Readercon 9 -- July 13, 1997 -- Part #3

A convention report by Evelyn C. Leeper and Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 1997 Evelyn C. Leeper and Mark R. Leeper

The Science Fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson
Critical Theory: One or Many?
Nanotechnology and Clarke's Law
Science and Science Fiction

Sunday, 10AM
John Crowley, Don D'Ammassa, Samuel R. Delany, Lise Eisenberg (M), Elizabeth Willey

"Why do we reread some books but not others? How is the rereading experience different from the initial one? How does it differ depending on how thoroughly we remember the text? Why do we want to revisit specific stories?"

Delany began by quoting Roland Barthe: "Those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere." Delany added that while you may be able to write a book in such a way as to make people want to read it, "There is nothing you can do in your book to make someone who had not picked it up, read it" for the first time.

Delany also asked himself, "Why do I read?" and immediately answered, "I don't know; I've got nothing else to do."

Crowley felt it is easier to reread books than to read new books. So when you don't feel like picking up a new book, you can still reread an old book. Drifting somewhat afield, he added that there are two types of authors: those with tremendous appetite for what else is being written, and those without. He said he is in the latter category; he reads other people's novels, but finds himself saying, "This is made up. I know how this is done; I can do this."

Willey writes for and gets to choose what she wants to review. Lately she said she had read a whole lot of recent King Arthur novels, and that it could be described as the "pound of Turkish delight" problem and it seemed as though she was rereading the same book over and over. She actually reread only two or three books for pleasure that she had reviewed last year for duty (one was BLACK WINE by Candas Dorsey).

D'Ammassa (who reads an average of a book a day) said that he gives up on more books these days, because life is too short to read bad books. (His reading and collecting is legendary; apparently it is well- known that he was recently trapped for four hours under a pile of fallen books.) Twenty per cent of this is rereading, to which he takes a conscious--or perhaps conscientious--approach: he chooses an author and then rereads everything that author has written, chronologically. His latest project was/is Murray Leinster. He says that David R. Bunch improves each time he reads him, Edmond Hamilton does not, and Murray Leinster had mixed results. Books he rereads often include Walter M. Miller's CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (he has read the upcoming sequel, ST. LEIBOWITZ AND THE WILD HORSE WOMAN, and says it's very good), E R. Eddison's WORM OUROBOROS, John Wyndham's REBIRTH, Samuel R. Delany's JEWELS OF APTOR, and Theodore Sturgeon's MORE THAN HUMAN.

Delany admitted that he doesn't read easily. He hears people talk about reading for pleasure and they sound as if they're from another planet. And he reads more non-fiction than fiction. (He did later say that he had reread Joanna Russ's SOULS seven or eight times.) Crowley agreed somewhat, saying "The number of books I haven't read would astonish people who think I'm erudite." (He later talked about a game of English professors at a conference which involves each person naming a book s/he hasn't read that s/he could be expected to have read. The conflict is between wanting to win the game and wanting to maintain your image.) On the other hand, Crowley does remember one book he reread early: a book of questions about animals by Allen Devoe (?).

Delany said that he is hooked by style originally, but needs structure or plot to sustain that interest. He enjoys reading/rereading authors such as Guy Davenport, Ethan Canaan, and William Gass. And he has reread Juna Barnes's NIGHTWOOD eighteen or nineteen times. (He talked of her "literally pushing the envelope." Unless she is propelling a piece of paper across her desktop, this is an astonishing misuse of the word "literally" by an author who should know better. This, of course, would never should up in a Kirk Poland competition.)

Rereading may be a misnomer, Delany implied, when he said, "Not only can you not step into the same river twice, you can't read the same book twice." Someone had said, "Every time you read Proust it's different because you're skimming at different places each time."

Willey, on the other hand, was an addictive rereader as a child, and would read the same books over and over. (That's me. I reread my father's copy of Jules Verne's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND so many times that the covers fell off. I also read and reread Franz Werfel's STAR OF THE UNBORN several times while I was in junior high school.)

Crowley said that some books seem to have a time or age limit. He thought that the Pooh books were the height of wit and delight at age ten, but now they seem snotty and arch to him. Delany said he had the reverse reaction to Kenneth Grahame's WIND IN THE WILLOWS. Crowley said that he had an even stronger negative reaction to that than to the Pooh books. He was reading about the Rat saying that they don't go into the "Wild Wood" because the people there are "different from us." (In fact, he was reading this to a black friend and her response was immediately, "Right; spics and niggers."

D'Ammassa read Zane Gray and other Westerns before first grade, because that was what his mother had in the house, but read no other fiction until age fourteen. Rereading Westerns now, he said that Max Brand is still pretty good, but the others don't fare well.

Delany said in response to a question about whether knowing theory affects rereading, "A lot of theory you can't even swallow unless you reread the theory."

Delany said that getting people to read the first time is difficult. He said that when he asks his class who killed one of the characters in Joanna Russ's PICNIC ON PARADISE, eighty per cent give the wrong answer, based on their expectations of who kills whom in various situations. So Delany said that the first time you read you're reading for what is the same as other stories.

Eisenberg asked the panelists if they will reread a book after they've been taken in once by something unexpected in it. (I would say yes, and that those are often the books that I am compelled to reread. The latest example would be THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Priest. 'Nuff said.) Crowley said that he sometimes rereads to see how authors write. He also reread THE LORD OF THE RINGS for no reason he can explain; he didn't even like it.

Willey suggested, "There is a ritualistic aspect to rereading; you have to be an initiate to understand the journey." She also said that she can understand people in a room full of books saying "There's nothing to read" just as someone with a full closet can say "There's nothing to wear" or someone can look into a full refrigerator and say "There's nothing to eat."

Greer Gilman (in the audience) said that W. H. Auden talked about how each rereading was affected by the conditions under which you reread the work. Eisenberg said there are other factors as well. For example, the Nancy Drew novels are constantly being rewritten, usually just to change roadsters to cars, get rid of running boards and hair bobs, etc., but one had a completely different story. It seems that the original story had to do with the Ku Klux Klan, so they dropped that and added a phantom horse.

Willey said she recommends rereading A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth.

Crowley said, "Reading pop novels is like chewing my way through wet cardboard," but admitted a liking for Anthony Burgess. Delany said he recommended rereading John Crowley's LITTLE, BIG.

The Science Fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson
Sunday, 11AM
Kathryn Cramer, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Charles Oberndorf (M), Gordon Van Gelder

This panel should probably have been called "The Mars Books of Kim Stanley Robinson, with a slight mention of other works," since so little of his other works were discussed.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden noted that although he has packaged some of Robinson's reissues, he has not edited any of his books.

Oberndorf asked the panelists how they would convince someone to read Robinson and which book they should start with. Patrick Nielsen Hayden said that he would suggest THE WILD SHORE and THE GOLD COAST, especially to Californians, because they got the whole Sun Belt area right. (I though the Sun Belt was more in the South than in California.) Cramer said, "I don't encounter a whole lot of people who need to be dragged kicking and screaming to the works of Kim Stanley Robinson these days."

Teresa Nielsen Hayden said, "I feel at this point that the Mars books are one of the great works of science fiction." She quoted Jim Mann as having said, "Stan Robinson has done for Mars what Tolkien has down for Middle Earth." Cramer said that she read these in reverse order and had no problem. Patrick Nielsen Hayden added, "I have not experienced any boring passages" regarding the expositionary passages. Van Gelder thought that "part of the reason that readers don't get into these books is that readers are getting lazier." And Patrick Nielsen Hayden seemed to agree when he said that the books are full of everything people say they want: "optimistic, upbeat, full of science, full of scientists doing heroic things," yet people are still dissatisfied. "It's science fiction about the world, not science fiction about science fiction."

Cramer said that for her, "The characters most like Stan are the most believable, the characters least like Stan are the least believable." Patrick Nielsen Hayden added, "Robinson's fiction lacks irony and remove. He is very unashamedly earnest." Patrick Nielsen Hayden felt that too much science fiction is like FALLEN ANGELS: "full of heroic posturing, but mostly grumblings about the failings of liberals," while Robinson seems to feel that life is real and life is earnest, and has a fresh "morning-of-the-world" feel.

Talking about one of Robinson's other books, Teresa Nielsen Hayden said that ICEHENGE starts with an extremely unreliable narrator.

The panelists returned to the Mars books with a long discussion of John Boone.

Van Gelder thought that Robinson's best stories are those where he plays around with form (e.g., "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions"). Teresa Nielsen Hayden likes his use of settings: "He gives really good rock."

Oberndorf said that someone claimed that THE WILD SHORE was "anti-science-fiction" and that in general what Robinson was writing wasn't really science fiction. Van Gelder thought the label "'anti-SF' comes from the way [Robinson] favors nature over technology." Patrick Nielsen Hayden conceded this, but pointed out that Robinson is also a science geek. Teresa Nielsen Hayden added, "A lot of hard SF is largely composed of attitude" without any real technology. Patrick Nielsen Hayden pointed out that Robinson thinks the cable in the Mars books is cool and that terraforming is cool. From the audience, John MacLeod suggested that THE MEMORY OF WHITENESS and ICEHENGE had some commonality of technology and futurity with the Mars books.

Cramer asked (again, in regard to the Mars books), "We believe the science for the purposes of the book, but do we believe the politics?" Patrick Nielsen Hayden said, "The social organization in the Mars books is the least believable [aspect] but it's more believable than in most science fiction."

Cramer continued, asking, "Isn't it cruel to tell people that the order of things doesn't have to be this way, and can be different, given that it's very hard for people to change their beliefs?" The consensus was that people should play with ideas worth thinking about even if they're not believable and that there aren't enough writers playing with ideas. (The panelists named Bruce Sterling and Gwyneth Jones as people who play with ideas. I would add Greg Egan.)

Cramer, in a rare negative comment on another guest's writings, said that she disliked "The Blind Geometer," which started as science fiction and ended as how hard a man could throw a ball. This led to the other panelists naming their least favorite Robinson story. Patrick Nielsen Hayden disliked THE MEMORY OF WHITENESS, saying that non-musicians shouldn't write about music. Van Gelder disliked THE PACIFIC EDGE. Oberndorf, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Teresa Nielsen Hayden really liked all the "Gold Coast" stories, but Cramer said she knew someone who came from that area and wanted to bomb it back to the Stone Age before they tore down the orange groves and built suburbia (in reference to the earlier comment that Robinson disliked the fact that people had cut down the orange groves and build suburbia there). Cramer did not say who this person was, but I got the impression she might have been a farm worker, and as Cramer said, any Utopian novel begs the question of whose Utopia it is. It would probably be interesting to compare these Utopian novels to Octavia Butler's PARABLE OF THE SOWER.

Just for the record, Robinson's Hugo and Nebula nominations are:

Critical Theory: One or Many?
Sunday, 12N
Lance Olsen (M), F. Brett Cox, Kathryn Cramer, Samuel R. Delany, Michael Kandel, Donald G. Keller

"Some readers adopt a single critical approach to literature and then apply it to everything they read. But one can argue that Darko Suvin's Marxist analysis of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' is just plain wrong---in fact, really stupid. This implies that different books are variously subject to analysis by different approaches or theories. Is it possible to learn a variety of approaches, and to use the right one with each new book? Or are we better off mastering a single approach, and risking the occasional misprision?"

Keller suggested, "It's a matter of reading protocols. Every work you read needs a different theory," and quoted Delany as saying, "You should read a work against its ideal form." But then Delany said that reading non-contemporary works against their own ideal forms is somewhat useless and difficult. He felt that we needed to ask, "What is the text we have here in front of us doing?" and then discuss that.

Cox said he was "skeptical of any theoretic perspective that presents itself as some sort of magic bullet approach." Cramer thought that you need a basic familiarity with the motifs used in science fiction, particularly if you are trying to write in it. (On the other hand, Olaf Stapledon didn't know really know much about science fiction when he was writing it.)

Cramer said, "Theory is a set of systems of analysis that are of various use in various circumstances. Giving it the name theory gives it a testability and verifiability ... that it does not deserve." She also said, "As you learn how to read better, you build up your own systems of analysis" and learn to use other people's systems as well.

Kandel works for the editorial department of the Modern Language Association and said, "Criticism answers the question of what is this book or this poem or this work." Criticism also uses the work to shed truth on ourselves or on society.

Olsen asked if there is a right approach and a wrong approach to take to a given book. Are there approaches that are specific to science fiction? Keller said that even more than that, you can't even read NOVA the same way you can read DHALGREN. "If you try and read it [DHALGREN] as a space opera you're not going to get very much out of it."

Delany pointed out, "We read poetry differently than the way we read fiction." In science fiction, the landscape is heavier (more important), but this doesn't come under the rubric of theory. Delany said that he has never seen someone write a deconstruction of a science fiction text. (He said that THE AMERICAN SHORE is just a very close reading.) He also said, "I've never seen a serious psychoanalytic analysis of a science fiction story," but Kandel claimed that Ketterer wrote one of Stanislaw Lem's SOLARIS. In any case, Delany said, this tells us something about the nature of science fiction, and also about the nature of theory.

Delany repeated something he said on an earlier panel, that psychoanalytic criticism is usually of texts with large amounts of accumulated criticism.

Cox felt that criticism needed to distinguish between "could it be?" and "is it likely?" For example, he had a student who claimed that J. Alfred Prufrock was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome after his experiences in Vietnam. The fact that the poem was written decades before the Vietnam War makes this very unlikely. (I would say that not only was it unlikely, but it couldn't be, either, unless you accept the notion of prescience.) Cramer said there also seem to be many more ways to do it wrong. For example, one critic claimed LeGuin's TEHANU was strongly influenced by LeGuin's abortion in college, but Cramer felt that this was not likely after fifty years.

Delany said that the first critics were readers, then writers, and now there are critics per se. Keller felt that it was still true that "critics should be readers."

Cramer thought that outside science fiction people have a negative reaction to the history of motifs because it seems too much like the Finnish School (?) method of categorizing everything down to folk tales as supporting motifs.

Returning to psychoanalytic criticism, Kandel talked about Lem's FIASCO being easy to psychoanalyze, leading Delany to suggest that the goal of a good deal of theory seems to be to take texts that seem very simple and to "problematize" the text. That is, these works become teachable for a longer period. Cox said another problem was that he has to connect the science fiction he teaches to other fiction. (E.g., Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" is about a man who has his world-view shaken by a surprising discovery, like Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation" and Raymond Carver's "Cathedral.") Cramer suggested, "THE WIZARD OF OZ and SISTER CARRIE are a lot more similar than you would think." (My immediate thought is that they couldn't help but be.)

Kandel said that a lot of this discussion is about what goes on in the classroom, leading me to wonder if movie criticism more populist than literary criticism? And by this I mean not just reviewers like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, but also critics like Pauline Kael and others.

In any case, Cramer suggested, "What generates controversy in the field is anxiety about the marketplace and disagreements about who the audience ought to be." Delany felt that fandom is a counter-institution to the teaching institution providing some balance. The problem with teaching students is that the exciting books are those which are different from a whole lot of other books, but most students haven't read the whole lot of books that they are different from. This is the prime example of his claim that in the schools, it's the non-readers (students) that determine the books to be pushed (that is, the books that are teachable).

There is more criticism of science fiction these days, but still of relatively few people (LeGuin, Dick, Gibson, Tepper). Cox said that there is a NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF SCIENCE FICTION, but he is waiting for a trade paperback edition because no one is going to assign it if the students have to buy the hardcover.

(I asked about the Suvin article; it was probably in SCIENCE FICTION STUDIES in the late 1970s. I guess Eric Van didn't footnote his blurbs properly!)

Sunday, 2:30PM
Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson read two excerpts from his upcoming novel, ANTARCTICA, a book which seems to deal even more overtly with politics and class than the Mars novels. It's due out in Britain in September, and in the United States next June.

Nanotechnology and Clarke's Law
Sunday, 3PM
Michael A. Burstein, Catherine Asaro, Glenn Grant (M), Daniel Hatch, Daniel P. Dern
[written by Mark R. Leeper]

"When Arthur C. Clarke wrote that 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,' he anticipated by thirty or forty years the explosion of stories using nanotechnology. To what extent has nanotechnology become a catch-all explanation for devices that border on the magical? What techniques can be used to maintain a hard-SF feel in a story with such miraculous gizmos?"

Glenn Grant, the moderator, has had fiction appearing in INTERZONE, and has co-edited an anthology with David Hartwell. He also writes reviews and other non-fiction. Michael A. Burstein has been published in ANALOG, and though he has only four stories in print he is up for the John W. Campbell Award. Catherine Asaro is a theoretical physicist. Daniel Hatch writes hard science fiction stories for ANALOG. Daniel P. Dern has written science fiction but these day he writes about Internet.

Most attendees probably knew (Arthur C.) Clarke's Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Of course I thought that the really scary panel would be Nanotechnology and Sturgeon's Law.)

Grant started by asking the panel how many stories are really about nanotechnology versus how many just use it as a gimmick, indistinguishable from magic. Some of the panelists said that the problem with nanotechnology is that after authors read K. Eric Drexler's seminal book ENGINES OF CREATION that take one or two aspects out, but do not see that the whole society will have changed. They may use the machines for creating devices, but they do not have people in society with elongated life spans. If nanotechnology becomes commonplace, it will change almost all aspects of society. Burstein agreed and said that there were two types of nanotechnology stories: those whose authors have thought through the subject and have a valid extrapolation, and those that by Clarke's law put in some impossible device and explain it away with nanotechnology. Grant talked about the sort of bad story in which people are living on ceiling through the use of nanotechnology. Burstein said that authors have to think what a small machine really can and cannot do. You can have it clean the floor. But you don't want to have someone thrown from a window hitting the ground and splattering only to have nano-machines reconstruct the person complete with his memories a few minutes later. Grant gave the whimsical example of a Hogan story in which a bullet wound could be easily and quickly healed and the victim reconstructed. As a result it legal to use guns. In fact, people are told to go ahead and kill someone if it makes them feel better. It is healthy for the emotions and the hospitals can quickly fix the damage.

Asaro said that she did not like the hand-waving sort of science fiction. She used to read slush piles, and a new writer better have the science right, or be really good. Dern thought that BLOOD MUSIC is a good example, of a case where technology becomes magic. Bear's book is one of the few where the plot hangs on nanotechnology. Of course, it is not called nanotechnology in the book, just because it was written before nanotechnology came to the public consciousness.

The conversation turned to just how good the predictions of Drexler's book are. Hatch said he was not that impressed by Drexler. Particularly, he does not trust Drexler's prediction that we would be protected from the most dangerous excesses of nanotechnology by the media, science, and courts. Grant said that Drexler has since publication pulled back from a lot of the claims in the book.

Asaro returned to the fiction, saying that the stories don't take into account that all technology has problems. What happens if there is some failure in the design of nano-machines? Dern suggested that there also would deliberate tinkering. He said that nanotechnology in fiction has the same problem as the Batman utility belt problem. It simply does too much. There is no problem it will not solve and no problem in the design that you cannot get around. Grant suggested you have to find ways to deal with problems like thermal noise. It will limit the value of nanotechnology if it works only at minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Asaro said that things don't work like machines on the microscopic level. How do you handle supplying energy to these tiny machines and how do you dissipate their heat?

The conversation went to the social effects of the new technology. Asaro said that if we have a technology that can extend life span then right away you have a problem. If everyone has it we become overpopulated. Otherwise it creates conflicts of haves against have-nots. Grant said what he liked about THE DIAMOND AGE is that it showed that if you can suddenly produce enough for everyone it just makes social class warfare worse, not better. Burstein liked extrapolation that people would go back to considering hand crafting as the ultimate status symbol. Asaro that is already happening and now baking your own bread is thought to be the thing to do. Dern said that nanotechnology would create a world like in THE STARS MY DESTINATION, where the accent was on conspicuous consumption. He said the other problem is that the odds are that nanotechnology can be owned and controlled are zero. It will become a home-brew technology. Grant responded that depends on your assumptions. Specifically, can it be done on the desktop? Asaro said that computers started huge, a whole wall of switches, but now anyone can have one. The technology will become available and probably individuals will be able to work with it.

Grant said that Drexler expects nanotechnology to do the actual testing of nanotechnology developed, but that we will have as much trouble debugging nanotechnology as fixing a person. Dern said that in predicting a future with nanotechnology you have to assume it has already pervaded society. That society will probably be beyond the understanding of us today. Hatch pointed out all this plays into Vinge's Singularity. Asaro added that we have seeds of nanotechnology in all tech things and they will change everywhere. Grant said that this is perhaps not good. We cannot see where society is going. He can extrapolate twenty or thirty years, but past that is a wall of incomprehensibility. But Asaro countered that the basic urges of people are the same today as 10,000 years ago.

The rapid change of technology is making it harder for science fiction writers. Asaro said it used to be you had thirty or forty years to be proved wrong in your assumptions in a story. That is no more. She had a story that was based on good science when it was written and was out of date by the time it was published. Grant thinks that our impression of nanotechnology will look silly to the future. Are we going to look back on nanotechnology like we do on atomic energy predictions in of the 50s? We once claimed that atomic energy would transform the world and give us electricity too cheap to meter. Will we look back and say Drexler was overly optimistic about the potential of nanotechnology?

Burstein discussed the idea of having something like waldos that would allow us to do things on the micro- level with controls on the macro-level. Grant did not think this was really the potential of nanotechnology. If a human has to do it, it is a handicraft. What you want is for the machines to operate automatically.

Asaro said, "One factor we have not talked about is augmenting thought process." What will happen when we can augment brains? Grant responded that that is why we can't talk about past the Singularity. There will be people, but we won't understand them.

The panel recommended Greg Egan as an author who is good at making stories of the current technology. He gets into multiple levels of the questions that arise. [-mrl]

Science and Science Fiction
Sunday, 3PM
Kim Stanley Robinson

For reasons best known to the convention planners, this lecture by the Guest of Honor, guaranteed to draw a large crowd, was held in one of the smallest rooms. I suppose they may have figured that people would start leaving by this time, but the room was still filled to overflowing.

Robinson opened by saying that the lack of science in science fiction is not a moral disgrace; it is because the genre is misnamed. The name "science fiction" is an artifact of Hugo Gernsback rather than a well- thought-out term. On the other hand, the definition of "science fiction" is something we argue about in a theological way, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Even so, Robinson said, he would propose a new definition.

It is not science that is the subject of science fiction, Robinson said, but the future. He drew a timeline on the board, with anything set between 3000 B.C.E. and 1900 C.E. labeled as historical novels, anything 1900 to the present as realistic novels, and anything after the present as science fiction.. Pre-3000 B.C.E. are pre-historic fiction. Pre-historic fiction, science fiction, and alternate histories all have dotted- line relationships with the historical timeline. Fantasy sits away from our timeline entirely. Realizing that this immediately raises questions, Robinson asked, "What about fantasies that exist within our timeline (e.g., Tim Powers) and such?" But he didn't answer that at this time. In response to my question, science fiction set in the future that doesn't come true becomes alternate history by this definition.

Robinson then gave his definition: "Science fiction is the history that we cannot know."

From the audience, Fred Lerner suggested that science fiction is based specifically on the notion of historical evolution and progress, but Robinson felt that this was too confining, and that every science fiction contains its own historiography (historical theory).

Robinson then looked at the "science" part of "science fiction." Science is out to discuss what can be known. Science does not discuss metaphysics. (Robinson is married to a chemist and noted as an aside, "The origin of Sax Russell [in the Mars books] is not mysterious if you know my home situation.") Now novelists take ideas and run them through thought experiments. But many of the sciences have the same problem in that they have no reproducibility.

Robinson also took as a given that there is no way to change the name "science fiction" at this point. He really dislikes "speculative fiction" or "fabulism," though he didn't say why. He did say that the combination of the words "science" and "fiction" is very powerful. He felt that science is a determining factor in our culture. And science is in the realm of facts and creating facts out of data. Almost all facts are established by ferocious battles until one side wins, then they are "black-boxed" (according to Gerard LaTour (?)). On the other hand, fiction is in the realm of values: all stories express some values. So we have the fact-value dichotomy. (David Hume called it the "is-ought" problem.)

Now, the hard sociobiological view is that there are no values: altruism is just a way of protecting your genes, etc. And some people say there are no such things as facts (post-modernists, leftists, etc., mostly in literature departments). Robinson says his answer to them (his "Thus I refute Bishop Berkeley") is, "If reality is nothing but human illusion, why are my data so good?" (Or even better, he suggests, "If reality is nothing but human illusion, why are my data so bad?")

Of course, Robinson notes, from the same facts (e.g., a million people dying of famine, or abortion) people derive different values. So "science fiction" is "fact values." (Robinson then added, "Of course, if you look at the face-out section of Waldenbooks you don't see the genre living up to this.") As for trying to broaden the audience by getting rid of the name, he says that people are making their own mistake if they don't read science fiction; why chase after them? Also, he observed, people who say they want to be marketed as non- science-fiction usually mean just that they want more money.

Yes, there is bad stuff, he admits, but Sturgeon's Law applies, and science fiction is culturally dominant. This is because it is fun, and Robinson says of his home state: "In California, fun is not just fun; fun is a state religion."

Given all this, however, it is still sad that there isn't more science fiction about science. Why isn't there? "There's something very resistant to narration in the process of science itself." Robinson's example was a post-doctoral paper that takes a year of ridiculous work and bureaucratic problems. When it's finished, hardly anyone understands it, but it is cited thirty-four times, which makes it a success. Robinson claims that you can't tell this story in a novel. You could, he suggests, write "Murder in the Lab" with a dead advisor, but that's a different story.

People tried to suggest counter-examples: John Cramer's TWISTOR (in which someone's thesis disappears), a couple of novels by Carl Jurassi (inventor of the Pill), novels by C. P. Snow. (THE DAUGHTER OF TIME by Josephine Tey also uses a novelistic technique, and has no punch ending.) Fred Lerner thought the story as basically that of the prince who has to slay dragons, etc., in other words, a rite-of-passage story.

Someone suggesting having the discovery be the focus, not the scientist. Robinson said that technical papers do try to do this; they use the passive voice a lot. Lerner suggested that George R. Stewart had used this technique of having a non-animate protagonist.

Robinson also observed, "If hard SF is playing with the net up (to use Ben Bova's analogy), then it's also playing with a super-scientific device to shrink the ball so that it can pass through the net." For example, the classic hard science fiction story is Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" (which I will assume you have read, or at least know of). Yet Damon Knight made a long list of all the items actually mentioned--not just implied--that could have been jettisoned instead of the girl. As he said earlier, Robinson's opinion is that hard science fiction has a hardness of attitude ("we're hard guys") and a rightwingedness that he finds disturbing.

Someone mentioned Bruno LaTour's ARTEMIS and BEAMTIMES AND LIFETIMES: THE LIVES OF HIGH_ENERGY PHYSICISTS by Sharon Traweek about high-energy physicists. Fred Lerner suggested that it was philology rather than Wagner's "Ring Cycle" that drove the LORD OF THE RINGS, but I don't think this makes it a scientific novel. Someone gave the chapter in Gregory Benford's TIMESCAPE that is the orals exam as one example. George R. Stewart's DOCTOR'S ORAL was another.

Scientific conferences would seem like a good setting for a novel, but aren't much used. Connie Willis did a satire of one, but it was more a science fiction convention than a scientific conference.

The one example Robinson gave was that SOLARIS by Stanislaw Lem is good at describing solaristics. Still, "only 1% of SF novels are attempting to grapple with the problem of presenting science."

Robinson then introduced a graph that he attributed to Charles Sheffield but which seemed straight out of DEAD POETS SOCIETY: literary quality versus scientific accuracy and inventiveness. Someone in the audience claimed, "It doesn't matter if it's accurate because it's just a trope," but Robinson said that if ANALOG was going to claim to be emphasizing accuracy, it should be held to that. Of course, he said, it doesn't even do that.

Delany ended the hour by saying that the graph suggests not a deconstruction of the dichotomy between the two axes but a Hegelian synthesis.

Evelyn C. Leeper may be reached via e-mail or you may visit her Homepage.