Genre Definition Module Week 2: Hard Sf, "What we point to", Cognitive Estragement

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

Reading Stuff:
Tom Godwin, "The Cold Equations"
Hal Clement, Mission of Gravity (extracts) / "Whirligig World" (article)
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Hard Sf

Term coined by P. Schuyler Miller in his 1950s reviews for Astounding. Often associated with Astounding / Analog and John W. Campbell. Analog today is sf magazine most closely associated with science, space travel, "gadgetry".

Hard-core: "Hard" science (physics, chemistry) as opposed to "soft" or social sciences. Allen Steele (in "Hard Again" in New York Review of Science Fiction, June 1992): "Hard sf is the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone." Often associated with right-wing, "American imperialist" views (Larry Niven) but left-leaning writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars, etc.) have also explored the area. See also Gregory Benford, Robert L. Forward, Stephen Baxter.

Hard sf as a shared "game between writers and readers in which scientific information and thinking is fundamental to the story and the aim is to be as scientifically accurate (or at least as plausible) as possible. "hard science fiction writers anticipate an audience of readers who know a great deal about science and prepared -- even willing -- to point out scientific inaccuracies in stories." (Westfahl, Cosmic Engineers, 113). Westfahl claims that this developed from the close relationship between readers and writers in the sf magazines.

Two sorts: "microcosmic" -- Clarke's accurate stories of space travel: Prelude to Space, A Fall of Moondust, Stephen Baxter's Titan or Voyage, and "macrocosmic" -- Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg or Stephen Baxter's Flux, about life on neutron stars.

Campbell's editorship of Astounding / Analog from 1937 - 1971 (assistant editor from late 1937, full editor from May 1938). His concern for raising the standard of writing and thinking in sf. "Stable" of writers -- Asimov, Heinlein, van Vogt, Henry Kuttner / C. L. Moore, Hal Clement. Also L. Ron Hubbard, whose first essay on "Dianetics" was publishing in Astounding. Right-leaning, but published the liberal Asimov and the radical left-winger Mack Reynolds.

Letter to E. E. Smith (1959) (The John W. Campbell Letters, vol 1, p. 368):
* Nothing disappoints me more than to throw out an idea intended as a spark, and have that idea come back just the way it went out, embalmed in a "story". Hal Clement's story "Needle" stemmed directly from an idea I threw his way; that you can't write a detective story in science fiction. He did a delightful job of proving me a liar. Van Vogt's "Slan" took the shape it did because I pointed out to him that you can't tell a superman story from the superman's viewpoint -- unless you're a superman. He pulled a beautiful trick in that yarn, and proved me 100% wrong.

Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" (Astounding, 1954) often seen as a classic "Campbell story". A stowaway (a young girl who only wants to see her brother) has to be jettisoned. The ship can only carry so much fuel. The story is milked for the utmost poignancy and sentimentality, but it can only have one ending. Scientific reality cannot be twisted to meet human desires. The universe is not in itself sympathetic to human concerns.

James Gunn:" The Readers of Hard Science Fiction" in Slusser / Rabkin (eds.) Hard Science Fiction:
"I call it a touchstone story because if readers don't understand it they don't understand science fiction": it is a story which can only be told as science fiction. "Science fiction gave Godwin an unparalleled opportunity to purify the situation in such a way that there was no hope left for last-minute salvation ...... her innocence is irrelevant, the universe doesn't care about her motives, and the others would be as guilty as she if they compounded her fatal mistake by dying with her." (p. 72)

* But see Westfahl, Cosmic Engineers, Ch 6: Godwin wanted the girl to survive, it was Campbell who insisted ("six times" -- or four, depending on the letter) on revisions to create the "logical" ending in which the girl dies.

* See also Campbell's letters on the subject:
"Science fiction begins when you take a divergent viewpoint, and make the reader gradually understand that that cockeyed viewpoint -- that he strongly rejected at first -- is a sound, wise, and rational way of life under the circumstance of the situation at hand.
"'The Cold Equations' was a test of that idea; I got Godwin to write that piece. The proposition there is the culturally abhorrent proposition, 'it is proper for a man to kill a girl, to make her a human sacrifice, knowingly and with intent.' The trick is to make the divergent proposition powerful enough to cause a strong reaction when first encountered, and then gradually make it clear that the divergent proposition is valid." (Letter to Philip Jose Farmer, The John W. Campbell Letters, vol 1, p. 293)

So is the focus here on the "cold equations" at all, but on human social customs? Would our reaction to the story have been any different if the stowaway had been one of the social undesirables mentioned earlier instead of an "innocent" girl?

The novelty of the story is that we are "conditioned" to expect that a "problem" story will result in the solution to that problem.

* This is a "problem" story -- but are we being misled as to the actual nature of the problem?

Why are the rescue ships rationed to only so much fuel? Is there really no mass that can be jettisoned? Are we really being given a story about "cold facts" or are the facts being manipulated to set up the story?

See John Huntington, "Hard-core Science Fiction and the Illusion of Science" in George Slusser and Eric Rabkin, eds., Hard Science Fiction.

Hal Clement, Mission of Gravity

First published in Astounding, 1953. Followed by his explanatory article "Whirligig World". The world of Mesklin is itself a "character" -- arguably the most "living" character in the novel. The novel is an attempt to extrapolate what kind of life could exist on such a planet. The "travelogue" structure allows the reader to experience the world through the eyes of the characters.

How is this world made known to us? What are the differences between the "familiar" and the "unfamiliar"?

* Viewpoint 1: the Mesklinites are both identifiable (traders, profit motives: such a story could be set in 19th century South Seas or Phoenician Mediterranean) and alien. Physical difference. Barlennan's panic when raised up (ch 3).

Is this an example of "conceptual breakthrough" (see The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction)? Or the working-out of Campbell's "divergent viewpoint"?

John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls Barlennan "a kind of Competent Man in extremis, a born engineer, a lover of knowledge." The kind of hero Campbell encouraged his writers to write about. For more on the idea of the "Competent Man" in science fiction, see the early novels and stories of Robert A. Heinlein.

* Viewpoint 2: the "human" characters are the aliens. "We" see them as other (The Flyers), never as characters with differences, drives and goals. Barlennan's motives are presented in more detail (the very "human" motives of making a profit).

* There are no female characters in the novel at all. Do the Mesklinites have gender? Is this a relevant question?

* One of the themes here is the (frequent) theme of human/alien "first contact".

See Murray Leinster, "First Contact", Astounding, May 1945 and the "answer" story by Ivan Yefremov "The Heart of the Serpent" (1959, trans. 1961, which criticises both the science of Leinster and the ideological assumption that first contact will be marked by suspicion and hostility. (BUT note Leinster's assumptions that the "ordinary guys" will want to become buddies.)

How can science fiction depict the alien? or can sf depict the alien? See Benford (cited below) on the nature of the alien in sf: "the most interesting problem set by the alien is in rendering the alienness of it." (Foundation 38, p. 50) Clement divides the "alien" viewpoint, and also makes the world Mesklin a "character" -- see Westfahl, Cosmic Engineers, p. 86 on the first line "The wind came across the bay like something living."

If "The Cold Equations" is a "problem" story, Mission of Gravity is a travel tale, in which we gradually learn more and more about this imagined world. How do we find out the speed of rotation of Mesklin? See the exchange (p. 33):
  "Have you really been learning [English] for less than six weeks?
  "I am not sure how long your 'week' is, but it is less than
   thirty-five hundred days since I met your friend,"
   returned the commander.
and previous references to "thousands of days". Note, however, Westfahl (Cosmics Engineers, p. 89) on the confusing use of time-words such as "hours" and "minutes" in the novel.

The quest is also a quest of knowledge: the knowledge contained in the grounded rocket -- which is the goal for both Lackland and Barlennan -- and our knowledge of the world Mesklin, representing the strangeness of the universe itself.

"The game of hard sf" -- plausibility in terms of the rules of science as they are at present understood.

* Poul Anderson writes, in introduction to the Greg Press (1978) edition of Mission of Gravity:
"It now seems that a body with the mass of Mesklin may well be red-hot, if not actually thermonuclear, and surrounded by radiation belts that would at least make approach and communication exceedingly difficult. Such a world also likely be essentially liquid, with no solid surface. Furthermore Strand's calculations have been disputed of late; a sing big 61 Cygni C may not even exist."

Does this affect our reading of Mission of Gravity?

Damon Knight: "Science fiction ...... is what we point to when we say it."

NOT that "everything is science fiction, but that it is not necessarily the best label and that Heinlein's 1951 suggestion of "speculative fiction" is the best. (In Search of Wonder, p. 1)

Also contains the implication that there is a shared consensus about the nature of something called science fiction, but that it is debatable. "Science fiction" is that form of literature which people who read science fiction read for the reasons that they read science fiction. Knight's criticism -- as with "William Atheling, Jr." (James Blish) in The Issue at Hand was collected from sf magazine criticism of the 50s, aiming to promote literary values.

Sf can also be seen as a loose collection of sub-genres or more or less identifiable themes often aimed at widely different markets. See The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction for a discussion of many of these. Some examples: Alternate History, Space Opera, Speculative Fiction, Utopias, the Alien. Some of these -- eg Utopias (and Alternate History: see Neil Ferguson's collection of "counterfactual" essays, Virtual History. Which is a classic example of academic wheel-reinventing.)

Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction

Sf is "the literature of cognitive estrangement". It features cognition (analysis, reflection upon with particular reference to the great capitalist/industrial eras). "Where the myth claims to explain once and for all the essence of phenomena, SF first posits them as problems and then explores where they lead" (7) and estrangement. By means of a "strange newness, a novum" it brings something unfamiliar into our realistic imaginative world, making us see it differently (and by implication, criticises it).

This is not (necessarily) the same kind of estrangement at that proposed by Samuel R. Delany in his analysis of how science fiction texts work, but can be close to it.

e.g. (Delany's examples, in "About 5,750 Words" in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw which concentrates on the language of a science fiction text: how metaphor becomes actuality)
* The red sun ......
* Her world shattered.
Other possibilities:
* She turned on her left side.
* His face fell.

Other more obvious manipulations include the use of "fictive words" such as "simps" (superchimps) in Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama, "cyberspace" (William Gibson, Neuromancer), "positronic brain" (Isaac Asimov's robot stories). Many of these -- especially the last two, but see also "hyperspace", "warp drive" and especially "robot" itself -- have become part of the shared currency of sf writing, a shorthand used for narrative effect rather than scientific speculation. See Damien Broderick (below) and others on the idea of sf's "reading protocols".

How do novels/stories become science fiction? See eg Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint. Is criticism of the "fantastic" -- eg Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre useful?

See again Percy Bysshe Shelley's preface to Frankenstein (1818):
"...... I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disavantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it develops, and, however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing relations of existing events can lead." (11)

For further surveys on what sf is and how it works, see Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Why is this science fiction?

* Estranging beginning: "clock strikes 13". (See L. J. Hurst, "Remembrance of Things to Come" on Orwell and Wyndham's "uncanny time" in Vector 201, Sep/Oct 1998, p. 15-17 on how this is a distorting approach to narrative discourse.)
* Further estrangement through language: creation of Newspeak.
* Extrapolation of 1984 -- post-Stalinist "Colde War" conflict.
* Dystopian tradition -- See Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, "Murray Constantine" (Katharine Burdekin), Swastika Night, Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Douglas Brown & Christopher Serpell, If Hitler Comes etc.

There is a considerable amount of criticism on Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But see:

Anthony Burgess, "Utopia and Science Fiction" in Benoit Suykerbuyk, ed., Essays from Oceania and Eurasia (1984). "...... this is not at all science fiction. It is a work based on a historical hypothesis which does not lie in the future as so many scientific hypotheses do in science fiction, yet to be discovered, yet to be brought about." (12) Apparently, this is not sf because it is "historical" (in reading it now, though, can we see it as "alternate history?).

Patrick Parrinder, Science Fiction, Its Criticism and Teaching (75): "...... it is science fiction not because of the future setting but because of the "estranged" and yet congnitive status of the Thought Police, the two-way telescreen, Newspeak, and Oligarchical Collectivism." Apparently, this is sf because it operates according to Darko Suvin's model, not because it has surface sf elements such as the telescreen and the future society.

Two points to ponder:
1) Nineteen Eighty-Four was voted best British sf novel of the past 50 years by a poll of British Science Fiction Association members. (Vector 201, Sep/Oct 1998, p. 19)
2) How can we read Nineteen Eighty-Four now? Can we still call its world a fictive reality, or an alternate history? We might think the same of so much "classic" sf, especially that which deals with space travel: see eg Arthur C. Clarke's Prelude to Space (1951) and its coutemporaries.

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