On the reification of science fiction

Originally posted to the Science Fiction community on Facebook

One important factor to think about in the arguments around “what is science fiction?” is how SF was reified into concrete form in the 30s and 40s.

The real creators of science fiction from Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley to H G Wells had no concept of science fiction. They were instead creating from much deeper places. The collapse of religious narratives and the desire to find new narratives for the age of science. Or just the curiosity of what a world created in the image of technology might be like.

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But as soon as John W Campbell and others began using science fiction as a brand, the name itself begins to cut science fiction off from those original well springs of creativity.

Reification always has this cost. Bringing the abstract into concrete form allows it to be built upon. Science fiction starts to have longterm dialogues that produce genres like space opera or cyberpunk over time. But the label itself become a serious limitation.

The most obvious of these is simple. It goes like this. “It’s called science fiction, that means it has science in.” Or variations of. Science fiction’s relationship to science is much more complex than that. But the tendency to simplification is overwhelming as soon as the abstract is reified into the concrete.

The less obvious consequence is the ossification, or even fossilisation, of the symbols that constitute science fiction. Most will agree the image below is science fiction. Decades ago when the images of dystopian cyberpunk were formed they were a fresh vision of a possible future. Now they’re a dead fossil of an imagined past that never came into being. Science fiction itself is something beyond these specific symbol sets, but once reified it collapses into stale, dead symbols.

This isn’t just a problem for science fiction of course. Reification of the abstract into the concrete is what gives us religions of all kinds. And the reactions against those religions. Maybe that’s why science fiction in its most reified forms becomes pseudo-spiritual and overtly religious, like the Transhumanist and Singulatrian movements jokingly, but accurately, critiqued as The Rapture for Nerds.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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