The geek factor

Richard Morgan explains the problem with contemporary science fiction:


A preparedness to accept very poor levels of quality in fiction (as discussed above) so long as the gosh-wow factor is cranked up sufficiently high. Recently I was asked in an interview if I watched much TV and in response I cited
The Wire as the finest TV drama around. This wasn’t what the interviewer was after, so he rephrased the question and asked me if I watched much SF&F TV. But the way he prefaced the remark was, I think, very telling. Of course they’re not in the same class as The Wire, he said, but have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica or Heroes?

Now my question is why isn’t there any SF&F TV drama in the same class as The Wire? There could be – look at movies like Bladerunner or Alien, novels like Geoff Ryman’s Air or Peter Watts’ Blindsight, comic-book work like Alan Moore’s From Hell or Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s not that the talent isn’t out there – it’s that the genre as a consumer demographic assigns negligible value to that talent. We would rather wallow in threadbare franchise mediocrity and clichéd visions thirty years past their sell-by date. So sure, Watts and Ryman are in print – but set their sales against those of the latest interchangeable pastel-shaded elf or magician-in-training brick or the interminable Halo/Star Wars-type franchises. There’s just no comparison.

I grew up on a constant diet of high quality science fiction. Stanislaw Lem wasn’t just the leading Polish science-fiction writer – he was one of the best contemporary Polish writers, period. That pretty much set the high standard. Of course we also had the translations of the likes of Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin. But then I left Poland and, around the same time, lost interest in the genre for many years. (Almost 20 years, in case you’re interested.) Turns out, back there we’d only had a small fraction of Western sci-fi available in translation, but those titles were selected for their high quality. We couldn’t afford the Star Wars novels within the financial constraints of the Polish publishing industry in the 1970s and 80s, and they probably wouldn’t have looked that good next to Lem on a shelf, anyway. Over here, though, the Star Wars and Star Trek sequels can take up half of the sci-fi section of your local bookstore, most of the other half being similar in style. I did not want to have to browse through that. It was depressing to even walk up there.

Then the internet happened somewhere along the way, and when I started looking around, the sci-fi writers had the best blogs and web pages. No big surprise, really, if you think about it. The blogs are worth reading just for the lively commentary on everything from the writing craft to the political issues of the day, but what’s relevant here is that this is how I found book recommendations, free writing samples, short stories, even full length books available for free download. I also discovered that I rather liked some of them.

That brings us back to Blindsight, the best new sci-fi novel I’ve read in a very long time as well as one of the best novels of any genre that I read last year, available for free from the author’s webpage. I was going to say more about it, then decided that I couldn’t really improve on this Bookslut review, so I’ll just refer you there. The mathematicians here might be interested to know that the main character of Blindsight is, among other things, a “topologist” – a brilliant projection of the current meaning of the word. (You may have heard that Peter Watts made the news recently for other reasons; that story, as depressing as any sci-fi dystopia that I’ve seen, has finally come to a conclusion. But I digress.) I have not read Air or anything else by Ryman, or anything by Morgan for that matter. Perhaps that should be next on my list.

I guess what I’d like to know is whether the association with science might be hurting the literary quality of science fiction. Not that there aren’t exceptions – see above – or that it’s scientists who write the Star Wars sequels. It’s more that there’s a generally accepted style of writing about science, especially popular and expository writing, along the lines of trying to keep it as simple and clear as possible. That’s generally a good thing, given that in this context “as simple and clear as possible” does not necessarily mean either simple or clear. There are also the writing habits that become second nature to scientists and propagate from there to the wider geekdom: writing in passive voice, going to great lengths to avoid ambiguity, making all logical relations explicit. (“A. Therefore B.” as opposed to “A. B.”) All of these can make their way into science fiction. I’m not sure that they improve the literary aspect of it.

Sure, a scientific background does give us a few advantages. We’re trained to construct and follow logical arguments, to emphasize structure, clarity and precision. No mathematician could have written anything like this, for example. I shouldn’t have to explain why that is a good thing. There are times, however, when our compulsion to cross all t’s and dot all i’s twice can be a handicap.

You may have heard this joke before. A mathematician, a physicist and a biologist (if I remember correctly) take a train in a foreign country X. Looking out the window, they see a red cow. The biologist says, “In X, cows are red”; the physicist, “In X, some cows are red”. The mathematician corrects them both: “In X, there is at least one cow that is red on at least one side”. If you ask me, cows that are red on at least one side make for less than riveting prose. At least some of the time, that is.

There’s a certain type of popular math books where a character named after some math object travels all over an imaginary world and encounters a selection of adventures, each of them designed to illustrate a math concept or theorem. I’m sure that this can be a good way to explain the mathematics to a wide audience. It doesn’t float my boat – I often know already the mathematics involved, and when I don’t, it’s easier and more natural for me to just learn it straight. And I have yet to see any book of this type that I would want to read for its literary value.

I get the impression that many sci-fi novels follow a similar model. Take Vernon Vinge, for example – one of the best in this particular subgenre. You need not look any further than Rainbows End for a sneak peek at the likely computing technologies of the future. Vinge’s projections are fascinating and totally convincing; I also might have learned a thing or two about the already existing technologies. (I can see how those popular math books could work similarly for a reader who’s not a professional mathematician.) His characters, however, are somewhat perfunctory. I found them two-dimensional at best, much like those 2D creatures living on the surfaces of Riemannian manifolds and investigating their properties.

This can be pushed further. Here’s Jo Walton explaining the process of reading science fiction:


Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience. It’s a lot of what I read for. Delany has a long passage about how your brain expands while reading the sentence “The red sun is high, the blue low”—how it fills in doubled purple shadows on the planet of a binary star. I think it goes beyond that, beyond the physical into the delight of reading about people who come from other societies and have different expectations.

Because SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques for doing it. There’s the simple infodump, which Neal Stephenson has raised to an artform in its own right. There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues.

This does remind me of mystery novels. It also reminds me of my first courses in general topology and abstract functional analysis back in undergraduate school. It was all new, as different from anything I’d known as a red and blue sun combo. You didn’t know the rules any longer and had to learn them along the way. It was both “a high form of fun” and hard work. Reading mathematics is not a passive activity: to understand an argument, we have to reconstruct it in our mind based on what’s given in the paper. Modern sci-fi, according to Walton, “assumes. It doesn’t say The red sun is high, the blue low because it was a binary system.” We in math like to leave the proof of a lemma or two to the reader as an exercise.

In mathematical writing, though, mathematics is the main point and usually the only one. If there’s a narrative added for expository purposes, we don’t expect much from it, just like we wouldn’t expect a calculus “word problem” to be a little literary gem. We would expect the calculus problem to be stated clearly and unambiguously. But literature thrives on ambiguity, playfulness, creative use of language. Building the fictional world from the clues is good, but figuring out the characters is even better, and it is vastly preferable that there not be a simple or “right” answer as in a math problem.

Which is not to say that I won’t read Vinge again. I just don’t expect to enjoy it on the same level as Blindsight.

(Yes, it’s been a while. What can I do. I do have a day job and I also need time off once in a while. Now that classes are over, I hope to post more often than once a month. I have also signed up for Twitter (see the sidebar). Any quick links and short updates will be posted there.)

6 Comments

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6 responses to “The geek factor

  1. Allen Knutson pointed me towards this nice satire of bad scifi writing conventions:

    http://www.shrovetuesdayobserved.com/flight.html

    The perceived need to insert a large amount of exposition into a scifi text does indeed threaten the writing quality. There is even a term for this: “Expospeak“.

  2. Thanks for the link, Terry! That was hilarious.

  3. Ah, interesting. Unfortunately, I’m a very slow reader, so I don’t read that many novels… Or the converse. Whatever the case, A and B are true.

    I sometimes also think that I might be into SF if it were easier to find the right things to read. I would find indecision somewhat crippling even without Sturgeon’s Law to contend with. But the internet, I love it… a little too much.

  4. “There’s a certain type of popular math books where a character named after some math object travels all over an imaginary world and encounters a selection of adventures, each of them designed to illustrate a math concept or theorem.”

    Even when I was little I hated those books. Sure, they were fun the first time around, when I tried to wrap my head around the concept, but they do not stand up to a second scrutiny, because they have no value besides the math/science content. Much more fun, I think, were books like “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Phantom Tollbooth” where the logic and mathematics are carefully sprinkled so as not to be obtrusive, yet delightful everytime.

    Fundamentally, a novel is about the story: it is about how the characters interact (with each other, with the environs) and not just a static description of the scenery. Normal fiction is like studying morphisms in a familiar category–we all know what the objects are so we don’t need to talk about them. Science fiction is trying to study a different category; bad science fiction is getting too hung-up on describing the objects and forgetting that Arrows-Only is a valid, and sometimes the preferred, approach.

    This may be why I usually enjoy SF&F written in first person or third person limited. I imagine for the writer it is very difficult not to play god, unless he forces himself into writing from the point of view of the character, for which the world cannot be “strange” by definition. The exceptions to this rule are almost always writers who can write so matter-of-factly about the universe they created that it just blends rather seamlessly into the prose (I am thinking Terry Pratchett, the finer moments of Steven Brust, or Kurt Vonnegut).

    For bites of interesting thoughts, I prefer a short story or a novella for the medium of delivery. There are advantages to the format that makes it more acceptable to build a story purely around a single scientific/mathematical concept. See, for example, the collection “Fantasia Mathematica” or any of the short works by Larry Niven (Lem is, of course, another master at this).

    Out of curiosity: have you any thoughts on Rudy Rucker?

  5. I don’t know anything about Rudy Rucker. Is it someone you would recommend?

  6. Well… depends. I enjoyed “Whitelight”, but that was when I was in college and, let’s just say that I also enjoyed the Illuminati trilogy around the same time. (This is in no way to disparage Shea and Wilson, but meant to illustrate the kind of fiction that I read at the time.) Looking back I am not completely certain I would’ve enjoyed it as much today. And also, transrealism is not all Rucker writes: like most authors he has different styles and themes in different periods of his life.

    In any case, I mentioned him because, unlike some other science fiction writers, he actually knows the math he incorporates (he did a PhD at Rutgers with Ellentuck on Definable Sets). So he has some following among mathematicians.

    His early works (the four …ware books) are cyberpunk, so thematically close to Phillip K Dick or Neal Stephenson. “Spaceland” was a bit disappointing if you try to read it like Flatland (“Flatterland” is better in that regard). But it is still somewhat entertaining if you conveniently forget that the “higher dimensional being drops down for a visit” theme has been done to death.

    Some of his books are free for download, so rather than me blabbing on here, maybe you should just sample a bit and see. http://www.cs.sjsu.edu/faculty/rucker/works.htm