UnReview of Sci-Fi Chronicles, A Visual History Of The Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction

Steve takes issue with yet another revisionist science fiction history

Coming soon to an online bookstore near you, Guy Haley’s visual history of the genre just broke me.

It’s not available until September 23rd of this year and I have no ARC in hand.  What I do have is an excerpt on Amazon of Guy’s introduction.

No.

That’s about the easiest way to sum up my reaction to what I found written there.  Followed shortly by –

Not Gonna Read It

as I realized that the purpose of an introduction is to give you a summation of the contents.

If the contents of A Visual History are true to the introduction

No.

Lets skip over the distasteful, juvenile-sounding use of “Sci-Fi” in the title (this iteration using the hyphenated form which I find even more egregious than the unhyphenated version for some reason);  Guy describes himself as a niche Sci-Fi Journalist (SFX & White Dwarf magazines, numerous novels of a presumed Sci-Fi nature) and da press has always championed this phrase, much to the detriment of whatever shred of seriousness we might once have had (remember:  4E coined the phrase, SFdom rejected it, turned it into Skiffy, a term of opprobrium meant to indicate that whatever was associated with the term was most definitely not SF; the press picked it up as general code for “stuff those escapist infantile dreamers” like and it eventually became the preferred term for SF as used by those who usually don’t get it).

No.  Lets go right to the introduction:

“Before starting work on this book, we had to ask ourselves a question: what is science fiction? Seemingly simple, but in reality the answer was hard to formulate. This is the definition we settled upon:

Science fiction is a member of a group of fictional genres whose narrative drive depends upon events, technologies, societies etc. that are impossible, unreal, or that are depicted as occurring at some time in the future, the past or in a world of secondary creation….”

Does Guy – the author of a history – not know of the decades long struggle we’ve had to find an adequate definition?  What kind of research was not done for this thing? That’s a minor quibble though compared to:

…depends upon (things) that are IMPOSSIBLE, UNREAL…”

Buwuh?

No. No. No. No. No.

Guy may have settled on that definition – he’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but as Asimov famously said, he is NOT entitled to his own facts.  Science Fiction is not about things that are impossible or unreal.  Science Fiction is most specifically about things that are possible, plausible, potential; science, engineering,  technologies, that are extrapolated from what we know to be real.  Speculative extensions of what we know now into what we might know in the future.

That definition is completely, entirely and utterly antithetical to what science fiction is.  It’s the anti-SF definition – the kind of science fiction you’d get in Superman’s Bizarro universe.  In fact, that’s the perfect word for it:  Bizarro Sci Fi – the literature of impossible, unreal things based on science and technology….

We normally consider SF, fantasy and horror to emerge from the same branch of the literary tree and, while it’s not a hard and fast line, I thought we were all pretty much in agreement that the dividing line between SF and Fantasy was well defined by this Science fiction is something that could happen – but you usually wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen – though you often only wish that it could.  from Sir Arthur C. Clarke, or this – To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made.” (JW Campbell Jr.), or this – “Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of ‘almost all’) it is necessary only to strike out the word ‘future”” (R.A. Heinlein). Perhaps Guy was thinking of this definition – “Science fantasy is “a kind of hybrid in which plausibility is specifically invoked for most of the story, but may be cast aside in patches at the author’s whim and according to no visible system or principle.” (James Blish) and just got it wrong.  (Did you see that word prophetic up there?)

Reading this makes me feel all the frustration that As-A-Color-Mauve must have felt while trying to explain to Shoogar the wizard that it wasn’t his spells that were working, it was the underlying science:  eggs cracked over electronics are bound to short something out whether you pray to Elcin the Wind God or not….(The Flying Sorcerers, Niven & Gerrold.)

Maybe it’s an alternate reality where fantasy is the literature of the plausible extrapolation of scientific knowledge and sci-fi is the literature of things that can never be?

Or maybe, just maybe, this really is a visual history of Sci-Fi, wherein that Sci-Fi IS pronounced Skiffy; a book that chronicles the visual depiction of everything that was labeled as science fiction but really isn’t – a history that begins where Margaret Atwood’s talking squids in space leave off…Our tour begins with Plan 9 From Outer Space, meanders through The Star Lost, Buck Rogers in the 25th 1/2 Century, UFO, Space: 1999, Logan’s Run, and ultimately finishes with Children of Men and The Road. An entire middle section is devoted to the SyFy channel, professional wrestling, paranormal investigations and Sharknado – you know, paragons of the field, Skiffy wet dreams all. (Perhaps you do not agree with all of the examples cited and that’s fair.  The dividing line between bad science fiction and non-science fiction is a blurry one.)

Mr. Guy doesn’t stop there of course.

“The fundamental difference between science fiction and the other “fantastical genres” of fantasy and horror is this: the basis for the fiction is one of rationality. The sciences this rationality generates can be speculative, largely erroneous, or even impossible, but explanations are, nevertheless, generated through a materialistic worldview. The supernatural is not invoked (although in some settings might feature alongside SF trappings). Science fiction can be pure fantasy with bad science draped over it as a disguise — this is irrelevant, so long as the narrative geography is a nominally realistic geography, and is not one of magic. In this sense both the movies Armageddon (about a big asteroid hitting the Earth) and Godzilla (about a giant, atomically mutated lizard) are equally science fiction, even though the former is possible and the latter is not. They are both science fiction because the language used in both to frame the events is that of science.”

I get it now:  this is a chronicle of bad science fiction, the kind with excessive hand-waving and invocations of  Unobtanium.  The kind of science fiction that passes as science fiction so long as the audience has no real appreciation of science – or just doesn’t care (skiffy for the modern era).  Thought we’d pretty much relegated a lot of that stuff to the borderland science fantasy category – you know, Edgar Rice Burroughs, superheroes, Star Trek reboots, Star Wars, Margaret Atwood.  Science Fiction that emphasizes escapist entertainment over rigorous speculation and plausibility.  (The kind of SF 90 percent of the world doesn’t read because it’s hard and few of us like to have to think while we’re being entertained. “I ain’t in screwl no more”.) (Oh, I can hear the references to Paul Cook’s piece wafting towards me from the internet right now.  Don’t go there; good science fiction does not have to be hard science fiction; plausibility and extrapolation can be rooted in the soft sciences as well as the hard sciences;  good extrapolation can be found in characterization, psychology and culture just as readily as in rocketry and cosmology.  Heed JWC’s definition: “…an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known…”  No restrictions there.)

A hallmark of bad skiffy is often internal inconsistency.  How does one reconcile “Godzilla (about a giant, atomically mutated lizard)” with “The supernatural is not invoked.”  Don’t even get me started on Armageddon being possible.  (Entertaining?  Absolutely.  Science Fiction?  Sure.  Bad though.)

“Science fiction can be pure fantasy with bad science draped over it as a disguise ”  Ummmm.  Nope.  A novel or TV show or film that met those criteria would be, well, a pure fantasy.  Whether the science in it was bad or good.  My head spins.  “The Lord of the Rings is a science fiction trilogy about a world in which genetic engineering has gone awry, evil men control world-spanning surveillance systems, something keeps electricity from working and not a single camel appears even once….”

It doesn’t end there though.  Oh no.  After eviscerating what few shreds remain of a coherent definition of science fiction, Guy goes on to attack the SF as Predictive Tool trope.

“A further issue is the grave error made regarding science fiction’s relationship with the future. Despite appearances to the contrary, science fiction does not set out to predict, and its visions of the world to come date quickly. There have been a handful of examples of individual technologies being foreseen by science-fiction writers — no more. The impact of computers was almost completely overlooked by the writers of the early 20th century, for example. Science fiction is not predictive. “What if?” is its stock in trade.”

It does, however, have an effect on the future.”

Like so many others, Mr. Guy confuses the results of SF’s predictions with the act of speculation.  Getting it wrong doesn’t mean an attempt wasn’t originally made.  Want to know what SF’s relationship with the future really is?  It’s a feedback mechanism, both positive and negative.  It shows us where things can go and makes some value judgments on those destinations.  Good predictions, based on plausible scientific extrapolation, usually end up becoming reality in one form or another. Right now there’s an X Prize contest going on to invent Star Trek’s medical Tricorder.  Star Trek PREDICTED that medical diagnostic technologies would become more mobile and accessible.  WE figured that that’s a pretty good idea.  Now people are making it a reality.  (I’m so fucking sick of “where’s my flying car?”;  we’ve GOT flying cars.  Several different designs that work and are being sold.  The fact that they aren’t ubiquitous is not a failure of the prediction.  We’ve got personal jetpacks too, in case you didn’t notice, even if they are really ducted fan rigs and not anti-gravity belts.  If you expect your predictions of the future as realized by science fiction to be 100% accurate, the very FIRST thing we’re going to have to do is schedule some death matches to decide which author we’re going to listen to, and hope that the right one wins.  My money is on Harlan – unless he draws Connie Willis.  Better yet, skip the death matches.  I like variety when I read.  Predictions that are 100% accurate only come from one place – fortune tellers.  And that’s fantasy.)

That computer thing mentioned in there?  Wrong.  Just plain wrong.  Brunner had the world-wide net; Piper too.  Tons of machines rattling through punch tape. (gee whiz, they even had a ‘puter in The Cold Equations. “The memory banks of the computers would still contain all data pertaining to the course set for the EDS; such data would not be erased until the EDS reached its destination. He had only to give the computers the new data — the girl’s weight and the exact time at which he had reduced the deceleration to .10.” The failure – if there was one – was in making the assumption that future people would still be interested in doing things for themselves – working a sliderule to compute trajectories (knowing HOW to do the math), rather than wallowing in ignorance while a machine they had no understanding of spat out the answer, presuming you entered the right data.  (GIGO.  Look it up.)   Oh.  Yah.  E.M. Forester’s The Machine Stops.  Talk about predictions:  everyone lives in their own little room and only communicates via screen.  Boy, they sure got that one wrong, didn’t they? Right.  No computers in the future.

But I’ll leave it to one of our greatest non-predictors to drive the nail into this particular coffin.  Here’s Arthur C. Clarke in 1974 telling us all about how computers – in our homes! (when they were still room-sized behemoths) – are going to transform our society:


Want More?

“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging, hazardous occupation, because the prophet invariably falls between two stools: If his predictions sound at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that within twenty, or at most fifty years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative.  On the other hand, if by some miracle, a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everyone would laugh him to scorn. This has proved to be true in the past and will undoubtedly be true, even more so, of the century to come. The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So, if what I am about to say to you now seems to be very reasonable, then I will have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears to be absolutely unbelievable have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen,”  Arthur C. Clarke – 1964. (Arthur then goes on to – oh my – predict the future.  Watch)


How about spending a couple of minutes with Dr. A?  What was he doing in 1964? Predicting the world of 2014.  Did he get it wrong?  Certainly.  His first mistake was assuming that there would be a World’s Fair in 2014.  But that is obviously beside the point.  Getting it wrong doesn’t make the prediction disappear.

In keeping with that theme, I’m going to predict two things about our near term future, opting for the ridiculously conservative stool:  First – I’ll not be reading this book.  Second – this kind of revisionist history will come to be the standard by which Sci-Fi (if not Science Fiction) will come to be judged.

One final pedantic note:  How the hell does Guy Haley know it’s the galaxy’s greatest Science Fiction?  Talk about anthropocentrism!  All the honors of the most recent millennial Mxxrythl Award went to the sentient bacterial colonies living under the ice on Titan…nothing from the Planet of Dirt was even nominated….(gotta get Correia working on that)

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3 Comments

  1. Well, I don’t know if “crap” can be applied to the whole book (not having seen it I can’t say), but I do think the “definition” included might resemble that word.

  2. More than likely, others will castigate this book for the crap that it is and wave off the general public from buying it.

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