Science fiction is a floating point variable

Ah, the wranglings of the genre; the coincident arrival of a report from a con panel and a new column from esteemed critic Paul Kincaid seems to have revived the perennial ‘what is science fiction’ debate.

In which case, I can’t see any reason that I shouldn’t add my little dose of noise to the signal, and reiterate my belief that science fiction is a floating point variable, not a binary.

A programming metaphor

OK, so that may not make a lot of sense to someone who has never been foolish enough to teach themselves computer programming, so I’ll unpack it a bit.

When you write a computer program, you create variables – little discreet data points which can be assigned a value by the programmer or by various external stimuli. But all variables are not created equal.

A binary variable can have one of two different values: a ‘1’, or a ‘0’, an ‘on’ or an ‘off’. No other options are available. A binary variable is either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. That’s it.

A floating point variable, however, can be assigned any numerical value that can be made to fit inside the amount of memory allocated to it. Positive, negative, large or small – any number whatsoever, even decimal subdivisions thereof.

Can you see where this is going?

The rock music metaphor (again)

OK, so maybe you can’t. Despite the assumptions of outsiders, not all science fiction readers are computer geeks. So, I’ll deploy a metaphor that long-term readers will find familiar (maybe even distressingly so)*.

Long ago, it may have been possible to say that a particular song was a piece of ‘rock music’. It either partook of what were considered to be the tropes of rock music (the then fairly new and strange phenomena of distorted guitars, for example, or the wearing of tight trousers) or it did not.

Nowadays, that simply isn’t the case. The canon has fragmented, and the definition depends on the perspective of the listener and their conception of what the term actually means – a term whose definition has been mangled and stretched by fans, critics, marketing departments and the mass media alike.

Throw in some cliched stereotyping, and the inherently tribal nature of subcultures, and you’ve got a whole raft of cultural schisms on your hands. ‘Rock’ is in the ear of the beholder, you might say – it’s what I point to when I say it, to paraphrase Damon Knight.

Can you see where this is going now? ‘Rock’ was once a binary variable. Something either was rock, or was not rock. Now, it’s a floating point variable – each piece of music partakes of the idea of rock to a certain dgree, be it tiny or huge.

Science fiction is a quality, not an object

For me at least, it’s that simple. A book is not, in and of itself, science fiction. But it may well partake of science-fictionality (science-fiction-ness?) to a lesser or greater extent – and that extent is, at least partly, determined by my perception of the book inquestion, as well as my perception of the canon of works that inform the term ‘science fiction’.

You see? Floating point variable.

And I think the same applies to subdivisions of the genre concept – as, it appears, do several other persons considerably more learned and qualified to pontificate on such matters than me, if the discussion at Torque Control is anything to go by.

The plurality of subcultures

It’s almost like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox – no matter how much you keep dividing the set into two, you’ll never reach the final destination of a concrete definition that puts the item under discussion clearly within the set or beyond it. You can’t make a floating point number into a binary. The genie will not go back into the bottle.

This is just the way culture works. We humans develop an idea, or a concept or label, and we apply it to things. Then, humans being humans, we decide that some of the others don’t have quite the same idea of what the label really means.

And so, back in the sixties, ‘rock’ music split into ‘hard rock’ and ‘heavy metal,’ and so on; bi- and tri-furcating in endless iterations, up to the current point where there are almost as many different genres as there are bands – none of whom are ever happy with the labels that get slapped on them.

If you can’t see the resonance between science fiction literature and that preceding paragraph, then either I’ve failed to explain myself properly, or I’m utterly unhinged in command of a keyboard …

… but, that said, one of the things that appeals to me about science fiction fandom is that I can actually take part in a conversation as abstract and ultimately irrelevant to the fate of the universe as this one, and in all probability have someone take me seriously enough to argue back. And that, as far as I’m concerned, rocks. 😉


[* In the process of fetching that link, I realised that I started that particular rant almost a year ago. Probably time for a rewrite … or at least a reassessment.]

3 thoughts on “Science fiction is a floating point variable”

  1. That’s a lot more compelling than most of the attempts to cordon off SF – probably because it isn’t one!

  2. That was a bit more freeing than I expected…I know that what I am writing is science fiction…in a way, but much more primitive simultaneously…why do I even try to find the conventions? Just to break them?…why not blindly break barriers?…there are so many left!

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