Of Dinosaurs, Legos, and Impossible Hypotheticals

A Super Serious Meditation on the Nature of Speculative Fiction

One of the squawking points that the Puppy campaigners keep returning to in their quest to prove the existence of a shadowy Social Justice Warrior cabal that at some point took over and subverted the Hugo awards (thus necessitating that they ride in as liberators) is the 2014 nomination of “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love“, a quirky yet haunting and deeply emotive short story by Rachel Swirsky.

The Puppies, who only understand that tastes are subjective when it’s convenient for them, take it for granted that this story is so awful the only possible reason it could have been nominated was that the SJW clique was rewarding it for pushing the “proper” message.

I’ve never yet had a Puppy who was able to explain, when asked, exactly what the message was. Dinosaurs are more awesome and less frail than humans? Five men should not gang up on one person and savagely beat them with pool cues for being different? What’s the controversial hidden meaning of this story, exactly?

It’s worth noting that the Hugo voting community was and remains pretty sharply divided about this, and it did not win. So one must wonder what all the fuss is about, even if the story does not seem Hugo-worthy. Of course, some people might say that if it’s an honor just to be nominated, then it’s worth asking if the honor was earned… but the Puppies’ individual grievances suggest that they don’t see nomination as an honor. Both Torgersen and Correia’s Campbell nominations have been treated essentially as pledges that were not fulfilled, for instance, and Torgersen acts as though Mike Resnick’s nomination was an unforgivable snub.

But I don’t wish to focus too much on the Puppies’ problems with this story, because there are complaints against it that go beyond their borders. As I said, the community has been divided about its merits, if not as a work in general than as a speculative fiction story in particular. The common criticism amounts to the idea that it is neither a story nor SF/F.

My John Z. Upjohn’s review of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie actually plays on the logic of this: that since the whole story is inflected in the conditional case, nothing really happens within it. The narrator is not telling us what happened when the person referred to in the title was a dinosaur, but merely relating what might have happened if they were a dinosaur. So while the story is full of science fiction-y concepts (though it explicitly paints them as magical and thus fantasy, but more on that later), it’s not actually a specfic story—the reasoning goes—because none of that stuff actually happens.

As it happens, I can’t agree with this logic. I just can’t. “A text in which the narrator explains what would happen if something impossible according to our current understanding of the world happened” is a pretty decent definition of a speculative story to me. In fact, I’m not sure how it could be improved upon. If Rachel Swirsky had written an alternate version of the story that simply straight-out related the events being described as hypothetical in the extant version, they would be no less hypothetical and no more real, would they?

Speculative fiction consists of speculation; that is tautology. It answers the question “What might happen if this other, currently impossible thing happened?”

Swirsky’s story does a number of things worthy of discussion. Making the question explicit, making the speculative nature of speculative fiction part of the text rather than the subtext is simply one of them. If there’s any doubt that this skillful play on convention is not deliberate and informed, it should be laid to rest by the line which follows another impossible hypothetical introduced into the text, the line that reads:

all those people who—deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs– believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.

In this line, Swirsky is commenting on the porousness of the boundaries we try to draw when it comes to speculative fiction. This is science fiction, that is fantasy; this has lasers and star ships, that has swords and sorcery. But even without getting into Arthur C. Clarke’s apt but perhaps overworked adage about sufficiently advanced science… the divide really isn’t as clear as all that.

So much science fiction never bothers to address the why or how of its hypotheticals, because the question the author wants to address isn’t (for instance) “How can we make autonomous intelligent beings to serve us?” but “What happens when we do?” Isaac Asimov’s “positronic brains” weren’t a prediction; he grabbed the most scienterrific buzzword available to him at the time and used it to explain the leap necessary to answer the question of “If We Were Robot-Makers, My Fellow Humans”.

So much of the annals of science fiction require us to imagine not just a new technological breakthrough but a specific breakthrough in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe, some principle hidden to actual real-world modern humans, which when mastered allows us to do things that seem like magic.

Similarly, there are certainly stories with fantasy trappings that dress them up with what Swirsky refers to as the “trappings” of science fiction: magic may be explained away by the wise as simply “subconscious psionic talents focused through the use of repetitive motions and chants”. Actually, I haven’t read all that much that takes that particular route, but it apparently is or was once a common enough meme that I’ve encountered readers who just assume that all well-written magic must be this, and are shocked at the idea that it might not be the author’s intent.

The point I am making here is that you can interpret nearly all of science fiction as fantasy and nearly all of fantasy as science fiction, which might be why we get so hung up on the “trappings”, on the limbs and outer flourishes. This story is science fiction because it has atomic blaster rays, or cyberspace, or nanites, according to your epoch. That story is fantasy because it has elves and dwarves and dragons. Sometimes we focus on the feel when drawing the dividing line. Even a grim and gritty science fiction story is not grim and gritty in quite the same way as a grim and gritty fantasy story, though exploring why would probably take a whole separate blog post.

This porous divide is not the major theme or focus of Rachel Swirsky’s work, and I’m not suggesting that it is only in her acknowledgment of it that the work achieves relevance or eligibility as a speculative fiction story. If talking about the nature of science fiction and fantasy made a work science fiction or fantasy, this blog post would count as speculative fiction. My point here is that there is a lot more going on in this brief piece than a “mere” chasing down of impossible hypotheticals.

But that “mere” is used advisedly, because that’s “merely” what science fiction and fantasy are.

There’s another work nominated this year that has stirred similar questions in a more limited way, perhaps more limited because the Dramatic Presentation categories are seen as less serious and crucial in a literary award than the literary categories, and perhaps because as a Sad Puppy pick it is taken less seriously to begin with.

The work in question is The Lego Movie, which contains a couple of scenes near the end that make explicit the implicit framing device for a movie about Lego characters in a world made out of Lego blocks: it’s all a child, playing with toys. It is this moment, in my opinion, that elevates The Lego Movie from merely being charming and fun to actually pretty sublimely brilliant. It explained so many of the odd quirks of characterization and storytelling earlier in the film.

I mean, it changed the movie’s version of Batman from “weirdly out of character, but okay, it’s funny” to “…that’s freaking brilliant” because it wasn’t Batman as adult comic book fans understand him but Batman seen through the eyes of a child, with way more focus on the cool factor of everything and of course he has the coolest girlfriend and of course even the grimdark angst seems kind of fun…

But that’s just one representative example. Taken as a whole, the movie reminded me of the way my brothers and I used to play with our toys, not playing with this set of characters or that but throwing them all together in an expansive world, some with the figures “playing themselves” and others being creatively repurposed.

We had one figure of a female character with green hair in a red body suit. I believe it was a Robotech character, but she often stood in for Samus Aran because we didn’t have a Samus action figure available to us, but if you unlocked the armor-less playthrough and had the Varia, Samus had green hair and a red body suit. These are the kinds of creative compromises a child’s imagination makes on the fly, and The Lego Movie nailed that.

Here’s the rub, though: a movie that is about imagination and how children play with toys isn’t speculative fiction in any meaningful sense, is it? The story that the little boy is creating for himself is both science fiction and fantasy, but the story about the little boy creating that story through play is rooted firmly in the real world, right? Anybody could do that.

Except during those scenes in the “real world”, the main character maintains his consciousness and a small amount of ability to move independently of the child. There’s no narrator relating this to us. The child is not aware it’s happening. The Lego Movie thus is a fantasy movie, because it contains this element of the unvarnished fantastical.

But look at what a whiplash, razor-thin calculation this is: if we had a cut of the movie that removed the main character’s internal monologue from the scenes taking place in the basement and replaced the character’s independent movement with being accidentally swept to the floor or something similar, the movie wouldn’t be fantasy anymore, yet if we removed those scenes entirely, it would be fantasy again?

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

It’s far less ridiculous to simply declare that The Lego Movie is a fantasy movie than it is to say that it all hinges on the explicitness or lack thereof of a framing device.

To use some other examples:

The Wizard of Oz is a fantasy movie because the story we’re told from the moment that Dorothy is knocked out until the moment she regains consciousness is a fantasy movie; nobody went to the theater to see the amazing adventures of a young woman’s misfiring neurons, but her magical adventures in a land of wonder.

Big Fish is a fantasy movie because it contains a fantasy story; that this fantasy story is intertwined with a family drama makes it no less fantastical. The family drama keeps us grounded and invested, but no one went into that movie thinking, “Gee, I really hope that Billy Crudup reconciles with Albert Finney before he dies.” People might have thought that—or felt it, rather than explicitly having those words pass through their heads—while sitting there watching it, but that’s not why they showed up for it.

How about Edward Scissorhands? If you casually think about that movie, you might not even realize it has an explicit framing device. But the movie is explicitly a story we are being told, which means that any or all of the more impossible, unlikely, and phantasmagorical elements of the story might be imagined or exaggerated or just plain fabricated. The whole thing could be another “Big Fish” story.

Then there’s The Princess Bride. The heartwarming story of Columbo bonding with Wonder Years over a beloved classic story is important, sure. It adds an inflection to the other story, the story that he tells.

But when you get right down to it, what’s the difference between a fantasy story the movie tells to you directly and one the movie tells by means of addressing it to a character within the movie? Not much, by my reckoning. I’m not saying it’s not an important creative decision. The Princess Bride, The Lego Movie, and Big Fish would all be very different movies without their explicit frames. It’s hard to imagine them not being worse movies.

But every movie—every story—has at least an implicit frame. Even if a text is written in third person omniscient style with the least discursive and obtrusive voice possible, we are still being told this happened and that happened and he thought this and she said that and they did this thing. Convention dictates that an invisible narrator presented without appreciable personality or agenda should be fairly reliable, but what does “reliable” mean when we’re told the story of a thing that never happened and never could?

The lover of the narrator in Rachel Swirsky’s story never was a dinosaur, yes! And Han Solo never flew the Millennium Falcon. Captain Janeway never tricked the Borg Queen and returned to the Alpha Quadrant. Link never reunited the Triforce. These things are all both fictional and also impossible.

If you subscribe to the more SFnal-friendly versions of the multiverse theory (or to borrow the trappings of the other genre, the “all stories are true” theory of The Sandman), then of course these things did happen, somewhere, somewhen, somehow.

There is a world where Han Solo exists. In fact, there are infinite numbers of worlds in which he existed, which means that not only are there worlds in which he didn’t shoot first, there are worlds in which a trusting and slow Han Solo was shot dead by a cagey Greedo, and there are worlds in which Han Solo never owed money to Jabba because he was a vapor farmer instead of a spice smuggler.

So even allowing that there is a “real” world of Star Wars somewhere out there doesn’t let us say with any certainty or authority that any cut of a Star Wars movie or any particular of its expanded universe is “what really happened”.

All that we have in any SF/F story is the story, not the story of what really happened, just the story, or maybe more accurately, a story.

If we can imagine that any SF/F story we tell each other might be happening somewhere, we can imagine the same is true that any such story told within any story we’re telling each other.

The Great Speculative Fiction Multiverse not only demands we imagine that there actually a world where a little boy played out his frustration with his too restrictive dad using the world’s most amazing Lego set, it demands we imagine a world where conscious and autonomous Lego figures lived out that story. This demand does not change when we tell these two stories in proximity to each other, does it?

The distinction between “speculative fiction” and “not speculative fiction” is important, sure, but at the end of the day I’d say that the nature of the boundary is more something interesting to explore than necessary to pin down.

And I don’t need to know exactly where the dividing line between “fantasy” and “non-fantasy” lies to know that a story in which the narrator explains what might happen if a human being could magically transform into a human-sized T-rex is a fantasy story.