Re: Social Science Fiction?

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Mon, 15 Mar 1999 14:05:58 -0600

Anders Sandberg wrote:
> "Eliezer S. Yudkowsky" <> writes:
> > Vernor Vinge: A Deepness in the Sky.
> > Walter John Williams: Aristoi.
> > Eric Drexler: Engines of Creation.
> > Linda Nagata: Tech Heaven.
> > Greg Egan: Distress.
> > Jack Vance: Anything.
> Greg Bear, Moving Mars
> David Zindell

(Sound effect: <WHAP>)

I don't believe I missed Zindell. I went out and deliberately looked at my Singularity bookshelf, and I missed not one, not two, but THREE Zindell books. Well, if I had a copy of Neverness I'm sure I would have noticed. I'll toss in a sympathy vote for William Gibson, who was original when he was new, and add some more books I missed:

Iain M. Banks:           Player of Games   (Duh!  Duh!  Duh!)
John Barnes:             Mother of Storms

> Why can't you build a book about a soft science?

Well, first, let me ask: Have you ever tried building a story? (If you have, ignore the question.) I myself have been trying to write SF for years and have yet to come up with anything worthwhile. (Of course, I maintain high standards; if I'm not going to be an above-average author, I'm not going to bother.)

And I would say: No, it's not easy to build a story around a soft science. "They require, not thinking, but scholarship." Soft sciences don't have sufficiently generalized rules. You can't vary conditions creatively in a soft science because they're tuned to the here-and-now-and-human, and are too fragile and inelegant to be taken out of it. (There are exceptions; these exceptions have ceased to be soft science.) And above all, the theories are politically correct, and political correctness doesn't make for either good fiction or good science. Soft sciences are the result of human nature, not descriptions of its governing cause. Writing stories based on them produces tales that are not only human, but stupid, unimaginative, naive, and bureaucratic.

> I would think it is
> actually easier for many authors to write about society, emotions and
> people than technology and science - but the authors who do so tend to
> write mainstream fiction, where alternative social systems are
> extremely rare.

Yeah? It's easier to write about minds than about technology? Well, it's a lot easier to write about *alien* technology than about alien minds.

We have more experience with the social effects of material technology than with cognitive technology. Authors who vary cognition do so by creating alien societies that are interacted with, but not often internally detailed. (Jack Vance is a brilliant exception. So is Vernor Vinge, who isn't half as good technically, but is more original.)

"Sorry, you can't write this story. Neither can anyone else." Maybe I could, or a brain-damage patient could; an autistic, Asperger's syndrome, Specialists... there are all kinds of neuromods, with experience that might create a truly alien mind; the problem is that few neuromods make good authors. Maybe I will; I have the verbal proficiency, and I'm working out the real rules for drama - but it's equally likely that I never will be able to plot a story longer than a short-short.

--          Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.