Romance and wonder

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“One of the main reasons for describing science fiction as a form of romance is that its subject-matter is romantic: in Shelley’s words, it is not concerned with ‘ordinary relations of existing events.’ Modern SF has done its best to convey the sheer excitement [and horror] of the vistas opened up by science and technology. Like its literary predecessor, the ‘marvellous voyage’, it has often set out to amaze and astound its readers. But if wonder is the authentic response to much science fiction, it is also a very wide spread mode of literary experience. There is, no doubt, something science-fictional in Miranda’s exclamation in The Tempest:

O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

Science fiction as romance,  in Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching, by Patrick Parrinder. Published by Taylor & Francis, 1980, P52.

Revelation Space

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“The depiction of filmic space in recent years is marked by the possibilities of digital technology to create new worlds and new visions, and yet this creation is accomplished in a predetermined way. While sometimes taking a leap into space, we do so in a way that is both breathtaking and familiar. Consider the remarkable opening shot of Contact [1997], a film that is somewhere between 2001 and Star Wars in its combination of metaphysics and childhood fantasy.

“Digital technology can change the actual in ways impossible for earlier technologies: Whether building upon images of objects from our own reality or starting from scratch, computer graphics and animation have the capacity to bring us into space that resemble the interior spaces of the mind. This realization informs the opening shot of Contact: Begining with discordant and random radio noises, giving us a brief history lesson of recent years, the camera pulls away from an image of the Earth to recede into the space and silence of our solar system, the Milky Way, and other galaxies – only to conclude in the eye of a young girl, Ellie Arroway, who will grow up to be an astronomer and the film’s heroine.

“As Ron Mangid notes, the images of the journey through space are poetic recreations of the digitized images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Unlike other space journeys […] which visualise a forward movement and penetration into space, this one gives us the perspective of receding itno space, of viewing the universe as it rushes past us, ultimately to create the sense of the universe terminating in the girl’s mind. These 5,000 frames create a prolonged three-minute shot that appears to verify [the] thesis that in the midst of new technology and new spatial visions on the screen, filmic space is still under the control of the eyes and the mind of the viewer, a point underscored by the recognisable quattrocentro perspectives that structures the entire shot.”

Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction, by Gary Westfahl, Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. P 74.

Cognition Engine

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The debate concerning the proper definition of SF is extensive. The 1979 edition of the The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction gave over twenty definitions. By 1993 editorial staff had whittled it down to eleven. The Science Fiction Reference Book quotes sixty-eight definitions. The majority of such definitions of SF are unsatisfactory, some are flippant and most miss something crucial. One cannot say that SF is realism because it is not limited to the methods of realistic description: for the same reason SF cannot be classed as naturalism. To define SF as “narratives of the future” is also mistaken. As Philip K.Dick writes, “it is not the job, really, of Science Fiction to predict. Science Fiction only seems to predict. It’s like the aliens on Star Trek, all of whom speak English. A literary convention is involved. Nothing more.”Dick gives another very simple reason why SF cannot be defined as fiction of the Future; namely there can be science fiction set in the present; the alternate world story or novel.

If SF can neither be defined as narratives of the future, nor as technological fiction and if it is not realism, naturalism or myth, then what exactly is it?

Hugo Gernsback’s definition “of a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” identifies only SF’s “lower stages of development”, in the view of Darko Suvin, as does any definition which focuses on advanced technology, rather than on the “social arrangements these advances give rise to.” “Getting the technical details right” is not, according to Parrinder, the defining feature of SF. This is because SF writers deal with non-technologies — namely social and institutional extrapolations: living arrangements, norms of sexual behaviour, religious cults, even future art forms and board games. Williams makes the same point when he states that SF, in addition to exploring new technologies, can explore a new set of laws, such as new abstract property relations — what he terms “new social machinery.”

The Science of Fiction, New Humanist