TEDxHull – Adam Roberts – Science Fiction as Poetry

TEDxHull – Adam Roberts – Science Fiction as Poetry


Translator: Amanda Chu
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Thank you very much. Here I am, standing in front of you, here to confess how deeply
I love science fiction. As you’ve heard, I have a right hand. On my right hand, I am professor
of 19th-century literature and culture. That’s my actual job description
at Royal Holloway, which is part of the University of London. My PhD was on Robert Browning
and the classics. I teach and I love poetry. Poetry moves me. It inspires me. It’s one of the great passions of my life. But here on my left hand,
I love science fiction – it sounds a bit like a sort
of Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – but it’s nothing but the truth. I love science fiction with a love that goes deeper
even than my love for poetry. And what I want to do today
in the 14 minutes that remain to me is to suggest you have the wrong idea
about what science fiction is – in fact, most of the people I know
in this science fiction community, including people
who write science fiction, have the wrong idea
about what science fiction is – and that science fiction and poetry
are the same thing. It’s not that they’re alike,
it’s not that they have things in common, it’s not that it’s compatible to like science fiction on the one hand
and poetry on the other, it is that they are the same thing. And I’m going to make
that argument here today with a little potted history
of science fiction, so we’ll talk about Greek warriors
and lions, and this and that. But I’d just like to reiterate
before I get going on that: I really love science fiction. (Laughter) It’s a tremendous thing. I love it as much as my four-year-old son
loves science fiction, although I’m a lot less likely to go running at people with my head down
shouting “Hulk smash!” but only because it’s frowned upon
by polite society – I’m not quite sure why that should be.
(Laughter) My love for poetry
probably exceeds my son’s unless you count “Hulk smash!” as poetry, which I suppose, in a sense, it can be. People think of science fiction
as extrapolated science; they think of it as nerdy and geeky. And most of the people I know
who write science fiction have backgrounds in the sciences. They did science degrees,
often science PhDs; it’s very popular amongst scientists. There’s nothing wrong with that. But to go back to the video
that we saw at the start of this session, with the speaker
whose name I’ve now forgotten, who looked like a slightly chunky
Ken Branagh – very good, very funny. It’s interesting that the art, which is
where my educational background is, is looked down upon, and nowhere is that more acutely true
than in science fiction. I’m not equipped, intellectually,
in terms of that knowledge base, to get at the heart of science
in the fullest sense, because my head is full of poetry. But I don’t think that’s a problem. I grew up reading science fiction, and this is my potted history
of the genre, for your benefit: When I was a nipper, a little kid, and even a medium kid and then a big kid,
which is where I am now, after all, the sort of science fiction I read, the classic, golden-age science fiction
from the 1950s and 1960s – we’re talking about writers like Isaac Asimov,
Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, great thinkers who worked
in what was a literature of ideas, who came up with mind-blowing concepts and intellectual,
brain-stretching thoughts, particularly Philip K. Dick. He’s an unfortunate writer
to teach, as I have done, because there’s simply no way
of talking about his achievement without saying the word “dick” a lot. And now you all see
you’re too mature to giggle at that, but you’d be surprised
how much giggling can be produced by 18-year-olds listening to a man
in his mid-40s saying “dick” a lot. Philip K. Dick, I think,
was a philosopher. He wasn’t trained classically, but he had genuinely deep thoughts
about the nature of reality. He played thought experiments out
in his short stories and his novels, and I think that’s true
of all those great writers. And it’s as a literature
of ideas, I think, that scientists
tend to love science fiction; it’s as a literature of ideas
that people think of it just as they think of those ideas
as being rather forbidding. It used to be the case
that that’s what science fiction was. Science fiction is different now. If I say to people,
“I love science fiction,” they will say, “Oh …” or they’ll say, “Oh yes, I used to like science fiction
myself when I was a teenager. Obviously, I’ve grown up since then.” Or they perhaps won’t be so brutal in the way that they confront me
with this fact to the world. I’ll say, “So you don’t read
science fiction?” “No, no.” “Do you see science fiction?” “Well, obviously, I watched Doctor Who.
Everybody watches Doctor Who. And I went to see Avatar.
Everyone went to see avatar. But I don’t like science fiction.” I’m thinking, How can this be? The thing that happened
that changed science fiction was Star Wars – 1977, when I was 12 years old. I bunked off school to see this film. If any of my old teachers are here today,
I’m sorry. What can I say? I saw it three times
in the first week that it emerged. I loved it; it opened my eyes. It’s not much liked in the world
of science fiction criticism – which is one of the worlds I’m moving – because it’s silly
on the level of content, it is derivative, the script is very badly written,
the characters are two-dimensional. But it is, I think, a great work of art, not because of its content,
not because of its ideas – because of its look,
because of its design, because of its special effects, because it has the most
evil man in the world living inside a gigantic
black plastic clam, (Laughter) because of its emotional affect,
because it can move you, as this ancient story, which comes originally
from the Norman Conquest, of finding out who
Luke Skywalker’s father really is. Star Wars was an enormous success. For a while, it was the highest-grossing
motion picture of all time. It’s lost that title now. Now that is Avatar that is
the highest-grossing film of all time, and that’s not coincidental. This is the shift; this is
what’s changed science fiction. If you draw up a list of the top 20
grossing films of all time – so I’ve deliberately put in fonts slightly
too small for you to be able to see so that you can’t challenge
my assertion here. (Laughter) And my assertion is, of those 20,
19 are science fiction or fantasy. The top-grossing film,
of courses, is Avatar. The second highest-grossing
film was Titanic, also directed by James Cameron, but otherwise, it’s all Star Wars, Lord of the Rings,
Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean – big-budget, spectacular, exciting films that embody a mode of visual poetry that entirely overwhelms the fact that almost all of them
are very bad stories. I noticed this is
quite a recent development. “The Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which on the level of story and character,
may be the worst film ever made, (Laughter) is nonetheless the fourth
highest-grossing film of all time because it looks stunning. Let me explain why I think this is true. This explains the presence of Titanic
in that list, actually, because what Titanic gives its audiences are the same satisfactions,
the same sense of wonder, the same scale – a mind-blowing visual poetry that you find in Avatar or Star Wars
or any of these other films. And this has to do with metaphor, and this is what’s going to bring me
back around to poetry, so bear with me whilst I get
a little bit technical. There you have Achilles,
who is a Greek warrior, and on there, you have a lion,
a small lion, living in a tiny little box, but he’s happy in there, just as I’m happy standing on what looks
like a giant golf flag of Japan. It’s just the environment
you find yourself in; there’s no problem with that. Aristotle defines a metaphor
as a way of talking about something that moves you beyond the ordinary limits
of how you think about that thing. If you say Achilles is a lion, on the one hand, you’re saying Achilles
is very brave and very ferocious – he’s just the sort of warrior
you need to be scared of, he will kill you in the same way
that a lion will kill you – but you’re doing more than that, I think. And this is at the heart
of what science fiction can do because science fiction is a mode of art that represents the world
without reproducing it. Science fiction
is a metaphorical mode of art, and it’s in its metaphors,
it’s in that process by which it comes up with a new way of thinking about
the mundane realities of life that leaps us out of what we’re expecting; it’s a sort of conceptual knight’s move
that takes you someplace new. It always seems to me
when I read that passage in which Aristotle
talks about Achilles and the lion, that it does more than simply stress the ferocity or the bravery of Achilles, it sort of creates a weird, monstrous,
rather beautiful man-lion hybrid that haunts the imaginarium
as you think about these things. So I think that this is
how poetry works at its best: It makes the hair stand up
on the back of your neck because it makes you think
about ordinary things in a new way that is exciting,
that is powerful, and it does that through metaphor – metaphor is the action of poetry. But metaphor is also the language
of visual science fiction, the science fiction which has come
to dominate visual culture – science fiction and fantasy,
more broadly conceived. If I’m asked to define science fiction, which is a famously thorny
and difficult thing to do, I will usually say, “Well, the Platonic form
of science fiction for me is the bone that the ape
who’s been playing on the African savanna throws up into the sky, and the camera follows
the bone all the way up until it’s almost
at the top of its trajectory, and then suddenly, beautifully, I think,
amazingly, movingly – it’s in a way that’s hard to rationalize, in a way that isn’t extrapolated
logically from science but in a way that is very powerful – it turns into a spaceship. That is the classic move, I think,
of science fiction. That’s what science fiction
does to my head, and it does it in the way
that poetry does it as well. And that’s the motion beyond. That’s how we describe it –
rhetorically, formally. That’s what a metaphor is. It’s a way of taking our mind
into some new space. And I don’t think science fiction really
is best judged on the level of content, I think it’s best judged on that of form,
of those poetic moments and images. And some of the greatest art that’s been produced
in the last half century has embodied that. The moment at the beginning
of The Matrix. And The Matrix is a film
with intellectual pretensions. It thinks it’s a philosophical disposition
on the nature of appearance in reality, and it’s alright in a sort
of sophomoric, derivative way, but as a visual work of art,
I think it is very profound. When Carrie-Anne Moss leaps up
and then freezes in midair, and the camera swoops around her, it’s not just that it’s Carrie-Anne Moss
wearing a tight leather outfit that makes me think
this is very beautiful moment. When the twin suns set over Tatooine, it’s exquisite. And Star Child arrives at the end of 2001; it speaks volumes in a way that
cannot be reduced to the rational idiom of which naturally and properly
science masters. And this is why I think science fiction
is a rather bad name, actually, for what it is that I love and, certainly, what it is
that my four-year-old son loves. He’s less interested in rational extrapolation
from contemporary scientific ideas. He’s more interested
in the rush, the excitement. He’s interested in being moved. He’s interested in turning
into an enormous, green smashing machine, as are we all, on some level. It’s very hard to take
a four-year-old boy round a toy shop and pick up a toy lightsaber
without going “vrr … vrr …” – you see middle-aged men
doing it all the time. And that’s the point
at which I start thinking this is how we should think
of science fiction. It is something that precisely moves us
beyond what we expect about the world; it finds eloquent and powerful metaphors
to talk us through our own experience. And I think that’s all I need
to say about it actually, so I shall sit down now,
but thank you for bearing with me. And I shall click on there,
and I’m back to Adam Roberts. (Host) Professor Adam Roberts. Thank you. (Applause)

5 thoughts on “TEDxHull – Adam Roberts – Science Fiction as Poetry”

  1. Very good analysis of what makes SF click with its audience … curious how this artform, even when written (as opposed to film), is so non-verbal. The trick for writers is getting their words to work even harder than "non-genre" writers have to. Tolstoy had it easy … he didn't have to bend reality on every page.

  2. Bit of a smug cunt…on my right hand I don't put in many hours on my day job…on my left hand I have plenty of time to write….hmmm…

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