Science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangeletment

We all know Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”. This is a bold hypothesis (in the best of the Popperian tradition of conjectures and refutations) and so capable of falsification, and thus more scientific, because falsifiable, than nominalist definitions of the sort “science fiction is whatever I point at when I say this is science fiction”. Not only is this nominalist, but it is also definition by authority, as we do not pay attention to just anyone’s ostensive definition, which at best can only give us a more or less consensual list.

Darko Suvin’s definition is science-influenced at the level of method, but unfortunately not scientific at the level of content, and so needs updating. We have the good fortune of being able to refer to a meta-fictional update from within the best of the “high concept” hard science space opera canon, by solidly established authors in this universally respected paradigmatic sub-genre.

Enter the strangelet.

A “strangelet” plays a key role in Gareth L. Powell and Peter F. Hamilton’s LIGHT CHASER. As described in Wikipedia: “A strangelet is a hypothetical particle consisting of a bound state of roughly equal numbers of up, down, and strange quarks”.

Metaphorically read this is a good definition of a certain type of “high-concept” science fiction: it binds together “up” metaphysical concepts (religious, spiritual, philosophical) and “down” scientific concepts along with the strangeness that intensifies the sense of wonder inherent to such conceptual experimentation.

This definition also indicates a specific danger that arises when the highly unstable strangelet decomposes into up and down components and loses its strangeness. We then get transcendence (up) alongside reductionism (down) without binding into a coherent whole.

The ever possible decomposition of the metaphoric, or cognitive, strangelet, gives us a typology of this sub-genre of science fiction. Too many “up” concepts (C.S. Lewis or some Orson Scott Card) or too many “down” concepts (say Greg Egan) or too many “strange” conceits (some Jeff VanderMeer) and the bound state does not last in practice as long as it could in theory.

Hamilton and Powell’s novel LIGHT CHASER is a compromise pulsation between the bound and the unbound states of such a cognitive strangelet. See: LIGHT CHASER: towards a cognitive strangelet? | Xeno Swarm (wordpress.com)

Disclaimer: no intentionality is attributed to the authors, all intentionality, if at all detectable, is my own. SF authors are spontaneous strangelets (as are philosophers), and have lived through the death of the author so many times that … (uh oh! I have just unintentionally brought up another concept explored in the novel).

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LIGHT CHASER: towards a cognitive strangelet?

LIGHT CHASER is a short novel written by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell and logically should have been a science fiction novel, but a certain disconnect between the narrative point of departure and a key point of the underlying world-building deflected it from this goal.

Very impatient to read this novel as soon as it was released, I came across a mixed review on the blog The Cult of Apophis which left me perplexed. Reading this review I wondered if it was a bit too harsh, but I had yet to read the novel in question. Post hoc, I have to agree this review.

Indeed the lightness of the basic premise of the novel and of the thought process of our protagonist lead me to classify it as intellectually “pre-YA”.

We are told about someone, Amahle, with millennia of experience and a brain of amplified ability. She is confronted with a few anomalies, and radically changes not only her scientific and political paradigm, but also her ontological paradigm on this rather slim basis, without a long process of doubts, investigation, scientific tests or at least research done in the spirit of science.

At this level the novella (because, given its length, it is more of a long novella than a novel) reads like a summary of a set of ideas for a future novel, but the rigorous investigation and emotional development behind this radical change of paradigm are lacking. So the work of writing needed to motivate and make this conversion plausible isn’t provided, it’s a frictionless slide from one paradigm to another.

Without wanting to spoil the plot there are novellas, for example by Alastair Reynolds, where this transition with its journey of doubts, anomalies, haphazard deductions, partial revelations, is treated realistically, and not as the result of an almost blind credulity.

The question asked by LIGHT CHASER is how to fight against social and intellectual stagnation, how to fight against entropy? Is there a strategic key point that it suffices to blow up so that life can resume its “natural” course, that is to say, according to the hypothesis of the novel, its negentropic course?

Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell use a religious and spiritual type hypothesis, with trans-spatial and trans-temporal “souls”, to which they attempt to give a science-fictional materialised treatment. It’s ambitious, but the result is disappointing. If they had succeeded, they would have built a powerful literary cognitive strangelet.

The text abounds in interesting cameos, for example the short sketches of the worlds visited by our light chaser. Each world could have served as the basis for a chapter in a longer novel. The beginning of the novel is at the summit of science fiction in its description of the journey at 97% of the speed of light to inject a strangelet into the heart of a star and commit “xenocide” by a preemptive strike! (The ethical question is put in brackets).

Perhaps the question at this level is how to write science fiction that advances us intellectually and emotionally, instead of that stagnant literature that occupies a large part of the market today?

Answer: only an unyielding spiritual force can enable us to resist the stagnation and to craft and deliver the cognitive strangelets capable of blowing up the algorithms that regulate the market and increasingly the rest of our lives.

I wish our two authors good luck with their next avatars.

LIGHT CHASER: vers un strangelet cognitif?

LIGHT CHASER est un court roman écrit par Peter F. Hamilton et Gareth L. Powell et logiquement aurait dü être un roman de science fiction, mais un certain décalage entre le point de départ narratif et un point clé de la construction du monde sous-jacente l’a dévié de ce destin.

Très impatient de lire ce roman dès sa sortie je suis tombé sur une critique mitigée sur le blog Le culte d’Apophis qui me laissait perplexe. En lisant cette critique je me demandais si elle n’était pas un peu trop dure, mais je n’avais pas encore lu le roman en question. Après coup, je suis dans l’obligation de valider cette critique.

En effet la légèreté de la prémisse de base du roman et du processus de pensée de notre protagoniste me poussent à le classer intellectuellement “pre-YA”.

On nous parler de quelqu’un, Amahle, avec des millénaires d’expérience et un cerveau de capacités amplifiées. Elle se trouve face à quelques anomalies, et elle change radicalement de paradigme non-seulement scientifique et politique, mais aussi ontologique sur cette base, sans long processus de doutes, de mise à l’épreuve, de tests scientifiques ou du moins dans l’esprit de la science.

A ce niveau la nouvelle (car, étant donnée la sa longueur il s’agit plutôt d’une nouvelle) se lit comme un résumé d’idées pour un roman futur, mais l’enquête rigoureuse et l’évolution affective derrière ce changement radical de paradigme manquent. Donc, le travail d’écriture pour motiver et de rendre plausible cette conversion n’est pas fourni, c’est un glissement sans friction.

Sans vouloir spoiler l’intrigue il existe des nouvelles par exemple par Alastair Reynolds où cette transition avec son parcours de doutes, d’anomalies, de déductions hasardeuses, de révélations partielles, est traitée de façon réaliste, et non pas comme le résultat d’une crédulité quasi-aveugle.

La question posée par LIGHT CHASER est comment lutter contre la stagnation sociale et intellectuelle, comment lutter contre l’entropie? Est-ce qu’il y a un point clé qu’il suffit de faire sauter pour que la vie puisse reprendre son cours “naturel”, c’est à dire, selon l’hypothèse du roman, négentropique?

Peter F. Hamilton et Gareth L. Powell se servent d’une hypothèse de type religieux et spirituel, avec des “âmes” trans-spatiales et trans-temporelles, à laquelle ils tentent de donner un traitement de type science-fictionnel., matérialisé. C’est ambitieux, mais le résultat est décevant. S’ils avaient réussi, ils auraient construit un puissant strangelet cognitif.

Le texte abonde de trouvailles intéressantes, par exemple les petites esquisses des mondes visités par notre chasseur de lumière. Chaque monde aurait pu servir de base pour un chapitre dans un roman plus long. L’incipit du roman est aux sommets de la science fiction dans sa description du voyage à 97% de la vitesse de la lumière pour injecter un strangelet au coeur d’une étoile et commettre un “xénocide” par préemption! (La question éthique est mise entre parenthèses).

Peut-être la question à ce niveau c’est comment écrire de la science-fiction qui nous fait progresser intellectuellement et affectivement, au lieu de cette littérature stagnante qui occupe une grande partie du marché aujourd’hui? Réponse: seule une force spirituelle inflexible peut nous permettre de fabriquer et délivrer les strangelets cognitifs qui pourraient faire sauter les algorithmes commerciaux.

Je souhaite à nos deux auteurs bonne chance dans leurs prochains avatars.