Sunday, February 26, 2017

Accuracy vs. Realism in Science Fiction

As Campbell and Pulp supporters squared off over recent posts critical of Campbell writers, I wanted to dive deeper into what exactly was inside the Campbell revolution that Pulp was rejecting. Hard SF has been around since Verne, Poe, and even Kepler, so it could not have been the accuracy required by Campbell that is the cause of contention. Looking at Campbell's fantasy magazine Unknown/Unknown Worlds and one of his protege's attempts to turn the Shadow into Shadow Mystery, I noticed a trend away from the heroic to the everyday, as literary realism became more prevalent. It was also literary realism which the Futurians embraced at the end of the Campbelline Age, giving birth to the assumption that science fiction must contain social commentary.

I posted my first attempt to write this up at the Castalia House blog:
On the current Campbel/Pulp argument: 
1/ Mulling over the difference between accuracy and realism. The drive to make a story better fit science, geography, or culture is a long-standing tradition, seen in the pulps, in Verne, and even earlier. It is possible to be fantastic and accurate, as the Shadow and Louis L’Amour show… 
2/ Realism, however, is the idea that only the stories of the everyman and that only everyday and banal activities and experiences are worth writing about. This idea is anathema to any sort of fantastic literature. The adoption of this idea, typically in 20 year cycles, has driven down sales in sff. 
3/ PulpRev has recently come under fire by Campbell fans for its criticism of Campbell writers. It is not the accuracy of the Campbell writers we object to, but the realism of those writers. That realism allowed more fanatical realists – such as the Futurians – to enter the genre… 
4/ It is this increasing drive toward realism that it is the source of SFF’s current woes. Almost every major reaction against Campbelline writing is a step further towards realism, further away from heroes and great deeds. Oddly enough, it is the accuracy of the Campbells that the realists protest. 
5/ There is room under the Pulp umbrella for the accuracy of Campbell-style writing. There is no room in fantastic literature for realism.
Fortunately, Misha Burnett chose to answer:
I see your point, I think, regarding accuracy and realism, although I would probably define the words a bit differently than you do. 
What you are calling accuracy I would call consistency, and would divide it into internal and external consistency. 
It’s external consistency that the Futurians were hung up on–they wanted stories in which Mars was described they way that the current astronomical theories described Mars. From a standpoint of internal consistency, however, it doesn’t matter is Burrough’s Barsoom resembles modern theories of the conditions on Mars, what matters is that the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom are always dead sea bottoms, and we don’t suddenly encounter an ocean of liquid water when going from Helium to Thark. 
Regarding what you call realism, I think the issue is even more complex. I don’t believe that ordinary people and their quotidian concerns are incompatible with either the fantastic or the heroic. 
In fact, I would say that the defense of the banal activities and experiences of ordinary life is the basis of heroism. Frodo and Sam were not fighting for a life of adventure, they were in Mordor precisely because they wanted the Shire to remain quiet and simple.
I think that the issue you take exception to is not the inclusion of ordinary people in adventure literature, but rather the assumption that “ordinary” perforce means the lowest common denominator. 
I personally believe that heroes are just ordinary people who have found themselves in extraordinary situations and have found it in themselves to rise to the occasion, and that great deeds are generally preformed in defense of a life filled with banal and ordinary.
Iron sharpens iron, and it is what Misha is calling external consistency that best explains the idea of accuracy I was searching for. And his comments about the nature of heroism are important to mull over. It is not the exaltation of the lowly in realism that is anathema to fantastic literature, but the idea that only the mundane, the lowly, and the everyday is worthy of literature. Realism as a literary movement excludes heroism, assumes that great men do not exist, reducing everything to determinism.. Realism, as a movement, seeks to eliminate the fantastic entirely. Realism is often seen as despair.

It is not the accuracy or the external consistency of the Campbelline Age which I have a problem with; rather it is the determinism, the despair, and the assumption that only Campbelline style works are legitimate fiction that I see as the founding mistake of modern science fiction.


Don't forget, Three for Three on Friday.

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