Philosopher of science Karl Popper claimed in the 1930s that, as long as a scientific theory’s predictions of a given thing correspond to observations of the thing, then the theory can be called good – but no theory can be called absolutely true. This is because there will always remain the possibility that a future prediction may one day fail to correspond to what’s observed. And when it does, you have to modify the theory or start again.
This annoyed scientists, who in the way that one might be perturbed by a weird uncle have been known to hold a certain distrust for philosophers, their beardy forebears. But after a while this idea of Popper’s, ‘falsifiability’, became an accepted tempering of the more traditional assumptions on scientific truth. That is despite its most troubling implication that, as Stephen Hawking puts it, ‘Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it’.
And, as a physical theory can’t be anything more than a hypothesis concerning the world, it’s similarly notable that art can’t be more than a representation of the world: a theory may reflect every observation, an artwork may make you bawl like a severed water main, but neither is the thing itself. Their methods are different but there’s something shared in their inevitable failure to become their subjects, their reaching outwards while looking inwards.
You could say that art, and in particular a narrative art like fiction, is the laboratory of the human condition. In it we poke, percolate and zap. We grow characters and box them up in long racks, piping in gassy desires, grafting on weaknesses and manias. We drop them, because we are not above cliché, in mazes. Some are committed to the three Rs of good animal research: replace, reduce and refine, cutting their characters down to a Beckettian few – while Tolstoy et al build jungle cosmetics factories of relationship chaos. The results are written up and bounce through infinite peer review.
But who then are the occupants of that building at the edge of the site, they who jitter ill-adjusted, who joke in code, who jumble whiteboards with strange sigils and who never seem to make anything solid? They whose works are pure theory?
Sci-fi writers have a cagey sort of relationship with wider literature. But just as the publishing industry loves the idea of genre as a marketing tool, the sci-fi community loves this act of division as a form of self-definition, splitting amoebically further into sub-genres like tech noir, afrofuterism and libertarian science fiction, not to mention the retrofuterist sub-sub-genres like space western, steampunk, cyberpunk, dieselpunk, and, apparently, clockpunk.
There is something I quite like about this will to define ones interests on absurdly specific terms. If you happen to be into robot uprisings, the earth dying through ecological catastrophe, or dolphins becoming our evil overlords (or indeed our benevolent social welfare-orientated overlords), then there will be forums, communities and recommended reading/watching lists out there for you.
For the purpose of looking at what is qualitatively different about this kind of fiction, and then suggesting a little-used but I think powerful way of expanding it, I’m going to first do the unthinkable and treat sci-fi and fantasy as a single entity, using the terms interchangeably. They may be attired in everything from enchanted orc-skin mail to Biggles-esque flight goggles which can see through time but the process beneath is the same. Literary tiffs over labels, Atwood preferring to call her work ‘speculative fiction’ over sci-fi and Ishiguro hoping his book isn’t written off as fantasy then Le Guin more or less calling in him a knobhead then Ishiguro saying calm down then Le Guin calming down is all a big distraction from what is actually interesting and singular about this continent of fiction.
The metaphor of the laboratory gets at what this is. Namely the creation of as-yet impossible situations and dropping normal people into them in order to think about what they might do. The common writing-off we might see of this kind of imaginative work is the claim that the situation is not real, therefore any emotional reaction to it is of limited value. I would say that if the character dropped into it is as real-feeling as you or me, then we are not witnessing some unrelatable reaction; we’re seeing that same thing – humanness, our condition – from a different angle. Do we disregard a realist work set in extremely horrific circumstances because most of us will never be in the same position as the characters suffering it?
So the DeLorean with its flux capacitor, the Heart of Gold with its infinite improbability drive, and equally the magic furniture which zips you to Narnia and One Ring which makes you into a scampering invisible bastard are all just means of picking the human up, spinning her round, and setting her back down. To claim that such devices can’t be a part of serious storytelling is to forget that even the most hardline realism is, in the end, made up.
On a longer timeframe it’s the non-fantastical – Muggle books – that are the deviation. All of our most ancient literature is fantastical, from the Arabian Nights and Beowulf to, earlier, our big religious texts to, earlier still, The Odyssey and Gilgamesh. ‘History’ was not a parallel idea to myth but was thought to have transitioned directly from it – through moments like Ragnarök in Norse myth, the flood of Deucalion in Greek myth and suspiciously similar Great Flood in the Old Testament. The fantastical comes naturally to us. It’s in many ways our default way of seeing.
There are lots of recurring tropes across fantasy and sci-fi, and the main ones aren’t limited to one side or the other. What’s key is not technology or magic, but what joins those things in how they’re used. For instance, the Pinocchio story of the non-human turning human, or not, has become one of the most prominent tropes in sci-fi, though it can be seen earlier in the Golem of Jewish folklore and Galatea in the Pygmalion myth. In the last century we saw its use explode, from Maria in Metropolis to Rachael in Blade Runner, the T-1000 in Terminator 2, and in the pasty ruminations of Star Trek’s Mr Data. The trope has decoupled from the magical to link with scientific progress, becoming more prevalent as artificial intelligence has moved daily closer to that long-prophesied self-awareness and ensuing existential funk. Consider our awed disconcertion as chess champ Gary Kasparov lost to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997 – now amusingly suggested to have been down to a glitch. (Incidentally, Deep Blue’s name originated in Hitchhiker’s Guide megacomputer Deep Thought.)
Another device that’s spread along with the science behind it is the butterfly effect story, or, better reflecting how it often ends up being used, the ‘things happening to other things’ story. The idea of a situation playing out into far-reaching and alternating effects is by no means new, but it wasn’t until mathematician Edward Lorenz netted the first butterflies of chaos theory and quantum mechanics made time travel something grown-ups were allowed to talk about, not to mention parallel realities, that these influences resulted in the sciencey mishmash found in Quantum Leap, Back to the Future, Terminator (again), and 12 Monkeys. It’s found a home in sci-fi but it’s by no means limited to there: see A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Live, and Sliding Doors. Don’t literally see Sliding Doors.
One which is surely as old as stories is the ‘thoughts made real’ motif. In fantasy this has traditionally appeared in the form of the wish, as dealt by the Genie of the Lamp, the Psammead, and David Bowie, and is perfect for the you-get-what-you-wish-for moralising of the fable. In sci-fi it generally leads to the deep-psyche madshit of Solaris, Event Horizon, and Sphere. With the free reign afforded by this unashamedly literal route into the head it’s no surprise that it’s always about desire: Sarah wishing the goblins would come and take her brother away in Labyrinth, Kris yearning for his deceased lover above the roiling mind-planet of Solaris. To realise the imagined is to force the generally hellish consequences.
Creatures as personifications of humanity. Another ancient one, from Aesop and Taoist parable to porcine political romp Animal Farm and afterschool bloodbath Animals of Farthing Wood, is talking creatures. Long have we projected our own innocence and predation onto animals, mostly according to their dietary needs, and so they are an ideal means of reducing the human world to the plane of pitched goodies and baddies that we, confused omnivores, wish it to be. And it’s all the easier when the creatures are themselves made-up, invented specifically as surrogates for our diced and personified attributes. In The Time Machine, for example, we see the cheery Eloi and really quite angry Morlocks as bearers of humanity’s divvied-up traits. The pure, jiggling greed of The Blob, those arsehole broomsticks in Fantasia – it’s very cathartic, seeing the chunks of personality autopsied from our heads in this way.
A lesser used but favourite of mine is the old ‘fantasy as psychological repression/reparation’ switcheroo. See it in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where coming to terms with unspeakable memories of the holocaust requires a comic of Nazi cats and Jewish mice to illustrate the situation’s stripping of humanity, the inevitability of the hunter and hunted; in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, where similarly a man’s surviving the firebombing of Dresden, one of the largest single massacres in human history, causes him to become obsessed with science fiction and eventually publish a book about his own abduction by aliens – because removal from the human world is exactly what had happened to him that night in Dresden. Vonnegut of course was just such a survivor and Slaughterhouse 5 was just such a tool of therapy.
But these various narrative tricks are rarely used without incurring a cost. To have thoughts made real, for example, can be so dramatically convenient as to dampen the power of a story; personifying human aspects in something else can be reductive, ignoring of the cocktail of ambiguity which makes up a person. The tools of sci-fi and fantasy will always, to some, seem just too easy. But a different set of tools, I believe, provide an alternative which is more interesting, still evoking that imagination-driven plane of fantasy while incurring a cost more of disconcertion, an unhomeliness which is strange and fitting.
In the late 1930s self-taught linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf took a trip to live with and study the Hopi native Americans in Arizona. For Whorf, an engineer by trade, that old conundrum of ethnology, ‘What do these people think?’ could not be ascribed to mere psychological enigma as it always had. He was interested in the machinery beneath language and noted that the Hopi language is capable of accounting for and describing, in a pragmatic way, all observable phenomena of the universe, yet contains no reference to time, no abstracted quantitative or spatial referents at all. ‘When I first asked someone to count for me,’ he says, ‘the answer was “count what?”.’ The detached quantity ‘ten days’ becomes in the Hopi language the more operational ‘until the eleventh day’. He was excited by a particular question:
Are our own concepts of ‘time,’ ‘space,’ and ‘matter’ given in substantially the same form by experience to all men, or are they in part conditioned by the structure of particular languages?
He believed that our worldview is indeed linked to language and that these two things are in a constant relationship. This would later be dubbed ‘soft Whorfianism’ (as opposed to the more extreme interpretation which is that worldview is entirely derived from language), and it is possibly an extremely underplayed contributor to the trends which gripped the humanities in the latter part of the twentieth century – perhaps he did a bit too much fieldwork for the likings of the largely broomcupboard-based titans of postmodernism. The primacy of language, though, became an enormous idea and the groundwork for that was laid down by linguists like Whorf and, much more prominently, by philosopher and logician Ludwig Wittgenstein.
In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking says that, as science annexed much of the territory traditionally held by philosophy,
Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of [the twentieth] century, said, ‘The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language’. What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!
I hear Ludwig reaching for his Firepoker of Truth, because it was his work on language which inspired the Vienna Circle’s ‘verificationism’ (a system for verifying the meaningfulness of a statement), which was then turned over by Popper in coming up with falsifiability (a system for testing the strength of a scientific theory) – which, as noted earlier, Hawking accepts as an essential re-jigging of what scientists understood their discipline to be. Wittgenstein might well have replied to Hawking: any physical theory must be conceived and described in language, therefore when one makes a hypothesis about the nature of the universe, or anything at all, that claim is foremost about language. Wittgenstein didn’t study language because that was all that was left; he studied language because he thought it was all there is.
Through their different disciplines, Whorf and Wittgenstein describe a foundational aspect to language, a deep perceptional primacy, and when I think of the most affecting imaginative fiction, language is what it’s playing with. After all, the task of inventing a thing that’s truly different from what we know, and using it to look back on ourselves, is surely most powerful when it toys with the very means we have of conceiving that thing (and it of us).
In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ there is described a lost region, country, and eventually a lost planet: Tlön. Its discovery through obscure entries in old encyclopaedias comes, in a sense more real than the phrase usually implies, to capture the imagination of the world.
Popular magazines have trumpeted, with pardonable excess, the zoology and topography of Tlön. In my view, its transparent tigers and towers of blood do not perhaps merit the constant attention of all mankind, but I might be so bold as to beg a few moments to outline its conception of the universe.
Borges, himself the narrator, says that the languages of Tlön have no nouns. Some describe phenomena as successive acts, so, for example, without the word ‘moon’ there is instead a verb which in English would be ‘to moonate’ or ‘to enmoon’. In other Tlönic languages nouns are formed by stringing adjectives, so ‘moon’ would be ‘aerial-bright above dark-round’ or ‘soft-amberish-celestial’. This suggests a world which has no definite, abstracted objects, only descriptions, and therefore is not understood to exist beyond individual perceptions. Borges derived this idea from the ‘subjective idealism’ of George Berkeley, of whom he was a fan (although surely a conflicted one: ‘Bishop’ Berkley’s subjective idealisms are joined within the perception of the one super-mind – God – and so in a sense his idealism is ultimately objective; but Borges, agnostic, writes the Tlönic worldview without that final godly element, leaving it ghostly).
The subjectivity that this language endows in the population of Tlön is profound, to the point that it is in the end incompatible with the imagination of the reader from our world. But in the story, the people’s fascination with Tlön comes to alter our world in the image of that made-up place. It, and its conception of the universe, become real.
Almost immediately the world ‘caved in’ at more than one point. The truth is, it wanted to cave in. Ten years ago, any symmetry, any system with an appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – could spellbind and hypnotize mankind. How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön, how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet?
Within the story, that ‘ten years ago’ would be 1937, with the story itself written in 1940. Through this small hint the story can, if the reader wishes, become an enormously complex and prescient satire. It is that and, as with any Borges story, many other things besides. When he, as narrator, asks us to put aside the ‘transparent tigers and towers of blood’ aside (beautifully enigmatic though these images are) and instead outline the conceptions of the Tlönic universe, this is the moment of one kind of fantasy transitioning into a richer, language-based kind.
When we talk about ‘language’ in this context we’re really talking about taking its building blocks and muddling them around, playing with its logic, smashing the Lego house to instead build an aardvark.
One such builder of aardvarks, perhaps the most famous of all, is Lewis Carroll. He wrote his share of transparent tigers, yes, his vanishing Cheshire cats, but I don’t believe that the mere visual strangeness of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can account for its colossal popularity. Wonderland has an uncanniness which is more fundamental than how it looks and it’s clear that this is something to do with its rules. Carroll was a lexophile and mathematician, and so the often word-filled guts of that discipline, logic, is essential to how Wonderland appears different to us. The meanings of its inhabitants are scrambled by nonsense, its physical properties – size, distance, speed – are unstable. It’s as if everything hails from the same set of distorted propositions.
A fairly recent theory puts a curious slant on this. Several of the most famous scenes were not in the original ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’ version, and it’s argued that Carroll, at that time one of mathematics’ conservative old guard and with an enduring love for Euclid, decided to turn his story into a satire on the newcomers and their ideas which seemed to lack the logician’s rigour he favoured.
An example. Wonderland has no respect for constancy of quantity, much like the then-new theory of symbolic algebra, where, in order to become a more flexible system of describing relationships between mathematical objects, algebraic symbols are made to lose all association with quantity or measurement. So, when trying to recall her times table Alice slips out of base-ten so that it seems ‘four times five is twelve, four times six is thirteen’, this while her body is fluctuating bigger and smaller. On meeting the shisha-huffing caterpillar she is presented with a mushroom, eating one side of which shrinks her while the other side grows her, so she must eat the right proportions in order to return to normal. Geometry, that elemental stuff of Euclid, is concerned with proportions rather than size. It is given here in the story as a potential escape from the effects of Wonderland, where the disturbing new theories are law.
Whether this was Carroll’s scheme behind the story or not, there’s no question that his intellectual joys and prejudices filtered into his stories. As a tool for satire, fantasy of course has a long history of manifesting ideas in order to critique. Candide is a relentless attack on the ‘we live in the best of all possible worlds’ theory of the existence of evil, as espoused by Leibniz; the mother-satire Gulliver’s Travels goes after both Hobbes’s authoritarianism and Locke’s libertarianism, then everything else. But this process, making ideas real in order to prod with literary sticks, is not only the domain of fantasy, it’s just that it’s easier to achieve there. What we’re talking about is essentially the transposition of one situation onto another, as, say, The Crucible achieves in living out the anti-communist purges of Senator McCarthy through the Salem witch trials two-hundred and fifty years before.
But for Wonderland, the logic- and language-based nature of how it manifests ideas means that it tickles something much deeper than the political sensibilities of those other examples. It’s this which perhaps only fantasy can achieve.
If the story really is a systematic satire then it’s doubly amusing that it ends up building a world which readers do not find terrifying. The success of Wonderland is rather in how oddly compelling we find this world. This puts me in mind of the thought-experiment Schrödinger’s Cat. It goes that, if the location of a particle is known only as a probability, then for all intents and purposes the particle exists in multiple places at once, so if its being in one place leads to the death of a cat (through needlessly elaborate means involving poison gas and a hammer), and its being in a different place does not affect the cat at all, then the cat is technically dead and alive at the same time. What’s less mentioned about this it is that physicist Erwin Schrödinger put it forward as a mockery of the theory of another scientist, Max Born, on particle probability. Schrödinger thought the theory didn’t make sense and used this fantastical story to portray that. Instead, it’s been taken into popular consciousness as a powerful illustration of the theory!
Both Carroll and Schrödinger made attacks on ideas they thought untrue; both attacks were instead taken as interesting, entertaining, compelling; both sets of lampooned ideas ultimately turned out to be ‘true’. It’s as if (bear with me) the methodology of fantasy can pitch the world’s complex workings in a way that even non-experts can on some level intuit as meaningful and valuable – even if the writer can’t…
I think stories have long had this kind of role within the history of ideas, excelling most where sound thinking seems completely divergent with observable phenomena. Consider Zeno’s paradox of the race between Achilles and the tortoise, where Achilles, cutting his distance to the tortoise by halves, can never catch it and moves only towards an endless point – this conforming to logic but conflicting with the observed world because really we know he would catch it. Silly tales like that, a story of racing animals and distorted laws, can blow entire worldviews apart. This paradox was one of our first glimpses at the idea of infinity.
It’s no surprise which writers return to it. In ‘What the Tortoise said to Achilles‘, Carroll creates an ingenious account of how the logical propositions behind something like the paradox can themselves be subject to the infinite regress suffered by Achilles. In ‘The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise’, Borges speaks of the idea’s beauty, the ‘translucency that can also be impenetrable’, and the ‘fine ignorance’ it casts over us. In the novel Pyramids by Terry Pratchett, a writer with an enormous range in philosophy and science (exceeded only by his ability to make fun of it), the philosopher Xeno takes the paradox very literally, believing that it is therefore impossible to hit a tortoise with an arrow, and at his Axiom Testing Station (‘Caution: Unresolved Postulates’) he continually strikes the fleeing reptiles with arrows while convinced that he is simply using the wrong kind of tortoises. Likewise he asserts that it’s logically impossible to fall out of a tree.
There is, as has hopefully been suggested, a certain propositional neatness to how the otherliness of a fantasy world is made. That initial formula may then blossom into something large and elaborate, but the principle of its difference will be simple, mechanical.
The philosopher Xeno appears in another of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Small Gods, and this book describes one of the essential rules of the Disc (the flat turtle-mounted world in which it takes place): on the Disc, gods exist in direct proportion to the belief held in them. That’s the axiom. A powerful god is made so by having many followers, that power then manifesting to encourage yet more; a small god may have one or two followers; others have none, and disappear.
The genius of this device is that it’s not simply a model of belief, it’s a model of all beliefs. It does not, therefore, preclude our gods, here. When a believer states the evidence for the existence of his god, the actions of that god as manifest in the world will be seen plainly by him, the impossible cathedrals and against-all-odds victories. But these are of course the effects of believers’ faith, and therefore of their work, perseverance, ingenuity – human actions, both amazing and terrible. So Small Gods invites another axiom: in our world, gods exist within the effects of the belief held in them. Those effects emerge as proof of divinity and so believers burgeon, the effects increase in power.
Pratchett’s magic-powered mechanism of belief is to me the most perfect and beautiful use of fantasy’s world-bending, world-reflecting method, and is a model for all others because it gets at the core of what fantasy and science fiction are for: it implies an otherliness which reveals to us, more than anything, ourselves.