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Superheroes and Science Fiction

Sometimes in the blogosphere you come across a thoughtful, passionate piece which reads like a manifesto, or at least a clear statement of The Way Things Are in the worldview of the writer – and the worldview is so at odds with your own that you just have to respond.

Other times, you write such a response, and then let it sit in your Drafts folder for several months until you finally think, “Hey, I should finish that off and post it…” As you might guess, this post is one of these.

A while back, Comics Should Be Good linked to a pair of articles written by ‘amypoodle’ at Mindless Ones about superhero comics as “soft” science fiction. It’s interesting stuff, but I knew I was going to have trouble with it from the word go, indeed from the beginning of the first post, “Candyfloss Horizons”:

For those unaware of the distinction between hard and soft sci-fi, the former spends its time postulating imaginary futures that unfold out of pre-existing science/theory, whereas the latter jettisons notions of the possible, concerning itself with the imaginary part of the equation. In its most basic form, it deals with the psychological and sociolological impact of tomorrow – the soft sciences – but at its logical extremes it details societies, internal states and/or technologies beyond comprehension, whose function and form defy simple explanation.

When I first read this article, I wondered if she was just trying to tweak fans of hard science fiction, but I don’t think so. I think she genuinely saw hard SF as limited and bland, wrapped up in explaining the nuts-and-bolts of how its ideas worked, while soft SF was more far-ranging, less restrictive. And this is, well, very far from my own thinking.

Now, defining “science fiction” has always been something of a losing battle – sort of the Godwin’s Law of literary semantics – so defining those sub-terms isn’t likely to get you very far, either, though that rarely stops people from trying: You can go read the Wikipedia entries on hard SF and soft SF. And like any good genre fan, I’m always happy to chip in my two cents.

I think that hard science fiction is where the imagination is, extrapolating from current knowledge and trends or just positing a wild idea and running with that to craft a fully-realized world (or at least a rich-if-narrow slice of one) and exploring the implications of the story’s premise. Certainly there’s plenty of hard SF which is mainly concerned with the scientific implications of the ideas, but on the other hand quite a few writers use the ideas as a springboard for a coherent story, or explore the sociological or psychological implications of the ideas. Hard SF certainly doesn’t stick to existing science and theory, as Vernor Vinge’s works often illustrate; one of the preeminent hard SF writers around, his novels The Peace War and A Fire Upon The Deep rather blatantly introduce concepts created out of whole cloth (‘Bobbles’ and ‘Zones of Thought’, respectively) and build their stories around them, spending time exploring what the ideas mean without worrying much about how they work. Charles Stross’ Glasshouse is another hard SF novel which closely examines the social implications of its premise. Vinge and Stross, among others (Alastair Reynolds, Karl Schroder, et. al.), have done a lot to define hard SF over the last decade or two, and I don’t think it fits in the box that Amypoodle describes for it.

By contrast, I mainly think of soft science fiction as referring to stories which contain only the trappings of science fiction, which in which the scientific – or pseudo-scientific – elements are either just part of the background or not treated very seriously, and which don’t really concern themselves with plumbing the depths of the implications of their ideas content. Often they’re re-using tried-and-true SF ideas and routine ways, using them as a setting rather than as a key element in the story. Nearly every science fiction TV show is soft SF, I can’t offhand think of one that isn’t. Certainly both Star Trek and Babylon 5 were. I’d also classify Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series as soft SF, as well as Jack McDevitt’s novels. McDevitt’s books come closer to being hard SF, but for the most part they’re employing well-worn science fictional ideas in the service of his particular stories, rather than breaking new ground or putting the ideas front-and-center.

The core difference, I think, is that hard SF presents the fantastic ideas content as a worthwhile and intellectual challenging component of the story in itself, whereas soft SF does not. But this certainly doesn’t mean that hard SF restricts itself to only dealing with the ideas content, although this is true of some hard SF.

So I think Amypoodle goes off in the wrong direction from the beginning, and this is made even more clear in her follow-up post, which is primarily about Grant Morrison’s comics writing. Its basic idea is summed up near the end:

Soft SF ram-raids and runs with the optimism embedded in the earliest victorian science fiction and brings it slap-bang up to date. It’s hard SF’s 20th century counterpart. Its evolution. Recent hard SF seems so wanky in comparison, what with its fetishistic obsession with the operating manual and what lies beneath the pants of the futuristic societies it slavers over. It also feels terribly stuffy and conservative. Vanilla. ‘Nothing will essentially change’, Star Trek, Stargate and the rest of the drivel explain, ‘but we will have faster aeroplanes that move about in outer-space’. Well, bollocks to that. Do you think anything will be recognizable a million years from now, if we survive that long? I don’t. Least of all ourselves. And as for the stories that inform our new world? Grant and a few others are intuiting them now. They’re showing us what might be – charting the candyfloss horizon.

This paragraph seems completely at odds with the reality of hard SF today. She groups Star Trek and Stargate with hard SF (huh?), accuses recent hard SF of being primarily interested in “the operating manual” (wha?), and her article comes across as unaware of the burgeoning interest in hard SF in the technological singularity which is strongly concerned with the notion that not only is everything going to change in ways we can barely even imagine, but that the big change could be coming sooner than we think.

Using Grant Morrison as an example of how superhero comics are soft SF seems a weird choice, since the style of Morrison’s books has a lot more in common in hard SF than with soft. My perception of Morrison has always been as an ideas man; he has on-the-edge ideas (well, for comic books, anyway) in seemingly endless supply (putting aside the dreary Final Crisis). Where Morrison diverges from hard SF is in the depth of his stories: Unlike someone like Vernor Vinge – another terrific ideasmith – Morrison rarely explores the implications of his ideas in depth; rather, after a cursory examination of an idea (mainly to exploit its “coolness factor”) he moves on to the next idea. Occasionally an idea undergoes successive refinement, usually because a character which embodies that idea sticks around long enough that a further extension of his abilities has time to come to light, but then, this is pretty much how superhero comics have always worked; that’s why the Flash, for instance, ends up with some nifty new talents every few years, as a new writer figures out what else having inhuman speed and reflexes is good for.

To be sure, the lack of depth is partly due to the superhero genre, which has long catered towards style over substance, and takes advantage of the short attention span that most of its audience (hard-core fanboys excepted) seems to have. Morrison has made two significant stabs at dealing with his ideas at greater length and depth, in The Invisibles and Seven Soldiers. The former has flashes of true brilliance, but the good stuff in the middle was bookended by muddled storytelling at either end. The latter was a tasty melange of mostly-preexisting ideas, but its very structure of seven separate characters with their own storylines worked against providing the payoff of real depth that it seemed to desire. (It also fell prey to Morrison’s essential weakness: His characterizations tend to be exceedingly flat.)

So Morrison’s writing isn’t hard science fiction because his ideas are handled relatively superficially. It isn’t soft science fiction because the ideas content is too high.

So what is it?

It’s fantasy.

And that shouldn’t come as a big revelation. After all, superhero comics spring from a fantasy heritage, whether they come from fantastic pulp adventure yarns, or are a sort of mythology for the post-industrial age. Like most fantasy, superhero comics don’t ask you to suspend your disbelief, to imagine that what you’re reading could happen, nor do they treat their ideas as a springboard for crafting a world grounded in the ramifications of those ideas. Rather, superhero comics present immensely powerful beings doing astonishing things, yet not really having a profound impact on the world; it’s still recognizably our world. Even Watchmen, despite Doctor Manhattan’s presence, is still just a few centimeters away from the world we knew when it was published.

Certainly there’s been some cross-pollination from SF over to the superhero genre, but it tends to be transient. Morrison perhaps shows more of its influence than most, but his work is still basically of the genre. Indeed, his best work, his run on JLA, embraces the genre more fully than anything else he’s written.

Superhero comics say, “Yeah, we know this isn’t real, that this could never be real, and we know that you know it too, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less cool.” But heading out to claim that comics are exploring the frontier of the imaginary somehow more seriously, less stuffily, than SF doesn’t match up with the actual books on the shelves. I love comic books – heck, every Wednesday I say “gosh I love comic books” to myself (and sometimes to others) – but forward-looking isn’t a characteristic of the genre. Morrison may inject more ideas content into his stories than most comics writers, but he still does so in a largely superficial manner (his Doom Patrol run was immensely frustrating in this way, with temptingly weird ideas which were thrown around and then discarded without deep consideration).

All of this applies equally well to another of her examples: Jack Kirby. He was a terrific ideasmith and designer of wild and wacky people, creatures and devices, but his creations were never plumbed in depth, and I don’t mean how they worked, but why they mattered. They were just big dumb objects, a term coined for science fiction but which practically defines fantasy, which is full of creatures and things and phenomena which can’t be explained and are rarely explored. They just are. (This is not to belittle Kirby, just to say that his fantastic creations drove his great adventure stories and that I think to see them as going much beyond that is to misunderstand his body of work.)

And from my perspective that’s the problem with Amypoodle’s candyfloss horizon: Like candyfloss itself, the horizon tastes real good, but it’s pure sugar and thus not very nourishing. Cool ideas are far more cool – and a lot more engaging – when they’re examined in depth for their implications and ramifications. Morrison can dazzle us with his bag of tricks when he’s on his game, but for the really chewy stories which really examine how the cool stuff affects our world, you’ll have to avoid being distracted by the candyfloss.

2 comments to Superheroes and Science Fiction

  • Subrata Sircar

    There’s a giant monologue/screed I’ve been meaning to write about this (if only to get it out of my head), but it can probably be summed up into several more pithy statements:

    - From the consumer’s perspective, fantasy, hard SF and soft SF are labels; like most labels, they’re only useless if there’s a common standard, or if they communicate something to the person using the label.
    - There’s probably a rigorous definition for these terms in the academic literary community, but it’s probably confined there.
    - The publishing community tends to use the more practical approach of division-by-author e.g. “it’s by author X, therefore it’s hard SF”.
    - Most people use the labels as shorthand for “things I like” and “things I don’t like”. That’s probably the most useful to the person doing the labeling; isn’t the point to enjoy the time you spend reading?

    Adopting that viewpoint tends to mean that the discussion is pointless, and what fun would that be? :<)

    Anyway, I disagree that “hard SF is where the imagination is”; hard SF is where the science is. Hard SF, as you noted, tends to explore the implications of an idea in greater depth, and extrapolate from that idea to build the world in which the story is set. This in turn means that the idea and its implications are important to the structure of the story e.g. the plot will take them into account, the world backdrop will include them and occasionally get “screen time”, etc. The idea itself can be mundane or tried-and-true – what if we really did never have to die? – but someone will have seriously thought about what it means. That’s not imagination, that’s scholarship … or craftsmanship … or science. It’s the difference between concept and execution, of prototype and finished product.

    Because a greater importance (in plot, structure, content) is placed on this science and backdrop, this in turn means that less importance will be placed on other elements – generally including characters, but not necessarily. (I tend to like hard SF stories where the extrapolation of the idea leads to character dilemma, hard decisions, and growth e.g. What does it mean to be human in a world where androids are becoming smarter and smarter, and demonstrating true emotional complexity?)

    This means that a lot of hard SF can be confused with shallow stories with SF trappings e.g. the worst of Star Trek or Doctor Who, where technobabble saves the day on a regular basis. On the other hand, some of my favorite episodes could have been lifted and plunked down in a historical setting with very little change at all, because it was about the characters, not the ray guns or time travel.

    Rigorously exploring the implications of an idea is, unfortunately, an easy road to pedantry, lecturing and boring storytelling. There’s a David Brin book centered around one idea – what happens if people could change sex, but only once? – and the central characters play out their decision on a voyage around the world. The idea and its implications are explored in extreme depth, and there are lots of fascinating segments, but the whole novel is l-oooooooo-ng and hard to read.

    As far as the “fun” factor, one of my favorite 20 minutes of Star Trek TNG is the middle of “Brothers”, where Data receives a coded signal to come meet his maker (literally) and proceeds to single-handedly hijack the Enterprise, making efficient and logical use of his abilities. This is a hard SF sequence – it’s all about the implications of Data being an android – and very enjoyable, at least for me.

    Anyway, it’s probably all moot, but it seemed a shame to waste all the time I spent thinking about it in my misspent youth :<)

  • [...] theme that “Grant Morrison’s writing isn’t all that” (I later published it here). Still, Morrison is one of the hottest writers in comics today, so it’s not surprising that [...]

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