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Ballard's Thesis: Eating the Hole

In 1974 the novelist J. G. Ballard published a preface to the French edition of his novel, Crash. It later appeared in the original English in Foundations, number 9, November, 1975. Ostensibly defending the place of "science fiction" in literature, his essay is more apropos now than then. Particularly since "science fiction" does not exist.

Ballard's dismay regarding the disreputability of "science fiction" when compared to the nineteenth century novel form that continues to be accepted and popular is in part addressed earlier. Most generic writing of whatever sort provides existees a comforting idyll in the mythos of residing in a comprehensible, static society or universe in which they might make a difference, where there is some meaning associated to the minutiae of relationships between the primates called Homo sapiens.

Ballard did not address the idea that the disreputability of the nonexistent genre called "science fiction" might stem from horrific prose and myopic vision. Terrible prose is a small issue, since there is no paucity of dreadful, leaden prose in the current crop of nineteenth century literature on the market, as a perusal of the works of many Pulitzer Prize winners will attest. Of course, this is in keeping with the current trend in the US where everyone is a genius, no matter how stupid, where to make someone feel inadequate is an egregious crime. Hence the literary agent, a bizarre gatekeeper akin to head lice, urging writers to not use big words, long sentences or correct grammar.

Ballard considers the second of these items, the issue of myopic vision, a success of this thing he calls "science fiction," claiming it was constantly being overtaken by its visions. He seemed unaware that this overtaking amounted to nothing more than the poverty of vision laid bare. No one can claim such absurdities as Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land were overtaken by their visions, as was the laughable 2001: A Space Odyssey, a piece of hubris that Ballard considers a variant of another laughable work, Gone With the Wind. Nor have any of these works any more to do with science than any of the others, including Gone With the Wind.

Post Messiah's Quantum Mechanics

Ballard's panning of novels that reject the language and images of technology and science is delimiting. He contends that the language and imagery of science makes "science fiction" (he considers William Burroughs among its practitioners) unique in portraying the universe as dynamic, placing it within a metaphysical framework. Two novels that serve as counterexamples to his thought, both twentieth century novels in the true sense of the word, both dealing with the sticky issue of time and causality central to twentieth century physics, are Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and José Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon.

In Gravity's Rainbow, the language of science and technology plays a large part. A cosmic joke of behavioral psychology dominates the theme with reversed causality afflicting the protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, caught in a web of entanglement of materials and operant conditioning and reversed conditioning amid rockets raining down on London during WWII. This would certainly meet with Ballard's approval.

Saramago approaches the theme of causality and time and cultural dynamic in a more muted fashion, crafting a quiet story of a lonely proofreader, Raimundo Silva, leading a simple life in Lisbon. While proofreading a history of the twelfth century siege of Lisbon in which crusaders helped expel the Moors, he makes a most uncharacteristic intentional change to the text. By adding a single word, he has the crusaders refuse to help the king of the nascent nation of Portugal.

This inexplicable action terrifies Silva. He does not understand why he did it. He fully expects to lose the freelance position which barely allows him to make ends meet. And yet the move changes history in a surprising way. His inexplicable action creates a new position at the publishing house that leads to an unexpected meeting with a woman soon to become his lover.

This interesting perspective is what is sometimes called advanced action in the philosophy of quantum physics, one possible way to explain entanglement of photons. To understand the notion, consider billiard balls. No one expects a billiard ball to move across the table from a collision before the impact, since it is assumed events are uncorrelated before their joint action. Yet with advanced action, it is from future correlation that a joint action occurs in the past. And it seems clear that this is what Saramago has in mind, though he might not imagine it in terms of the block time of modern physics. In fact, early on he dismisses technological language and images and metaphors by discussing how useful an unaffordable computer might be to the poor book-bound protagonist.

The point of these two mini-reviews is that according to Ballard this nonexistent genre he calls "science fiction," one that might include Gravity's Rainbow but surely not The History of the Siege of Lisbon, is the unique vision capable of producing such metaphysical works. Perhaps instead it is his vision of this chimera "science fiction" that needs to be expanded, contracted, or otherwise modified, or even scrapped altogether. Better scrapped, along with all generic classification.

"Science fiction" is truly the hole in the donut.

The Novel As Life

To progress to the utile in Ballard's essay, consider the striking connection between then and now in what Ballard calls the balance between fiction and reality. He contends that in the previous decade, referring to the nineteen sixties, this balance had changed so that, "We now live inside an enormous novel." Novel may be too organized a concept for what had transpired, but quibbling over terms is not relevant, since to first order his concept resonates. He writes, "We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind.." and goes on to list marketing, advertising, and politics conducted as advertising, among other fictions, all blurring and intermingling identities within the realm of consumer goods.

As previously addressed, this effect has multiplied in the new millennium. Now everything is presented as a consumer item, no matter be it car, tomato, idea in quantum physics or biology, drug, political philosophy, religion, or excuse to invade. And now everything except a very small part of the world is pure fiction. Not necessarily a novel, or a short story, but through and through fiction.

The Novelist As Scientist

Ballard claims that the writer's "role is that of the scientist, whether on safari or in his laboratory, faced with a completely unknown terrain or subject. All he can do is to devise hypotheses and test them against the facts."

Besides displaying an alarming lack of understanding of what scientists actually do, this idea is downright silly. However, it does give insight into some of his novels. One that typifies this naïve notion is The Concrete Island; obvious in manipulating the world, the reader and the experiment, it does not convince. It will be useful to understand why, and this will be taken up later. For now, it's best to follow up on this scientist thing, since there is some gold to be extracted.

Both the novel and the short story should be built on theory. If the author does not grasp the theory globally, which need not be verbalizable, and does not absorb it into the work, the work will ultimately fail. This is not to say it might not entertain some muddle-headed reader, since it is nearly impossible to predict what the reading public will find entertaining. The vast empire of empty-headed readers is mostly moved by what they are told ought to move them, a fact that shows with the convergence of novels, television, and motion pictures, now indistinguishable except for minor differences in genre and language and requisite "maturity."

With theory, the author can be guided by the interchangeability of truth and aesthetics, as is mathematics. Moreover, theory supplants the silly notion that somehow the language of science and technology is a magical means of implanting science and technology into fiction. This is Ballard's idea: "Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute."

Hogwash, this misplaced belief in a language of technology and science qua science. When Ballard writes, "Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to reinvent themselves," he is making a meaningful statement. Yet for all the abuse of the language of technology in his own fiction, he seems never to have touched the advanced concept of time and causality that Pynchon and Saramago both present in the works discussed above. And while Pynchon makes artful, sometimes mocking use of the language to which Ballard alludes, Saramago eschews it.

The reality is that those who shy from theory in their fiction are mute. Their work is drivel, the snot forming with the hopeless aspirations of anti-intellectual poseurs of intellectuality. It shows, too.

Science fiction as the hole in the donut

Missing from the above posted list of fictions are mathematics and the so-called hard sciences such as chemistry, biology, and physics, (though for simplicity sake the remainder of the discussion concentrates on mathematics and physics). Instead of hard should be substituted experimental, a discriminator that differentiates them from all the "social sciences." But hard has a second sense, namely that these sciences require thought and lead to sharp notions and principles that can be tested explicitly and objectively, particularly through application to new problems. This appalls most humans because such hard disciplines are not amenable to pure memorization and regurgitation of slogans or events or lists, as are the social sciences, but require comprehension. This makes them dangerous for several reasons: they can show individuals that they are deluded regarding their intellectual capability, they can cause those who learn them to ask difficult questions that go to the heart of a superstition, they can change minds, and they have the power to transform and create. As to the latter, consider the challenge of Elijah to the Baal worshippers in Kings, except now reversed with science challenging religion to pray a satellite into orbit. Would we kill those whose prayers are not answered, as the monster Jehovah's man Elijah did with the Baal worshippers?

Another useful consequence of this other meaning of the word hard is that mathematics might be included in the classification. Though not experimental, it is certainly hard in this second sense.

Hard science is indeed fiction, but with special structure that requires meaningful, accessible self-correcting mechanisms. Meaningful is given a specific sense, namely that the self-correcting mechanisms tie to the story in both the small and the large, that is both in terms of the particular fragment to which it is directly applicable and to the larger global milieu in which all the stories merge. In experimental science and mathematics, no one story should contradict another.

For this reason, psychology is not a science: no global story of psychology can coexist with the plethora of mutually exclusive local ideologies. There are experiments, besides the two-way simplistic training of pigeons and rats, that have a physical basis, including the electrical control of brain processes by Dr Jose Delgado dating back to the nineteen-sixties. However, these seem to spring from no testable story, though one will develop, that is certain. Part of the difficulty for such a story stems from the superstitious reverence given human consciousness by Homo sapiens, with their concerns about such "timeless questions" as where does consciousness reside, doubtless a nonsense question but not to those who insist in believing that something survives the cessation of the electrochemical generation on which human thought seems to depend. Fear spawns great resistance to learning the truth about anything removing mankind from a special status in the cold, indifferent universe. But as with the Copernican revolution, the truth in this case will out because it is rooted in the physical world. And it will fall into the domain of modern biology spawned by the Darwinian revolution.

Oxymoronic bullshit: social science? or the Invisible Hand masturbating

Of course, by social science one could mean behavior among hard scientists, but that is not how the term is taken. It goes with other oxymorons like political science. And one must throw in such stuff as economics here, too, no matter how much mathematics is piled on.

What has this to do with literature? It is a form of literature, and novelists in the twenty-first century need to be familiar with these non-experimental, non-corrective fictions, these non-sciences, as well as with the hard sciences as defined above. (They need not use the hard sciences in their writing, though they will if it is to be relevant, just as Saramago used the notions of modern philosophy of quantum theory in a novel completely devoid of the language of science.)

There is hope for psychology among the literary forms that go by the catchall social science to become hardened due to the intervention of biology and physics and chemistry rooting it in physicality; it is different for economics. In that pseudo-scientific orgy of mathematical methods, no development of method with even a glimmer of hope for prediction and experimental verification is possible. The essence of economics is superstitious ceremonial magic, rooted in metaphysical gibberish such as invisible hands and free markets, invented by Adam Smith out of jealousy for Newton's success with the metaphysical notion of gravity, or in Hegelian historical dialects, a fantasy turned on its head by Marx. These ridiculous "theories" became the magical methodology of competing political camps, thereby giving them status that allows no objective consideration. Nor is this so odd, given the current social movement in the US by a small cadre within the great body of organized superstition called Fundamentalist Christianity to cast science as superstition and superstition as science. Nor are they alone, since this is also a goal of New Age shamanism. The Fundamentalist Christian movement attempts to ape the Muslim states of the middle east and is a part of the strong tendency towards groupthink abetted by Orwellian linguistic control techniques made possible by lack of education, intentional miseducation, hatred of science and mathematics, complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the methods of science, and mentally ill individuals in high places. Of course, the superstition of Smithism plays particularly well with the mythology and superstition of Protestantism, as Weber pointed out.

Entering the new millennium, the economic mythology of Smithism holds sway, and so its stock has risen with this "proof" of the efficacy of its big magic. Unfortunately, its active principle, the invisible hand of the market, is unlike its inspiration and apparent imitatee, gravity, which cannot be seen but which can be indirectly measured with great precision.

The indirect measurements of gravity are tested with real effect, as with inertial measurement units to guide aircraft, rockets, and missiles. Their precision is key to their application. Newton's fiction, though now discarded in favor of Einstein's fiction, is tested every day with ever greater precision.

On the other hand, Smith's fiction allows no such measurements, nor does it provide any sort of effective application. The failures of the Federal Reserve and similar bodies of wizards in other so-called Free Market nations to invoke the Gods of the Marketplace to guide their economies to greater growth through the sacrifice of short-term interest rates or to cause longer term rates to rise with the ceremonial invocation of fractional point hikes gives rise to long quasi-mystical disquisitions resembling both incantations in incoherent tongues and the twisted logic of oracles, presented on command to august political bodies providing the wizards their national standing.

In fact, economics must be an anti-science, since whenever reality contradicts its premises, a phenomenon so common it goes unnoticed these days, when called to question the economists turn the method around, questioning reality as an aberration. Nor does anyone measure the power of the invisible hand, nor its withering when free markets are raped, as happens repeatedly by nations wishing to avoid economic and social debacle. Do these violations cause a disturbance in the markets, thereby weakening the invisible hand over time? Why not devise measurements?

Perhaps the greatest experiment for modern economics regards the celebrated Black-Scholes theory of options and other financial derivatives. Though based on the sound and beautiful mathematical theory of the Ito stochastic calculus, correctly making use of Ito's lemma providing the quadratic variation's effect on the formal mathematical derivative of martingale processes with non-differentiable sample paths, and earning the Nobel Prize in economics for its inventors, when applied it led to one of the greatest financial debacles in history. The Long Term Capital Management corporation, guided by the two Nobel Prize winners for this theory, provided the sine qua non of science: disproof. The theory is wrong, though few seem willing to investigate further. The problem lies not in the mathematics nor the incontrovertible idea itself, which simply adds risk to interest rates in the equation for options, but rather in assumptions underlying the entire economic theory within which it resides.

So cast aside hope for social science to merit the second word in its name except in those areas susceptible to inroads from biology and physics and chemistry. Ditto for religious superstition, though you will be presented an ever-increasing onslaught of religious nonsense masquerading as science.

The key issue to take away from "social science" is that of what not to do. Do not allow its mythology to guide the novel into more cliché left over from the nineteenth century, with which drivel the world is currently overstocked. Eschew the trite stories these false seers pass on. Eschew it all: psychology, sociology, economics, political science, all except descriptive anthropology and ethnology. If you want to learn about Homo sapiens, read the descriptive work on other primates, particularly the chimpanzee and the bonobo.