Over-extrapolation and rhetorical scientificity in science fiction

Creating the effect of reality through scientific extrapolation

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance many readers and authors place on science in science fiction.

It doesn’t bother me that people like to have science in their fiction: it’s one way to create the effect of reality and it can be intellectually stimulating and educational at some levels and in some ways. But, it’s only one way to create the effect of reality…

Associating with establishment science

PSM V10 D425 Extrapolating sun distance by passing shadow object

Extrapolating the Sun's distance by passing shadow object — Popular Science Monthly Vol 10 (1877)

But what’s obvious is that authors like to gain as much status as they can from their association with establishment science, which I see as being a strong socio-political/marketing angle to take. (You may have noticed my banner, but people probably don’t take it as seriously as I’m a social scientist. Also, what I’m talking about here is an extra level of infusion, an association in the narrative and the marketing that runs a lot deeper than blog banners and Twitter bios, etc.)

Identifying yourself with the establishment system of knowledge is a very powerful one, and it provides the author with various rhetorical tools such as a pejorative belittling of those who don’t do serious SF; that is, those who flagrantly include fantasy elements into their narratives in particular. That’s me, by the way: I admit that I did that to an extreme degree in AFTER EARTH, although it’s all oriented around a high-tech fantasy science. When I wrote it, I have to say that I thought that was acceptable because it’s fiction … and I was dealing with a particular set of esoteric philosophical issues that were the point of writing it in the first place and were far removed from the need to infuse it with establishment science in order to gain rhetorical status.  What I naively didn’t figure on was the idea that what I was writing may not be seen as being serious to certain SF authors and readers simply because it was science fantasy fiction (I prefer fantasy-science fiction when not using speculative fiction or just plain science fiction)… despite being infused with extreme scientificity and a dense set of themes and concepts I was exploring and went on to explore in the rest of the trilogy (I haven’t released the final book yet.).

Extrapolation as a criterion

Science Fiction: What It's All About by Sam J LundwallOne of our favourite terms in SF is extrapolation. I have to say that since writing SF (I started in 2005) and doing research about it, I’ve read the word being used a far bit, particularly by authors. Prior to that and in other science oriented contexts, I barely mentioned it myself and rarely heard/read it.

What I mean is, although it’s used in science, the SF community has taken it in and made it part of its special vernacular.  In many ways, it’s completely understandable.

We should note that extrapolation was proposed last century as being the key characteristic of science fiction.  But what does it do for science fiction and what does it mean even?

If we take it from a scientific orientation, it’s more or less about extension past known facts and theories into new and uncharted territory.  Now, however, it seems old-fashioned and too limited to put it as such, even though it still seems to have broad appeal to a niche readership…

It wasn’t so much that it was too limited even back then; instead, it was that it meant much more than this.  The Journal Extrapolation, for example, ”was founded in 1959 by Thomas D. Clareson and was the first journal to publish academic work on science fiction and fantasy” and has the following list of interests:

Racial constructions in speculative genres

Children’s and YA sf and fantasy

Sexualities

Fantastic motifs in mainstream texts

Gender and speculative texts

History of sf and fantasy

New weird fiction

Remakes, rewriting and retrofitting

Pulp sf and fantasy

The body in speculative texts

Posthumanism

Political sf and fantasy

Non-Western speculative traditions

Technoculture

Read more here…

Here’s another extension of the term, whether you agree with it or not:

In science fiction, extrapolation allows writers to focus not on the way things are, as fantasy and nongenre literature do, but on the way things can change. It provides science fiction with a quality that Darko Suvin has called, “cognitive estrangement,” the recognition that what we are reading is not the world as we know it, but a world whose change forces us to reconsider our own with an outsider’s perspective. Read more here…

This quote refers to the purpose of extrapolation; that is, to elicit effective cognitive estrangement.  We should bare in mind that Darko Suvin considered this to result from scientifically possible worlds, not fantasy worlds (I think that includes fantasy-science worlds.).  You can probably guess that I tend to disagree with this, and, today, I think there are a great many in speculative fiction circles who do as well… (I’m going to write about this a bit later.)

There are, however, still plenty of purists who will disagree about all this and will claim that deviations from the scientific orientation towards the interpretation of extrapolation indeed aren’t science fiction.

Most people, apart from purists, don’t seem to be interested in such demarcation and truncation of diversity debates anymore … probably never were. The field has not only diverged from this considerably and in various ways throughout much of last century and is continuing to do so, it never was confined or defined by it … unless we politically cherry-pick limiting references, that is.

It goes without saying that it will still be claimed by some that an appeal to inclusiveness is simply misguided.

Anyway…

The problem of over-extrapolation from science

SF authors evidenty take extrapolation as being a scientifically minded approach to thinking about scientific facts and theories.

But it’s very easy to over-extrapolate from data and theory. Indeed, scientists are particularly cautious about extrapolation because of the ever-present threat of over-extrapolation.

Also, over-extrapolation is a marketing tool for all kinds of entrepreneurs/con artists. Any loose even flimsy association with science can be moulded into a niche market that can be used to persuade people of establishment-based scientificity and collect a lot of money in the process. Haven’t got a list handy? really?

Scientists hate this. Why? Apart from being obvious, it’s because it’s unscientific and it abuses the contexts in which the science applies and the associated limits of that. And it’s blatant profiteering and mis- or disinformation, etc.

Strict application and the mundane

What I’m saying is that over-extrapolation is really easy to do, and what we may be left with on many occasions, if we don’t want to over-extrapolate, is fairly mundane.  Particularly mundane. More than that, what we may be left with is little more than ‘application.’  This is a much stronger criterion for scientificity (By application, I mean, staying within the strict and conservative confines of establishment science and its established and accepted fields of practice … and modes of extrapolating.).  It essentially creates a scientific fiction rather than a science fiction … if you get my meaning.  But that pedagogical approach may be just a tad too boring and unmarketable in this environment, right?  I mean, people are doing it, but it’s a very limited market.

Speculation and plausibility

What does this do for speculation and the idea of plausibility and our association with science, then? My bet is that if SF authors were really serious about the science and their association with it, they’d write books that were a whole lot more mundane and applied. If I’m right, then most use extrapolations from science as part of a marketable mode of discursive persuasion that targets an average conception of ‘plausiblity’ in the readership.

Progressive speculation, deconstruction and cognitive estrangement

Actually, I’m not against over-extrapolation or progressive speculation towards the extremes of the possible (particularly the technically impossible according to establishment science that are rendered possible in a fantasy-science context) and the effect of cognitive estrangement that results. In fact, I like it. It stimulates creativity and a critical awareness of the possible and the impossible, particularly when you know about and can contrast this with our own experience in the world and the state of establishment science; importantly, it allows a deconstruction of the continuous/emerging present through extensions from trend analysis into the extremes of the possible, which draws out the consequences of our action and inaction and the flaws and vulnerabilities of our agency and our present contexts.

Deconstruction through speculation (whether it’s extreme or mundane) is a different interest to vain and flimsy associations with establishment science. Deconstructing the present through speculative pasts, futures or even presents as the emerging present itself becomes more SF-like, is a dedication to the understanding, which is general and unbounded, and thus beyond the parameters of establishment science … even irreverent of them.

I mean, there’s good reason to be.  We sometimes act as though Thomas Kuhn didn’t exist.

Here’s an insightful criticism of large chunks of contemporary physics we often take for granted.

Anway, I just don’t like over-extrapolation mixed with pretensions about being associated with estabishment science and thus superior to others when it’s obvious that establishment science is being exploited rhetorically for marketing purposes.

Once you let go of such ‘scientific’ pretensions and you accept speculation as a broadly defined activity, science fiction takes on a whole different turn and becomes a much broader and diverse pursuit. One that many started taking a long time ago…

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