Near Far In Science Fiction

In their recent Science article reviewing near-far findings (which I discussed here), Liberman and Trope illustrated their concepts with Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

[An] intriguing mixture of high-level, abstract features, and low-level, concrete features. … In this painting, the ploughman witnesses the fall of Icarus. However, as he is immersed in the details of his immediate chore, he is oblivious to the significance of the event.

AudenPainting

Like many others I enjoyed the new Star Trek movie, even if I don’t especially respect myself for that, and recently just rewatched Star Wars episodes II,III.  And the most compelling visuals and scenes in those movies were similar, in that they combined familiar and emotionally-true foregrounds with dramatic symbolically-meaningful backgrounds which often made little sense if you thought much about them.  For example, in Star Trek isolated crowded shipyards are shown scattered in simple farmland, wildly violating economies of agglomeration:

StarTrekScene

This SF film scene pattern not only makes sense in terms of near-far theory, but it also illuminates how science fiction fits as a genre serving the functions of fiction. 

I have suggested that fiction mostly functions to let us show our associates what we think about who should be praised and reviled, or rewarded and punished, in what situations.  In the ethos of science fiction (as in its co-genre fantasy), people are to be praised or reviled in substantial part for their relation to the grand arc of history.  After all, the (basically-false) core conceit of science fiction is that scientists are heroic because it is they who most make our modern world powerful.

So it is important that major SF story characters do actually have substantial connection to or influence on the grand arc of history, however implausible that may be.  Grand historical arcs must be described in the story, but since they are processed by readers mostly in far mode, readers are not very critical about how plausible are those arcs.  The near details of the lives of the major characters, in contrast, are processed more in near mode, so SF writers must make those seem more realistic.  (Of course we don’t process even these in as near a mode as details of our own lives now – it is still fiction after all.)

This all supports my detached detail warning: don’t assume that because the character lives described are compelling, the historical arcs are as plausible.

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  • http://atheorist.livejournal.com Johnicholas

    If fiction mostly functions to show something to my associates, why do I read it in private?
    Why do I carefully not mention my sf/fantasy hobby?

    “In the ethos of science fiction (as in its co-genre fantasy), people are to be praised or reviled in substantial part for their relation to the grand arc of history.” – I’m sorry, this is simply false. For example, the I Robot series of short stories are classic science fiction, but focus on the small-scale intricacies of Asimov’s three laws.

    Your characterization of science fiction completely ignores the most salient feature of the genre to the unfamiliar reader – the exposition. See: http://www.shrovetuesdayobserved.com/flight.html

  • R.A.W.

    For example, in Star Trek isolated crowded shipyards are shown scattered in simple farmland, wildly violating economies of agglomeration

    They’re military shipyards, no? They could be dispersed for survivability.

    It’s not a real Star Trek thread until someone has tried to rationalize all the incongruities.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Johnicholas, I’m sure you will talk about your hobby with someone. SF exposition is crucial to making the imagined arc of history clear to readers.

  • http://atheorist.livejournal.com Johnicholas

    Sorry, that should have been “why do I not mention my hobby at work?”. You’re entirely correct, that I mention it here and other places.

    Still, I want to convey in the strongest manner possible:
    1. The hobby of reading Science Fiction is intensely appealing to aficionados of the genre, even if it were secret.
    2. Science Fiction is not primarily about the arc of history – it is primarily about ideas. Big ideas, and a quality sometimes called “sense of wonder” or “sensawunda”.
    3. Genre is a complicated, self-referential thing that cannot be simply characterized with a predicate. Blinking lights may qualify a (bad) work as part of the science fiction genre, even if there are no big ideas in it. If a genre could be characterized by a predicate, we wouldn’t need a separate name for it – we would simply use the predicate.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Johnicholas, I didn’t mean to imply that SF readers do not find SF appealing, nor that I had some predicate that completely characterized SF. It seems hard to describe a scenario changed by a big idea without that effecting its arc of history.

  • Mike

    “the (basically-false) core conceit of science fiction is that scientists are heroic because it is they who most make our modern world powerful.”

    I don’t think one can doubt that science, as a generic discipline, has made our civilization powerful. We can argue about where and when that science takes place, and who performs it — but modern civilization is certainly much more powerful than civilization a thousand or more years ago, and while there has been innovation is social organization, when you think in practical terms in exactly what makes us more powerful, I think it comes down to our tools, which are the product of science (in the generic sense).

    Perhaps the emphasis of “false” is on “heroic.” Then I agree — science doesn’t seem like a heroic enterprise to me, at least not in modern times.

  • http://pancrit.org Chris Hibbert

    Actual airports are often surrounded by open space. As someone who likes to look out the window during take-off and landing, my impression is that there aren’t many businesses that want to be situated within a quarter mile or so of a busy airport. There’s room for some parking, but the rest is often (except in airports in dense urban areas) open space of one sort or another. Beyond that, there’s the usual collection of businesses associated with airfreight and such.

    I’d expect a rocket port to be even noisier. So there would be some businesses that want to be right at the port facility, and then a gap before you’d find the industrial and shipping companies that want to be relatively close.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Chris, shipyards, where ships are made, are usually packed closely together.

    Mike, does your generic “science” include any one who designs, repairs, or maintains tools? That seems well beyond the usual usage of the word.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Perhaps there are times when it pays to distribute industrial infrastructure – so as not to present such an appealing target. Also, do these guys supposedly have transportation technology? That might make a bit of a mess of the concept of distance.

  • spj

    Robin,

    Saying that science is not what makes modern civilizations powerful is like saying brains are not what make humans powerful. After all, without a pancreas we’d be dead, even with all the brains in the world. This is of course true, but absolutely obvious and completely unhelpful.

  • asdf

    I think it’s a little funny that the picture above is not believable due to “economies of agglomeration”, where it’s quite obvious, even before any zoning issues, that they [the Federation] are going to have a hell of a time getting that ship out into earth orbit using belly thrusters like a harrier jet. I’m pretty sure these things should be built in space, unless it can hover while turning sky-facing then blast off like a rocket, or enter warp speed from a stand still touching earth.

  • Matt

    “After all, the (basically-false) core conceit of science fiction is that scientists are heroic because it is they who most make our modern world powerful.”

    That doesn’t strike me as the core conceit of science fiction at all. In fact, very little of the science fiction I have read features scientists as heroes. Or do you not mean to imply that science fiction has scientists as hero characters but rather that the heroism of scientists is somehow implicit?

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Robin wrote:

    After all, the (basically-false) core conceit of science fiction is that scientists are heroic because it is they who most make our modern world powerful.

    So it is important that major SF story characters do actually have substantial connection to or influence on the grand arc of history, however implausible that may be.

    That might be a good description of much SF written before 1960. It is not a good description of SF written after 1960. More recent science fiction is more often about how technology might change the lives of ordinary people.

    Star Trek is about grand arcs, but is not about heroic scientists. Many things pre-1960 also don’t fit the pattern; the writings of Cordwainer Smith or Alfred Bester, for example, as well as the vast Edgar Rice Burroughs/Buck Rogers/EE Doc Smith space opera literature.

    I think your observation applies to SF from the John Campbell school, and to anything published in Analog, past or present.

    Why do you call the conceit “basically false”? Who has made our modern world powerful more than scientists have?

  • Cyan

    Just guessing here, but I think Robin’s point is that scientists doing Science(tm) don’t design or manufacture all that sweet, sweet technological crap that makes life so nice. Science: necessary but not sufficient. Brain and pancreas indeed.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    > I think your observation applies to SF from the John Campbell school, and to anything published in Analog, past or present.

    Checking Wikipedia reminds me that John Campbell founded Analog, so these categories are synonyms.

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon

    I had pretty much the same response as Phil Goetz. Outside the Analog stream the heroic scientist trope is not all that common these days, and it would be unexpected to find all that many Challengers and Summerlees today. And it’s worth noting that quite a bit of science fiction is even the complete opposite: the scientist as someone we need to keep a close ethics-minded eye on, because the power of science can be used for terrible villainy. Frankenstein’s monster and Robur the conqueror and the reign of terror of the Invisible Man and Jurassic Park and all that.

    I think part of the difficulty is that we really shouldn’t think of science fiction as a unified genre in the first place; rather, it’s a very diverse family of very different general types of stories that often trade particular tropes and ideas (sometimes with the point of criticizing them in the context of a different sort of story). So it’s an area of literature where generalizations are very difficult to make. Star Trek is probably closer to the description in the post than most science fiction, since I take it that heroic, world-changing scientists were definitely part of Roddenberry’s vision; but it’s actually very hard to make good, exciting stories about heroic, galaxy-changing lab work, so it’s mostly just vague background rather than actual story. And the ‘change the arc of history’ storytelling seems to me to have less to do with the science fiction of it all and more to do with the fact that (when done right) it makes for more awesome TV and movies.

  • Douglas Knight

    Not to claim (or deny) that he’s representative, but Star Trek’s Scotty is a heroic engineer. The new movie makes him the isolated mad scientist / inventor, but in the original series he was a maintainer of tools, called to heroism by circumstance, I think.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    “Also, do these guys supposedly have transportation technology? That might make a bit of a mess of the concept of distance.”
    I think we have a winner here. If you have nigh-limitless energy enabling instant transportation around a planet, you can live in Bangalore and commute to Des Moines.

    On the other hand, if you have nigh-limitless energy, your option set is very large indeed. Sci fi and fantasy typically fail to see through the implications of changing important assumptions.

    And I’m also in the Campbellian school. Space opera is doing something very different from hard science fiction.