or artificial intelligence, is the stuff of imagination based in physics and mathematics but not the occasion of everyday reality, like separating garbage into fuels and metals or fighting a war with remotely piloted drones, these stories are pure fantasy.

But—important disclaimer—I am neither a scientist nor an engineer. My formal training was in English literature, the old and dusty kind, and the origins of story going back to Homer and the ancient Greek playwrights. My family upbringing and my early jobs as an editor, first at a publisher of railroad histories and then at an engineering and construction company, nurtured in me a fascination with science and technology. But I never got the training to go deep into the weeds of mathematics and physics. So I never learned to be precise and pedantic about the limits between what is real and what must be imaginary.

In this I am not alone. Writers of “hard” science fiction have been skating on the edges of reality since the beginning. Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth imaginatively followed an adventurer through realms deep inside the planet, where even the geology of the author’s time would have suggested the pressures are too great to support vast caverns filled with alien biology. And Wells’s The Time Machine, without the benefit of modern mathematical theories and quantum mechanics, takes a visitor through the dimension of time—but not those of space—by purely mechanical means. Both writers were creating fantasies draped in no more than loose garlands of scientific terminology.

I would also consider any stories about faster-than-light travel as being a science fantasy—although the jury is still out on the subject of warp drives, wormholes, and whether space is pure emptiness or a structure that can be bent and pierced. Without hyper-light travel, all notions of interstellar trade, warfare, and empire recede into the realm of fantasy, a tale of medieval or Renaissance politics played out among the stars between vast duchies and provinces.

I still have a few stories that are based on hard science. They are classed as science fiction only because they haven’t happened yet. One such was my novel about building a solar power plant in orbit, Sunflowers, which is so mundane that I classify it on my author’s website as general fiction. Another is the two-volume Coming of Age, which follows two people from this decade who get to live remarkably extended lives through cellular regeneration technologies which are being developed right now.

As a writer who tries to be neat and precise—as well as honest in my dealings with the reader—I try to keep these two genres separate in my mind: science fiction for what is proven to be technically possible; science fantasy for what is impossible, or only slightly plausible, but great fun. It’s not always easy. Homer, in creating the first saga of Western Civilization, struggled with this impulse, too. And he kept stepping over the line, dealing with the gods as living characters and having his characters journey into the afterlife.

I guess that only means fantasy exists all around us and is part of the human condition.

1. I’m using “literature” here in its proper sense, the art of telling stories through the printed word. This includes everyone from Geoffrey Chaucer and Miguel de Cervantes to Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway and everyone who makes a living, or tries to, by writing books, short stories, and various species of poetry. The word literature has gotten a bad reputation these days, coming to mean the sort of dry, dusty, and obscure books that one is forced to read in English class, cannot understand, and so despises. There is also a genre of its own, “literary fiction,” which tries to emulate those dusty old books by taking out all the dangerous, daft, fun stuff and inserting long passages of introspection where nothing much happens. That’s not the kind of literature I mean here.
       However, I have tried my hand at literary fiction—see The Judge’s Daughter and its sequel, The Professor’s Mistress. These are stories about people in a certain place and time in the past, not the future. Although the books have a certain amount of insight and introspection, I promise that a lot still happens and some of it’s fun.

2. Yes, of course, as Arthur C. Clarke noted, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But in these stories the characters themselves usually remain uncertain about the origins of their magical power and stand in awe of its effects.

3. Yes, and there’s one of Clarke’s other laws: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

4. I wrote two other complete novels, worked on a number of fragmentary manuscripts, and dreamed up even more discarded ideas before I finally published this book. Every author has to learn and practice the art before going public. When you see a “first novel” that’s really good and makes headway with the critics, you can bet the author has two or three unpublishable experiments that predate it.