Another “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question has been posed:
What do you see as science fiction’s role in promoting science, if any?
Myself, I think science fiction could do more than make non-scientists excited about science and the cool things science can (or might someday) do. I think science fiction has the potential to help us make better science.
I don’t mean that works of science fiction should create the wish-list of technologies for scientists and engineers to bring into existence (although I’d like a rocket-pack as well as the next guy). Rather, I’m interested in science fiction’s ability to paint a picture of everyday human relations in worlds that did not follow precisely the same course that ours has. The strange worlds of science fiction play out against different environmental backdrops, different choices made at crucial junctures, and different assumptions about what people can do and about what will make them happy.
Yet, for the fiction to succeed, there needs to be a way for the real-world reader to relate to the characters — which is to say, they are not completely different from us but rather are people like us moving through a world interestingly different from our own.
Thinking about what might result if people like us were navigating different circumstances, or interacting with each other on the basis of slightly different base assumptions (say, about human nature or gender or inborn aptitude) might be a very useful exercise for members of the tribe of science. It might be a way to start with “play” and end up with serious discussions about ways the professional and intellectual worlds scientists inhabit could be different.
These environments of ours don’t just happen to us, after all. We play a role in creating them. Thinking through the possibilities together has got to be better than being taken off guard by what develops.