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Is 'black-boxing' in scifi a serious problem?

When I read scifi fans talking about scifi, some seem to have a real aversion towards, and disdain forthe black-boxing of technology, for example: high-tech equipment that just works without any explanation or examination of how it does supposedly work, and so on. But is it really as bad as all that?

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Opening up the black box should be seen as a special condition. Usually, we just use technology and the laws of physics and biology, etc., without knowing or thinking much about it, or really needing to know for our purpose.

A: But this is science fiction we're talking about.

B: But it's not a science textbook.

A: But I want more science in my science fiction!

B: Yeah, okay, but the author needs to tell a story.

A: "He or she can do that with more science in it!"

B: "Gee there's no stopping you."

A: "Get the he'll out of here!"

I get that science-minded people want to know how things work; I'm science minded as well, and sometime I just don't care; sometimes the way things work at a different level is more important than what some specific kind of science geek is obsessive about, etc

If authors took the explanation route to technology and opened up all the black-boxes along the way, that would work out to be one he'll of a boring story and a long one. Would examination improve the flow of the story and it's pacing? At some point you have to take things for granted and move along with the story there's an impetus to get moving and keep moving, after all. I get that people think there are certain things that need explaining, and I tend to agree, but it's more than just that we draw the line in different places in the sand

I think there's some fundamental lack of awareness about the generality of black-boxing as a concept, which needs to be considered in order too understand this situation further. So here we go

Conservative establishmentarian scifi fans have a tendency to be asymmetrical about their criticisms about black-boxing: when they peg a black-box out as having no scientific basis, it's a problem; but when a scientific theory or fact associated with the scientific establishment is used, they often just accept it. They want more science in their fiction, and if they get it in the particular way that they prefer with all their inherent biases and preferences and selective knowledge, etc, they're happy.

Of course, you can challenge scientific theories and facts by exploring the zones in which they are hypothesised to break down, etc., and discussing the reasons for that and pose possible solutions, etc, but this still has to have a solid scientific basis. The author has to know the science necessary to do this and to do it plausibly for the hard SF audience they're trying to please or not tread on the toes of.

This kind of problematisation is what I like about hard SF as it's more associated with the speculative aspects of SF as it opens up the establishment's black boxes.

What I find a bit disturbing is the asymmetry between using real-world establishment science unproblematically and using fantasy science and technology. For the hard SF fan, the latter requires a he'll of a lot of work to explain the rationale for, which will probably never have a hope of ever being enough because it could never be plausible given the established science that we have in this world of ours. This is an irreconcilable clash of world views, I suppose.

But whether we open up one black box or another should also be seen as being dependent on what the story is about and it's aims. Is it about the exploration of the science and technology in the narrative or is the technoscience context presented there for another purpose? When the technoscience context is there to facilitate the exploration of other themes, such as morality, identity, subjectivity, agency, world systems, and so on (all of which may be emergent from and dependent on the technoscience reality itself) then maybe, just maybe, it's irrelevant to open up a certain set of the scientific and technological black boxes employed. Perhaps the writer needs to move forward and focus on what's important for the story; obviously, there's a tension here between choosing to open and choosing to keep shut.

This isn't going to appeal to a hard scifi fan but so what? Hard scifi fans sometimes forget at least, lately, it seems that soft scifi also has high status historically and that not all scifi has to be hard in nature to be legitimate or legitimately scifi even: the conservative policing of what is and isn't scifi based on references to establishment science is something else that I find disturbing. Anyway

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Posted in Photograph Post Date 01/28/2017


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