Science Fiction Is Far

SF author Greg Benford posts a ’97 Peter Nicholls talk:

I decided that I would write ALIEN ARTEFACTS but call it BIG DUMB OBJECTS. … But the joke was on me, because as I came to write the entry, I realized that the subject– which was vast alien enigmatic artefacts–was at the heart of what attracted people to science fiction. And even stranger, I realized that no matter what literary shortcomings you found in Big Dumb Object sf – and believe me, there are plenty – that Big Dumb Object stories were often successful, that even if badly written they were usually good to read. Why? …

There is in science fiction, even or especially (as I will argue later) in so-called Hard science fiction, something which in other context we tend to think of as unscientific, be it called sense of wonder, or the sublime, or the transcendent as the Panshins have it, or the romantic. And one rather mechanical way of creating this effect is for the storyteller to imagine something very very big and mysterious, like the spaceship Rama, or like Larry Niven’s Ringworld. That is, the mysterious something in science fiction often has its locus classicus in the Big Dumb Object. …

Of the BDO novels I’ve cited, [big] voyages in space become [big] voyages in time in the majority of them: … It is, as the celebrated cliché has it, the last frontier, and this ties in with what one does in frontiers of all kinds, one meets the “other”. I think the meeting of humanity with the other is now generally accepted as one of the great themes of science fiction. … The sublime … is dehumanising. It makes us feel small and unimportant and indeed hardly there at all. I think this feeling of our vulnerability and littleness in the context of cosmic vastness and indifference, is one of the root feelings of space fiction. … Sf writers capable of perfectly good straightforward, journeyman prose, tend to fall into florid poetics of the most excruciatingly embarrassing kind when trying to imagine what transcendence might feel like. …

BDO fiction … is about being dwarfed by space and hugeness, about attempting to maintain our own humanity, warts and all, in the light of this vastness, while at the same time yearning to be better or other than what we are. And this is not a theme that is intrinsically scientific at all, which makes it all the odder that it is in the hardest and most scientific sf that we tend to find the purest examples. …

I began by saying that I had recently re-read a dozen or so classics of hard science fiction, and I listed them. What I didn’t say then is that it was a rather disappointing experience. … The main problem is the sense of wonder, that feeling you get when confronted by the truly awe-inspiring in sf. It doesn’t tend to occur so poignantly the second time round. (more)

Immersing ourselves in images of things large in space, time, and social distance puts us into a “transcendant” far mode where positive feelings are strong, our basic ideals are more visible than practical constraints, and where analysis takes a back seat to metaphor. Many “hard science” folks who won’t allow themselves ordinary religious feelings do allow themselves these transcendant feelings. Which seems ok, but for the risk that it might overly infect their practical beliefs.

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  • Vince Mulhollon

    BDO is wrong terminology. The correct terminology is BCO Big Cool Object. My favorite three BCOs at this moment off the top of my head:
    1) Collins R-392 vacuum tube Korean War vintage radio reciever, a cubic foot of electromechanical linkages that make a norden bombsight look as simple as a kids toy.
    2) There exists a new integrated circuit that is an entire 3.5 GHz multiwatt amplifier that requires little more than solder on the connectors. For those in the biz for a couple decades, this is simply amazing.
    3) Ringworld full of superconductor powered dew collectors and spaceships.

    One took a war killing millions on the other side of the planet before I could buy it from NSA surplus, one took 70 years of semiconductor R+D and trillions of $ invested, and one just took a dude, his brain, and his typewriter. I “feel the best” about the author.

    Nobody gets excited about a “dumb” object as a character, like a rock. Now a “cool” object, like a moon base or an alien space station, that is worth reading.

  • Michael Vassar

    Robin, why do you only worry about contamination of the near by the far, not that of the far by the near? (I guess that’s what the Judaic and Islamic ban on iconography is) The idea that far-mode just evolved for PR in the recent past makes no sense. Yes it’s used for PR, but it’s construction must have drawn on selective pressures that go back long before that function. We don’t lots of large complex adaptations from the neolithic or paleolithic, just continuity with other organisms, unless far and near modes simply emerged from language without the need for further shaping by evolution, which seems plausible but still not conducive to the ‘just a PR agent’ theory.

    • Yes far mode is an ancient capacity, yes it is not only for PR, and yes I also worry about near mode biases. But I do worry more about far mode biases, in part because we do use far mode more for PR.

  • AC

    “Many “hard science” folks who won’t allow themselves ordinary religious feelings do allow themselves these transcendant feelings. Which seems ok, but for the risk that it might overly infect their practical beliefs.”

    …such as their attitudes towards religions. By placing these religious feelings in the mental category “science fiction” they allow themselves to strongly distinguish themselves and consider the religious an outgroup, even though they have the same emotions and attendant bias.

  • Experiencing the transcendent far-mode feelings is important. It’s risky – that’s why I don’t trust the atheism of anyone who hasn’t used psychedelic drugs – but if you can get through it with your rational self intact (tied to the mast, if necessary) then you get all the benefits – e.g., being better able to model regular religious human brains.

    • “I don’t trust the atheism”
      What do you mean by that?

      • She means the person’s atheism is likely to be based on non-rational reasons, e.g. they were raised by atheist parents and never really questioned it, or simply had a bad experience with religion. Such a person is more likely to slip into hand-wavy spiritualism when exposed to transcendent far-mode feelings than someone who’s already heard the sirens and held fast.

      • In my own case, I was raised in a rather bog-standard mainline protestant family. I had no bad experiences with religion. I just started reading about evolution, cognitive biases, bayesian probability etc and eventually admitted to myself I didn’t assign a high probability to the existence of God. But I’m just one person.

  • Ari T

    “The main problem is the sense of wonder, that feeling you get when confronted by the truly awe-inspiring in sf. It doesn’t tend to occur so poignantly the second time round. ”
    Magic tricks tend not to work after you know how they work.

    I don’t like religion other than tradition and maybe as an activity that serves some evolutionary function, and tend to have rather naturalist world-view, yet I don’t see any double-thinking enjoying very unplausible or impossible fiction stories, although I don’t like much hard sci-fi. I like science-fiction with (big) mysterious objects. In fact more the mysterious, the better. As long as it is done well.

    “Which seems ok, but for the risk that it might overly infect their practical beliefs.”
    Well one has to be careful when eating delicious Sachertorte too. Sure, you could become sugar hungry and get diabetes but they’re still delicious. Those to-be rock stars should have never taken LSD, or they’d have started doing too weird music. Yes there’re real dangers to drugs and all kinds of radical thinking, but that long tail of margin is an important place of innovation. And one cannot forget knowledge problem either.

    Immediate parallel would be of course signalling and love à la Hanson. While it may or may not serve an evolutionary function and be in some sense wasteful signalling, one has to be careful when saying love is all smoke and mirrors, and we ought to be done with it.

    In fact, when it comes to fiction and music, I tend to prefer art that is in far-mode. Naturally there’s lots of near-mode fiction too, but it serves a different purpose. One utility of far-mode fiction is really to make real world more tolerable, or at least much more enjoyable. Maybe it increases noise or tendency to unconventional beliefs in person’s ability to do rational thinking in real-life, which seems very plausible. I wouldn’t be surprised if people who read science-fiction, held more unconventional views ceteris paribus.

    When I look up to stars in dark forest I get the same feeling as reading good far-mode fiction or listening to say.. Vangelis to pick a random artist! Likewise I like to improvise music that uses far-mode scales rather than complex rhythm patterns or accompaniment. I’m not saying feeling proves anything though, in fact it is probably quite the contrary.

    p.s. Funny, I bought a hard sci-fi book yesterday for my acquintance who is a theoretical physicist. [Insert fifteen signalling remarks here]

  • mjgeddes

    Productivity hacks (economic innovation) is near, science fiction (narrative) is indeed far. Look at the three-layers of the ‘Transhumanist network’.

    Sci-Fi: FAR (narrative)
    Hacking: NEAR (productivity)
    Wetware: VERY NEAR (cognitive enhancement)

    The base layer (wetware) constitutes ways to enhance human brain function. Next layer up is the hacking layer. And the third and final layer is the narrative (sci-fi) layer. It should be clear that far-mode trumps all, because its the top layer of the network (most abstract layer).

    The corresponding optimal reasoning methods for each layer are as follows:

    Sci-Fi layer: Categorization/Analogy (FAR)
    Hacking layer: Decision Theory/Probability (NEAR)
    Wetware layer: Heuristics/Deduction (VERY NEAR)

    Current AGI researchers have progressed to the hacking layer, but they have yet to breach the fire-walls protecting the secrets of the sci-fi layer 😉
    Remember, far-mode trumps all….

  • bellisaurius

    I get the criticism, but I do wonder if the bigger issue is that the writer’s perspectives on what is florid, over the top, and gaudy have changed since he became older, and he feels his old tastes are unrefined. I read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage around my birthday every year to monitor just that sort of thing (a little kooky, but it’s interesting to see how one’s thinking moves around).