Verifying the Dream: The Reader as Scientist in “Soft” SF

The argument against “soft” or social (or personal) SF tends to involve the seeming subjectivity of the social sciences. If it can’t be measured quantitatively, it can’t be approached with anything called science. Leave out the importance of context – that numerical data is not so much impossible as it is inapplicable when it comes to understanding the human mind or human culture. Leave out verifiability in the cognitive sciences. We are faced with, as is mentioned before in this forum, an understanding of science limited to engineering, and which respects or acknowledges only data, not knowledge. To the hard SF fan, he must be able to get inside the engine of the ship and make sure it holds up to the forces of the universe. If he cannot be similarly sure that a character or society is of a certain integrity, he calls the whole thing fantasy.

The one criteria that never seems to be involved in the appraisal of the “scientific-ness” of a tale is the ability for peer review through replication – something no “real” science would be complete without. So you’re satisfied – the author has built a spaceship, and it checks out. But really, the author has painted a very loose image of a world in which someone has built a spaceship, and what he tells you is not impossible according to your own knowledge. How remote the craft is to you! How unscientific your appraisal of its capacity!

Dare I suggest that “social” SF – that which pries into the minds, let alone the brains, of its citizenry, practicing a form of participant observation in an imagined world – is more scientific than that distant craft? The reader is the scientist then – applying what she knows about culture and self and society – to her assessment of the record. In hard SF, the scientist is no one at all – he is nowhere has never existed. He is a ghost. The reader is less the scientist even than the author. Even if you can tinker inside the engines, so what? You haven’t been allowed into the control room.

Of course, in both situations, the only record available is the one the author has furnished. But what can be replicated is the assessment, the extraction of meaningful information, from that record. If the engine works, what of the story? If not, does the whole work go in the trash? When I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I know that I am the anthropologist. I see connections in the ways of Winter than Mr. Ai misses – not that Ms. Le Guin has missed them, for no author is her characters (except maybe Heinlein). I could write my own account, and it might reveal something meaningful in relation to the world in question. If I disagree with Mr. Ai, it changes nothing about the world he has recently visited; in addition, I may have a better idea, something to offer in his stead. The work is alive through readership.

But again, one must consider science a way of understanding more than a way of doing. The kind of critical, informed reading I’m talking about is not simply intuitive – knowing about psychology and anthropology and sociology and gender studies and religion, in formal ways, enrich and enliven the reading experience. Hard SF fans will be happy to know it’s still somewhat elitist – still restricted, at least at some level, by special knowledge. But let us remember that knowledge is not necessarily the thing that happens at the ass-end of an equation. It can happen on the last day of an immersive experience, through trauma or revelation. It’s not just bullet-counting and the summoning of conflicting theories in quantum mechanics (which is also fun, of course). It’s the ability to discern how IT works – whether that it be an engine or a village or a human mind.

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