Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Space Magic

While I do try not to be picky about genre, I have to admit, it's a pet peeve of mine when people refer to things that have no particular relation to science as "science fiction". For example, one of the people I work with and I stopped in a room that had a TV tuned to what looked like one of those wgn magic shows- Charmed or somesuch, in which two demon creatures were arguing with a witch about the natures of spells and curses. I told the gentleman that I didn't care one way or the other about having it on, and wasn't paying much attention, to which he responded "I thought you'd be interested, you like science fiction."

In perhaps the opposite, complentary, horrific version of this, I was having a conversation with my stepmother about Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, both of which we'd read. My stepmother was praising it for its extrapolations from current science on both genetic manipulation and climate change research. And I said to her, yeah, that's the sort of stuff I really love in science fiction. And she said, "no, I wouldn't call this science fiction. It's really more fiction based on science" (these books, by the way, are set in a mid-near future post apocalypse and revolve around genetically engineered food animals and a new iteration of created humans). That's exactly what science fiction is, I protested. It's there in the name! To which she said, no, stuff like star trek on the TV, they're really just making stuff up out of whole cloth. This was using real science, so it couldn't be science fiction.

I can't help but feel like this is somehow our own fault.

I've been using the term "Space Magic" somewhat pejoratively for a while to refer to non-scientific things that go on within science fiction, be they "the Force", about 93% of the show Farscape, John Carter of Mars, Doctor Who what have you. There's certainly nothing inherently wrong with space magic, and I know I'm like many people in that the Star Wars theme can make me feel like a wide-eyed eight year old ready for the adventure of my tiny life, and I absolutely love that the Doctor routinely opens the door of his flying police box (which is bigger inside than outside) onto the cold, sucking vacuum of space and sticks his head out like he's checking the weather.

But I do often feel disappointed when I open something billed as science fiction and get space magic, in the same way that, while I love strawberry ice cream, I'm going to be terribly cross if I find it in a carton labelled chocolate fudge. Every time the aliens are suspiciously hot human-like babes. Every time people take the word quantum to mean they can make up whatever they like. Every time someone reverses the polarity of something. Every time an organism experiences "evolution" as an individual creature and grows wings because its "genes understand" that it needs to fly.

I suspect not everyone feels this way, mostly based on the fact that these sorts of things are both common and popular, and often pretty fiercely defended by people who are making the claim that science fiction can be opaque to the less scientifically minded reader. Then they'll talk about how much they love things where guys with ray guns fight of giant space lizards and hacking in just knowing the back door the programmer left in the software.

I do sort of wonder, however, how much other people draw the line between science and space magic, and alternately how much I fail to draw the line in places where I lack scientific knowledge. When Mars needs women, how many people pat themselves on the back for how pro-thought they're being by enjoying it. When someone talks about the properties of the Higgs-Boson in a story, past being responsible for mass, how do I know they're not just pulling numbers out of a hat to sound cool?

And how much does it ultimately matter to a story?

On the one hand, I do actually love some good space magic, and if it's clearly marked and no one is lauding it as terribly thinky, I will sink my worm-hooks into that magic and ride it across alien deserts in the sky. Real science might even be unwelcome on this strange road trip.

On the other, I think it's maybe a bit like prestidigitation. For a story to hang together, there's an illusion that you have to be mesmerized by, even if you know it's an illusion. Perhaps something of an inverse bell curve of appreciation- there's the high where you sort of buy that something wonderful is happening, and as far as you know, it IS magic. Then there's something of a low where you know he's palming it, there's doves in the sleeve pockets, whatever. Then there's a rise on the other side where you know there's a dove up his sleeve and that he's drawing your eye away with misdirection to the other hand and some witty stage banter, but what impresses you isn't the dove appearing- you knew where it was. What you're watching is how he pulls it off, and the craft of the performance.

Maybe? Honestly, I think that's a better analogue for writing in general than it is for the pretense of science in science fiction, but there you have it.

Enjoy yourselves out there. 

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