Tag Archives: fantasy and hard science fiction

Science Fiction v. Fantasy

This is the first of several posts about Ken Liu’sSingle-Bit Error,” published in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. The story provides fertile ground for a variety of discussions–on its central questions about faith and rationality, on the nature of science fiction, and on its relationship to the other works that have influenced it. I got in touch with Ken to ask some questions about the story, and I’ll be sharing some quotes from our conversation in future posts.

For now, I want to focus on how the story’s genre affects its treatment of its premise. SPOILERS FOLLOW. One of Liu’s influences was Ted Chiang’s story “Hell is the Absence of God.” Like Chiang’s story, “Single-Bit Error” asks whether someone who does not have faith can somehow work into having it. In both stories, the main character is motivated to try to have faith by the death of a beloved woman who was a believer. Liu’s story explains it this way:

If Tyler were religious, he could have been comforted by the promise of reuniting with Lydia in Heaven. Or he could have been angry with God, and railed against Him until he could come to accept his life the way Job accepted his. But Tyler did not believe in Heaven or God.

But neither could his lack of faith give him comfort, for he loved Lydia for that light in her, and he had no name or explanation for that light except what Lydia told him. Her faith was what he loved.

To continue in his lack of faith would be to assert that Lydia’s joy was an illusion, and that would kill the very heart of his memory of her. But to believe would require him to break down the barriers between fantasy and reality in his mind and embrace as fact what seemed to him a hallucination. While Lydia was alive he could delay that decision for as long as he was in love, but her death meant that he had to choose.

I believe that Chiang’s story is fantasy, and Liu’s is science fiction, and that this difference influences how the stories play out from here.

In Chiang’s story, the angelic visitations are treated as fact, and the main character must come to terms with them. His problem of faith isn’t exactly that he can’t believe in God, but that he can’t bring himself to love God. He goes on a quest to ensure that his soul will go to heaven, and so he exists entirely within the frame of reference of the religious setting. When he comes to a point of resolution, it is a definite resolution. There is a sense of transcendent mystery in Chiang’s ending–God is ineffable, and his ways are poorly understood. There is no sense of uncertainty about God’s existence.

LOTS OF SPOILERS NOW:

In Liu’s story, the main character would like to believe in the angelic visitations, but suspects that they might be caused by a “single-bit error” in the brain. The story sets up plenty of justification for Tyler’s suspicion. Early in life, Tyler learns that human memory is unreliable when he realizes that a shameful incident that he remembers vividly could not possibly have occurred. Later, the death of his beloved, Lydia, is caused by a strange error in his car’s cruise-control system. Tyler comes to believe that a similar error could occur in the brain, and he sets out to use that to feel closer to Lydia:

If a single-bit error on a circuit board could breach the mathematically perfect type system of a programming language, Tyler reasoned, wasn’t it conceivable that a single-bit error in the brain could break down the system of distinctions between nurses and angels? All it would take was for one neural connection to be broken and randomly reattached somewhere else, somewhere it had no business to be connected to, and all the walls between the types of memories would come crumbling down.

Lydia’s vision of Ambriel, and indeed her faith, was then simply the consequence of a misfiring of the neurons, a misfiring that could have been triggered by fatigue, by stress, by a stray elementary particle, indeed, by anything at all, on that long ago day in the clinic in Boston. It was really the same process that had conjured up his memory of making his grandmother cry.

In order to reason your way to faith, Tyler thought, all you needed was a single-bit error.

Contrary to what you might expect, this theory did not cheapen or degrade Lydia’s faith in Tyler’s mind. For this explanation allowed Tyler to understand, rationally, Lydia’s life. Calling Lydia’s faith an error was a level of indirection that bridged the gap between their worlds.

Moreover, errors, once understood, could be induced. The technically proficient could breach the best software security systems by deliberately inducing errors in the hardware. Couldn’t the rational induce faith in themselves the same way?

Liu’s story ends on a note of uncertainty. Tyler experiences an angelic visitation, but ends up deciding that it was a single-bit error. The story doesn’t reveal what the “truth” of the matter was.

The sense of mystery in Liu’s story isn’t just in Tyler’s questions about God and angels. It also lies in his recognition of the mystery that’s still contained in systems designed to be predictable–such as cruise-control systems. To me, that’s deeply rooted in the traditions of science fiction.

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The Chemistry of Fantasy and Hard Science Fiction

I’ve been in many arguments about the relationship between the genres of fantasy and science fiction. I tend to prefer science fiction, but am far from a purist. Recently, I talked with someone who dismissed science fiction authors who dared to “commit fantasy.” The idea that writing a fantasy story is a crime that disqualifies someone from writing real science fiction didn’t sit right with me. Not long after that conversation, I discovered the perfect refutation: Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines.

The stories in this book are, for the most part, about robots living without humans on planets scattered all across the galaxy. Lem writes them in lovely, courtly fairy tale prose. They are about unjust kings, and quests, and the search for treasure. They are also undoubtedly science fiction, based solidly and playfully in chemistry. In many cases, the outcomes of the stories are determined by the nature of the materials Lem has chosen for the planets and the characters, and he litters stories with clues to the endings in the form of clever names and puns.

“Uranium Earpieces,” for example, is a fairy tale about the subjects of the oppressive king Archithorius, who becomes more and more paranoid about a possible revolt, and comes up with ever crueler ways to keep his subjects apart so that they can’t plot against him. The science, however, is front and center, both in the king’s oppression and in his ultimate overthrowing. For example (from the Michael Kandel translation):

In the day, when the sun was too much for comfort, [the people] slept in the depths of their mountains; only at nighttime did they assemble in the metal valleys. But cruel Archithorius ordered lumps of uranium to be thrown into the kettles used to melt palladium with platinum, and issued a proclamation throughout the land. Each Pallatinid was to come to the royal palace, where his measurements would be taken for a new suit of armor, and pauldrons and breastplates were made, gauntlets and greaves, a visor and helmet, with everything glowing, for that garb was of uranium alloy, and brightest of all shone the earpieces.

After this the Pallatinids could no longer come together and hold council, for if a gathering grew too numerous, it exploded. Thus they had to lead their lives apart, passing one another at a distance, fearful of a chain reaction: Archithorius meanwhile delighted in their sorrow and burdened them with ever newer levies.

I found Lem’s writing so refreshing. The science fiction and fantasy elements are so closely married here that I’d be hardpressed to pick them apart. Beyond that, the elements have greater impact when Lem combines them. For example, surely it is not an accident that Lem has the king use uranium as a tool for his tyranny.

This story is one of my favorites in the book, but, for the most part, all the stories are both quirky and moving. I also especially enjoyed “How Erg the Self-Inducting Slew a Paleface,” “The White Death,” “Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon,” and “King Globares and the Sages.” Though each story is self-contained, they build up a coherent universe and paint an ever clearer picture of how humans might fit into all this. Many of the stories have a pessimistic, tragic, or cynical tone, but, somehow, I still find them delightful.

The way Lem uses chemistry in his storytelling is inspiring to me, and I’d love to see analogous works that told stories that also adhered to the rules of programming in Python, for example, or the behavior of packets sent through TCP/IP.