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Mar 28 2010

Bug-eyed monsters from the planet Tharg

In a shameless piece of idea stealing I thought I’d write about how fiction informed my enthusiasm for science. Lucy Inglis at Georgian London started it, with her post on historical fiction had fed her enthusiasm for history. The Gentleman Administrator added his own thoughts, which are a little different. Then Jon Butterworth, a fellow scientist, mentioned sci-fi over on his blog so I thought I better get on with it before I was scooped!

Over the years I’ve read a huge amount of science fiction, from a huge number of authors but it’s always felt like something you don’t admit to in polite company. It’s always felt like a genre to be looked down upon by literary society. I think it’s the most imaginative writing there is.

Science fiction is a broad church ranging from almost entirely impersonal such as Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, to the very intensely human such as The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

Sometimes science-fiction is simply a back drop for a story: a thriller, a horror story, a romance – the fact it takes place on another planet, or in a whole different universe is entirely unimportant to the story. Sometimes science-fiction is about reflecting the fears of the day: the end of the world through nuclear war, a jingoistic enthusiasm for conquering new territories, or a reflection of a socially liberated society. Sometimes science-fiction is about a scientific idea, a what-if question. The best science-fiction mixes all three of these elements.

I can’t resistant adding in a few of my favourite ideas based science fiction here: Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy is about a planet with century-long seasons, and how this impacts the animals, and “people” that live on it. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany is a classic science-fiction of ideas: what if there were a language, the knowledge of which let you think and act much faster? The Forever War by Joe Haldeman considers seriously the problems of fighting an interstellar war with combatants “lost in time” through the effects of time-dilation achieved by travelling at speeds approaching that of light, no doubt also influenced by his experience of the Vietnam war. Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks is about an isolated planet, subject to civilisation for many thousands of years, whose inhabitants have never left the planet surface in contrast to most science fiction where heading off to the stars is an early achievement. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a detailed exploration of the mechanics (and sociology) of how we might really colonise Mars.

That’s just a tiny selection of the ones I can remember, there are so many other ideas from science fiction for which I just retain fragments. In writing this I’ve really struggled to keep the number of references to reasonable levels.

The attraction of science fiction for me are dreams of where we’re heading. Science in the lab can take years to work its way out into the real world, and often the impact of any particular experiment is rather small. Science fiction leapfrogs all that tedious waiting for an effect: it gives you the future, now.

Sometimes it can be surprisingly difficult to work out the potential impact of a new technology, who’d have thought that the ability to send 140 character text messages would be such an important use of mobile phone technology? To take an older example, in the late 18th century there was an enthusiasm for hot-air and hydrogen balloons but imagining their applications turned out to be surprisingly difficult task: principle amongst the proposed applications seemed to be the idea of using balloons to lighten terrestrial loads, not lift them entirely into the air. Search around a little and you’ll find people stating that they couldn’t see any reason why someone would have a computer in their home. Science-fiction gives you permission to loosen some of the bonds of strictly logical thinking, and say “Ignoring a couple of little problems, what really could it be like?”.

There are links to the historical novel from science fiction, for example The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling imagines a past where Charles Babbage’s mechanical computers really took off. And the fabulous Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson is set in the period around the founding of the Royal Society and features many of the scientists of the day.

Science fiction has given me dreams of living in space, around the solar system, amongst the stars, in virtual worlds, with an augmented mind, with an augmented body. As I grow older, I realise that many of these dreams will forever be unfulfilled but I’m glad I had them.

7 comments

1 ping

  1. Alice

    I'm with you on the science fiction as "dreams of where we're heading". Nightmares too maybe (and that's important too?).

    I used to teach a course on science and fiction, and had to read a load about it for my PhD. One of my favourite scholars on the topic is David Kirby, who interviews scientists who have been consultants on science fiction films (he's done some work with Brian Cox). It's fascinating stuff, a brilliant way of thinking through the issue – really varied as to how much scientists are listened to and for what reasons.

    One of the things he says is, yeah, there are a few examples of where science fiction has inspired technologies or at least the look of them (e.g. clam shell phones and Star Trek) but what's really interesting is the ways in which scientists have used their involvement in films to think through their ideas. He has this great example of scientists working on Jurassic Park, getting to work through their scientific ideas via Hollywood's CGI tech.

    David's got a book out on the topic this summer I think. Worth looking out for.

  2. Jim

    Hear, hear.

    From Iain M. Banks' Culture to the Rama series and Songs from distant Earth by Clarke. I couldn't really attempt to list the sci-fi I've read.

    Very easy to stereotype those who read it though, and often (in my day) went hand in hand with lovers of the original Red Dwarf series (and all of us doing A-level physics), but hey, I'd recommend to anyone.

  3. Nora Lumiere

    Nobody can accuse you of being an illiterate scientist. Beautifully written; just enough science and just enough feeling.
    And, as always, a terrific, eye-catching illustration.

  4. SomeBeans

    @Alice – yes, I skimmed over the nightmares bit, it's an important part of the genre. It'll be interesting to see how the scientist / filmmaker interaction goes. I didn't mention film but I had a lot them on my mind when I was writing the post. (Bladerunner, The Matrix, Equilibrium, Gattacca…)

    @Jim – we're out and we're proud, science fiction readers!

    @Nora_Lumiere thank you, perhaps we should make science students blog to hone their writing skills! I should have credited the image, I found it here: http://bit.ly/9RHPx5 but it's clearly not the original source.

  5. Ian Wright

    There's also a small but quite interesting amount of fiction about/including science which as a household of readers of a scientific bent we both enjoy – Richard Powers and As She Climbed Across the Table are a couple that immediately spring to mind. Dark Matter by Juli Zeh is next on the list.

    This also sparks the thought as to what defines a scientist?

  6. SomeBeans

    @Ian I'll have to check out your list of new reading – I hadn't heard of any of them.

    On the question of defining a scientist. For me it's very obvious, I did a science degree, I work in a clearly scientific job. Mrs SomeBeans (Sharon) did a scientific degree and works as a teacher but doesn't consider herself to be a scientist now (but I do). And the skeptics I meet on twitter I'd consider to be scientists for practical purposes. At this point I'm probably extending the definition of scientist beyond what is practically useful.

    I guess for computery people the question is more vexed since you do a "computer science" degree then go on to work as a "software engineers".

  7. Austin Elliott

    You might be interested in this long comments thread on Nature Network where various sci-fi readers offered their favourites. We also touched briefly on sci-fi films here.

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