Jul 14 2011

About that time machine…

Published by at 11:34 pm under Physics,Writing

Speaking of time machines (see my earlier post), news from the ArXiv today is that physicists have created a “hole in time”, the temporal equivalent of an invisibility cloak. Only 110 nanoseconds so far … but consider the possibilities!

Tangentially, writer Alex J. Kane, in a blog post titled “On the Use of Tropes in Science Fiction” today considers possibilities for science fiction, and quotes my buddy Brad Torgersen: “There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all about how you use the various stock elements that makes the story.” I’d absolutely agree with Brad’s second sentence there, but I might quibble about the first. Is the above “time cloak” new to science fiction? Not exactly, if you consider stasis boxes, bobbles, or some of the ways time travel has been used in stories. But I’m willing to bet that nobody came up with something quite like what the physicists did. All kinds of interesting story ideas there.

Kane goes on to say:

Writers like Orson Scott Card have even gone so far as to reduce the genre, in a way, by saying that it’s merely “a subset of fantasy.” True, but when I heard those words […], I couldn’t help but feel a sense of betrayal.

Wasn’t science fiction the genre that had made Card’s career, after all? Without having written Ender’s Game, would I even know who he was?

But for the sake of argument, let’s take Card’s elaboration into account. He argues that science fiction is a sort of literary dead end because there just aren’t enough new scientific discoveries — or moreover, any new ideas — out there to justify writing sf anymore. From a storyteller’s perspective, he says, it makes more sense to just resort to a magical fantasy setting. Why bother with the facade of making things like FTL travel, etc., seem plausible in a universe where we know such key tropes to be utterly impossible?

I call bullshit.

So do I.

Card (and others) miss a key point when they call science fiction a subset of fantasy. True enough, much of what gets passed off as SF (or perhaps rather, sci-fi) is just fantasy with spaceships, computers and aliens instead of horses, magic and trolls — Card’s own Ender’s Game stories could be considered in that light (although perhaps not the original short story which started it all). But the hard core of SF — and I heard Connie Willis making just this point a couple of weeks ago — is as a literature of ideas. Yes, we as readers (and, we hope, as writers) these days we expect more than just the idea; the Hugo Gernsback days when cardboard characters and cliche settings were fine so long as the idea was new are long gone, we expect rounded characters and well thought out settings as well as ideas. Indeed, the ideas don’t even have to be new if you do everything else well enough, but if you do come up with one, or put a new twist on one, you’ve got a potential award-winner if everything else holds up. (Larry Niven in his short-story heyday had this finely honed; several of his award-winning stories were near category-killers. Just try writing a crosstime-travel story these days without considering the implications he raises in “All the Myriad Ways” — which have real echoes in quantum theory.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with a good rollicking space, time travel, or zombie apocalypse (to pick three not-quite-random examples from this year’s Hugo nominees) story either.

And I’ll agree with Kane’s closing quote: “To quote George Carlin: ‘The future ain’t what it used to be.'” Ain’t that the truth!

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One Response to “About that time machine…”

  1. […] & Fact, recently picked up where I left off on the discussion of the sf genre’s future on his blog. He points to a recent scientific breakthrough in which researchers successfully created a […]