Changing How the World Thinks

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In Praise of Sci-Fi

Why science-fiction is perfectly equipped to explore our (post)modern predicament.

SciFi Adam Roberts 1

Professor of Literature at Royal Holloway University, science fiction writer and critic, Adam Roberts is the author of numerous award-winning books, including Anticopernicus and New Model Army.

Interviewed here by Vassili Christodoulou, Roberts speaks about the role of anarchist science in science fiction, how 1950s youth culture became today's mainstream culture and why Ballard shouldn't be remembered as a dystopian writer.

 

Twenty Trillion Leagues is your second novel using Verne as a heuristic. Verne famously disagreed with Welles as to the liberties an author of scientific romance should take with technological plausibility and invention. How important is it to you to be true to Verne’s mandate for speculative fiction? Is it something you actively consider when drawing on his oeuvre, and if not, how does his work impact your own?

You’re right that Verne is sometimes taken as representing a ‘hard SF’ or scientific literature approach to genre, where Wells is a broader-brush fantasist. It comes from Verne reacting to Wells’s First Men in the Moon, where the heroes are transported lunarward by an anti-gravity metal called ‘Cavourite’. Not science, said Verne. When I send characters to the moon, he said, it is in a vessel fired out of a giant gun. This is the actual quotation:

I do not see the possibility of comparison between his [H. G. Wells] work and mine. We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on a very scientific basis. ... I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does not obey the law of gravitation. Ça c'est très joli—but show me this metal. Let him produce it.

But what’s interesting here is that, actually, it says the direct opposite to what Verne thinks it does. It’s true that Cavourite doesn’t exist; but as a piece of intellectual speculation it is at least a possibility. But the science of ballistics was well understood when Verne was writing; and he must have known that putting human beings inside a gigantic artillery shell and firing them from a gun would kill the passengers instantly. So Verne says: Wells deals in the impossible, where I am the poet of possibility. But the opposite is actually the case!

Something like this is true of the fault line that runs through contemporary SF, I think. Proponents of ‘Hard SF’ claim that they stay ‘true’ to the science; but not only is this not true in terms of the specifics – faster-than-light travel, say, is very often an element in ‘Hard SF’ – it is not true on the larger formal level. The whole point about SF, the thing that draws me most strongly to it, is that it is not mimetic. Its relationship to the actual world is not that of realism; it is not documentary. Its relationship is ironic, in the fullest sense. Wells knew this.

That said, I still love Verne – as you say, I keep coming back to him in my own writing. Verne’s is a superbly kinetic art: everything and everyone is in motion, “mobile in the mobile element”, as Captain Nemo boasts. Wells’s is a much more sedentary, grounded and provincially-located art. The aliens come to him, in Woking, falling out of the sky. His time traveller moves hundreds of millennia in time, but only a matter of yards in space. There’s something in this that attracts me, personally, for I’m really a stay-at-home guy, disinclined to travel. But SF as a mode has – obviously, I think – gone down the Vernean path. It’s been about boldly going.

On a similar note, you once suggested that science fiction might be a space in which Paul Feyerbend’s anarchist science can actually be taken seriously. Without wishing to spoil the third act, Trillion Leagues depends on some very precisely abstracted and demanding scientific conceits: is this your Feyerbendian laboratory? What place does the philosophy of science play within your science fiction?

Philosophy of science’ is hard to define. Instrumentally it’s just falsifiability. That in turn leads to a necessary kind of intellectual calcification, because in order for something to be ‘flasifiable’ it must be set up in a certain way, with particular limits and rules, a particular sample size and so on. I’m not knocking it: falsfifiability is an immensely powerful tool. But it is also has to be served up in a form of imaginative strait-jacket, in order to render the process equable and comparable and so on.

This, I think, is where Feyerbend really scores, however much contumely he draws from the scientific community. The box is the necessary structure for science – whether the actual box that measures temperatures around the world or records flight data, or the conceptual box in which Schrodinger cached his cat. But it's healthy for scientists to think outside the box too.

Nor was Feyerbend ‘anti’-science: the outside-the-box thinking has to be brought back into the box eventually, or else it’s just spit-balling of whatever variety. The examples he gives, the way environmental concerns and theorising of global warning began outside orthodox science by mavericks, depends for the full story upon them being brought into the discourse of science at some point along the line.

Environmental scientists have to propose theories that other scientists can try to falsify. My only point is that SF provides an excellent forum for doing this outside-boxing.

The end of Twenty Trillion Leagues is a special case: it’s not really ‘science’ in the larger sense, it’s topology and geometry. To be specific, the novel is an index of the gosh-wow impact of reading up about infinite geometry upon my mind. Most of us talk in a blithe way about the universe being spatially ‘infinite’ without really thinking through what that means.

But infinite topographies are strange things. Two infinite shapes can be simultaneously separate from one another – each on the ‘outside’ of the other, as it were – and yet each can be inside the other as well. An infinite object in a finite frame. It’s all most odd. Now, maybe the cosmos isn’t spatially infinite, maybe it’s just really big. But if it is infinite, and especially if it amounts to an infinite object in a finite frame (as in Chris Priest’s The Inverted World, – one of the direct influences on Twenty Trillion) then that fact has a number of really counter-intuitive consequences.

With New Model Army, By Light Alone and Jack Glass, political revolution – or at least, a society on the precipice of revolution – has become a core theme for you in recent years. Trillion Leagues continues the trend, if one is inclined to read the struggles for power on a French military submarine analogously. SF has a very robust tradition of revolutionary narratives of course, but what is the appeal of revolutionary plots to you? Why is the theme so central to your recent work?

I suppose because I happen to have been born into the age of multiple and on-going revolution. I don’t just mean political revolution, although that is part of it. I suspect that the great epoch of ‘political revolution’, which began in 1776 with America and 1789 with France, and which dominated the 19th and the 20th centuries, is coming to an end: that things like the Arab Spring are at the end of something.

That’s a rather double-edged thought, because although revolutions have a poor history, in terms of collateral human damage and failed promise, the underlying problems they arose to address in terms of poverty and oppression don’t seem to me to have gone away. But at the same time as a new logic of political upheaval (really: it’s hard to overstate how radical a break the last 200 years have been with the millennia of mostly political stasis that preceded it) there have been revolutions in technology and in social mores that have been, I’d say, more profound and will prove, I think, longer lasting.

I’d point to three. One, a revolution of science and technology; first material technologies and then computing and social media technologies. I grew up during the bow-wave of the second of those. They have completely reconfigured human life, almost everywhere on the globe.

Two, a revolution in social diversity, the thing that’s sometimes thumbnailed as ‘globalisation’. This is a genuinely big deal, I think. Humans have gone from spending their whole lives in one small geographical ambit with a small group of fellow villagers all of the same ethnos and religion (encountering cultural and racial otherness, if at all, only when male and young and in the army) to living in a global village and rubbing shoulders with people of all sorts of different races and creeds and cultures.

This, I’d say, is a very good thing (diversity is strength) but the suddenness with which it has happened is something the historians of the year 20,000 will look back on and peg as the great revolution of the age, bigger by far than the Industrial Revolution. We’re still in the very early stages of learning how to handle it, how to live with one another; and one of the great themes of late 20th and early 21st century fiction is precisely this – postcoloniality most prominently, the whole Brick Lane or Zadie Smith mode of novel-writing.

This is good (novels can help us apprehend this change, to get used to it and learn how to live with it) and we can trace it, for instance, in the way the Man Booker Prize in the 1980s (I mean, Rushdie and post-Rushdie) traced the shift away from ‘English’ small scale domestic fiction to postcolonial fiction. Now the shortlists routinely include examples of postcolonial writing (quite rightly: in fact I'm not sure I can think of a list since that '80s that hasn't), and the judges can rarely be faulted on their international spread.

Now, speaking for myself I tend to think that art represents this ‘difference’ better via metaphor than via realism. Reading a novel about growing up a young girl in Zimbabwe is fine; but the alien, the monster, the symbolic other speak more eloquently to our actual experience of being-in-the-world. This though, I can see, comes close to special pleading on my part, because I love SF so much. But regarding, let's say, racial diversity in the States, Star Trek had a bigger and more lasting impact there than James Baldwin. Still, I don’t want to get on a hobby horse.

The third big change, I think, is childhood. Not childhood as a biological category, which of course has always been with us; but childhood as a new cultural idiom. By this I mean more than that the concept of the ‘teenager’ was invented in the 1950s; I mean the way that concept has mushroomed into this defining feature of a vast amount of cultural production. It's not just that there is now this new thing, a transition period from being 10-or-so to being ‘grown up’; and it's not just the way that this transition has expanded so much that for many people nowadays it lasts literally decades (I’m 49 and I don’t really feel ‘grown up’). It's that this category now determines almost all contemporary cultural production.

This is our culture. I mean, ‘youth culture’ as a specific marketing category invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s – pop music, movies, TV, pulp fiction and comics, games – has become Culture. Pop music is clearly, it seems to me, one of the great art forms of the second half of the 20th century, and it’s all about youth. Cinema becomes big-hitting only when it channels youth – comic book adaptations, and so on.

At the risk of sounding circular, or worse, sounding pat, these three things all speak to relevance of SF. Science fiction is better than other genres – much better than the genre of ‘literary fiction’ I’d say – at articulating the impact of new technologies and new social logics: that’s often what it’s mainly about. And it is the symbolic externalisation of diversity (aliens, robots, zombies and vampires) strikes me as a more effective way of exploring diversity than documentary verisimilitude.

But above all, SF and Fantasy are young person’s literature. They’re often criticised for precisely this reason, as somehow juvenile or immature. But that’s a strength, not weakness. Many of the masterpieces of SF and Fantasy have been YA (JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Patrick Ness, not to mention Twilight and Hunger Games) and these are books getting at vital aspects of what it means to be alive today that no other writers are touching.

Finally, other SF writers increasingly regard the futurist aspects of SF as irrelevant and rely upon science-fictional forms acted out with present day technology. You don’t seem to be interested in this – if anything your fiction has come more and more deeply to employ and subvert historical SF tropes in recent years, and the dieselpunk aesthetic of Trillion Leagues is a case in point. So why do you not consider traditional SF redundant? What would your response be to the more recent inclinations of Gibson, Stephenson, Ballard?

That’s a lovely question! Really, “why do I not consider trad SF redundant?” gets to the heart of something very important about what I do as a writer. Because you’re right: I don’t. I relish all that stuff. I am, to use the idiom of SF fandom, a trufan.

I’m wary that my previous answer was long and sprawling, but I’m not sure how to answer this concisely. It has to do with the fact that I take SF’s relationship to reality to be ‘ironic’ rather than mimetic; and to do also with a Jamesonian point about pastiche, metatextuality and the web of allusion. I don’t know Gibson personally, but I’d suspect he started out as a trufan too, and may still be one (he wrote The Gernsback Continuum, after all).

Ballard is evidently one of the major writers of the 20th century; and though he’s remembered as a prophet of dystopian concrete and psychopathology, he’s really not. He never despaired at the ‘surreal’ – or, a better word would be ‘pataphysical’ – turn the world took in the 20th century. He found a strange, dislocating but also energising inspiration in it all. His greatest fear, he often said, was boredom and that’s one reason why he was so often drawn to writing SF, I think. In an 2008 interview he said:

Art is the principal way in which the human mind has tried to remake the world in a way that makes sense. The carefully edited, slow-motion, action replay of a rugby tackle, a car crash or a sex act has more significance than the original event. Thanks to virtual reality, we will soon be moving into a world where a heightened super-reality will consist entirely of action replays, and reality will therefore be all the more rich and meaningful.

That’s a kind of re-injection of aesthetic worth into the Jamesonian idea of ‘pastiche’: a sense that there is something valuable even in postmodern depthlessness. So, yes: the action-replay, in slow motion and with higher definition, of the earlier motion of culture (reworking Swift, Verne, Kipling and so on) can become a way of enriching the genre itself, I think.

 

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