Nov. 5, 2001
This article was produced from a presentation given by Dr. Deonandan at the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Symposium, held at the University of Ottawa on May 5, 2001. It appears in the academic anthology, Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature (University of Toronto Press, 2004) with the title, “A Scientist’s Relationship with Science Fiction” (pages 131-139).
Science fiction as a genre of literature, film and television has evolved from fantastical explorations of imagined worlds and technologies to dire sociological predictions about the ways in which human modes can be transformed by changing scientific ethics. With this evolution has come a shift in audience demographics, and a change in the attitude of the mainstream toward those who enjoy this genre. There is some evidence that the art itself has served to influence changes seen in the foci and timbre of research scientists over the past century, reflecting and perhaps initiating the evolution of Western science from its Newtonian and Darwinian observational origins to its modern mosaic of metaphysical concerns, quantum imprecisions, chaotic systems and psychophysics, etching a spidery spread of the scientific ethic to embrace the previously unrelated fields of economics, politics and philosophy. The history of science fiction is one of necessary dependence upon science, causing it to evolve into a kind of analytical tool, and potentiating a stronger influence on greater society.
SCIENCE FICTION PRODUCES ITS OWN AUDIENCE
Science fiction has certainly inspired many members of the present generation of Western research scientists to pursue their calling. The increasingly scientifically literate audience has, in turn, compelled the genre to evolve. This synergy has spurred some interesting developments, such as the rise of so-called hard science fiction, a genre appealing to technological sticklers. The response of the mainstream has been to sometimes ridicule those who enjoy this genre, though that ridicule is clearly tinged with respect for the stereotype of those with presumed technical proficiency, the fabled science nerd. The relationship between modern scientists and science fiction is therefore a complex one embodying both pride and embarrassment, inspiration and dismissal.
Within the context of science fiction, the synergy between product and consumer is a fascinating one. The so-called Golden Age of science-fiction, presided over by the domineering figure of John W. Campbell in the 1950s, saw the arrival of authors who would one day boast the title of Grandmaster: Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. This era benefited from a growing public awareness of science and technology, spurred by the recent triumph of the atomic bomb and by the first steps into space, courtesy of the Soviets Sputnik probe. Readers in this era had a cursory knowledge of science. They knew, for example, that Mars is another plant that orbits the sun, and that one requires a rocketship to get there. Hence, a classic like Bradburys The Martian Chronicles could be readily contextualized by the masses; its exotic locale on Martian surface was considered only mildly fanciful, its happenstance fully imaginable given the impressive technological achievements of the time.
But Bradbury was able to take great liberties with his novel, his own scientific illiteracy notwithstanding. At the time of the books writing, it was already well known to astronomers that Mars did not have a breathable atmosphere, that the Martian surface was much too cold and inhospitable to support human life, and that the fabled Martian canals imagined by astronomer Percival Lowell in the previous century did not truly exist. Yet The Martian Chronicles was not to be slowed by mere fact.
There is no denying, however, that simply having situated his novel on Mars allowed Bradbury to inspire within the hearts of his legion of mostly male, prepubescent readers a strong yearning for things Martian, much like how the wild west stories of a previous generation inspired an identical demographic. Bradburys tale is a simple pioneer frontier story; it was its otherworldliness that made it a best-seller.
As the 1950s drew to a close, the vision of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Johannes Kepler was becoming reality: humankind was venturing into outer space. The content of novels by Bradbury, Heinlein and Asimov was no longer fanciful musing, but was newsworthy fact. President Kennedy proclaimed that the American people would do the other thing and send a man to the moon, ushering in an era in which the previous generations fictional flights of fancy became anchored in realpolitik. Greater awareness of scientific issues necessitated a growing sophistication of the population.
From this maturation came a generation of writers for whom the otherworldliness of Bradburys The Martian Chronicles was insufficient. Engagement of this new audience required finer subtleties of storytelling, and grander ideas to explore. The twisted realities of Phillip K. Dick are among the children of this era, made possible by the deeper education of the audience. As the 1970s dawned, Western society was knee-deep in the language of science, with popular science magazines like Omni enjoying the cross-genre fruits of the marketing machinery of the Penthouse corporation, belying the growing sexiness of technology. Science sophistication was sufficiently advanced among thegeneral readership that the hardest of science fiction writers felt free to evoke images of dizzying technical grandeur and precision.
Larry Niven is a fine example of this breed. Nivens classic Ringworld describes the construction of a massive ring around a sun-like star. The rings trillions of inhabitants exist on the inner edge of the ring, providing a infinitely diverse set of loci for scripting adventure. Such a novel could not have been written before this era. While admittedly niche-marketed to a specialized scientifically literate audience, the very existence of that ready-made audience allowed Niven to bypass the minutiae of space construction issues. He did not have to explain that planets orbit stars, or that the ring must revolve in order to simulate gravity, to list but two minor points; such information was already in the public domain.
With the close of the twentieth century came unparalleled audience sophistication. Science education had become a mantra of social need, the necessary path for every student to achieve full participation in modern society. Within the generally more literate milieu had arisen a sub-population of intensely scientifically literate individuals, made so in large part by the hard writing of the previous generation. Young physics students are known to read the science fiction classics of the previous decades, such as Ringworld, Neuromancer and the many on-going works of Arthus C. Clarke the work inspires future science professionals, in essence creating and educating its own audience, enabling an increasingly sublime, glib and technically evocative body of science fiction work.
Perhaps the best example of this trend is the award-winning Mars Trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson. The following selection is from the second tome of the trilogy, Green Mars:
Perhaps, he thought, they had gone polyploidal, not as individuals but culturally an international array, arriving here and effectively quadrupling the meme strands, providing the adaptability to survive in this alien terrain despite all the stress-induced mutations…
The books were New York Times best-sellers, clearly reaching an audience larger than the traditional niche science fiction crowd. Yet, Robinson did not bother to explain genetic terminology, such as polyploidal or meme strands. Nor did he need to name the moons of Mars Phobos and Deimos or define regolith, the astrophysical term he frequently uses which describes the nature of surface rock on many intrasolar bodies. That Robinson could wield a complex scientific vocabulary so unapologetically is testament to his understanding of the audience that science fiction had wrought: a very large population intimately familiar with the touchstones of the genre — space travel, genetics and even many of the more obscure and atypical nuances of speculative science.
SCIENCE FICTION AS SCIENCE ANALYSIS
The intimate relationship between science and science fiction is often characterized by the latters history of having predicted developments in the former. The novels of Jules Verne, for example, adequately described advances in undersea exploration and air travel years before such things were actualized. Without question, this tendency is not true prescience, but rather a fanciful interpretation of the prevailing thought of the time. While the science of Vernes era could describe, but not build, submarines the likes of his Nautilus, Verne was nonetheless able to construct the machine within his virtual fictional world and run it through adventurous applications and simulations. In this way, literature provides a convenient venue for the safe exploration of extant theory. Many stories can be considered a coalescence of pure scientific thought into a contextualized semi-reality.
Johannes Kepler is thought by some to have written the first science fiction story in the 17th century. In it, he described a dream in which he flew to the moon and observed astrophysical phenomena about which he, as an astronomer, could only theorize. The art form provided him with an instrument for understanding his science in a more passionate and less analytical mode.
In a similar way, Arthur Conan Doyles legendary adventures of Sherlock Holmes are fine examples of fiction used to push the functional bounds of scientific analysis. These tales are not typically lumped into the science fiction category. But if one accepts a definition of the genre as fictional narrative in which the core events of said narrative are dependent upon the existence of science or technology that does not (yet) exist, then the tales of Sherlock Holmes belong alongside those of Conan Doyles contemporaries, Jules Verne and H.G. Well, as well as those of the Grandmasters Asimov and Clarke. As a medical doctor, Conan Doyle was able to entertain developments at the cusp of medical technology to empower his super-sleuth with analytical techniques that were not yet in employ by the police of the time.
Similarly, it is not surprising that the man often credited with having invented the communications satellite is Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote about the concept in a 1945 letter to Wireless World magazine, thirteen years before the first artificial satellite was actually launched. Clarkes abilities and experiences as a science fiction writer enabled him to think outside of the box, to consider scientific possibilities that were minutely beyond the technological capabilities of the day. Like Kepler, Clarkes unique position astraddle the worlds of both literature and science afforded him the necessary perspective to not only consider a technological possibility, but to run through fictionalized simulations of how the potential technology would affect larger society a thought experiment rarely engendered upon by scientists of the day.
However, in the world of strict science, simply exploring an idea or technological precept does not qualify as analysis, but merely as the initial phase of the fabled scientific method. Two remaining elements must be incorporated: a controlled experimental environment and the reproducibility of results. The former is easily achieved in literature (more so than in actual laboratory conditions, to be sure); variables in a virtual fictional experiment can be instantly constrained by simply defining the environment a priori. The issue of reproducibility is more problematic, as it requires independent researchers (writers) to obtain the same solutions to reasonably identical problems.
The constraint of extraneous and spurious variables was notable in the responses to a foolhardy decree by John W. Campbell. The guru of the Golden Age of science fiction had declared that a science fiction detective story could never be written, since in fantastical worlds an assailant could always death wish his victim from behind a locked door. Through this statement, Campbell betrayed his lack of familiarity with the laboratory scientific method. The obvious solution, expounded with gusto by the likes of Harry Harrison and Larry Niven, was that an author could preclude the possibility of death wishing and other problematic elements by simply defining the extent of his fictional world a priori. Harrisons various novels and anthologies concerning his character, the Stainless Steel Rat, and Nivens The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton are but two examples of science fiction crime stories made possible by the constraining of spurious variables through the construction of thick, detailed fictional worlds whose social rules, physical laws and technological levels remain internally consistent.
In contrast, the reproduction of results is not a traditional goal of literature. Indeed, writers strive to explore new worlds, scenarios and situations, preferring not to tread the same ground travelled by others. One example, though, is of the concept of the space elevator or orbital tether. Originally conceptualized in the early 20th century by the legendary Russian physicist Tsiolkovsky, an orbital tether is a device that extends from the surface of a planet outward to a geostationary satellite, providing a cheap and efficient means of transporting people and goods to and from orbit. It goes without saying that such a device cannot be constructed in todays economic and technological climate: the materials, expertise and wealth do not yet exist to enable its erection. Indeed, a functional orbital tether is likely to be at least a century away. Yet it has proven to be an attractive topic for several science fiction writers.
The most thorough treatment of the tether was given by Arthur C. Clarke in The Fountains of Paradise (1978). Clarke would revisit the concept in 3001: Final Odyssey two decades later. In Kim Stanley Robinsons Mars Trilogy (1993, 1994, 1996), an orbital tether was erected in Martian orbit. Larry Niven would reproduce the device on both Earth and Mars in his Rainbow Mars (1997).
The differences in approaches to constructing the tether are interesting. Clarke described a traditional bottom-top engineering project, while Robinson suggested converting an asteroid into a self-replicating titanium cable that is dropped down from orbit. Niven, meanwhile, gave his space elevator life, making it an enormous alien tree that is grown simultaneously top-bottom and bottom-top. All of the writers foresaw the unique stressors to such a structure, and strove to suggest solutions in the context of fictional narrative. Both Niven and Robinson had the foresight to realize that Mars secondary moon Phobos would prove a navigational menace to a tether. Both writers struck upon the same solution, to oscillate the tether in sync with Phobos orbital period. These elements of problem solving, technical precision and fine detail are quite appealing to professional scientists, hence these novels have proven to be particularly popular among that technical subsector of the population.
Of course, both Niven and Robinson were inspired both by Clarkes landmark work and by Tsiolkovskys initial theorems. Moreover, Niven credits Robinson for having first explored the Martian tether idea. These experiments are therefore not independent statistical events, and as such cannot be considered true scientific investigations. But neither are they mere fictional tales to be consumed without technological context or a nod to potential impact. Because of their unique nature, their preferred position between the planes of art and science, they must be considered a sort of meta-experiment in which analyses can be reproducible but not unique or independent. This in no way diminishes their value, but rather accentuates their important role in the hypothesis-generation phase of the formal scientific method.
The relationship between scientists and science fiction is a unique one in the literary world. The art reflects the activities of its audience while simultaneously inspiring that same audience to further its explorations. In engineering, this is called a feedback loop; in psychology, mutual dependence. This intertwining of interests has repercussions for wider society, increasingly so as Western civilization evolves into a genuine technocracy. How we will sustain ourselves in a world jolted by genetic engineering, for example, has already been examined in the realm of science fiction, while the treatment of the topic in such books as Brave New World no doubt informed and inspired the scientists who initially developed the technology. Moreover, our many possible responses to contact with alien civilizations have also been lain out and dissected in the pages of this unique genre, potentially providing a behavioural template for the real event. Since we are rapidly becoming aware that the projection of technological developments is vital for the effective preparation of public policy, the role of science fiction writers becomes heightened in the public eye.
In the novel Flying to Valhalla, scientist cum science fiction writer Charles Pellegrino succinctly presents the laws which would dictate present concerns regarding contact with an alien species:
- The dominant species of any world, like humanity, is necessarily ruthless and predatory;
- In any disagreement, an alien species will consider its own needs above ours; and
- An alien species will assume that these same laws apply to us.
Using these laws, Pellegrino defies the optimistic and dogmatic outlook of Carl Sagan, predicting that any interstellar contact would necessarily become violent. Pellegrinos ideas have spurred much debate in the world of speculative science, and may yet influence formal governmental policy with regard to space transmissions and exploration.
Without a doubt, the aforementioned relationship between genre and readership grows in its intimacy and potency. With the ever accelerating scientific sophistication of the general public, this relationship expands to meet those individuals previously uninterested in science fiction. This will likely lead to a growing mainstream acceptance of the genre, allowing both its spirited vision and its analytical precision to touch and affect an expanding population of scientifically literate fans.
Raywat Deonandan is an epidemiologist,award-winning author and co-owner of this website. His personal website can be found at www.deonandan.com.