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Trends in when sf is set - Input Junkie
May 21st, 2012
01:49 pm

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Trends in when sf is set
An article which suggests that there's some interesting variation



This seems worth kicking around-- I don't think there's a lot of far future sf these days, though perhaps I'm just not finding it.

Does anyone know when the main plot (not the stuff about galaxies colliding or the modification of the human race) of the Lensmen books is set?

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From:wcg
Date:May 21st, 2012 07:38 pm (UTC)
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I don't think E. E. Smith ever specified the time period of the Galactic Patrol books, but we can make some guesses. The events in Triplanetary take place some time after the Third World War (roughly 100 years, with WWIII happening in the late 20th century) and set up the conditions for the birth of the first Lensman, Virgil Sams, a generation or so later. So by the time Kimball Kinnison comes on the scene it's somewhere around the middle of the 22nd century. That would put the entire Lensman series squarely in the purple part of the graph.
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From:whswhs
Date:May 21st, 2012 08:15 pm (UTC)
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I don't think that's established. It's not clear how long the recovery takes; from the way Virgil Samms and Roderick Kinnison talk about communism in First Lensman it might as easily be a thousand years in the past. And it's not clear, either, how many generations Kimball Kinnison is removed from Roderick and his son Jack, except that by that time the entirety of Tellus seems to be one political unit, and there's no hint of a United States of America.
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From:kgbooklog
Date:May 21st, 2012 07:39 pm (UTC)
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Any one know how to enlarge the second chart so it's readable? And how are they counting Star Wars, since that's about half of all science fiction published?
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From:nancylebov
Date:May 21st, 2012 07:50 pm (UTC)
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You can go to the article link and click on the chart there.
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From:sturgeonslawyer
Date:May 21st, 2012 07:52 pm (UTC)
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Star Wars isn't in the future at all. It's a long long time ago.
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From:agrumer
Date:May 21st, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
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Only if you take "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" more literally than is probably justified by the story content.
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From:whswhs
Date:May 21st, 2012 10:04 pm (UTC)
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At any rate, it doesn't seem to be set in our future, so it could just as well be in the past as in the future.
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From:agrumer
Date:May 21st, 2012 10:49 pm (UTC)
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Many people have argued that Star Wars is best thought of as fantasy with spaceships and blaster guns instead of dragons and swords. I hadn't thought that through to considering the setting as a secondary world, but it fits.
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From:whswhs
Date:May 22nd, 2012 05:04 am (UTC)
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I've heard that thesis, and I think it's the result of a basic mistake about how to categorize.

A lot of people seem to have the working model that there's "real science fiction," meaning fiction that has a scientific rationale for its extraordinary events that the reader or viewer finds sufficiently believable; and then there are things that have the outward appearance of science fiction, but aren't sufficiently believable, and are therefore classed as "fantasy."

The superficial objection to this would be that where the boundary is drawn is subjective. E. E. Smith, an adherent of this view, claimed that his Lensman novels were science fiction, but his Skylark novels were fantasy. But his Lensman novels have godlike aliens that can predict the course of history over millions of years; incredible psionic powers; faster than light travel by a distinctly implausible mechanism—all of which might easily exceed the tolerances of a reader who was not a hard core realist or skeptic. The prototypical "hard sf" novel, Mission of Gravity, is set in another solar system that the human characters seem to have reached by (never explained) ftl. And so on.

But my primary objection is at a different level, growing out of my lifelong enthusiasm for biological taxonomy. Back when universities had separate zoology departments, students used to take year-long intro courses, with a semester of Vertebrate Zoology and a semester of Invertebrate Zoology. And vertebrates are a monophyletic group that includes all descendants of its common ancestor, all of which share noteworthy characteristics, including a dorsal neural cord, a backbone, gills (at least in the embryos), hemoglobin-based blood, and various others. But invertebrates? Invertebrates are defined purely negative: "animals that are not vertebrates." They include a couple of dozen phyla, from sponges to flatworms to arthropods to echninoderms; they even include several classes within the same phylum that includes vertebrates. All these groups are so diverse that the only characteristics they all have in common are characteristics that are also found in vertebrates; that is, they are characteristics of animals generally. You do not learn anything about any "invertebrate" taxon from its having the negative characteristic of lacking vertebrae.

And in the same way, if your definition of "fantasy" is all literature with extraordinary events that is not "sufficiently hard science fiction"—then your category includes stories based on mythology (real or invented), and stories based on primal human fears, and stories set in invented histories that are otherwise as realistic as Babbitt, and utopias and dystopias—and stories about interstellar travel and space battles that look remarkably like science fiction. And all those types of stories are so varied that they have nothing in common, except being fiction of the fantastic, a category that also includes the hardest of hard sf.

What I see in Star Wars is virtually all the tropes of classic space opera: the spaceships and blaster guns you mention, robots and computers, and human beings with a special ability that might as well be called "psi" as the force—and that is called "magic" in the setting only by an ignorant farmer, which is a classic trope about psi in a lot of sf. And I don't think space opera is enough like actual mythic fantasy to be more validly assimilated to it than to sf. Not, at any rate, unless you are prepared to turn around and say that brutally realistic "fantasy" writers such as George R. R. Martin are writing science fiction.
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From:agrumer
Date:May 22nd, 2012 05:21 am (UTC)
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While I see a story full of knights with shining swords, and fabulous beasts, and ancient prophecies, and mystical power that cares about the motivations of the wielder, and seemed ludicrous when given a pseudo-scientific justification ("midichlorians"). And an opening tagline that tells you it's a fairy tale.

Which is the purpose of that "galaxy far, far away" line --- not to place the story in the past, but to tell you it takes place in no real time period.
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