Black Box Blues: Investigating Mission Critical Metaphysics In Fiction

Recently Superversive SF posted an article called The Mohs Scale Of SF Hardness.

Now Castalia House has responded with Hard SF Considered Harmful.

I have come to the conclusion that they are arguing the wrong question.

The first level–the very “hardest” one, describes works that are not Sci Fi at all.  Other works such as Philip Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow would score very high on the scale, but most readers would not consider them Hard SF.

Another take on the issue comes from Kevyn Winkless in his essay Soft Boiled Sci Fi. (An essay published a year ago but very topical right now.  I therefor accuse Kevyn of violating causality and vote him out of the multiverse.) He discusses Integrity and Symbolism. Internal consistency is a vital characteristic of readability, and he makes some interesting observation on the symbolism of superhero characters.

However one question that I feel is neglected in the discussion of contrafactual elements in fiction is, quite simply, “Does it matter?”

A little less simply, it’s two questions.  First, does the existence of fantastic elements significantly change the course of the story?  If the dragons or rocketships or whatever were removed from the setting could the author tell essentially the same story?

Second, is it important for the reader to understand the mechanics of the fantastic elements?  Could the technical explanations be replaced with the words  “magic black box” without significantly changing the events of the story?

Let’s look at some examples.  I searched for “Top Hard SF Novels” and found a number of lists.  I’m going to limit my examples to books that I have read all the way through. These aren’t in any particular order and I’m not claiming that they are the best by any objective standards–these are just the ones that came up when I did the search that I felt I was qualified to comment on.

Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur Clarke: Now, I would judge this one as a 5 on mechanical issues and a 2 on biological ones, but that’s just me.  I’m sure some folks would argue that it’s a 6 or 7. However, that’s not my main point.  On my criteria it’s about as Hard as it gets.  The story is entirely about the attempts of human beings to understand an alien artifact. (In fact this is one of those stories that I think would be improved by removing most of the author’s attempt to make his human characters more “real” and “relatable”.) Furthermore, understanding the physics of the artifact is vital to the story–many of the most exciting sequences are dependant on the reader grasping the science behind the action.

Ringworld, Larry Niven: The Superversive post rates this a 4. Personally, I’d give it a 1, but that’s only because the scale has no zero.  Seriously, this book is full of pure magic gizmos that Flash Gordon would roll his eyes at.  They are really cool gizmos, and most of them, most of the time, operate consistently, but they aren’t scientific by any stretch of the imagination. However it scores on the Significance scale the same as Rendezvous With Rama, largely because it’s the same story, only the artifact is bigger and you can have sex with the aliens. (This is not an invitation to post links to Raman Biot Porn.)

Dragon’s Egg, Charles Forward: It’s been a while since I read this one, so I’m not going to try to rate it on hardness–I don’t recall the physics that well.  However the basic story is entirely dependant on the basic conceit of a species that operates on a hugely different time scale than human beings.  Once that metaphysic is in place, the rest of the story plays out with a delightful inevitability.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman: This is an interesting story in terms of hardness, since the scale changes as the novel progresses,  starting at about 6 and ending around 2. This ties in directly to a comment in the Superversive essay:

One problem with this level of hardness is that it only makes sense a short distance into the future. If your story is set a thousand years from now it’s ludicrous to think there will be no new rules of physics discovered in that time. If the setting isn’t as different from today’s as our lives are different from the world of 1000 AD that’s a failure of imagination.

The effect of time dilation on the life of William Mandella is the story.  As such it’s fair to say that it’s significant.

Mission Of Gravity, Hal Clement: I love this book.  Honestly, I have no idea how plausible the science is, nor do I care. It’s a swashbuckling adventure about a centipede pirate captain, fergoodnessake!  The travels of Barlennan through the savage seas of his world are consistently exciting because the differing zones of gravity that he voyages through each have their own dangers.  Again, the physics of the world are the story. (And Barlennan is a great character.  I tried to make Mesklinite in GURPS Space once, but you need a lot of points to make a character who can function at 700 Gs. Can Conen function at 700 Gs? I think not.)

Neuromancer,  William Gibson: As an aside, I consider the Cyberpunk movement to be an revival of the New Wave movement (as did a lot of the authors who founded Cyberpunk.) So there.  As far as hardness is concerned, I know that Gibson did a great deal of research into computers and such, and that it was probably 6-7 when it was published in 1984. But this one falls into the Black Box area as far as I’m concerned.  The main character, Case, neither knows nor cares how his Ono-Sendi rig operates–he just drives the thing. The titular character and its shadow twin Wintermute are described as artifical inteligences, but they might as well be captive demons for purposes of the story.  The metaphysics of the world where Case and Molly Millions live is clearly delininated, and they must play out their drama within those rules, but they accept the rules as the diktats of shadowy forces that they cannot understand or even identify. It is an essentially Chestertonian universe–the sun rises because it is bewitched to rise.

The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner: Look, more New Wave!  This is the only Sci Fi work that I can think of where the hardness increased as time passed from its publication. What was wildly speculative in 1975 has become day to day life in 2017. Seriously, you could almost go through the novel and change the names and pass it off as a modern realistic novel. Now, I did write a post extremely critical of this novel, which I stand by and will defend, but that is beside the point here.  In terms of significance, one need only look at the extent to which the technological changes he predicted did lead to the social changes he predicted.

Dune, Frank Herbert:  This book always seems to come up in Hard vs. Soft discussions. (It’s mentioned in the Superversive article, for example, as a book that scores differently for different sciences.) It is, however, remarkably consistent in terms of the significance of the contrafactual elements to the story. The powers of the Bene Geserit are as important as the water cycle on Arrakis to the overall story. The sociological implications of the technological innovations–both the reasonable and the unreasonable ones–are thought out in great detail.  And it is that depth of world-building that makes the story work and allows rigorous ecological detail to coexist with black box (literally in the case of the Reverend Mother’s “pain box” test for humanity) magic.

I gave these examples to try to open up a dialogue, and to encourage a new way of looking at the speculative metaphysics of SFF fiction.  Obviously the next step is to examine classic works of “Soft SF” and Fantasy in the same light.  And I intend to get around to that as time and tide allow.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
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3 Responses to Black Box Blues: Investigating Mission Critical Metaphysics In Fiction

  1. Mary says:

    Sounds right up there with “Goto Statements Considered Harmful.”

  2. feralplum says:

    Alas, total harness leads to total mundanity. Everything in ‘A Deepness in the Sky’ is theoretically possible and rigorous, but so far out that in five years it will be fantasy as theories change. Rex Stout’s ‘Too Many Clients’ is absolutely hard only because it is in the past and therefor timid.

  3. deuce says:

    I enjoyed reading this one. Looking forward to further posts. In the case of “Soft SF” and Burroughs, he actually went to a great deal of trouble trying to nail down the astronomical facts of the time. As far as “uterines breeding with egg-layers”, there was no hard proof in the biology OF THE TIME to rule it out. There was no hard proof against telepathy, either. Burroughs worked a lot of grey areas, but he always tried to keep things plausible.

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