Realism in Fiction and the Spice of Life.

The hard SF debate has sort of come and gone, and between work, school, and a brand new infant in our house, I kind of missed the boat on it. But I’ve been chewing over “realism” in fiction a lot lately, and I wanted to weigh in.

I tend to prefer a sort of realism to my stories. I love my giant robot anime show, but I tend, as I’ve said, to drift towards “real” robots. Mass produced, engineered military equipment. Things that require fuel and repairs and ammo. Superhero stories have to work very hard for me, because I have a hard time accepting the superhero power set more often than not. I’m quite capable of enjoying something absurd and off the wall, but I’m happier when I don’t have to, say, sit there and wonder if Star Wars even takes place in a universe where space is vacuum.

But why? Why do I balk at giant face-robots powered by fighting spirit and embrace airplanes that turn into giant robots because of alien super-tech? The best thing I can think of is that realism, like “hardness,” is a sort of spice. Some things are great with lots of it. Some are better with little dashes. Some stories work better with it; some work better without it.

I’m a big fan of spicy foods—if you ask people who are not spicy food people. Real spicy food people probably think I’m a wuss, because I find there’s a point, right around the far end of the jalapeno level, where heat starts to make things lose their flavor. When you stop focusing on flavor, and start focusing on heat, you’ve lost the point.

Realism is like that, I think. There’s a time when slavery to verisimilitude makes you lose the point—and I think, like spicy foods, it’s actually a fairly low point.

But what are we using it for? Like it or not, all entertainment is, on some level, a manifestation of the author’s worldview; and as a manifestation of that worldview, meant for widespread dissemination and consumption, fiction has something evangelistic about it, whether we mean it or not. It’s one of the cardinals of the Superversive mindset: fiction has a perspective that is communicated (and internalized).

I’ve talked about the difference between good science fiction and bad science fiction before. To recap:

A good science fiction story will look upward, towards the stars and away from the self.

A bad science fiction story will fixate downward, towards the ground and focus on the self.

Realism can be used in service of either of these sorts of stories. It seems to me that, along with science fiction stories, realism comes in two flavors. I’ve tried to come up with pithy names, but turns out that you can find an already existent idea of  “[X] Realism” for just about any value of X, so I’m just going to call them what I want to call them: Mundane Realism and Superversive Realism.

Mundane Realism is the “bad” realism. It’s the realism of post WWI disillusionment. It takes V’ger’s question and turns it into a statement: “This is all that I am. There is nothing more.” Nothing greater. Nothing beyond our ken. Mundane Realism is the perspective of nihilism, of a deterministic meat machines, of  people who see only problems, who lump people into categories. Mundane realism is the death of dreams—and it’s the enemy of absolutely everyone who loves science fiction. I hate to keep harping on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, but I’m going to: it’s the kind of perspective that writes a book about colonizing another planet, only to spend the last third of it with the colonists coming home with their tale between their legs and the message that humanity is confined to one solar system, because anything else is impossible, and should be, because it’s cruel to expect your descendants to struggle for something. It’s the worldview that suggests that no external struggle is worth it or meaningful, that the only thing that matters is the small scale. Screwed up people doing screwed up things. It ignores the transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, because, hey. They don’t exist.

But there exists something else. I’m a theologian by training, and maybe that colors my perspectives. (We seminary folks would call it a “hermeneutical lens.”) Superversive Realism acknowledges that truth. That reality. Not every Superversive story is going to be hard SF—and, in fact, in Hard SF, or Campbellian SF, or Blue SF, whatever you want to call it, it’s probably going to be precluded by the worldviews of many authors. But it’s also not excluded by the nature of the sub-genre.

Consider Interstellar. The film’s pretty far up there on the hardness scale for most of the runtime. Some folks—particularly those of the Mundane Realist ilk—had a problem with the resolution of the film because it “softens” in the last act. All that gushy stuff about love. But I submit that from the perspective of a theology student, Interstellar is a realist film from start to finish. It posits a realist perspective that embraces our best knowledge of the universe’s mechanics—and then opens that up to embrace the theologian’s perspective of love as a motive force. (The motive force; some theologians talk about the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and Jesus.) Interstellar’s realism—and the strength of its realism—comes in precisely because it knows when to back down on realism. Interstellar recognizes a suprarealism. A Superversive realism.

At the end of the day, the issue is less about realism per se and more about our use of it. Overuse results in a bitter taste—a lingering, foul thing taste you can’t shake. But it’s a useful seasoning when applied with skill—or you’re just not trying to beat someone over the head with it.