Monday, December 23, 2002

Confessions of a Science Fiction Chauvinist

Another one of my vintage Locus Online columns, this one published on 23 December 2002 - the day after I saw The Two Towers... (with a 2007 note and YouTube video of my commentary on The History Channel's Evolution of Science Fiction, 28 September 2002, added at the conclusion of this column) ...

Confessions of a Science Fiction Chauvinist, as Occasioned by Seeing The Two Towers

by Paul Levinson


1. Labels and categories are important in popular culture. What works for food in restaurants works for food for thought: if you find only sushi in an Italian restaurant, or just steak in a seafood place, you are right to be annoyed. The labels "science fiction" and "fantasy" would seem to work the same way — if you find only magic in science fiction, aren't you entitled to be aggravated? I always thought so. But I'm beginning to think otherwise.

2. I have read hundreds of science fiction novels, and many more science fiction stories, since the 1950s. I have read perhaps a handful of fantasy novels, and a few dozen fantasy stories. The Lord of the Rings was not among them. The few works I enjoyed — such as John Crowley's Aegypt novels — were due not to the story, but the sheer verve of the writing.

3. What I most value in science fiction is its exploration of the human impact of scientifically plausible but not yet accomplished developments, or discovery of similarly plausible truths about the real, natural universe. Yes, I know there is much in time travel that is paradoxical — that's actually why it's so much fun — and faster-than-light travel violates Einstein's proscriptions. Yet the very fact that we can talk about the relevance of Einstein's theories to science fiction seemed to make it different from fiction that relies on spells and elves.

4. My lack of interest in elves led me to forgo not only most fantasy novels, but even the lesser investment of time required for fantasy movies. I did not see The Fellowship of the Ring in any theater. I hadn't thought about renting the videotape, one way or the other, but on a rainy Thursday evening last August, with nothing else on Blockbuster's shelves of even the remotest of interest, I brought home a copy. The first part of the movie — which took place in the Shire — was barely enough to hold my attention. I think the physical resemblance between Gandalf and Jean-Luc Picard kept me interested more than anything else... But by the end of the movie, I felt very differently. I've now seen The Fellowship of the Ring, in one mode or another, perhaps a dozen times. And I just saw The Two Towers. I think they are masterpieces of movie-making, fantasy, and, as I will explain below, perhaps even of science fiction. (And, seen in the context of the unfolding story, The Shire section is now most enjoyable, too.)

5. If Hobbits were hominids, the Dwarves some kind of Neanderthals, and the Elves an early version of humanity for which we have no fossils at hand, would the story be any different? Would it be if Orcs and Uruk-hai were genetically engineered? (We are already told that the Uruk-hai were "bred" — or, in Darwin's apt term, artificially selected.) Does it make a difference whether spells or lasers cause avalanches? What if the "spell" were really the working of a tiny, powerful, ancient technology, which — like lots of work done in the Far East in perishable bamboo, in prehistoric times — did not survive the ages? For that matter, couldn't the ring itself be an extraordinary technology which, among its many powers, includes cloaking? Is the ring as a bestower of invisibility any less scientifically plausible than the formula of H.G. Wells's Invisible Man? If magic and highly unlikely science can play similar roles in stories, Wells may have more in common with Tolkien than Verne.

6. The Lord of the Rings also has much in common with another kind of science fiction, epitomized in the Foundation and Dune series. The three sagas offer exquisite examinations of power, fine siftings of morality across characters, keen reckonings of small detail in grand events — whether the driving force is spice, spell, or psychohistory. When contests are of cosmic significance, and we're interested in the human response, the specific technological basis of the events — whether magic or science — may not be very important.

7. If the invocation of magic still rankles — and I admit that it still does — here is another consolation. As Greg Bear and I noted on a recent History Channel documentary*[see YouTube videoclip at the conclusion of this column], the hot sciences in science fiction have become biology and anthropology, replacing physics and even the information science (cyberpunk) of previous years. And whatever else LotR may or may not be, it is indubitably a work of biological and anthropological fiction. Saruman's flocks of spying birds are feats of biology in the sky, whether the birds are bred, gene-spliced, commanded, or all of the above. The same is true of the Ents, though the intelligence and mobility of trees is far less plausible. But in both cases, living organisms are the vehicles of the story — birds not planes, trees not automated catapults. Lord of the Rings was an epic of biological imagining, decades before most science fiction caught up. Here, again, we see a kinship between Wells (The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Tolkien, and, a bit later, Herbert. All three were Darwin's children, in a way that Verne and Heinlein, and even Asimov, were not.

8. None of this diminishes in the slightest the joy of coming upon an idea so strikingly scientifically plausible that I am amazed it is not already an actual fact. That is indeed the unique province of science fiction, shared by Verne, Wells, and Asimov, but not Tolkien. But I do see as far less valid the famous observation of Greg Benford that fantasy is science fiction played with the net down. That is certainly not the case when the fantasy is biological and anthropological extrapolation, and the net is woven of gene-spliced realities and an archaeology which discloses hominids and what-not living on this Earth for at least a million years. And, when the universe or the world-as-universe is the object of the game, and morality and power the fields of play, it may not matter if there is a net at all.

9. I have not yet read the book. My daughter has a copy, and is devouring it. I have held it in my hand, read the prefaces and some of the appendices. I am drawn to read it... But I am determined to wait until I have seen the third movie, because I saw the first two without having read the book, and I'd like to be able to appreciate Peter Jackson's complete accomplishment from the same narrative seat in the audience, beyond the proscenium arch of knowing the end of the story... I know this is right. I even talk about it in my classes, as a professor of media theory... But, oh, the book beckons... [Note added in 2007: But, indeed, I got side-tracked and never did get beyond the opening chapters of the book.... I did read all of Harry Potter, however ...]

*Here's an excerpt of my commentary on The Evolution of Science Fiction, first aired on The History Channel, September 28, 2002, and rebroadcast many times since...