The Keys to Speculative Fiction

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Science fiction appeal lies in the immersion of the reader (L. Boily, glossary), and believability of these settings portrayed by the author, and without certain concepts and devices this would not be possible. A look at how world building and the four core concept of science fiction, exploration, invention, discovery or revelation, and transformation help to understand the different but specific science fiction speculative scenarios in Alien and Artificial Intelligence stories of the Si-Fi genre. Analyzing “Slow Life” by Michael Swanwick, “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling, “Liar!” by Isaac Asimov, and “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick to give a better understanding on the importance of these concepts and literary devices. Without these Si-Fi literary devices taken into consideration by authors when creating their works, would us as the readers truly be able to understand the speculative scenarios portrayed in their stories. Through the demonstrations of these concepts in each of these stories will show the importance of world building and the core concepts of Si-Fi and how without them the speculative scenarios would be lost or go unnoticed by the readers.

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In “Slow Life” by Michael Swanwick, a story that takes place in a distant future where a team of astronauts are conducting some scientific exploration and experiments on the moon of Saturn, Titan. Throughout their research, and unpredictable events lead to the discovery of life on Titan by main character Lizzie were some unforeseen events start to unfold. Although world building is less preeminent in this alien story it still plays a part with descriptive details about titan and details like when Lizzie begins communication through dreams. “Low, deep, slower than sound, something tolled. The bell from a drowned clock tower patiently stocking midnight … Flowers grew there unseen. Up above was where the sky would be, if there were a sky. Flowers floated there as well.” (Swanwick) Through these fragments of the story it provides curiosity for the reader and helps them to paint the picture of the scenario(s) to come. These details of world building lead the reader into the core science fiction concepts of “Slow Life”, with the details explanations of Titans surface “atmosphere so dense that refracted light made the horizon curve upward to either side” and it is these details that lead the reader to think about what it would be like to explore Titan. This leads into the discovery of alien life and Lizzies personal revelation of subconscious commination with this life form. It is through these concept that will spark the “what if” in this story, specifically being what if there is life on Titan and if there is life on Titan, would it be intelligent? Could it communicate and how would it communicate? Although in “Slow Life” it is mainly the concepts that lead into the understanding of the speculative scenario, specifically with discovery or revelation with the help of the details provided though world building. This being the case for many stories, the next has far more of a reliance on world building with the help of the core concepts that invoke the thoughts that help understand its speculative scenarios.

In “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling, the story takes place in the distant future in a universe where humans and other alien species can travel across the universe and interact in means of trade. The humans have there “Captain-doctor” Simon Afriel travels to an alien inhabited asteroid to conduct research on the Swarm. The alien inhabiting it, but the humans research triggers a safety mechanism of the queen that leads to the humans plans backfiring. With “Swarm” the understanding of the speculative scenarios relies heavily on the world building aspect and far outweighs the impact on it then the core concepts in the story do. There are so many details provided though world building that invoke many different scenarios, the politics and interactions between the humans and the investors spark the what if scenario of what it would be like if one lived in a world were trade deals were not done from country to country but from world to world. As well as what has happened with just humanity itself, having been split into two factions, the Shapers and the Machanists “deadly confrontations … in the Asteroid Belt and ice-rich rings of Saturn. … bribing away each other’s best talent. Practicing ambush, assassination, and industrial espionage.” (Sterling, 269) Again just the details provided about humanity and how they behave further to the understanding of the main speculative scenario will sparking interest more individual “what ifs.” The core concepts help lead the story through its complex world building to give it purpose and direction and still contribute a great deal to understanding the speculative scenario. The invention and testing of the pheromones, Mirny and Afriel proceed to study the Swarm and discovery many things through their experiments but unfortunately for them the swarm also discovers what the humans are up to and leads to the transformation of the swarm to once again awaken Swarm. The world building helps the reader see that not only are the core concepts apparent from the human perspective but the alien one as well “Like yourself, I enjoy irony, … You meant to make the Swarm work for you and your race. You meant to breed us and study us and use us. It is an excellent plan” (Sterling, 293) This pushes the idea of what humans could learn about this race to exploit it, and finally in this scenario would it be the humans who exploit the aliens or vise versa. Although the scenario could be portrayed without the extensive would building in this story it would become much harder to see and understand. Through the core concepts will lead us into the next story, one almost strictly portrayed by the core concept of invention and has a smaller impact from world building in a universal setting but rely on character development to help understand its speculative scenario.

In “Liar!” by Isaac Asimov, the story takes place in the distant future at a robotics corporation “U.S. Robot & Mechanical Men Inc.” where scientist and engineers in charge believe there was a mistake in operations that caused a robot to come out with mind reading abilities. This leads to some conflicts between the four members and “Herbie”, the believed mind reading robot. In “Liar!” World building does play a far smaller part then it has in any other story before but without it, it would still be much harder to understand the speculative scenario but not impossible. As this story takes place in a single building, it is far less about building on the environment and the universe they are in but building the character development and the relationships they have with one another Especially with Dr Calvin and Herbie “Susan Calvin whirled on him now and hunted pain in her eyes became a blaze, … “It’s a wonderful example of frustration, isn’t it? Almost as good as your books.” Her voice, emerging in dry sobs, choked into silence” (Asimov, 96) Dr. Calvin constant outburst continue to cause Herbie to cower It is mostly the interactions between Dr. Calvin and Herbie that make the reader start to think about the “what if” such as if there was an AI created that could learn and adapt how would we interact with it? One could say it is what the story revolves around and is the foundation of the speculative scenarios. While the other characters still play a huge part in the theme of the story and contribute to the scenarios, the focus is on the Calvin and Herbie and they just contribute to the overall main scenarios. Through invention of robots, and a mistake in operations “It reads minds all right—damn right about that! But why!” (Asimov, 91) The creation of this robot, there couldn’t be a speculative scenario of what would happen if this type of AI was created, and without discovery we could not see the other scenarios of how these relationships and interactions might turn out turn out, and the consequences and misunderstandings of them. Although the world building plays a part in the character developments and relationships, without the concepts of invention and discovery the speculative scenarios could go unnoticed. In this story the creation of AI is intended, they just believe it can read minds, but in the next the AI are created by the robotic creations of man and are brought about into the world not by man but by the robots built to destroy.

In “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world after a nuclear war between Russian and the United Sates. The U.S. has created a robot that’s only function is to kill any living thing it encounters that can repair and upgrade themselves to complete their given task. This eventually leads to the robots creating new varieties of themselves with an artificial intelligence that bypasses all the safety mechanism implemented by the U.S. to project themselves. The story follows Major Hendricks on his journey to the Russian bunkers as he learns the truth about these new varieties. This story begins with some in-depth world building it puts you into the setting of this scorched earth “Europe was gone; … Most of North America was useless; nothing could be planted, no one could live.” (Dick) Governments had already moved to the moon and even though the world was already destroyed they unleashed a killing machine that’s only protocol was to kill anything living “A metal sphere … Its claws were out, two razor projections spinning in a blur … spinning blades disappeared into the Russian’s throat.” (Dick). These spheres eventually were built if minor AI to repair and improve themselves, but unfortunately because of this implementation they adapted and learned, and where invention takes place, started creating their own varieties of themselves that were intelligent and cunning, they by passed standards so they could attack anything regardless of what side of the war they were on. Through the detail of world building we think about the scenarios of if robots were created with a purpose of destruction, and the invention of these robots having rebuilt themselves and started evolving into their own robotic races for the sole purpose of killing “They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other.” (Dick) Even knowing that that organic live of humans and animals now basically gone already preparing and evolving to destroy each other and the different variety’s. Considering the length of this last story, sure some could probably figure out what the speculative scenario might be, but the world built around these dynamic settings and characters and the core concepts are what grab someone’s attention and makes them think of the “what if.”

Science fiction is undoubtably a very popular genre whether it be novels or short stories, movies, or television if it wasn’t for the four core concepts and devices such as world building this just wouldn’t be the case, there would be nothing to grab the views attention. people wouldn’t be able to immerse themselves into the story allowing them to feel more a part of this fictional world. The less attachment to the story the reader has leads to less of an understanding of the speculative scenario, as these details put the reader in a position to truly think about the “What If.” Without these concepts not only would it be far more difficult for the reader to understand the speculative scenario there would basically be no story to begin with, at least not one worthy to drive the curiosity of “what if”. It is these concepts that trigger the thought of the scenarios which leads to its understanding through the details provided. World building is the foundation of the story that puts the reader into this imaginative setting at sparks the ideas of different speculative scenarios. While the core concepts drive the reader into specific directions and refines the scenarios into more of a specific scenario apposed to the broader view provided though the world building, such as, what if aliens live on Titan? To something like, if aliens could live on titan, how would they live, how could the communicate, and if we were to encounter them what would happen? These concepts are the keys to understanding the speculative scenario and without them it might just be impossible to figure out. It is just like if you were put into a room without a key and told to escape, without any clues this could be impossible but the more clues you find the closer you get and just like this world building and the core concepts are your clues to understand the speculative scenarios.

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