Tag Archives: taxonomy

The flavours of science in science fiction

Regular readers (especially those from the Genre-fictional League of Critical Motherfuckers) will be aware that I loves me a good taxonomy.

And what do you know, here’s one now: a chap called Eric Van (who I’m not sure I know) has categorised the flavours of science in science fiction [via Niall Longshanks Harrison]. The list was originally developed to comment on sf cinema, but Van suggests it’s easily adapted to use with the written form; I am very much inclined to agree.

Of special note for its concise definition of a very slippery concept:

Bad Science. An attempt is made at one of the above categories, and although the science isn’t demonstrably Wrong, it still doesn’t work for you; it takes you out of the story and makes you wince at its stupidity. That’s Bad Science. Whether Speculative Science strikes you as Bad usually depends on your scientific knowledge. With the other varieties, Bad Science seems ultimately a matter of taste. That the alien mothership in Independence Day apparently runs the Mac OS is Fake Science, but for many it’s Bad Fake Science. Botching the hand-waving explanation is a classic form of Bad Science; The Force in the original Star Wars trilogy was (like almost all psi powers in sf) simply Magic Science, but the introduction of midichlorians in the prequel trilogy struck many as a turn to the Bad Side, in that the explanation added nothing. In fact, a good criterion for identifying Bad Science is that fixing it would improve the story—if Jeff Goldblum’s character had to struggle to interface with the alien OS, that could have been exciting and funny and needn’t have taken more than twenty seconds of screen time.

This, incidentally, is the one you always see from writers who thought they’d take a crack at writing sf without knowing anything of the genre beyond the mainstream cinema and televisual canon. As a result, it’s almost impossible to explain to them why it doesn’t work.

SF Masterclass Report #2

Despite an endemic shortage of sleep and excess of good times and conviviality, I feel I’ve learned a huge amount from this week, and I expect the last lecture to come this afternoon will add some more. I’m incredibly glad I came.

It’s been a great relief to find that not only am I in no way looked down upon as being the only non-academic on the course, but that my position as such is actually valued. It’s also been very flattering to be told that my contributions have had as much merit as anyone elses – for once in my life, I’m prepared to simply accept that as said and not assume it’s flattery or politeness in action.

I applied for this Masterclass because I felt I needed a wider range of interrogatory tools to use in my work as a reviewer (which I am told is a very post-modernist attitude – go figure!), and that is exactly what I have acquired. Brian Stableford’s lectures have been particularly inspirational, providing a taxonomy (partly drawing on work-in-progress by the one and only Farah Mendlesohn) for fantastic literatures that actually works when applied to almost any text. Add to that some introductions to Freudian, Marxist and Feminist critical frameworks, and I feel many times more confident about knowing what criticism is actually for, and where I can hope to go with it.

To be honest, I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with Feminism – it seems to have agendas way beyond the text it is applied to, which is all well and good in and of itself, but doesn’t really offer me the sort of tools I’m after. I’m primarily interested in making each book or story the focus of each piece of critical writing I do, rather than use the book in question to illustrate a broader agenda. Plus the jargon is incredibly dense – which coming from a man who is frequently described as having swallowed a dictionary is a strange thing to say. Selah – it’s still good to know how it works and what it stands for. I have no objections or opposition to its aims, that’s for sure. I’m just not sure I can use it in the same way I can use the other stuff.

I’ve also been inspired by my own thoughts and those of my fellow attendees. Despite the apparent demise of Scalpel (yes, OK, people warned me, but I like to give people a chance on my own terms rather than unquestioningly taking on board the opinions that others hold of them), I still believe that the science fiction criticism scene needs more communication and dialogue, and this week has only served to strengthen that opinion. I have ideas, you might even say plans. People will be getting emails once my life gets back to normal. Oh yes.

Well, it’s raining again outside, but this cafe is nice and warm, serves good coffee and doesn’t close for another hour or so. There’s lively conversation about fiction in various media forms, and a final lecture in two hours time. Life is good. Just the plenary discussions and the long journey home tomorrow, and everything will be back to normal. Which is almost a shame … but I’ve missed the familiarity of my flat and the calming ritual of writing gibberish here on VCTB. Selah. Hope you’ve all been having a good week too. See you soon.