Friday, November 2, 2012

Ursula K. Le Guin - On the Topic of Science Fiction

I wanted to share with you the introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. I wanted to share it because it is a perfect description of science fiction, fiction and writing in general. I've been trying to explain these idea to people for many years and never could. I'm so glad she managed to. It is as follows.

"Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.’ A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why people who do not read science fiction describe it as ‘escapist,’ but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because ‘it is so depressing.’
Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.
Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in this laboratory; let’ say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens . . . . In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.
The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger’s and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.
Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.
The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you ‘re like—what’s going on—what the weather is like now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent telling lies.
‘The truth against the world!’—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and tell about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and when they say they are done writing down this pack of lies they say, There! That’s the truth!
They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies. They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology, and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalizable region, the author’s mind. In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.
Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted in its artists?
But our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists.
I do not say that artists cannot be seers, inspired: that the awen cannot come upon them, and the god speak through them. Who would be an artist if they did not believe that happens? If they did not know it happens, because they have felt the god within them use their tongue, their hands? Maybe only once, once in their lives. But once is enough.
Nor would I say that the artist alone is so burdened and so privileged. The scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night, sleeping and awake, for inspiration. As Pythagoras knew, the god may speak in the forms of geometry as well as in the shapes of dreams; in the harmony of pure thought as well as in the harmony of sounds; in the number as well as in words.
But it is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only insofar as it has one single meaning, points to one fact that is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.
Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number—Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.
I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.
The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.
Oh, it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Sciences displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.
This book is not about the future. Yes, it begins by announcing that it’s sent in the ‘Ekumenical Year 1490-97,’ but surely you don’t believe that?
Yes, the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborate circumstantial lies.
In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re don with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.
The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.
The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words. Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound—a fact the linguistic positives take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.)
All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors drawn from certain great dominants [domains?] of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.
A metaphor for what?
If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination."
I am still in awe of this. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Giver - Lois Lowry

The Giver was one of my favorite books as a kid. I read it over and over again in fifth grade. It all started when it was assigned in class. We read it as a group and talked about themes like individuality, morality, etc. I don’t know what made me want to read it again, but I’m glad I did because it ages very well. Needless to say I missed a lot of things the first time around. This is the type of book every parent should read to their kids, and then keep reading as the kids get older.

Precision of Language as Thought Control
The protagonist in this story is a 12-year-old boy named Jonas. In Jonas’ community they always talk about the importance of precision of language. If you said, “I’m starving,” instead of, “I’m hungry,” you had to formally apologize. You should never say, “I’m afraid,” when what you really mean is, “I’m apprehensive.” They took this “precision of language” very seriously. It was in the community rules.

As a kid I thought the community was just uptight. I thought they were “grammar Nazis.” Now I understand what Lois Lowery was really getting at. The Giver’s precision of language is a form of thought control. The idea of thought control is represented very well in Orwell’s 1984. That book raised the question, “if you can’t think it can you feel it?” If there isn’t a word for joy can you really feel joy? Personally, I don’t believe you can. I think the underlying physiological basis for joy can be there, but if you can’t comprehend what’s happening I don’t believe you can truly feel it. In 1984, they solved this problem by simply removing the word (eg. ungood instead of bad, plusgood instead of great). In The Giver, they chastised anyone for saying a word that was too “strong.” For example, when Jonas said he loved his parents, his parents became uncomfortable, and told him that a more precise way to say that would be to say he enjoys them.

Dream Telling and Feeling Telling as Thought Control
Another one of the rules in Jonas’ community is Dream Telling and Feeling Telling. Every morning each member of the community has to tell their family about any dreams they had. The family then analyzes them together. Every supper everyone shares any feelings they had that day. Like before, the family then analyzes the feelings and helps each other overcome negative feelings. Everyone, from young children to adults, have to do this. In my opinion, there are two reasons for this rule. The first one is to catch any “stirrings.” Stirrings are feelings of emotion that happen in your sleep. For boys the obvious example is something like a wet dream. Once a child starts to have stirrings they then take a pill every day. That’s obviously to stop the stirrings. The second, and more important reason is another form of thought control. If you aren’t allowed to keep any thoughts or feelings private you cease to be an individual, and simply become another cog in the community. You also can’t ruminate on thoughts or feelings and have them build up and become stronger.

While there are many other aspects to The Giver, those are the two I wanted to talk about. They are also the two concepts that are not often communicated to children. I didn’t hear about Thought Control or Newspeak until freshman year of high school when we read 1984. The Giver is very like 1984 in that respect. These ideas are the reason I’m so glad I re read this amazing book. The concepts in it are simple enough for children, but also go much deeper. There is a lot of merit in reading books like this as a child and as an adult. Now that I’m older I can really understand and appreciate the things I barely touched as a child.