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.