This may Look like Science Fiction, But...

How to Cite

Bonner, F. (1999). This may Look like Science Fiction, But. M/C Journal, 2(1).
Vol. 2 No. 1 (1999): Fiction
Published 1999-02-01

The borderline between fiction and non-fiction is, like much that is liminal, deeply attractive to observers, and among the consequences of this is a proliferation of names; 'faction', 'fictocriticism' and the shifting pairing of docudrama/dramadoc operate to indicate the blending of different types of fictional and non-fictional material. All of these produce that feeling of unease proper to liminal states. In his recent study, Derek Paget notes how it is the seriousness of the truth claims of that version of non-fiction called documentary that makes its mixing with drama so fraught with potential for controversy. In Queensland we might recall some of the arguments over the screening of Joh's Jury, but Paget underpins his analysis of material like the 1992 HBO/Granada production Hostages with reference to the four year sentence imposed in 1997 on German documentary maker Michael Born for faking material for his documentaries (1). Here not making clear the hybridity of the material was not just an impropriety, but a crime.

Yet the liminal material that most fascinates me hides its hybrid nature behind a shifting collection of different terms, ones like 'projection', 'forecast', 'extrapolation' or even (on bad days) 'mission statement'. This particular body of writing is accessible non-fiction about the future. As one who has used science fiction as my basic tool for thinking about the future since I was a child, the question 'how do you write non-fictionally about something that has not yet happened?' fascinates me. That it does not seem to bother other people all that much is what seems strange. How is it that non-fiction about the future differs from science fiction about the future (and for those unfamiliar with or disdainful about the genre, sf can be set in the present, the past or the future)? Certainly one can see distinctions at the extremes; the arrival of tentacled telepathic aliens travelling faster than light characterises sf rather than science, but as another space probe sets off for the Red Planet and visionary future missions are planned, how smug can we be about the difference between the projections of what will be found and the calm descriptive passages of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars? Indeed the example of the Mars probe was prompted by my current piece of sf reading -- Paul McCauley's Fairyland -- where the 21st century inhabitants of a nanotech-enhanced Europe pursue their affairs against the background of the arrival of television pictures of the first landing of humans on Mars.

Sf really loves to vaunt its relationship to science. Devotees of sf, fans and aware readers alike, can reel off a collection of instances when sf seemed to have predicted future scientific or technological developments. The core one here is Arthur C. Clarke's statement of the principles of communication satellites over a decade before the launch of Telstar. (It is quite possible that those people under the age of 50 who know what Telstar is -- the 'r' is now a very important distinguishing feature -- only do so because of its function in this prime example.) Most of the other examples are at heart ones of naming rather than scientific principles -- waldos are now more or less what Robert Heinlein called them in the novella Waldo, and cyberspace is the word used to name something not very much like the inhabitable virtual space in William Gibson's Neuromancer, though many pretend otherwise. There are more, but they are vastly outnumbered by the instances of irrelevance or worse, failed prediction. Most readers have favourite moments when people in the control room of a space ship reach for a slide rule or feed in punch cards, but sf, especially genre sf (i.e. not literary fiction or utopian allegory set in the future), is in the business of entertainment not prediction. Science fiction needs science to give it generic clout, or as Darko Suvin demands, to provide the cognitive support for its imaginative operations (13).

Sf writers, even those given to fantastic elements, like to provide acknowledgement pages where they thank the scientists who aren't to blame for any mistakes but helped a lot. Anne McCaffrey is much given to thanking Jack Cohen, but then so are a lot of other people -- Cohen is a biologist, great fan of the genre and a major deliverer of lectures on scientific topics at sf fan conventions. Writers like David Brin actually are scientists with serious credentials. People heavily involved in sf can trot out reams of these instances as well as mentioning how writers without scientific training can still stay within credible parameters when designing new worlds by feeding the data of their desired planet into a computer program which will give them its physical properties and save them from being bombarded with reader's letters pointing out their mistakes.

But all of this wonderful fertile mix of science and fiction comes to an abrupt halt when the field of play is science itself in its public guise. Here science is real, science is earnest and sf is a serious problem -- it gives people bad ideas and worse it is popular, especially with the young. While sf is constantly trying to make claims for its own scientificity, trying to show that science and the fiction that has taken its name are absolutely made for each other, entwined together for ever and ever amen, science keeps disentangling the fictional tendrils, pushing off the importunate lover, and trying to deny it was ever tempted to get involved. Sf has so much to gain from the relationship -- status and difference from its fictional like; science has so much to lose. But there is something for science to gain -- and if it's not as even-handed as Fred Astaire giving Ginger Rogers class while she gave him sex appeal, that is a pretty accurate description of the trade (and yes, to continue the analogy, sf does have to do it backwards and in high heels). Sf is the blonde or the beefcake that pulls in the punters for the serious business of the factual, but having called people in, it must be disowned.

If you haven't heard my title, you haven't been watching televised technology programmes like Australia's great export success (forget about Neighbours, I mean Beyond 2000, already operating to overcome the lack of prescience about how long the title would work) and you've been missing some news and current affairs too. It seems particularly common in non-fiction segments on robotics. A small mechanical device shambles towards the camera as a voice-over intones "This may look like science fiction, but it is actually a scene from a laboratory in downtown Tokyo" (or it might be from the Media Labs at MIT -- the difference being in the visible pizza boxes). The viewer has been hailed with something familiar and attractive, which has then been disavowed to allow the truth to shine through.

Why does the catch phrase occur? Why invoke science fiction only to deny it? A piece of writing about the future cast in the non-fictional mode calls on science fiction for one of several reasons: it may want to attract readers; it may need an accompanying graphic; or it may want to talk about a wonderful new gizmo of some kind and feel the need to attach the unknown to something (however bizarrely) known. Sf is the solution to all these problems since it is arresting or popular (more fun that dusty old science might be feared to be -- I must say I don't have this view of science, but it underwrites the establishment of organisations for the Public Understanding of Science and other pieces of science PR) and it produces pictures purporting to be of the future that have more appeal than the other bodies of futurological graphics. If you don't use stills from sf films or TV (and these are certainly preferable in terms of respectability to the kind of material used for the covers of sf novels or comics), what you are left with are graphs or architects' drawings and these can only do so much. I don't really know all that many people who share my fondness for the Southern Oscillation Index graph on the weather forecast, after all.

I recently came across a different use of sf in something of a scientific context. It was not disavowed quite, and I did not even find it accurate, but it points to the symbiotic elements of the couple which is not a couple. It was a review of Richard Ellis's The Search for the Giant Squid (Guardian Weekly 10 Jan. 99). Much of the material referred to in the book was fictional, but the squid and the core of the book was scientific. Michael Dirda, the reviewer, starts a paragraph in the middle of the review by saying:

"When he wants to, Ellis can make his science almost science fictional: 'It is now assumed that the sperm whale captures its prey by emitting sound beams of such intensity that they can stun or even kill the prey.'"

Now that doesn't sound science fictional to me -- it sounds pretty much pure David Attenborough. And neither Dirda nor Ellis appear to disavow the sf evoked. It is as if there was a convention by which a scientifically-inflected piece of journalism had to gesture to sf come what may, but only had to deny it if it involved the future where the risk of the truth claims of the scientific being compromised by the sf is presumably greater.

The basic requirement in being seen to speak truthfully about the future is to reduce apparent fictionality. The best way to do this is to call on the most powerful available truth-speaking discourse, that is to speak scientifically or even more these days, economically. Science can talk very seriously indeed about the future (though it is being tempted into dangerous waters by computer technology working with terms like nanobots and foglets), but as for economics... Well, it has a whole practice which it calls futures, which is entirely speculative, but which can result in the most hallowed production of the 'real' to be encountered -- actual money.

To a surprising, or perhaps that should be suspicious, extent, science disguises the fact that it speaks of the future. It engages in inventions which will become usable, discovers things which will change how current practices will be conducted, projects variations in demand; all these wonderful things which only reveal in the tense of the associated verb that their time of actuality is not quite yet. The area that is most overt about its practice of non-fictional future speaking is actually called futurology. Futurology is centred far more in the social sciences and this makes it comparatively weak from the outset. It may be that its honesty about what it engages in reduces its social power. Announcing oneself a futurologist may work as a chat-up line (though the social occasion at which it did so might give one pause) but it doesn't convert into truth-speaking power -- much better to claim to specialise in futures. Yet, when futurology calls on sf, at least it is not necessary for it to engage in the same processes of disavowal or even denial.

Academics get used to being disappointed by articles that sound as if they would be really promising for a current or projected piece of work, but one of my greatest disappointments was with a brief piece by Jim Dator with the great title "What Do 'You' Do When Your Robot Bows, as Your Clone Enters Holographic MTV?". Dator is currently head of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii and chair of the World Future Studies Federation. He is thus someone who constantly works with the problem at the core of my concern. As I recall, when I went in search of the Dator article, I had expectations of an etiquette guide for the multiply present, but what I got was more a piece noting how wow! humans may not (continue to) be the peak of evolution for that much longer. Well, Charles Darwin died for that thought long ago anyway and why would Alan Turing have bothered with his Test if he hadn't suspected something similar. Although it's quite an old article at the speed Dator publishes, its calling on an sf scenario, however low-key, to draw attention to non-fictional writing is characteristic of the practice shared with science. I may have been saddened by its failure to even try to deliver on the promise of its title, but at least futurology does not see the necessity of disavowal.

In all the reading I've done over the years in both areas there has only been one occasion when I've encountered any disclaimer in a science fictional work which has any parallel to the insistent disclaimers of science fictionality in science writing. It is not of course a disclaimer of scientificity. Instead it is an emphatic assertion of fictionality. What, you ask could possibly require this in a piece of science fiction? Ah, what but autobiography and within that the suspicion of sexual confession. Nicola Griffith puts a post-note to her most recent novel Slow River (both an ecological and a psycho-sexual thriller). It reads:

"There is a disturbing tendency among readers -- particularly critics -- to assume that any woman who writes about abuse, no matter how peripherally, must be speaking from her own experience. This is, in Joanna Russ's terms, a denial of the writer's imagination. Should anyone be tempted to assume otherwise, let me be explicit: Slow River is fiction not autobiography. I made it up."

So there you have a hierarchy of threats to status, perhaps: science, science fiction and (women's) autobiography. Observe however that I have not put the economic on the list.

Author Biography

Frances Bonner