We can think of work the way it’s taught in at school in physics. We can think of the idea of the force that moves something from one place to another in a more general way too. You can also think of the act of moving your mind from one state to another as work.
All writing does some work1. Non fiction explains or documents something, fiction simulates a world that doesn’t exist.
My understanding of literary fiction2 is that it simulates relationships or events in a world that we are comfortable with; a world that exists or has existed. Speculative3 fiction simulates less certain things. Sometimes it’s people we don’t recognise in a world that we do, other times it’s people we recognise in worlds that we don’t. (Occasionally it’s both!) Whatever combination of unknown and known, there is exploration of scenarios that we haven’t encountered before. That leads the reader into doing work.
I guess I should be more specific, I’m talking about fiction that takes some kind of position on how the world could be different to how it is now and follows those through. That could be “What if we turned off gravity?” but the most interesting ones to me are very subtle shifts.
Terminator gives the most obvious example of this kind of thing. Intelligent robots are taking over the world and humanity is fighting for survival. The post-singularity world has certainly stoked our imaginations. However, I’d argue that it’s not that useful because it doesn’t provide any good lessons or better intuition about how to think about the future. I’m not knocking this kind of story as entertainment, just that they aren’t as effective as intuition pumps.
In Future Visions4 there is a story by Seanan McGuire titled Hello, Hello. The difference from reality is that there’s a Skype like system that can learn your language. It is based on the current Skype translate but with an amped up learning system. I.e. not all that different to now. The interesting thing is what is unlocked by that tiny change. It’s not as exciting as watching Arnie shooting stuff but it provides much more traction on the near future.
Unless we’re in scenarios that are hugely different5 to how the world is now, that small reality-delta is where the work happens. The whole body of speculative fiction is like sensitivity testing6 for reality. It explores the effect of tweaking one part of our world at a time.
Scenarios close to how we experience ‘the now’, might actually be like how other people experience their own now, but with better diffusion7.
To state my position here a bit more clearly, speculative fiction is providing a service to society beyond entertainment. It is a lab where the implications of policy decisions can be grown to maturity in the safe confines of a simulation. We can modify our basic ethics to see what will happen (one possibility of what will happen). We can also do things that are a bad idea in the real world in order to provide a warning tale of the dangers at the end of that road.
Given that it’s doing such important work, it seems odd that it’s not given more funding as a policy exploration method. It seems that it’s not taught more in schools, where quality of writing seems to be prized over value of ideas8.
Assuming that someone actually reads it. You could also argue that the work is done on the writer; I’d certainly go along with that otherwise I’d stop writing this blog! ↩
Literary fiction has been show to have an effect on capacity for empathy. I’m a little sceptical of the specificity of this result, but I haven’t ready anything about it since it was announced a few years ago. My guess is that they divided the complete corpus into good literary fiction and everything else. The empathy gain probably comes from it being good, not that it’s not genre fiction.
Literary fiction comprises fictional works that hold literary merit; that is, they involve social commentary, or political criticism, or focus on the human condition. Literary fiction is deliberately written in dialogue with existing works, created with the above aims in mind and is focused more on themes than on plot, and it is common for literary fiction to be taught and discussed in schools and universities.
Literary fiction is usually contrasted with popular, commercial, or genre fiction. Some have described the difference between them in terms of analyzing reality (literary) rather than escaping reality (popular). The contrast between these two subsets of fiction is controversial among critics and scholars.
I say Speculative because some science people get a bit strange about areas where the science isn’t fictional. Speculative covers a wider gamut. You can speculate about worlds where the science is the same but the politics are different, or any number of other non-science differences. ↩
A collection of short stories sponsored by Microsoft. It publicises their translation technology in Skype, quantum computing etc. It worked really well because it forces a very long period of engaged thinking about the possibilities unlocked by a real life Babel fish. The stories are good, and it’s free too! ↩
Something like Greg Egan’s Diaspora. This is an essentially unrecognisable
worlduniverse where software beings explore new worlds and come into contact with other possible lifeforms. (E.g. computational, 1d cellular automata sponges and other ways that life could be but we don’t encounter.) This still does work by presenting analogies to the present day, but also by just looking a lot further ahead—some kind of extreme strategy thinking. ↩
I was going to just put in this link to the Wikipedia article but it’s not obvious what sensitivity testing does if you haven’t come across it before. An intuitive way to understand it is that if you have a system of some sort, the internal workings are like a black box. You have lots of buttons and levers on the front of the box, and an outcome is pooped out of the back of the box. Sensitivity analysis is wiggling the levers and pressing the buttons to find out what effect they have on the outcome.
In a simple system it’ll be easy to intuit what’s going on inside, but most systems aren’t that obliging. Complex interactions, even in simple systems, make it hard to intuit results. This is especially true when you get to places where one variable is zero or something strange like that. ↩
The oft quoted Gibson line about the distribution of the future comes into play here. I’d imagine that Sergey Brin’s experience of the world is very different to my dad’s, even though they both live in the same 2016. I’d imagine that a truthful description of Brin’s day would read as implausible science fiction to my dad! ↩
Maybe it could be taught outside English classes under a different banner. ↩
This opens up a realm of SF physics. Certain minds are more easily moved (less inertia), but different minds would be moved by different amounts. Stories would have different abilities to move minds per page, perhaps this could be thought of as power? And so on. ↩