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Categorizing Lavinia

Ever since reading China Miéville's The City and The City, I've been trying out a new categorization tool. It goes like this: "This book is science fiction if X is considered a science."

The major caveat to this is that a great many science fiction books are not fictions of science, so much as they are fictions of technology, and not all technology is science. This is a very minor irritation professionally, but thus far I have been thinking of it as infiltration in terms of SF.

Now the challenge with "This book is science fiction if X is considered a science." is, of course, all the borderline cases. (Those are what make any act of categorization interesting.) Is economics a science? Is computer science a science? The further from general certainty a would-be science is, the more uncertain people are (in my very casual observation) to categorize the work as science fiction. The problem of subsuming technology under "science" for this purpose can complicate: if technology fiction is science fiction, then steampunk, clockpunk, and their ilk is all science fiction. (Note that this method says nothing about whether or not a book is also, or is instead, a work of fantasy.)

In the case of The City and The City, it is science fiction, by this method, if sociology is a science.

Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia is science fiction, by this method, if history is a science. It is, among other things, a book about historiography. It is a book which compares forecasts and hindsight to experiential reality. It is a book which explores what historical evidence lodges in our collective record, and how that record is dependent upon the subjectivities of the authors who made those records. It is a book which reminds us of the frailty of any record, and the importance of what can be gained from examining evidence in wider contexts.

There are no end of other categorization methods for science fiction which will or will not include Lavinia in the genre; they're all useful tools. This particular one boils down to what our (my) assumptions, prejudices, and definitions are of entire swathes of other kinds of knowledge categorization. I would argue that history can be a science, depending on the methods being used, and that Le Guin has treated it as such in this book.

(This post is a response to Lavinia's ranking at #8 in the polls results of the best novels by women in the last 10 years over at Torque Control.)


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2010 12:40 pm (UTC)
Very cool. I'm intrigued now.

Off topic, may I steak (with credit, of course) that icon? Love it.
Dec. 8th, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)
Er, steal, not steak.

Dec. 8th, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC)
Steak is good!

Credit doesn't go to me but to iconsbycurtana, who made it.

Edit: Which is to say, yes, feel free to use it! But also credit her for her work.

Edited at 2010-12-08 01:08 pm (UTC)
Dec. 8th, 2010 01:20 pm (UTC)
Will do...thanks! :)
Dec. 8th, 2010 01:26 pm (UTC)
And if you're really being complete, text by Terry Pratchett.
Dec. 8th, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)
Hehe, that I knew... :)
Dec. 8th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
Good! :)
Dec. 8th, 2010 12:47 pm (UTC)
Or is a science within the world of the book? ie Isaac in Perdido Street Station who is on the cusp of discovering physics?
Dec. 8th, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
Yes, absolutely!
Dec. 8th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
Is it history that Lavinia engages with, or literature? I have noticed that it is very much Virgil's version of the arrival of Aeneas in Italy, and not, say, Livy's.

Though of course, if I were to argue tha tthis is about literary contrstucts of the past, you could legitimately say, so is historiography.
Dec. 8th, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
The two - as you come near to observing there - are not mutually exclusive. It engaged with both history and literature. My impression of the book was that it was informed by imagery and archeology of the time and not Vergil alone, even if it is also very much about Vergil's version of the events. But it is also about Vergil-the-historical-figure in addition to Vergil-the-author, after all, in addition to literary constructs of past about which Vergil is writing.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 8th, 2010 11:45 pm (UTC)
I think that the time-traveling/haunting near-death poet is a means for examining the nature of history, rather than necessarily a depiction of a science in its own right. His presence is more interesting - to me - firstly, as a means of prediction/prophecy, which Lavinia can see and experience played out within the scope of her own experience, and how the two correlate; and secondly for the layered narrative which enables the reader to think about the subjectivity and layers of the historical events reflected through various veils in the narrative. I certainly don't think of it as either a ghost or time travel novel.

Certainly you could argue for philology and whale-hunting as sciences: but would you like to? Are you likely to find such arguments convincing? The whale-hunting one in particular will be burdened with the problem of the degree to which methodology - as opposed to physical objects - is technological and therefore, potentially, scientific.

I've heard plenty of arguments that neither computer science nor sociology are sciences either, and they are less problematic categories in the first place, at least in comparison. But I'm certainly not the first to argue for history as science: there's ample precedent for it.
Dec. 9th, 2010 01:22 am (UTC)
I'm dubious about the proposition of history as a science. To be a science, you have to be able to make a hypothesis, run an experiment, and have the results of that experiment be reproducible.

You'd need Pastwatch-style history-watching machines and/or To Say Nothing of the Dog-style time travel with sims (to experiment on the past without editing yourself from the present) to achieve that, I think. (But I don't think Pastwatch really counts because you can't repeat your experiment, and in Willis's universe the data-gathering is not at all objective.)

(I have not read Lavinia.)
Dec. 10th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
I'm dubious about the proposition of history as a science. To be a science, you have to be able to make a hypothesis, run an experiment, and have the results of that experiment be reproducible.

I would argue that historians are quite capable of doing this entire process and regularly do. They are limited by the amount of evidence which has survived, but so are paleontologists, geologers, or physicists working on the Big Bang - any historical phenomenon, really.

If you are not happy with the idea that different documents or excavation sites constitute equivalent data on which to test hypotheses, then perhaps you might also struggle to reconcile diagnoses of truly obscure diseases, or current extrapolations of the development of Homo sapiens, based on the relatively few much older skeletons which have thus far been found. (I'm not saying you do! But these are also cases with limited evidence, even when the underlying method can be used and reused each time new evidence shows up.)
Dec. 10th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC)
It's not the limited evidence that I find problematic - it's the subjective nature of it. I'm referring to documents, not to excavations - maybe my definition of "history" is narrower than is proper, because I file excavations under "archaeology - related but not equal to history", and that part I do consider scientific.

But documents are written by humans, who can forget, be mistaken, be misled, or outright lie. You can be thorough, logical, and rigorous about sorting through which accounts to trust, but you still have to trust - you can't go examine the event they write about yourself, and see it with your own eyes. And neither can anybody else.
Dec. 9th, 2010 10:56 am (UTC)
Damn...now I have to read Lavinia....

Next to Ovid, Virgil is my favorite Roman poet....and I liked Left Hand of Darkness - and therefore, need to read more LeGuin.

Have you ever heard the term "hard science fiction"? I was first introduced to the term with Larry Niven's novels (and a book based around the LHC that I read in 1999 - I am going crazy trying to remember the name/author). So, maybe if hard science fiction deals in details from physics, etc....."soft science fiction" deals in the "soft sciences" (e.g. psychology, history, etc.). Just a thought.

Unrelated: I can't seem to make LJ let me italicize titles...
Dec. 10th, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
Hard SF usually wears its scienticity on its sleeve. The author not only knows how the world works, but explains it to the reader to some degree.

Soft SF, in my experience of the label, errs on the side of more handwaviness toward its underpinnings. Star Trek is a good example. We don't know how a warp drive works, we just have to trust that it does.

I suspect there is a certain amount of effective overlap, though, between your suggestion and the use of it I've seen.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )