NB: This is a condensed version of what I scribbled at 6am this morning – I had these thoughts in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s like the mental version I’d imagine of having a small child when they classically jump up and down on the bed because they can’t sleep.
What arguably defines SF and Fantasy from other genres can be made on many levels – but one I will deal with here is the sense of self and the way in which the concept is presented. Arguably many genres are about human agency, characters that are shaped by what they do to others. Of course, this is a symbiotic relationship – reactions and actions are cycled in the background of many well known plots. Romance is often battling against obstacles to find “true love”, placing the power in the protagonist’s hands – often they don’t realise this at first, or most novels would indeed be flash fiction instead. Puzzles are pieced together internally and externally, but with the spotlight on the (usually) two characters. Crime and Thrillers thrive on us working out the puzzle – obstacles are placed in our way – an epistemological mode of fiction. SF, I argue, is an ontological form – one that deals with world view specifically in a way that other genres generally do not deal with (of course, genres are often blended, such as Romance and SF, Crime and SF, etc. and it’s fascinating to see how these modes can work with and against each other).
In other words, what is evident in a lot of SF texts is the distancing from the sense of self that other genres emphasise and highlight. Space is not just about outside of the Earth’s atmosphere – it’s about the sense of space inside us, between individuals, between groups, societies, singular and collective identities (as well as the ones our virtual spaces have increasingly encroached on our daily lives). It can often be seen as a metaphor of remoteness – those who close themselves up and ones who grasp for others. The sense of the alien can be a metaphor for the self/other, and how we can define ourselves in a species that for some time now has enjoyed the top seat of the food chain. To have species that rival us – often the Fermi Paradox is lifted and we become the magnet for extra-terrestrial life for artistic license, allows us to view humanity at a distance (I’m at once reminded of the convex/concave mirror that the narrator views the people with in HG Wells’ In the Days of the Comet – he is really fond of ants, isn’t he?). Of course, we have the infamous Solaris with the frustrations that humanity has to be unable to view things outside of our sphere without anthropomorphising everything – our filters of perception blocks out the fully realised idea of the world, let alone the ones outside of ours. The famous Moorcock quote – the only true alien planet is Earth – is an effective way of summing this up. The trope of Robots is similar but a little different – they are our timesaving devices, in effect our slaves, but by that reason alone our dependence on them makes them our eventual masters. Very often do you get a text with robots as the main trope as a warning!
For this reason and more, Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke is one of my favourite texts of all time. The introduction of the overlords and their eventual plans for humanity – the ending can really give you future shock – not only on the literal level, but of a metaphor of the next generation, our children, outliving us. They are our genetic saviours, a token of our own humanity and by extention, frailties. I’ve also been thinking, how The Tempest by Shakespeare is seen as an SF play – and that could be evident of the way humans are at the mercy of the supernatural (but then again, I thought, isn’t that the case with A Midsummer’s Night Dream?). It could be why SF and comedy are so compatible – seeing humanity from our distance and seeing our foibles from far away.
I’m reading Metzinger’s Being No-One and it’s really enlightening to me in the way representata are built collectively and experienced by us in such a heavily coded way – that the constructivist world view exposes the human self as an illusion in itself. It’s mind-blowing and well worth a read (I’m hardly finished, mind). I also love the fact that it comes with equations – I tried to formulate Possible World Equations earlier on this year to great amusement. I might leave it up to him.