The Science dilemma

My understanding is that in the early days of science fiction, stories were used not only as mind stretching entertainment, but also to either get popular ideas about science into the public eye, or to act as a predictor of future events. I’m thinking of Jules Verne, and his predictions about long distance submarines with their own power supplies, and rocket ships visiting the moon. Of H.G. Wells predicting the atomic bomb in 1914, Bradbury predicting earphones back in 1950, and Mark Twain, of all people, predicting the internet in 1904.  About all the amazing things which have come to be from 2001 – A Space Odyssey including arguably the iPad.

However, these days modern science is pushing into concepts like dark matter and energy, string theory and the discovery of ever more bizarre particles, like the Higgs-Bosun, which may finally have been observed. For the average person, these are pretty obscure concepts to grasp, and the degree of mathematics knowledge required to really understand them is beyond most of us. There are a lot of scientific concepts that we just have to take as read these days, and I’m sure that this has lead to the rise of pseudo-science. When it’s not possible for us to run the models, do the maths, or even understand someone else doing it, then there is a degree of faith in our scientists required.

I’m wondering where exactly this leaves science-fiction? Now that the cutting edge of science is slipping from the grasp of the average reader, is science fiction destined to either bend the rules of science, or to some kind of steampunk nostalgia? This question is perhaps particularly relevant to Hard Sci-fi, rather than people-based fiction (like mine, thankfully).

It seems to me that there is a fine line of definition we can make here which gets us out of this dead-end. Many of the innovations of old-school sci-fi were perhaps really new developments of technology, not science.  Referring back to the examples above, submarines, earphones and the iPad fall more comfortably into the technology basket than the science basket, and I think we are free to be as futurist as we like in technological terms, without threatening too many laws of physics. Would it be offensive if we started calling parts of science fiction tech-fi? Would we perhaps reach a larger audience with it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

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11 thoughts on “The Science dilemma

  1. Hi Kasia,
    I don’t worry about sci-fi being able to keep up with the technological advances. Jurassic Park was inspired by new advances in DNA research, which no one had even heard of a few decades before. The Matrix might be based on medical and scientific knowledge, but the story is the thing. The human brain makes sense of the world by framing it in story (and there is probably a scientific reason and an evolutionary advantage for that which one day will be explored through cutting edge sci-fi). For that reason, there will always be exciting sci-fi stories to help us understand our changing world.

    • Hi Naomi,
      I went to a story telling seminar a while ago, and it really was fascinating the degree to which the human brain is able to spin a good story around a few tiny and unrelated pieces. I guess it’s rather like going to the movies – sometimes you have to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story.
      I think Jamie has a great comment below about putting in a disclaimer on sci-fi that it may not be exactly accurate scientifically. I know some hard sci-fi people would hate that, but these days, we just may have to!
      Thanks for dropping in! 🙂

  2. I always felt that the interesting cutting edge thing for Sci-Fi was that it takes the human condition and transposes it into a totally foreign milieu to provide a foil to preconceived notions, ie Spock and emotion, or 42 and the meaning of life.

    One of my old favorites”The Mote in God’s Eye, Pournell/Niven make a strong case against democracy in how the federation is ruled when it comes up against an alien race.

    I agree that some of the concepts are likely only understood by about 200 people in the world. But I also remember when parallel universes were wild reaches.

    Sometimes, the reader suspends belief because in the universe the writer creates, he has declared the rules.

    • That’s a very interesting point – that sci-fi allows us to more closely examine the human (or alien!) condition by taking us out of the everyday. In that sense, the accuracy of the science is really less important. Good thought!

  3. “Tech-fi” is a cool term, and appropriate, too. I recently read Machine Man by Max Barry and Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, and I was struggling to come up with a category for both of them. They’re not exactly sci-fi, but tech-fi works. I’ll be sure to use the term whenever I can — and attribute it to you!

  4. I think most genres of literature evolve in step with society, technology, culture. We may just see different ways of playing with–interactive fiction, different author-reader engagement–using that tech-fi as part of the story telling process. As long as we keep questioning the interaction between fiction and the reality it is parodining/satiring/commenting on/ contributing to, we’ll keep ourselves sane and creative.

    • Wow – deep thoughts there. So if I read this correctly, what you’re saying is that it doesn’t necessarily matter if the science is right – but that how it affects the story and readers, and how it allows us to reflect on our current society is the important thing?
      I’d love to get to the bottom of this.

      • Science fiction often tries to predict the future by extrapolating with current theories that later science may prove wrong, or not applicable in yet unknown contexts. If we accept the truth of today’s science might be the fiction of tomorrow (think flat earth and sun revolving around earth), then I do think that part of the responsibility of literature is to help people reflect and understand and get comfortable with change. In my view, accuracy is preferred but if the genre is fiction it is less relevant to the overarching goal.

  5. This has often been a stumbling block for me, Kasia, and it tends to make my sci fi writing a little insecure and uncertain. I think the problem is that science has moved forward so quickly over the last Century that we actually have practical applications of most concepts we dreamed up in the past, and there is a lot less scientific ignorance than there used to be, so it’s a lot harder to fake it. How I’ve gotten around it on the new book I’m currently working on is to base all sci-fi technology on concepts that are already grouned in fact, or would at least be plausable based on where technology is now (I ‘invented’ a magno-grav engine this weekend for clean and efficient space travel), and once my story gets settled into the plot the sc-fi tech won’t matter because I’m stranding my characters without technology, so it’s a moot point.

    Basically, as sci-fo writers today who aren’t physicists ourselves, we have to work our ways around the fact that people are no longer ignorant, and that much science fiction quickly becomes science fact in this day and age. That doesn’t mean we should stop imagining or stop reaching for the stars, it just means we have to a little more work to ground it in the realm of plausibility.

    Also, I have decided to include an Author’s Note at the beginning of all of my longer science fiction writing now, letting my invisible readers know that I am not a scientist, nor do I want to be one, and all technologies and concepts are as realistic or unrealistic as anyone can imagine since they are not at all grounded in fact, but rather from my fanciful brain. If they have a problem with the technology, they can go read Tom Clancy go on for a hundred pages about submarine engines – Science Fiction isn’t real, and therefore my concepts don’t have to be either.

    • I’ve got to ask – when your co-workers asked what you did on the weekend, did you reply “I invented a magno-grav engine”? Fantastic. 🙂
      I love the idea of an Author’s note – this seems a very sensible way to get around those who really do know more than we do, and perhaps who will tell us about it in great detail! In the end, it is fiction, after all. I think that’s an excellent idea, as I too have felt a bit insecure when including this sort of thing in my writing. Even writing this post, I was a bit worried about it, and have since discovered to my embarrassment that i think I’ve spelt Higgs-Boson incorrectly!

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