Posts Tagged science fiction

What Should Science Fiction Do?

I’m a science fiction writer.  While only a very few people have read any of my works, (mainly editors and critique group members), I do have wide-ranging opinions on the subject and have presented them in this forum occasionally over the past several years.  Science fiction can be a powerful medium for examining the human condition, for teaching us about ourselves as human beings and as stewards of the land and water on this blue and green and white and brown planet we live on.  I believe it should be used largely in that way.  Most sci-fi does that.

But sometimes sci-fi presents works that seem to defy that concept.  Not that that’s inherently bad, but that it goes against my grain when sci-fi runs off the deep end and simply blathers on about nothing in particular.  The most particular example of this is the character of “Q” in the Star Trek universe.

“Q” is an all-powerful character, capable of doing anything “he” wants.  (“Q” is played by a male actor, but there’s nothing about “him” that insists he has to be male.)  And I mean “anything” in the most literal sense of the word.  He could change the gravitational constant of the universe if he chose.  Can you imagine?  What power!  What immense omnipotence!  Such vast strength!  While the episodes in which “Q” appears have been well-written and are actually quite entertaining (“Q” does bring a little humor to the otherwise staid bridge crew on the Enterprise), I wonder if “Q” really serves a purpose in science fiction.  He’s waaay too powerful.  Like a god that could strike down anyone he/she wanted at any time.  I suspect he was devised to show how we humans would react to being put in the presence of such a powerful being, of such an all-powerful entity.  In the first episode in which he appears, he puts the entire human race on trial for crimes against—well, I’ve never been sure against what—but is eventually persuaded not to obliterate all humans by Captain Picard and the others.

“To obliterate all humans.”  Does this serve the basic interests of science fiction?  What do we learn from this?  Were there a real entity such as “Q” in the universe, it’s likely we’d all be dead by now.  “Q” is so far above all the known physical laws and concepts of this universe that his existence is inherently impossible.

I suppose “Q” does play a role in teaching us about how it is possible for an individual or small group to go up against a larger organization and still win, (“you can fight city hall”)  but in terms of the broader science fiction universe, “Q” is so unwieldly as to be almost unworkable.  And unimportant.  I suggest we keep our characters more modest.  Let us invent characters we can relate to.  Characters like ourselves.  Characters who show us the way, rather than running so far ahead we can’t keep up.

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Mental Telepathy In Science Fiction

I’m currently working on a story of about 23,000 words (that makes it a “novella” or “novelette,” depending on your definition) that has to do with humans from Earth who come in contact with beings on another planet who communicate almost entirely by mental telepathy.  Their brains are so big—maybe 50 to 100 times the size and mass of an adult human brain—that they have developed the physical power to send signals to others of their species in the their immediate vicinity.  They’re all on the same wavelength, so to speak.  These signals are received as communication.  Literally.  The signals are received as a string of words, in the same way we communicate with a string of words using the vibrations of our vocal cords to send vibrations through a gaseous medium, air.  These creatures have no specific organs of communication as we do at all.

All of that got me to thinking.  How does one species communicate by mental telepathy to another species if they speak different languages?  Is mental telepathy even possible in that situation?  A string of words just won’t work because the recipient still won’t understand the meaning of the transmission.  But in my story, one of the two main characters is capable of understanding the foreign species.  In fact, that’s the whole basis of the story, that humans may be able to contact beings on another world.  But, the devil is in the details: how would that work?  Science fiction writers might want to take note of this; it could be useful in stories about first contact(s).

I did a little looking around at the concept of “mental telepathy,” and it’s usually defined as the ability to communicate through means not involving talking, reading, or any other standard method.  It’s basically a sort of transmission from one mind to another.  But that’s as far as it goes.  I haven’t found anyone who has actually wondered how it takes place.  What is it that’s being transmitted?  If someone says she/he can read another person’s mind, what is it they are reading?  In my humble, and perhaps somewhat flippant opinion, here’s three possible ways that mental  telepathy might actually take place, in order of simplest to most complex.

1.  By concepts only.  In this method, only broad concepts are actually being transmitted from one to another.  The concept of rocket propulsion, for example.  Or weightlessness in the vacuum of outer space.  The necessity of an atmosphere for life to exist.  No actual images are sent, and no details at all.

2.  Mind visualization.  In this method, actual images are sent.  That could transmit a vast amount of information.  The image of an Apollo space capsule, inside and out, for example, would tell the recipient—assuming he’s sophisticated in space travel—just what it was like for our species to travel to another heavenly body in the early stages of our space program.  The information transmitted would be only in the image itself.  Any other information, say, what it was like to live in one of those cramped capsules, would have to be inferred by the recipient.  But an Apollo space capsule in one language would be an Apollo space capsule in any other.

3.  Transmission of a string of words.  This I expect would be the most complicated form of transmission, but would convey the greatest amount of information.  That is, of course, what words are designed to do.  An image of the Apollo space capsule might give a visitor from another planet a lot of information, but many details he/she (it?) might not understand.  Words, description, these would be the most detailed.  But the recipient of the mental transmission of a string of words would have to understand the language of the sender to be able to interpret it. and so this method, while highly accurate, might be seriously limited.

I’m not an expert in ESP or mental telepathy, certainly, and I’ve never heard if any of these methods are currently being tested.  I’m not sure if mental telepathy really exists outside of science fiction.  It’s a controversial subject in real life, but in science fiction the sky’s the limit.  If you need mental telepathy in your writing, have a go at one of these types.  They seem, to me, to be the most likely modes of transmission of information.

 

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Space Opera: A Definition

I have had, over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been trying to write science fiction, and on one or two occasions, to answer the question, “What is space opera?”  It’s a fair question given that space opera is the type of science fiction I write, and that it is probably the most popular subgenre of the overall class of science fiction literature.  The most common variation of the question has to do with the word “opera,” not so much the “space” part of it.  Most people, even those who don’t read or write sci-fi, are aware, to one degree or another, that sci-fi takes place largely in outer space.  That concept is so well ingrained in the popular consciousness it needs little further commentary.

To try and answer the question, let’s look at “space opera” itself.  In his excellent introduction to the space opera anthology, “Infinite Stars,” Robert Silverberg reveals that the phrase was coined by Wilson (“Bob”) Tucker, an early science fiction writer, in 1941.  He derived his term from the older term “soap opera” which arose in the 1930’s to refer to long-running dramatic radio shows (starting on radio and continuing into television) often sponsored by soap manufacturers, and from the similar term, “horse opera,” for low-budget westerns.

But what about the “opera” part of the phrase?  What does space opera, as I was once asked, have to do with opera?  My feeling is, nothing, and it’s kind of misleading to label space stories “opera,” as though there was some connection to the musical genre.  I don’t know why soap got connected with opera, and I can’t really imagine, since the two are so different.  Possibly it refers to the fact that soap opera or space opera tell a story, as does opera.  But space opera could just as easily be “space stories,” or “space novels.”  I say forget opera; just look at the story.

The connection to opera also fails due to the fact that in opera, the most important element is the music, not the story.  Operas are designed to present music.  With a full orchestra and singers, and tenors and sopranos and altos and bassos, and usually a chorus to fill out other vocal characters, opera presents music in all its forms and styles.  It’s the reason for the production’s existence.  As a result, it has little in common with outer space stories.  (I have no doubt, though, someone will eventually write a real “space opera,” set in outer space or on another planet.  But still, the music will be the foremost aspect of the production.)  Granted, opera does tell a story, but the music is the overriding factor, not the story.  The music is everything.  In fact, some stories in opera are rather thin, not much more than a vehicle for the “Bel Canto,” the “beautiful singing.”  Some operas, such as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, are magnificent in scope and production, (they can be five to six hours long) and tell a great story, but in the end, it’s the music, both vocal and instrumental, that make the opera.  We don’t go to an opera to see a story; we go to hear the music.  Conversely, we go to see Star Wars to experience the story, not simply to listen to the music.

So, what does music have to do with space opera?  Nothing.  Forget about it.

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Where Are They? – Part 2

In the previous entry in this series of blog posts about the possibility of alien life in our galaxy, and especially about such life visiting us here, I speculated about the wide disparity between the knowledge we’ve obtained about the universe—which is substantial—and our ability to move around in that universe—which is miniscule.  We’ve only just gotten to the moon.  Is that the reason we’ve never been visited by aliens from other star systems—that the distances are just too immense and space travel is not as easy as our science fiction stories make it out to be?  Or is it that they are really nowhere to be found?

There’s certainly no shortage of stars in our galaxy around which planets could form that potentially could harbor life.  But before any civilization can visit us here, a lot of things have to happen.  It has taken us 2 billion years and several major extinctions for us to reach the sophisticated level we’re at right now.  We can see galaxies that are billions of light years away, but we’re a long way in time from journeying there.  We’re a long way from visiting even just the nearest star for crying out loud!  Any other intelligent civilization almost certainly has to go through that same process of learning about the cosmos before they can make the leap from simply knowing about the presence of other suns out there, to actually visiting them.  That’s a huuuuuge step.

So, I’m wondering, how many civilizations out there have actually made that step?  Or is there a limit to what a civilization can do?

There’s a hypothesis about alien civilizations that postulates a “Great Filter” that has prevented most if not all civilizations from reaching the ability to travel the galaxy and visit us here on Earth.  Somewhere, the Great Filter suggests, in the evolution of a civilization, the inhabitants of a planet reach a stage where their ability to continue is blocked.  That’s a legitimate argument, especially as there are at least two processes that could possibly prevent us on Earth from moving on to visit other planets and star systems—annihilation either by nuclear war or by global warming.  We haven’t done a particularly good job in reducing the risk from either one lately.  But it’s one thing to postulate that, on the one hand, these processes are a risk for us on Earth, and, on the other, transferring those possibilities to other planets.  In some respects, the Great Filter seems almost too anthropomorphic, that what happens on Earth must, of necessity, happen on other planets.

One thing we can be sure of, however: that an alien civilization must acquire knowledge about the universe and the galaxy in which we live in order to visit us here, and it must develop the means of transportation around it.  But where does that knowledge lie that would allow them to close that gap?  Does it exist?  Don’t look to science fiction for the answer.

It’s entirely conceivable that a breakthrough will occur in the (near?) (far?) future that will allow us to travel to distant star systems.  I’m not ruling that out.  And it’s also possible that knowledge is available to any and all civilizations which can reach the highly sophisticated stage where they have access to it.  It’s more a question of a civilization being able to make it to that stage.  How many civilizations have reached that stage?  None?  Or does that knowledge even exist?  At least that would answer the question: “Where are they?”

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Where Are They? Part 1

This is likely to be the first of three postings on a topic that has intrigued me for several years—the prospect of intelligent life on other planets.  Enrico Fermi posed his famous paradox, basically “Where are they?” in 1950.  He was referring to the question of why highly intelligent, highly sophisticated visitors from another planet haven’t visited us here on Earth.  With the tremendous number of planets out there, say 50 to 100 billion in our galaxy alone, surely the chances must be around 100 percent that other life forms have developed, and a small population should have attained the ability to travel the galaxy in some form of advanced spaceship, perhaps with a drive system we can’t even conceive of.  Many planets out there must be older than ours, giving their inhabitants sufficient time to develop space drives that can cut travel time from star to star down to a reasonable value.  And that’s what I want to limit my comments to here in this post—the concept of actually travelling the galaxy.  Keep in mind, I’m not trying to answer the question of “where are they,” just give some possible reasons why they aren’t.

I want to start by looking at the development of life on Earth and see if we can extrapolate into the future.  The Earth is, of course, the only planet we are aware of on which intelligent life has developed, and that could mean it isn’t the best model on which to build an example, but it’s the only one we’ve got so I’m going to use it.  Life began on Earth around 2 billion years ago.  (There’s some evidence life may have evolved earlier than that, but I’m going to use 2 billion as a nice round number.)  In those 2 billion years, life has not once died out completely.  There have been extinctions, sure, and large numbers of species have been eliminated, but life has managed to remain continuous in one form or another since then.  Even the grand extinction which resulted in the eradication of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago didn’t completely eliminate all life.  Small mammals survived the asteroid impact, and even the dinosaurs themselves were not totally eliminated—they survived into today as birds.  Up to that time, reptiles were the dominant animal life form.  They were the ultimate, the top level, the upper crust.  They basically formed an endpoint, as far as evolution was concerned at that time, and it took an outside event to force a change.  Now, I suppose, mammals are the top animal life form.  We dominate the planet, and have made changes no other animal could ever conceive of making.

Over the last few thousand years, we humans have learned a lot about the universe in which we exist.  We’ve built telescopes which can probe well beyond our own galaxy and see millions of others.  We’ve learned what goes on in the interior of a star, in its core, in the atomic and subatomic interactions which produce the light and heat and all the other emissions that the star puts out.  We can even detect the faint, wispy neutrinos the star emits.  We know there seems to be unseen forces and masses in the galaxy which make up the majority of all mass and energy in it.  We’ve seen stars and planets and asteroids, and even planets that just haven’t had quite enough mass to start the fusion reactions that make a star what it is.  Behind this has been the development of elaborate mathematics that has made it possible.  There’s so much knowledge we’ve accumulated over those several thousand years.  All in all, we’re pretty damn astute about our knowledge of the universe and our place in it.  We can be proud of that.

Yet, for all our sophistication and knowledge, we’ve never sent humans out into the void of space any farther than the moon.  We’ve sent a couple of spacecraft to the edge of our solar system, but those are piddly jumps compared to the size of the universe or even the galaxy.  Traveling the galaxy is a hell of a lot harder than looking at it.  That’s why science fiction writers have to develop complex, intricate, and ultimately a little naïve spaceships to get their characters around, because there’s no real way to do it.  Light travels at the speed of light; we travel at the speed of rocket ships.  And the difference is telling.

All this suggests that if there are highly intelligent and sophisticated life forms out there capable of traveling the galaxy, or even from one galaxy to another(!), they would have to have knowledge and space drives so far beyond us they would be impossible for us to conceive.  Perhaps harnessing a force we can only guess at.  (Read more science fiction for a few good guesses.)  Pardon the pun, but even in our sophistication, we’ve got a long way to go.

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Bubonicon 50 – 2018

Well, the Bubonicon Science Fiction convention #50 here in Albuquerque, NM is over for 2018.  It ran from August 24 to 26, and as I do every year, I attended as much of it as I could, hoping to grab a rare tidbit of information or advice, or perhaps a little dirt or the real scoop on some facet of science fiction or fantasy or even real science.  This year’s theme was the “Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” playing off the fact that the Convention (the “con”) is fifty years old this year (its golden anniversary), and taking a look back at the “Golden Age of SF and F, which, from what I was able to gather, lasted from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, or thereabouts.  Many of today’s sci-fi writers lived through at least a part of that time, and cut their sci-fi teeth reading the popular authors of the day.  A number of authors acknowledged  the role that all that reading paid in the development of their writing.  A debt I can well understand.  I even got a few books autographed.

I will have to admit, though, that I am somewhat unfamiliar with the works of that era.  I came to science fiction late in my career, and though I grew up during that time, I read more non-fiction (science mostly, especially biological sciences) than fiction, and what fiction I did read tended to be related to real life.  So, in many of the sessions of this con I had difficulty identifying with the lives of the older writers.  I did find it interesting learning about the development of sci-fi through the years, though.  I had read a few of the works of Robert Heinlein (“Starship Troopers,” “Methuselah’s Children”) but that was about the extent of my sci-fi reading before I entered college and began concentrating on science, especially microbiology and virology (the biology of the teeny-tiny).  It wasn’t until almost time for me to retire from paid scientific work and shortly after the time I began my first sci-fi novel that I read Heinlein’s most popular work, “Stranger In A Strange Land.”  About that time also, I began reading quite a number of science fiction works of many other authors (I generally eschew fantasy, however).  Sci-fi is my life now; I’ve graduated from science to science fiction.  It’s been quite a ride.

I’m beginning to look forward to Bubonicon 51 in 2019.  See you there.

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Suspending Disbelief

If you read much fiction, especially science fiction or fantasy, you may have heard of the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief.”  It’s used to indicate a willingness on the part of a reader to accept as real the descriptions, the materiality, the phenomena and/or the validity of a world which does not exist in this universe, and in some cases, could not exist under any circumstances.  You do it probably a lot more than you think.  In some stories, for example, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, many things in the novel could be real, even though the characters aren’t.  We know that Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and all the others don’t exist and have never lived, but everything about the town of Maycomb does seem real and could really be true.  The lynching of a black man is real.  It has happened.  And it takes place in Alabama, a real state.  But when we read the book or watch the movie, we are willing to put ourselves in that town in that era and accept what’s happening.  It becomes real to us, if only for a short time.

On the other hand, what in the TV series Star Trek seems real?  Only a few things, such as San Francisco, where Star Fleet headquarters is located, and some of the humanoid characters—James Kirk, Captain Picard, etc.  But everything else in this series is so unlikely and non-real, especially a space vehicle that is capable of traveling many times faster than the speed of light.  It’s so far out of touch with current concepts of space travel that it seems ridiculous just to think about.  Yet we watch.  We suspend our disbelief to a much greater degree than with Atticus Finch, but suspend it we do, and we enjoy the show.

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was apparently coined by the British author and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1815.  He used it to refer to the fiction of his day, which didn’t include science fiction, though there were some elements of fantasy in some works prior to that time.  (For example, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.)  After all, the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, didn’t appear until January, 1818, and Jules Verne, who published his groundbreaking sci-fi in the latter half of the 19th Century, hadn’t gotten started yet either.  I doubt that Coleridge ever had any idea how far his phrase would be taken in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

But while the term refers to the acceptance of a fictional universe, it refers to what is, I believe, essentially a passive action.  We simply let ourselves go and accept what the author has to offer.  But I submit that there is really an active process in which we are engaged when reading science fiction.  Especially good science fiction which fleshes out a non-real or fantastical world in so much detail we can actually see ourselves living there.  Or at least visiting.  A reader has to actively submit to the author’s world and allow him/herself to be transported there.  We see and smell and taste and touch and hear things the author has not even suggested or described because we are so intensely embedded in that world we instinctively know more about it than the description has suggested.  This is a much more active process than just accepting the non-real world for the duration of the novel or the movie.  For example, can’t you just feel the heat and humidity of an Alabama summer without air-conditioning?

As a science fiction author, I became aware of this requirement of a sci-fi novel only slowly over a period of many years.  (Too many years to list here.)  To keep a reader’s attention, the world has to be believable, and well to the end of the novel.  I’ve tried to set up the fictional worlds and characters in my novels to seem real, to draw the reader in and keep him/her there, but time will tell whether readers agree.

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