does science fiction matter? at all? even a little?

Oh, cool! My favorite topic. And somebody asked me to write about it! Peggy Kolm, over at Biology in Science Fiction, sent the Cocktail Party an invitation to blog about science fiction for ScienceOnline09, an annual science communication conference
that brings together scientists, bloggers, educators, and students to discuss
promoting public understanding of science. She and Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds will be moderating a session on science fiction as a tool for science
communication and are looking for input on the topic and to start an online
conversation between science fiction writers and science bloggers. Since the primary function of Cocktail Party Physics is to communicate science to the masses (and here you thought it was virtual drinking), I'm biting. Besides, who can resist answering lists of questions about oneself? Not I! Since one of my first posts for CCP was about Arthur C. Clarke's space elevator, it seems only appropriate.

I will now proceed to bloviate. Or expound. Pick your verb.

  • What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?

    I'm a long-time science fiction fan who dabbles in writing it, and I occasionally teach it in literature and writing classes. I cut my teeth on the original Star Trek in the 60s and quickly moved on to harder drugs in the 70s: Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, Cherryh, Norton, Pohl, Niven, Clarke, Frank Herbert, and reluctantly, Philip K. Dick. I read it wherever I could find it, and watched it when I could (in our one-channel household, that wasn't often; now I have no TV at all). I still think Babylon 5 is one of the finest pieces of TV science fiction ever made, though Firefly is certainly interesting and could have been a close rival had it gone on longer. Networks have a bad habit of canceling stuff just when it gets interesting, which is why I've always been more of a fan of SF (or specfic) in print than on TV or in the movies. That said, Star Wars hooked me when it first came out and deeply disappointed me later (though I'm an undying fan). I also saw Silent Running at about the same time and still think of it fondly. It kind of rode in on the cusp of the ecology movement and the thought of that orbiting forest was just heartbreaking. I still hope it wasn't prophetic. And, of course, there was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I didn't see until several years after it came out. That just reinforced my interest in astronomy, cosmology and space travel, Hal or no. "It's full of stars!"

    What attracts me to science fiction and its various subgenres is not
    just the hardware or the science but the world-building: how that
    science fits into the larger scheme of things, how it shapes society,
    how society interacts with it, how society shapes science in turn. I've
    been at least as fascinated by the interaction as I've been by the
    science itself. I think scientists sometimes unconsciously think of their
    research as occurring in a vacuum; it's pure and righteous because it's
    the search for knowledge. But history is full of boxes that were opened
    too early, or that couldn't be slammed shut again and I think that's
    one of the useful checks and balances of science fiction. It asks those questions about consequences.

    Currently, I'm following Iain M. Banks, China Mieville, Melissa Scott, Neal Stephenson, Dan Simmons, Connie Willis, and William Gibson, among others. Banks is uneven and can be extremely obtuse, but his conceptions of AI and a far-reaching, far future galactic society are fascinating, when they work. Melissa Scott brings some interesting twists to the hacker culture envisioned by William Gibson, who's gone far beyond that into more culturally interesting and less sciencey questions in his recent books. I like Gibson for his ability to anticipate or ride the culture and technology wave the way he does in All Tomorrow's Parties and Idoru. He and Bruce Sterling have really helped turn contemporary science fiction into futurism, and as a result driven some of the science itself, at least in computers. Neal Stephenson just leaves me in awe; even his not-quite-successes are provocative and thoughtful. I like that he's not afraid to ask big questions or use science in outrageous ways. Ditto with Dan Simmons. Did he actually coin the term Post-human? I don't know quite what to say about Mieville except he's a fascinating world-builder. I also have a deep fondness for Spider Robinson, who is one of the most humanist of contemporary science fiction writers, but because he's funny as all hell, gets little credit. He's the guy who first got me interested in Tesla. How could I resist someone who carries lightning in his pockets?

  • What
    do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can
    it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the
    cause of science?

    Science fiction's job, first and foremost, is to tell a good story. That's the job of any kind of fiction. The science is a tool for telling the story and of course, tools get bent and broken when they're used. But the beauty of science fiction is that, because it's fiction, it's allowed to go out on a limb and stretch the facts, to extrapolate wildly, and take science down paths it might never go. Personally, I think the popular press does far more to mangle science communication than most science fiction does, precisely because it presents itself as definitive fact. We expect facts to be correct, and if it's someone not versed in science writing about  a new development, sometimes it's disastrously misleading. Fiction, not so much. It's a story. The important point is that science fiction can't be the only way of communicating science. It's a jumping-off point, not a primary source. And its job is not to promote science, though it can be a great vehicle for that.

    What science fiction can do that science journalism can't (or just doesn't, often) is not just elide the boring stuff, the drudgery of lab work, the negative results, the scratching for grants, but gussy up that process. For SF, it's usually the technology that's in place, or as in Geoff Ryman's novel Air, one that's about to go online, that's exciting. Sometimes, as in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, and Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise, it's all about the process too. Fiction is great at communicating the sense of possibility and the excitement of discovery. It humanizes the scientific process. People do science, and sometimes they do it imperfectly, or for other motivations, or hoping for other results. It's good to remind us all of that fact.

    As for harming the "cause" of science, I think you have to define what that is first, before you decide whether fictional portrayals can harm it. If the cause of science is to discover how everything works, to advance human knowledge, I doubt that much said about it in science fiction would stop or harm that. Humans are too curious to let much stop them from asking "Why?" and "How?" If the questions aren't asked now, they will be eventually. The mad scientist has been an archetype in the culture at least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, if not Prometheus, and that hasn't stopped or hindered anything. Politics and ignorance do far more damage in that area than sketchy science in SF ever will.

    What stories like, say, A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Road or even Dr. Strangelove do is make us think about the possible consequences of new or old technologies. That's never a bad thing. If science journalism picks up the story there, and helps the public explore and make decisions about the use of those technologies in an honest and rational manner, so much the better. But sometimes a story can reach people where "just the facts" can't. Even if it's not entirely factual or absolutely correct in every detail, SF is serving science. Ask those engineering geeks who went around WorldCon chanting "The Ringworld is unstable!" at Larry Niven. Asked to derive those same equations for some other unstable system, they'd have been bored stiff. Sometimes those mistakes are just as important as the absolutely correct science facts.

    But if the cause of science is simply to go its merry way unquestioned by the muggles, that makes science fiction, even SF with bad science in it, even more important.  It's important that the questions get asked, even if they're the wrong questions. At least a discussion gets started.

    Then there's the question of what bad science is in this context. And who gets to define that? Is it "impossible" science? Science whose details are a little sketchy? Is it science that dead ended, like Steampunk, or failed science that transformed into legitimate science, like alchemy? Once you insist that science fiction stick strictly to the known facts, you've cut the heart out of it and you've cut the heart out of science's primary driver: curiosity. Should only scientists write science fiction about their fields? Oh, hell no! Save me from (most) scientists writing SF!

    One of the problems I noticed pretty early in my exploration of science
    fiction was that in "hard" science fiction, especially that written by people who were either scientists or extremely knowledgeable about science, the characters were often
    2-D instead of 3-D. The writers were more interested in the hardware
    and tech than in creating strong characters. But you can't have a good
    story without good characters. Tech alone will not drive a storyline
    (one of the problems with the later Star Wars movies: they're too caught up in the special effects and props). And if you don't have a good story with good characters, you have few readers or viewers.

  • Have you used science fiction as a starting
    point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it
    right or getting it wrong?

    Absolutely. Not only here at CPP and on my own blogs, but in the classroom. For a couple of years, I taught a freshman composition course based on writing about science. We used one of Stephen Jay Gould's essay collections and a couple of science fiction novels each semester to both illustrate the difference between writing factually and writing about science and to ask questions about science itself.  One of the novels we used was Frank Herbert's The White Plague. Herbert did a lot of research about the availability of equipment and plausibility of developing deadly microbes in your basement if you had the knowledge, and was careful to be as correct as possible when describing the science and the construction of the underground lab. I still have my doubts about whether it would be possible for one person to construct a deadly microbe with his own resources in his basement, but my class swallowed it whole. The lesson I learned from this is that most people don't notice whether the science is wrong or right when it's a good story. They suspend disbelief, which is what writers want. What matters is that the plot seems plausible. What the book did do is start a conversation about research on biological warfare agents, long before the Sarin gas attack in the Japanese subway, or the anthrax scare over here. A number of students ended up writing research papers about it.

    I think worrying about "wrong science" or "bad science" in science fiction is something of a red herring, truthfully. I don't think it has that much influence, even on TV. As a literary genre, it's finally being taken more seriously than it ever has been before, but it's still not highly regarded or the type of entertainment that people take very seriously, unless they're already geeky.

    It's a kind of self-perpetuating cycle. When I recently tried to add "Speech Sounds" by Octavia Butler
    to the syllabus of a class I'm teaching, my supervisor's response was
    "Oh, take that out; the students don't like it and don't understand
    it." I suspect one of the reasons they didn't like and it and didn't
    understand it was because so many academics don't teach it well, and
    don't like it themselves. Which is odd, because it's a story all about
    communication, as well as about neuroscience. But it's a typical
    response to science fiction, sadly.

    The audience for SF is largely self-selecting, and while we're pretty passionate about it, it's not until someone like Cormac McCarthy writes a post-apocalyptic novel like The Road, or Margaret Atwood writes a piece of feminist specfic like The Handmaid's Tale, that people pay attention to the genre. Gaming is changing some of that, as have shows like Firefly, Andromeda or Farscape, but I don't think the non-geeky public at large pays much attention to SF, or, sadly, to science. And it's the non-geeky public that science needs to reach most.

  • Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

    Science Fiction blogs:

    I highly recommend Feminist SF–The Blog! and the carnival associated with it. And of course, IO9, but everybody's going to say that. More feminist SF at Ambling Along the Aqueduct.  And there's, which has the same aim that the NAS's new Science and Entertainment Exchange (headed up by our own Jennifer Ouellette), to encourage the realistic depiction of science. And, well, Eat Our Brains. What else would you call a group blog by SF writers?

    Science blogs:

    I love Deep Sea News for the critters and politics; Thus Spake Zuska's take on gender issues in science; Beyond Stone and Bone because I'm a history/archaeology geek too; and Cosmic Variance keeps me up to date on the physics end of things. Both BLDGBLOG and Pruned have a lot more science in them than you would think at first glance. And Bruce Sterling's blog over at Wired.

11 thoughts on “does science fiction matter? at all? even a little?”

  1. Hi Lee,
    Good post, I definitely agree with your perspective on science and science fiction. As a long-time science fiction (and fantasy) reader, I also have enjoyed many of the books you cite. As a suggestion, though, you might want to try Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books. She writes a powerful story with compelling, well-rounded characters and some very interesting speculations on future applications of science. She has written a number of fantasy books as well that are quite good, but I think her science fiction is better. As a note, though, the Vorkosigan books follow a chronology of her main character’s life, starting with his parents and through his middle age. It’s possible to read the books out of order, but I think as a reader, you get more out of them if you read them in order.
    Thanks again for the well-written post!

  2. "It'll be just like starting over..."

    Sci-fi does not matter.
    It doesn’t matter to scientists.
    When a layman makes something, the scientists don’t care for it. They figure, the universe is so miraculous that we don’t need a bunch of goofy artists to come along and make it all gee-golly for the public to see the beauty of it.
    And they certainly don’t want to see all the stereotypes of the geek scientist turned into lovable quirks to be considered the marks of a hero.
    I think artists may as well stick to navel gazing.
    My high-school physics teacher was a great example. She couldn’t stand it when I wasn’t working on “those vectors”, but instead was lost in some silly poem. And my math teacher hated sci fi, too, and hated my requests for him to explain WHY you do that step at that point in that equation.
    Astrophysics isn’t something you’re supposed to dance to.
    It’s serious business. The Real Deal.
    The filmmakers and animators and sci fi writers and musicians, just dreamers who get in the way of the real gorgeousity. Just little people who want to hang a slogan on something that shouldn’t need one.
    I think that was the whole point of all those computer programming classes and math classes in which the prof’s words never seemed to deliver to me the real Meaning behind it all.
    These beautiful things that exist in the real universe are real. Real.
    And all the poems and flowery words and strac ballsy space babes who kill aliens… it’s just wrapping paper.

  3. Oh, I think the grandest result of science fiction is a reader inspired to follow a career in science as a result.
    Don’t forget the clunky yet amazing work of Jules Verne and the beautiful & inspirational art of Leonarda da Vinci,
    the movies: Bladerunner, Soylent Green & Brazil.
    Thanks for all the blog links and author lists, I can’t wait to check them out!

  4. "It'll be just like starting over..."

    That’s very true.
    I always loved Jules Verne, although I’m not sure if he was himself a scientist or not. Never really checked. But in highschool I was always blown away by the quality of the science in “20,000 leagues…” I don’t know if the caustic potash thing would work or not, but he was at least thinking about the nuts and bolts of how to provide breathable air to a sub crew.
    Da Vinci, however, was a scientist. He got in some trouble with the church for taking apart cadavers to see just how this tendon fitted to that muscle and this bone. He had a crystalized understanding of concepts like perspective from math and so on. His visual art marks the door way between pretty, but imaginary visual art that preceded him, and a modern rendering of the real world through the basics of what we would now call “3D modelling.” He really was a genius. And don’t even get me started on the DaVinci glider or the helicopter, not to mention that enormous crossbow design.
    (Some physicists and a female pilot actually BUILT the DaVinci glider on Nova once. The sonumbitch FLEW.)

  5. Feminist sci-fi blogs?? GAWD, does PC infiltrate everywhere? (I was going to write “PC drivel” but decided I’d be flogged 🙂 )

  6. Hey, thanks for the recommendation, Heather. I like McMaster Bujold’s fiction, but I haven’t read these. I’ll try to get to them in order. Glad you liked the post.
    “It’ll be just like starting over…”: I think SF does matter, in the same way literature and art matter. The things humans create are just as “real” as the things already here and fiction is just another species of truth. If all that mattered were things we could sense, we’d still be in Plato’s cave. I think SF does matter to some scientists, or they wouldn’t write it themselves. And as Mari pointed out, it’s inspired a number of people to try careers in science. I agree with you about Verne and DaVinci. I’m not sure we’ve had someone who was as much of a polymath as DaVinci was since. A man far, far ahead of his time.
    Gordon: Have you read any of the sites I mentioned? I’m guessing not, because they’re not about being PC, which I loathe myself. Don’t judge before you read, and if you don’t like it, nobody’s making you read it. Some of us actually find discussions of the way women are portrayed–positively and negatively–in science fiction interesting, even if you don’t.

  7. "It'll be just like starting over..."

    Thank you, Lee.
    Being a sci-fi writer, I of course agree with everything you just said.
    But in a moment of self-doubt and self-loathing I decided to pummel myself over the head with my own keyboard.
    And getting other smart people to argue your points for you is always a fun excercise in ego-gratification that I need to grow out of…

  8. Science fiction is terrific for inspiring scientists, not only provoking interest in a subject, but also for inspiring inventions. I switched from physical anthropology (though I still write forensics novels) to infectious disease epidemiology (much more employable) after reading books like The Hot Zone and Outbreak. And I’ve always had great fun with my friends talking about the cultural scifi of Niven or Heinlein, the relationship of man and technology (oh cyberpunk, we miss you), and the biological feasibility of scifi ETs – and whether they were accurately represented in Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.

  9. Hey all, “Science fiction’s job, first and foremost, is to tell a good story.” Good SciFi writers have one thing in common, they hold your interest. Any good work of fiction needs to be solid basic writing. The beauty of Science Fiction is it gives a writer more tools to entertain. It also allows ideas not necessarily purely scientific to be presented in a forum that can effectively divorce them from the baggage they may carry in say the political or social realms.

  10. A major problem is that too much stuff gets called science fiction.
    Star Wars is not but most people think it is. Someone called that new show Past Life science fiction. So for many people SF is anything weird.
    But our so called scientists make science too out of touch with reality. It is 40 years after the Moon landing, How can we believe that most scientists can’t figure out that planned obsolescence is going on in automobiles? But have you ever heard scientists discuss the subject?
    Some science fiction from the 60s was more relevant than today’s junk with all of the cyberspace and singularity crap.
    Cost of Living

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