by L. Neil Smith
For Writers in the Round, March 16, 1990
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not a Toastmaster -- I'm more of an Osterizer, actually -- and I don't memorize my speeches, so you'll forgive the occasional reference I make to my notes. I promise you it won't be as painful as this handful of paper may indicate.
On the other hand, how did it turn out last time a dentist told you it won't hurt a bit?
Human beings have two eyes aimed in roughly the same direction because each offers a slightly differing view of the world. The contrasting images they produce, superimposed in a portion of the brain called the thalamus, give us an "in-depth" picture of our environment containing more information than would both viewpoints considered separately. We call such a picture "three dimensional", and the physical phenomenon which makes it possible is called "parallax".
For the same reason, we have two ears to tell us not just the direction noise comes from, but how far away the source is. Parallax informs us which way the train is coming from, where the woodwinds are relative to the brass, and who's the better guitar soloist in the Eagles' historic live performance of "Hotel California".
I often wonder if we don't have two nostrils to serve a similar purpose and whether we might have not only "smellivision" someday, but "smelleo", as well. Of course that technical development was impeded in the 1950s by the popularity of TV westerns.
Notice that we don't argue about which viewpoint is "right". We accept the data from each of our eyes or ears or nostrils for whatever they're worth in building a mental image of what's going on around us. If we only had one eye apiece, one ear, or maybe even one nostril -- a state I'm generally reduced to, thanks to my allergies -- that mental image would be a great deal less informative, less enjoyable, and less useful in the individual struggle to survive.
It isn't simply individuals who struggle to survive, but entire species, and, as a species, we're equipped with mechanisms to take advantage of the phenomenon of parallax, as surely as we do with binocular vision, stereophonic hearing, and "smelleo". Over the past decade, for example, science has at last confirmed what we really knew all along -- that men and women possess different neuroarchitecture and brain chemistry, which causes them to evaluate the evidence of their senses differently and arrive at different values and priorities.
This may not be "politically correct" thinking at the moment -- more and more it appears to me that thinking itself is no longer politically correct -- but it's scientifically verifiable, and it's extremely good news for all of us as a species.
Access to more than one point of view greatly increases the likelihood of correctly identifying the nature of reality, and enhances the probability of survival. If a woman sees the world one way, and a man sees it another, the resulting "three dimensional" view -- provided they can accept it and the mechanism that produced it -- can be an endless wellspring of prosperity and delight.
We may never be precisely certain how male and female values and priorities differ, because individual human beings also vary from one another without respect to gender. Old people and young people, just to name a single example, exhibit differing views of the world which produce differing values and priorities. But we don't need to understand them to accept that they exist and benefit from them.
As you might well anticipate, astronomers benefit from the phenomenon of parallax by taking pictures of the sky six months apart -- that is, from opposite points along the Earth's orbit around the Sun -- and comparing the images in various ways. It's like having a pair of binoculars 186 million miles wide.
We derive our broadest social parallax, our best three-dimensional image of human reality from the viewpoints, values, and priorities of differing cultures. If you're a productive- class American but you learn to see the world -- even for a moment, at the most superficial level -- the way it looks all the time to the Japanese or Moslems, then your life will be extended and enriched in more than spiritual or intellectual terms. To sell an icebox to an Eskimo or a manuscript to a New York editor, it helps to be able think like an Eskimo or an editor.
Naturally, not everything is culturally relative. Not every viewpoint is objectively valid. Civilizations have disintegrated and collapsed because their viewpoints, values, and priorities were dead wrong. For an individual observer, however, any viewpoint can be useful, and in the extreme instance, it's always worthwhile to peer out at the world for a while through the eyes of your enemy.
Also naturally, the whole process gets short-circuited if I force you to look at things the way I do, or even just to act as if you did. My father has always been angry that his high school stopped teaching German when World War II began -- because it was "unpatriotic". He ended up as a prisoner of war in Germany, a situation in which being able to speak the enemy's language might have been advantageous.
All around the world today, closed societies -- those societies which forcibly exclude divergent viewpoints, values, and priorities -- are rapidly disintegrating and collapsing, while those societies that attempt to remain relatively open continue to prosper in direct proportion to how open they really are. Those relatively open societies of today, in turn, will find themselves vulnerable in the future, as even more open societies spring into existence -- a process that I believe will dominate twenty-first century political life.
Which brings us to my real subject this afternoon, the field in which I've written seventeen and a half books so far, science fiction. It is the purpose of science fiction to grab hold one of your eyes -- metaphorically speaking, of course -- and drag it waaay out to the side of your head in order to increase the available parallax -- and therefore your own three dimensional view of the universe -- by several orders of magnitude. The basic difference between science fiction and horror, is that horror does what I just described -- literally.
As a medium-sized name in science fiction, I have addressed conventions across the country and lectured grammar schools, high schools, and university classes. I've been interviewed on television and radio and by magazines and newspapers which had temporarily run out of the little squibs that inform you that yak milk is pink and were desperate to close up the empty spaces between savings and loan advertisments with my equally valuable ideas and opinions. Whenever that happens, the interviewer or reporter's emphasis always seems to be on the idea that a science fiction writer's primary job is to predict the future.
Yes I tell them, like many another science fiction writer, I have indeed successfuly predicted the future. I predicted the invention of the digital watch years before they appeared, in the very first short story I ever wrote. Regrettably, I didn't sell that story until digital watches had been around for almost a decade. I predicted the collapse of the Soviet Empire in my 1983 novel, The Gallatin Divergence, and many of the predictions I'm making in the books I'm writing now depend on the same kind of reasoning that produced that successful forecast.
But fortune-telling is not the most important facet of science fiction. Human behavior -- which is what most attempted predictions will be about -- is the result of billions of genetic permutations and combinations, multiplied times billions of differing life experiences, multiplied times billions of acts of free will. Look at any individual around you and you're considering the interaction of no fewer than one times ten to the twenty-seventh variables -- which means that all human behavior is fundamentally unquantifiable and unpredictable.
It's this observation, by the way, and the resulting inevitable futility of central economic planning, which helped me to predict the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
The most important facet of science fiction is the parallax it strives to create. It's most helpful in this connection to understand that science fiction writers never predict the future, but only various possible futures -- plural.
Sometimes we predict certain futures in the fond hope that having written about them will help make them come true. Certainly Neil Armstrong would never have walked on the Moon if it hadn't been for the literary advocacy of Robert A. Heinlein.
But self-fulfilling predictions, however satisfactory they may be when they eventually come to pass, hardly make for impressive fortune-telling. Sometimes we predict futures in the fervent hope that, by the very act of writing about them, they won't come true -- "we" in this case being George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood, among others -- and our success (which I suspect weather forecasters and government economists have noticed and are desperately trying to imitate) becomes measurable by how wrong we turn out to be.
In my own career -- which in this respect is a bit like that of psychic Jean Dixon and other contributors to the National Inquirer -- I find it most productive to predict the present or the past. My methods and objectives differ somewhatb from Ms. Dixon's. I might predict a past in which Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo, in order to see what kind of present that might have created. Personally, I'm grateful I wasn't born in France, because I can't speak French.
My purpose is to create parallax, to drag your mind's eye way out here, in order to let you see the world in greater depth than you might otherwise have done.
My first novel, The Probability Broach, is science fiction, but it revolves around the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 because I felt in 1977 when I began writing it -- exactly as I do today -- that the American discussion of taxation was too narrow: should we increase taxes one hundred percent or merely double them? I wanted people to see what America might have been like if taxation were against the law altogether. Apparently I succeeded to some extent, because the book was published in 1979, has been out of print for many years, and I still get letters and phone calls every month from people whose minds I've managed to change on that issue and several others that the book considers.
How did I do that?
In the first place, by knowing what the hell I was talking about. There is a common view, especially prevalent in Hollywood, that science fiction is wild and crazy stuff, the purest fantasy, and that it doesn't have to make sense. That's one reason, I believe, that science fiction isn't read by more people.
The truth, of course, is that science fiction has to make more sense than other fiction, and not just because a technical error of the type or magnitude committed on every other page by Dick Francis or Stephen King will get Larry Niven or L. Neil Smith crucified at conventions by thousands of nitpicking fans.
It has to make more sense than other fiction not just because it's the last remaining genuine literature of ideas that can be found in Western civilization.
It has to make more sense than other fiction because science fiction writers do indeed make predictions -- past, present, or future -- that are often most difficult to believe when they're closest to the mark. Nobody believed me when I predicted that the Soviet Empire would fail long before the centennial of the Revolution. Science fiction writers therefore labor under a special obligation to convince their readers that these predictions, however unbelievable they may appear, rest solidly on valid observations of the real world.
Does any of this mean that you can't write science fiction if you aren't a scientist or an engineer?
"All" you have to be is an honest observer and a careful thinker.
True, you can write science fiction about hardware, like Charles Sheffield or James P. Hogan.
You can write science fiction about software, like Jerry Pournelle or Vernor Vinge.
But you can also write science fiction about "warmware" -- meaning human beings -- which requires even greater honesty and careful thought, like Zenna Henderson, whose stories of interstellar refugees from an exploding star stranded on Earth contain no science or engineering, as such, yet within their science fiction framework, capture the essence of everything it means to be human.
It's true that I'm somewhat better-versed in science and technology than the average individual, but that merely reflects my personal interests. My real expertise lies with history, psychology, and anthropology. And that's what you'll see in my books, along with the inevitable politics and economics -- and always enough sex and violence to keep those not interested in history, psychology, anthropology, politics, or economics turning the pages. I'm happy to say that Robert A. Heinlein recommended my work to at least one aspiring writer on this basis alone.
The book I'm working on right now is about a boy growing up in a pioneer community on Pallas, the second largest asteroid in the Solar System. It's full of technical details about gravity, soil, and wildlife conservation, but it's also the most ambitious love story I've ever undertaken. My next book will concern whatever it is dead people dream about, but despite the topic, which makes it sound like a rather depressing fantasy, I guarantee that it'll make just as much sense as the book I'm writing now -- and even have a happy ending!
So if you can remember that your principal objective is to create parallax, and that the further out you choose take your readers, the more sense you're obligated to make along the way, then you can write science fiction, too.
And now I'll entertain some questions.
I don't promise to answer them, just entertain them ...
L. Neil Smith is the award-winning author of 19 books including The Probability Broach, The Crystal Empire, Henry Martyn, The Lando Calrissian Adventures, Pallas, and (forthcoming) Bretta Martyn and Lever Action. An NRA Life Member and founder of the Libertarian Second Amendment Caucus, he has been active in the Libertarian movement for 34 years and is its most prolific and widely-published living novelist.
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