There Is No Science Fiction

“Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth…there is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

― Spoon Boy, The Matrix

Today I want to express one simple idea, because I feel that for all the words thrown around, few people have grasped this concept, and even fewer have debated it honestly. But to begin with, I will discuss the antithesis to the idea. This antithesis was repeated widely before, during, and after the Hugo meltdown. It is almost as if people are constantly jumping up and down, shouting: ‘there is a spoon, there is a spoon, THERE IS A SPOON,’ because they refuse to countenance the possibility of a world without a spoon. David Gerrold, who can always be relied upon to share his banal devotion to unimaginative mainstream orthodoxy via Facebook, beautifully expressed the antithesis like this:

There is room in this community for everyone who brings their enthusiasm. We have steampunk and heroic engineers and fantasy fans and gothic horror and gender-punk and space opera and cyberpunk and deco-punk and alternate histories and utopias and dystopias and zombies and vampires and all the other different niches that make up this vast ecology of wonder.

None of us have the right to define SF — we each define it by what we read and what we write. None of us have the authority to demand or control the behavior of others. The best that any of us can do is recommend and invite. And yes, this is another narrative — a narrative of inclusion that stands in opposition to the narratives of division.

That’s the narrative I choose to live in.

To use some arcane philosophical terminology, Gerrold is spewing pure bollocks. Admittedly, these are attractive bollocks, that will hold a lot of emotional appeal for many people. Bollocks can be like that. But they are bollocks all the same.

I could carve into Gerrold’s thought process and note the absurdity of arguing nobody has a right to define something, but then insisting everybody is always defining that something as they go along. I could argue we get a superior understanding of the word ‘definition’ by learning from the people who write dictionaries, than from someone who wrote episodes of Star Trek. And whilst no individual possesses an ultimate control of words, I could observe that some people plainly do have the authority to demand or control behavior from others. If a powerful editor wants a little-known author to change some words, then the words will be changed. I could make all those points, but I would be missing the main point I want to make.

For all the talk of inclusion, all the fuss about being one community, all the guff about wanting people to join the world of science fiction, there is no science fiction. Or rather, there is something called ‘science fiction’ if a language community says there is something called ‘science fiction’ and behaves consistently when speaking about it. A different language community might behave the same way, or not. Thus all the words spouted about the singular community that surrounds a single genre only take us around a grand circular tour, leading precisely nowhere.

Why take us on this tour? People play illogical language games when their goal is to confirm their pre-existing bias, and to exert irrational pressure on others to adopt the same behavioral norms. Whilst Gerrold wants to sing hymns to the holy objective of unity, this is a disguise for a primitive instinct: the demand for conformity.

Gerrold wrote about variety, but crucially he put it into the context of a single ecology which contains everything else. The problem with this line of thinking is that the notion of ecology is a human abstraction. The constituents of this ecology exist without spending a moment contemplating this abstraction. The physical world has plants, that climb high and compete for sunlight, and which grow deep roots that compete for nutrients. There are animals, which feed on the plants. There are animals that feed on other animals. And there are microorganisms that might kill animals, or turn them back into soil. Ecology is what you get when a fuzzy human mind tries to understand this endless, unbounded, microscopic, individualistic, rapacious, and callous competition through the prism of a single abstract system. By doing so, these minds often get a queasy notion of what the ‘ideal’ system would look like, and thus intervene to prevent natural competition. They are like 18th century landscape gardeners, who so perfectly administer to current fashion, that they destroy what is wild in order to pursue a myth of natural beauty. The truth is there is no single nature, no single ecology, and no single science fiction. There are only many competitors, with many different ideals.

David Gerrold can believe whatever narrative he wants. After all, he wrote an episode of Star Trek, and hence is an authority on the subject of science fiction. But other people can believe whatever narrative they want. I believe that if a community insists repeatedly on unity, whilst behaving in a belligerent manner to non-conformists, then it is oppressive and exclusionary.

The sole purpose of a vote for ‘no award’ is to exclude. It communicates that the work is not good enough to meet the community’s standards. Such a device would not be employed by a community which prioritizes inclusion over all other objectives. But then, an overly inclusive community might fear being taken over, or losing control of quality. I would never dispute the right of a community to set limits on who belongs to that community. However, I will point out hypocrisy when I see it. A community that blandly sings the praises of inclusivity, whilst methodically excluding non-conformists, is a community of hypocrites.

The hypocrisy of the one true community is tedious to listen to. They are fandom in general, but they only represent themselves. They determine the very best in science fiction, but are only a small band of amateur enthusiasts who wanted to participate in one specific convention. They are everybody when they want to be everybody, and nobody in particular, when they want to be nobody in particular. Which is it? Are they all, or some? Listening to how this cadre describes itself, I feel that most of them no longer have any idea who they are.

The world is big, and contains many people. There is room for two science fictions, or three science fictions, or four or five. If David Gerrold holds up a book and says ‘THIS is science fiction’, I can moan that it is not, and there will be no grounds for one to prove the other wrong. Perhaps I will read a book recommended by Jonathan Ross instead, despite his exclusion from the one true community. The world can, and does sustain multiple communities. Jonathan Ross has an extremely large community of fans (87,000 likes on Facebook), David Gerrold’s community of fans is much smaller (1,500 likes on Facebook), and my community of fans consists of just me and my mum. Nevertheless, they are all communities, and whilst some might be larger, that does not make them better.

Perhaps some people see no difference between a spoon and a fork. Others are sensible of the differences between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon. The same variations could occur in the perception of science fiction. So if one community chooses to go in one direction, and a second community chooses to go in another, what are people hoping to achieve by insisting there must be only one community, and only one genre? They are acting like bossy editors. If confronted by an intolerably authoritarian editor, we should walk away and seek another editor. The way the world is changing, because of progress in technology, business and personal freedom, our range of choice will continue to flourish.

Those who crave change are unlikely to succeed by joining a society of Big-Endians and asking them to break their eggs at the little end. Some editors and readers are Big-Endians. Others are Little-Endians. Fighting is unlikely to change that. On the other hand, if the Big-Endians insist that theirs is the one true way to break an egg, I sympathize with anyone who wants to scramble their silly rules, and turn them into an omelette.

Notice I have got this far and I have not mentioned the most telltale sign of the illogic professed by the high priests of the one true community. They claim to worship the one great overarching genre. They shed tears and beg for others to mend their wicked ways, and thus make their community whole again. But if there is only one community for science fiction and fantasy, why do they need the word ‘and’?

Science fiction started small. The first ‘Worldcon’ was attended by just 200 people, less than 1 per every 100,000 people living at that time. (To be fair, I should note that the attendance would have been slightly higher, but some people were excluded because of their political views, leading them to hold a rival event instead.) Did the behavior of that community of 200 people give rise to a privileged lineage, where their tribal ancestors will define science fiction for all time? Or might free people step up at any moment, and proclaim that their tastes are different, and that if the one true community rejects their tastes, then that just proves there must be more than one community?

The number of people who enjoy science fiction has grown immensely, all over the world. Many more people watched Guardians of the Galaxy than know it won a Hugo. It is unsurprising that the mythology of a single community has been cracked wide open by that growth in popularity. The bigger a group gets, the harder it is to maintain conformity within the group. In that respect, I dream of a million different science fiction communities, and fear anyone who insists on unity. It is better to have many tribes and let individuals choose which they belong to, than to stifle growth and innovation by insisting all must adhere to the same standards for quality, and that all must pass the same tests for admission and reward.

Maybe the name ‘science fiction’ will fracture further. If so, that is a good thing. Cracks in the pavement allow weeds to grow. Though some will see only a weed, I also see the diversity of life, struggling for existence, fighting to reproduce itself. Let those who erect walls and govern institutions waste precious time and energy on weeding. Sowing seeds is more fun.

I know how some might respond to my arguments: but we are the ones who love diversity, whilst you hate it! They are not liberals. The following words were written by a liberal.

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

The true lover of diversity must also love diversity of thought. Human minds, if allowed to flourish unstifled, are much more varied than human bodies. So let there be a myriad of science fictions, each defined differently by rival language communities. If we do that, we will see there is no science fiction. There are only stories, including those we like, and those we do not like, whilst no community can demonstrate it has superior taste to any other. If their ideal for the genre is not to your liking, then recognize that your genre is no longer the same as theirs. If editors exert their authority, seek a new editor, or become one. Evolution succeeds because it welcomes alternatives.

There is no genre but that which we choose for ourselves. There is no community either; they are reflections of each other. So forget genre. Kill genre. Give birth to your own genre. Then you will be free of unnatural constraints. There was a time before science fiction. I look forward to what will come after science fiction. Enjoy good writers, follow individuals you admire, question authority and despise overarching systems. Then your stories will truly be free.

  • ksterlingh

    Hi Ray, did I hear Wittgenstein in there?

    I am certainly supportive of the sentiments within your last paragraph. I am somewhat reminded of Ursula Leguin’s shot at so-called “real” fiction writers, who are normally considered those that don’t write about space ships and alternate histories. Yeah without that they are more “real”? We are all fiction writers. Value is seen in it or not. Certain things (like the presence of space ships) rock your boat or they do not.

    The same could be said within so-called “science fiction” literature. I don’t mind the idea of many different communities with different standards.

    But when you apply this to the current issue of the Hugos, it seems to undercut some of the complaints of the Puppies. While yes a Hugo cannot (and should not) mean the objective best of all science fiction had to offer across all concepts of that term, it seems to mean that one cannot complain when a book about dinosaurs and riffs on old tv series make it into (or win) the award. That they “aren’t” SF.

    The fandom working the Hugos are just another, specified community. And the award given is the best of SF as that specified community sees it. Right?

    • Hi Kieran, you might be right about Wittgenstein echoing through my post. I wasn’t consciously thinking of him, but I’ve always been partial to his way of thinking about language, since writing a thesis about beetles in boxes for my bachelor’s degree. The concept of a language-game has certainly influenced how I think about language.

      We can build on the idea of a language-game to analyze the questions you raise. The rules of a language-game need not be codified as precisely as the rules of a professional sport, or a law enforced by the government. But there are still rules, and they are enforced by the community. The force of the rule is backed up by observing how most people choose to behave. We naturally form expectations about behavior based on past performance. Hence we only create new rules when people behave in new and unexpected ways. We do not invent rules to cover every imaginable scenario, only those which come up in practice because of how people actually behave.

      If I mused what my life would be like, if I had been born a sunflower instead of a human being, would that qualify as science fiction? Probably not, per the community we are talking about. The rules are not definitively stated, so we must extrapolate based on how we expect people to behave. And it doesn’t matter whether the community are definitively right or wrong, because there is no definitive right or wrong. All we must ask is if the community has been consistent. I would argue they were not consistent. If they were consistent, then they would open the floodgates for all sorts of poems, stories and essays to be categorized as science fiction. But this community does not act as if Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is science fiction. Jorge Luis Borges was never nominated for a Hugo Award. And Thomas Nagel’s philosophical paper on “What is it like to be a bat?” is rarely mentioned in this context.

      Perhaps the community were ignorant of some of these works, and in hindsight feel they should be counted as SF. But if so, that only highlights how social behavior does more to define the limits of science fiction that any abstract definition, or rule in a WSFS rulebook. In short, Rachel Swirsky can get nominated because she gets published by the right sort of editor of the right sort of publication – the kind that this community likes to read. A Chinese SF writer – unless translated – will not get nominated, because few in the community can read Mandarin. Should the community start by being more modest, and admitting their award cannot possibly be more than the premier SF award in the English language? I would say so, but I expect they would balk at such transparency.

      And suppose I rewrote The Rape of the Lock and it was published in Apex Magazine. Would it then count as science fiction? If so, does that demonstrate that the community’s definition of science fiction has little to do with form and content, and more to do with superficial and incidental properties of a work, such as where it is published?

      Anyhow, to be fair to the critics of Swirsky’s story, I think they were upset by more than whether it can be categorized as SF or not. Let me repeat the criticism that I gave to a girlfriend, after reading that story: a single relatively interesting idea, competently executed, but nothing more, and possessing no substantial plot or characters. I cannot believe this story would receive as much praise as it did, if only we substituted words like ‘Nazi’ and ‘bigot’ for ‘towel-head’ and ‘fag’, and hence reversed the scenario so that the comatose victim had been beaten senseless by a crowd of violent Trotskyite revolutionaries. Would my latter conception of the story have been nominated for awards? Of course not. And yet, it would be essentially the same story, and just as well written.

      The funny thing is that I have no axe to grind, as I don’t believe in book awards, as I’ve said elsewhere. But I nevertheless find myself sympathizing with the Puppies. How can that be, if I wouldn’t encourage them to compete for an award? It has something to do with fair play, and hence returns us to the notion of a language-game. If the game was played fairly, the popularity of Swirsky’s story wouldn’t depend on words like ‘fag’ being used instead of the word ‘bigot’. And in a fair game, nobody would mention if the competitors were male or female, black or white. Submissions to a competition would be judged on merit alone. Some puppy-kickers insist they did judge work on merit, and some of them will be telling the truth. But all the talk about white male reactionaries suggests that many were not judging work on merit. They judged the player, not their work, and that has never been an explicit part of this community’s rules. In that sense, the Puppies make an interesting point about this community and all the rules they now apply to playing the game. What is more, I abhor such rules, and would prefer an approach where people are color-blind instead of consciously choosing to subvert some perceived societal prejudice. Note that this perceived societal prejudice would soon be rendered senseless if the Worldcon sought to genuinely involve the world of SF fans, and not just focus on a narrow group of North Americans with their very particular slant on what counts as a majority or a minority.

      I wouldn’t go too far in criticizing all Puppy-kickers either, to be truthful. The worst that I can say for most of them is they have a tendency to be conveniently silent when it suits them. As you’ve noted, when challenged, some are very clear about stating the modest limits of who is represented by their award. But surely you’ve seen plenty of more mainstream articles in the press, that lauded the Puppy-kickers and abused the Puppies, and which also played up the status and importance of the Hugo Awards? Did the Puppy-kickers rush to correct the exaggerated importance attached to the Hugos, as they might rush to correct other misconceptions? No, of course not. They are not motivated to do so. And so, they are happy to benefit from their importance being exaggerated, so long as they are not personally to blame. That isn’t the worst sin in the world, but I can see why it would irk anyone who feels excluded by a relatively small group of human beings. So this farrago will have served a purpose if future mainstream journalists stop writing as if the Hugos are the ‘Oscars’ of science fiction, and instead concentrate on simple facts, which is that it is just an award, given by a not especially representative group of people, who have earned no special right to give out awards, and have no special merit. But I don’t think the Puppy-kickers would like being described like that.

      • ksterlingh

        Apology for the late reply. No doubt there is hyperbole, and to some extent hypocrisy, and as always a bit of self-serving activity (or inactivity as it were). But then it doesn’t seem such a grand injustice that so much ado is made about it.

        “as if the Hugos are the ‘Oscars’ of science fiction”

        Are the Oscars anything more than an award given by a not especially representative group of people, who have earned no special right to give out awards, and have no special merit?

        I worked for a group which granted an international writing award for a bit. The thing I learned is that no one ever has the “right” or “merit” to hand out awards. It is always someone or some group of people that choose to do so. It is them showing their appreciation for the criteria they happen to like (at the moment).

        This is why some people never accept awards, or value such ceremonies (Woody Allen being an example).

        It seems to me that with the position you hold, it would be better to encourage puppies not to care.

        • I’m not a fan of awards in general, so I don’t want to present myself as an advocate for those given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. However, the comparison between the Hugos and the Oscars is very poor. Membership of the aforementioned Academy is restricted to professionals; the Oscars are not voted upon by any fan willing to pay 40 bucks. It is difficult to become a member of the Academy – membership is by invitation only. A large proportion of the Academy are former Oscar winners and nominees, so they have insight into how hard it is to make a work of quality. Their votes are not determined solely by their opinions as consumers. And whilst the Academy has an obvious bias towards the American culture, at least they have the good grace not to pretend they represent tastes beyond US borders. They even have the decency to have a special category of awards for films made in languages other than English, something totally beyond the capabilities of those who run the ‘World’ SF Society!

          So I have to disagree with you, Kieran, when you argue that the members of the Academy have no special merit. Clearly the voting for the Oscars is restricted to people who are considered to have special merit in one of the skills required to make films, as determined by their peers.

          Anyhow, I don’t really understand your point when you argue that I should better encourage puppies not to care. I’ve already made it plain that nobody should care about awards, and I’ve done this several times. However, I can still sympathize with people who feel a system is crooked, and unfairly promotes poor work. I may not respect any awards, but that doesn’t mean the Oscars won’t influence which films people choose to see. If an institution wants to influence people, it should be transparent in how it works, so that those influenced understand why it makes the choices it does. In the past I’ve been aware of the words ‘Hugo winner’ being printed on book covers, but only now I learn how utterly meaningless those words were. Because of that, I can easily understand the motives of people who want to point out the Hugos are nothing like the Oscars, even though they are compared to them. The Hugos are neither restricted to those who have earned a right to vote, nor are they so populist as to encourage any and every fan to vote for a modest fee (or for free). In that respect, their logic is based on the idea of an amateur ‘fandom’ which knows enough to present themselves as the ‘premier’ arbiters of taste, whilst not welcoming the opinion of fans who don’t want to pay to join their club. All in all, that sounds like a terrible fudge to me.