“SF: The Nature of the Medium”

Rather than write a really long review of Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature, I’m going to do a post on each essay.

The Lovecraft series will continue in the days I don’t have something new to put up.

Review: “SF: The Nature of the Medium“, Brian Stableford, 1974.Opening Minds

Using the media theories of Marshal McLuhan, Stableford argues that science fiction cannot function like mainstream, realistic fiction and shouldn’t try to.

There is a progression of media for human thought: speech, writing, print, literature, science fiction.

Each member of that progression incorporates its successor. However, it does not retain all the advantages of that successor. The tradeoff is each medium adds something.

In the case of literature, patterns and not “unitary blocks” are transmitted. Cultural information is communicated and not mere “simple classification” (presumably by that he means non-fiction work). The increasing specialization of cultural data brought about literary techniques to best convey the desired patterns.

Non-fantastic literature has developed sophisticated means of presenting that information and making it more dense. It can assume a context known by the reader.

Science fiction must, by its nature, be less dense because it is presenting worlds not known from the reader’s own world or the past.

All literature attempts to convey sensory experience to the reader. (Though, I would add a writer like Isaac Asimov veers far over into the intellectual and non-sensory part of this continuum.) However, mainstream literature is concerned more with the “spatial dimension” along which we perceive the world. Science fiction is much more concerned (though not, of course, exclusively) with the temporal dimension.

Here Stableford touches on the utility of science fiction as a tool in the training of perception. It’s an argument much like James Gunn’s advocacy of science fiction as a tool to prevent future shock.

How a reader uses the information of a mainstream literary work and a work of science fiction varies. To read science fiction is not to seek the same experiences to be had from realistic fiction. (Yes, I am aware, though Stableford doesn’t mention it, of Gary K. Wolfe’s argument that historical fiction can provide similar experiences. I think there’s merit to it, but I personally have trouble reading historical fiction.)

Stableford’s argument is a utilitarian one that assumes we gain some sort of intellectual preparation for the future by reading science fiction. There’s truth to that argument, but it’s not all inclusive. Science fiction written and read for political purposes is a related use though you could argue that the reader and writer are entering into a discussion about a political order to build or avoid in the future.

This argument ignores the question of entertainment and escapism. Realistic fiction and science fiction obviously can function as both. Even there, though, the way they do is different, and the requirement to convey information about a different world than any that exist or have existed shapes the writer’s approach.

Stableford ends his argument, though, with science fiction as vaccination against future shock and surprise:

We all stand immediately to be affected by the decisions and actions of other men. In a global village, there is no place to hide.

We can no longer take the future for granted.

Writing in the pre-Star Wars era, Stableford acknowledges even then that science fiction had “‘overflowed’ its literary medium” to encompass movies, tv, and comics. More than forty years later, we’d have to throw role-playing and video games into that list.

I buy Stableford’s argument that science fiction is a creature apart from realistic fiction in the same way that a written story stands apart from an oral one. Both may feature similar techniques and have to pay attention to similar things, but there are enough differences to be important. (Of course, the modern appeal of audiobooks has muddied McLuhan’s neat progression of media.)

Stableford’s argument is of a similar piece to science fiction author and critic George Turner’s “Science Fiction as Literature” (1977). He argued that the stage of a science fiction work is often the main character and not a person on the stage. Both observations seem right to me.

Stableford also notes that literary experimentation is to be welcomed into science fiction but that the differences between it and realistic fiction will mean not every new technique imported into science fiction from mainstream literature will work.

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