Science versus science fiction

I am a fan of science fiction as far back as I can recall. The flights of imagination about large things, ideas and worlds, was enough to trigger off my own imagination. I read pretty well everything I could for over two decades before it all petered out into second rate thick books of fantasy and Star Wars knockoffs. Science fiction had a use-by date, and roughly when Dick Tracy's radio watch became ordinary, it stopped appealing, and I started getting interested in the science.

However, I had to unlearn much of the "science" I had picked up by reading SF (scifi is for latercomers). I recall one book, well before the film Altered States in which an astronaut travelling at faster than the speed of light "de-evolved" through a chimps stage, a monkey stages and then a lemur stage, thereby doing great harm to both physics and evolutionary biology. Very few science fiction novels or short stories (and the genre really does best with its short stories) were ever scientifically accurate, a tradition that Greg Bear continues today. In fact one novel only struck me as physically possible - Dragon's Egg by Robert Forward. All the rest required extensive willing suspension of disbelief, few more than the Ringworld series of Larry Niven.

Science fiction was generally more interesting for the social attitudes shown in the writing. Gene Roddenbery's Star Trek was no aberration - apart from Robert Heinlein and Niven and Pournelle, most SF writers of the 60s and later were what Americans are pleased to call "liberal", and what the rest of the world thinks of as "civilised" - they often promoted racial and gender equality, sometimes had homosexual heroes (Zelany), and occasionally committed inadvertent acts of literature (Roger Zelanzny's "A rose for Ecclesiastes", or Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon", or anything, really, by Olaf Stapledon or Herbert George Wells).

And sex. The pulp fiction style of SF was replete with badly described and often very prurient sex scenes, which did a growing lad no harm at all. But let's look at the science aspect of SF. Sex is freely available now so even if SF went back to the gutter where it belongs as Dena Brown once said it should, it would have too much company to be useful. So the sole virtue that SF might now have is that it introduces one generation after another to the value of science. So, does it?

Almost never. Few novels are accurate, but even fewer show science in a good light. Frankenstein is the model of the SF scientist, meddling where he (usually a he - SF was very masculine for a long time) had no right to meddle. Arthur Clarke, despite the woodenness of his characters and dialogues, at least stood out in that respect - scientists were the good guys for him (and for a number of Eastern Bloc SF writers like Lem). But most SF showed science in a very apocalyptic and dangerous aspect, as befitted the post A-bomb era.

So I do not think many people have been turned on to science by SF. In fact, there is little evidence that many SF writers actually understood how science worked. It is for that reason that I appreciate Neal Stephenson, even including the latest brick of a book, Anathem, for he shows the scholarship and experimentation involved even when introducing fabulous characters or worlds. Science is hard work done by many individuals and is as exciting, dramatically, as the evolutionary process, which it closely resembles, and neither of which have ever been really properly displayed in a dramatic manner.

In fact, if SF led me to anything, it led me to religion, through the loss of which I entered philosophy. Mysticism in SF is widespread (Dune anyone?), and rational thinking is mostly honoured in the breach. But the dystopias of 1984, Brave New World, and the epic traditions Wells began, these are of lasting value, mostly for the reason that they do not involve science except as a deus ex machina (or should that be, as a McGuffin?) to get the story going. They are about class, political control, censorship, interference, freedom, and the classic concerns of literature. Mad Max is as much in that tradition as the very good novel (and very bad film) The Postman.

Last night I happened to watch 2001: A space odyssey again, for about the 25th time, and I noticed more errors in it than I had ever before. But I still like it, because it's about a period in our history, the late 1960s. I first read they were making a film of one of my favourite short stories, "The Sentinel", which I had just read, around 1964, and I had to wait in agony for five years until it came out. But when I saw it, I was taken into space. The technical flaws that are now so obvious to me don't matter compared to how I felt that day, when I was taken away from my father's recent death, the Vietnam War, my troubles at school, and everything else mundane, and transported into the actual heavens. At its best, that is what SF does. And these days it seems not to do it at all... O tempora! O mores!

Late note: see my excoriation at The Valve for my views expressed here.

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Few novels are accurate, but even fewer show science in a good light. Frankenstein is the model of the SF scientist, meddling where he (usually a he - SF was very masculine for a long time) had no right to meddle. Arthur Clarke, despite the woodenness of his characters and dialogues, at least stood out in that respect -

What? What about the whole Campbellian "Golden Age"?

What about it? How scientifically accurate was any of it? How often was the narrative "evil/misguided/arrogant scientist puts world/troop/city in danger"? There has always been in my view a tension in SF about the S part of it. From Wells onwards.

Perhaps my positive view of science in SF was colored by my early exposure: Belyayev, Adamov, Lem, Capek, Furtinger....

How scientifically accurate was any of it?

Quite a bit. Campbell insisted that his authors at least do their homework, and aside from the requisite seasoning of "bolognium" that let them have a story in the first place (e.g. often unstated tricks to achieve FTL) you had to be pretty sharp to catch them violating established laws of nature.

An example would be the orbital dynamics of the interplanetary stories: they always checked out when you worked the stated accelerations, reaction mass (if stated) and starting/ending orbits. Heinlein's "torch ships," however implausible their engine technology, were true to the mass ratios and relativistic mechanics that you could work out yourself.

Of course, that doesn't make them flawless. The SF of the 40s and 50s horribly underestimates the consequences of high-speed travel through even sparse media, for instance. That's OK, too; I used that as one of the "quiz questions" for my kids when they were reading those stories. They're good as "now that you've read it, what did the author miss?" topics.

Well, I refuse to make the perfect the enemy of the good. A story that has kids doing orbital mechanics by hand is a Good Thing, even if it misses key physical phenomena.

How often was the narrative "evil/misguided/arrogant scientist puts world/troop/city in danger"?

In all seriousness, I don't think I read the same stuff you did, and I've read every single issue of Astounding and Analog going from the first one that John Campbell edited until his death; I have all but a few from 1948 on. The rest of my SF collection is a bit less complete, but looking at it now I truly don't see any titles of the "mad scientist" genre.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 23 Nov 2008 #permalink

Jules Verne's proto-sf was as technically accurate as possible in 19th-century France, probably inspired a generation of tinkerers - and is about as factually useful today as A Princess of Mars.

For every "liberal" '60s SF writer, there was an equal & opposite "conservative". This was numerically demonstrated when pro- & anti- war authors each signed statements backing different proposals for US policy in Vietnam (printed in Galaxy & F&SF, iirc): the number of signatories was about the same, with major Names such as Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson among the hawks.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 23 Nov 2008 #permalink

You find that many SF stories are scientifically inaccurate. How many of those where accurate at the time? That's the thing about scientific knowledge, it changes. While paradigm changes are few and fair between, the details can and do change. For years discrete genes ruled heredity, now we're learning the DNA that goes into making a protein, or regulating other DNA that regulates other DNA that goes into making amino acids with other DNA that than sends instructions for assembling the resultant amino acids into a protein is usually scattered about on a chromosome. Often it is not a case of the science being wrong, but out-dated.

And then you have situations where the author just didn't think about it. SF authors tend to focus on the subject of interest. Larry Niven and tidal stress in Neutron Star.

And let us not forget the role of speculation and extrapolation. The part played by what if. Prediction is a very imprecise exercise, most often because we ignore human psychology in favor of mechanical agencies.

It is true that a lot of the bad science in science fiction can be attributed to laziness, ignorance, or bad information, but more than you'd think is due to advances in the field since the story was published.

I agree, more or less; but I think there's a danger of equivocating on the word 'science', since in this context we sometimes use the word to mean (1) an abstract process of discovery and confirmation and (2) sometimes to mean the best results we have from such a process and (3) sometimes to mean the actual institutions & customs in which we find the abstract process instantiated. Most science fiction directly or indirectly trades on (2), either because it is really technology fiction (in the tradition of Jules Verne) or because it simply fits some part of the story to scientific results or, even further removed, because it uses in a loose way tropes that were used in stories that did one of those two things. Surprisingly little is devoted to (1) and (3), and those that are devoted to them are often devoted to them in a passing way. And I think this is probably understandable; (2) can get you into all sorts of fantastic adventures right away, but (1), interesting as it is, is something we have already, and (3) takes an immense amount of talent to handle in a way that's not either a caricature or completely tedious. It takes a fairly good author on something of a mission to tackle such things well; and it's a fairly small proportion of science fiction that really brings into the light scientific process, considered abstractly or concretely, itself. There might be people attracted to science by way of an interest in science fiction; but surely the usual route is to be attracted to science fiction out of an interest in science.

(But I don't think, in fact, that most of this is actually critical. Most science fiction of the mad scientist genre seems to me to be critical of lack of restraint in pursuing technological advance, and not so much of science itself. Even those that really do deal with science are often not straightforwardly critical: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for instance, can be read as entirely pro-science; what it's critical of is treating it as if we could wall it off from humanizing factors like love and pity. The same seems true outside of the mad scientist genre. The story of Asimov's The Gods Themselves builds in part on the role of sheer stupid luck in science, and the occasionally stupid scientists that go with it; but part of the point is that this is not all there is to it, so that even if you exaggerate them beyond their normal bounds that won't be the end of the story. And so forth.)

Jules Verne's proto-sf was as technically accurate as possible in 19th-century France, probably inspired a generation of tinkerers - and is about as factually useful today as A Princess of Mars.

Per Cosmos, the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs describing the adventures of John Carter on "Barsoom" instilled a serious astronomy jones in the young Carl Sagan.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for instance, can be read as entirely pro-science; what it's critical of is treating it as if we could wall it off from humanizing factors like love and pity.

There are so many nested layers of unreliable narrators in that book that you could probably read it as saying anything you wanted. :-/

Charles Sheffield, who died a few years ago, was a SF writing physicist. Since I am abysmally ignorant about physics, I can't say how accurate is the science in his books, but there is lots of it.

And there is Gregory Benford, SF writer, astrophysicist. I have his book "Timescape" in my own library and have to think that he used his expertise there.

I am lucky in that my dad read SF, so I grew up with it.

By Susan Silberstein (not verified) on 23 Nov 2008 #permalink

I adored Timescape. One of the greats as far as I can tell, in the genre of parallel timelines. Don't know Sheffield. And being a physicist is not always a great recommendation for SF: think of Fred Hoyle...

In fact one novel only struck me as physically possible - Dragon's Egg by Robert Forward.

I'm not a physicist, but I almost agree. The one big problem I had was with the biology - lots of genes for a developmental pathway are left unused for many generations, but they don't turn into junk - when needed the whole thing works fine. Sorry, I can't see that working.

If you liked Forward's "Dragon's Egg" (life on the surface of a neutron star) then try Baxter's "Flux" (life _inside_ a neutron star).

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 23 Nov 2008 #permalink

Bob O'H:

Yes, that bothered me too. But later Forward wrote about cheela having a triple-redundant radiation-hardened genetic code. That makes it more plausible - the main mechanism for evolution on Dragon's Egg will be, probably, concentrated on turning genes on and off by epigenetic mechanisms then on mutating genes.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 23 Nov 2008 #permalink

It is for that reason that I appreciate Neal Stephenson, even including the latest brick of a book, Anathem, for he shows the scholarship and experimentation involved even when introducing fabulous characters or worlds

As Chad Orzel points out at Uncertain Principles, Stephenson rather mangles many worlds and multiverse theories:

One really good physicist (well, just retired to concentrate on writing) and author is Alastair Reynolds of Revelation Space fame. He generally keeps the science pretty plausible. Greg Egan does some pretty speculative stuff, but there's always some decent science behind it - for example, in Schilds Ladder.

I'm a Stephenson fan, but IMO in Anathem he manages the near-impossible: a huge book that almost entirely lacks character development, that succeeds in using quite interesting science (the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics) to make the reader very nearly stop caring about whatever plot is left near the end.

Oh, yes, BTW, much shorter, much funnier, much better Anathem: the classic A Canticle for Liebowitz.

I have always said that watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time in full Cinerama was the nearest I have ever come to having a transcendental experience. And I agree wholeheartedly that Timescape is easily the best attempt to grapple with conundrum of time in SF.

The greatest SF, as with other literary genres, is both intellectually satisfying and touches us at a more visceral level. Much as I enjoy the various Star Treks/Wars/Gates, their visions of the Universe are somehow rather cozy and parochial. They make space seem not very big at all. In 2001 the cool - for the period - technology on display fed the gadget-freak in me but the film also gave me some inkling of the sheer vastness and emptiness of space and the enormous spans of time involved. This was not numbers, this was gut-feeling. I could imagine floating out in an interstellar void with nothing above or below or around me for light-years. And it was blessedly silent in space - no absurd roar of engines or explosions - with no little points of light flying past to point out to the dumber members of the audience that the ship is actually going quite fast. For all its faults, it still stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of its kind.

As an aside, I've always wondered what relatively high speeds - say the approximately 17,500 mph of the International Space Station - would actually look like. Happily, I just found this cool little animation which shows us.

By Ian H Spedding FCD (not verified) on 24 Nov 2008 #permalink

life _inside_ a neutron star

How is that supposed to work? I mean, without having read the book, that sounds like the absolute epitome of stupidity...

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 24 Nov 2008 #permalink

There are so many nested layers of unreliable narrators in that book that you could probably read it as saying anything you wanted.

To an extent this will be true of any fictional text, though, unreliable narrators or not (although in Shelley's case we can also look at what would have been likely in her circle, which like most Romantics of that particular generation was strongly insistent on the importance of scientific progress, but inclined to think that this progress was to be had not by a systematic method that could be isolated from the rest of life, which they would regard as sterile, but by fertile genius as a part of the somewhat messy art of life). It's very difficult for a fictional work to reflect on something as vast as science (in any of the meanings of the term), so virtually any fictional work can be read as either making a blanket comment about science, or a comment about a particular kind of abuse or use of science, or simply making a fictional postulate to move the story along. This is true even of very triumphalistic cases -- one thinks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, with its rosy view of science as perpetual progress and scientists as modern-day adventurers on a never-ending frontier of knowledge, which can be read in any of these ways.

I'm going to agree with John here. Too much science fiction either uses science as window dressing or as the actual source of conflict. How many works of SF can you name in which the conflict is a result of sloppy, unscientific thinking? How many can you name in which science resolves the conflict?

I still read lots of SF, but for me the real benefit or harm was done around the age of 12, when I got my hands on an older brother's paperback of "Star Short Science Fiction Stories", or something like that, and could almost physically feel the boundaries of my imagination being expanded. What if there were mechanical robots who could act as servants? What if they could think like humans? What if they were smarter than humans? What if there were other forms on life on other planets? What if they were smarter than us? What if there are forms of "life" composed of electromagnetic fields or something even stranger (who might be able to live inside neutron stars--just a guess at an answer to a query in a previous comment)?

Of course, that was the 1950's, and kids probably get something like that from the Cartoon Network or video games, these days. I'm not sure they get the same sudden impact that the universe could be a very strange place, with a lot of unforeseen possibilities, though.

David Marjanović:

Inside a neutron star exists a superfluid sea of neutrons (BTW, that's true). In this book people (about a micron tall) live inside this superfluid 'gas'. Their metabolism is based on nuclear reactions and 'waving' across magnetic field lines is used as a form of locomotion.

It's actually somewhat plausible. For example, these people use 'second sound' (temperature gradients carried in the superfluid liquid with the speed of sound) in neutron superfluid for hearing, sound waves for seeing and photons for smell (because speed of light in such environment will be about the same as the speed of sound).

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 24 Nov 2008 #permalink

Paul McAuley is pretty good on the science front. (And damn good on the writing front.)

Admittedly, I've a fondness for sf writers who trained as biologists...

By Iorwerth Thomas (not verified) on 24 Nov 2008 #permalink

I have a particular dislike of science fiction using scientized time travel motifs. There are various ways you can tweak thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum theory to make time travel in some sense seem possible, but even with the most favorable tweaks I don't see how you could move a living organism to a past world. Or to put it differently, you'd have to run the whole world backward into the past while leaving the organism unchanged, in its present state.

I say this because I run into people, and even authors, who believe that that kind of time travel is in some way really possible, at least in some theoretical sense.

Time travel is still OK as a story premise, just like goblins and monsters and Satan.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 24 Nov 2008 #permalink

What really makes the science in science fiction illusory is the way that science is portrayed as glamorous and, above all, fast even in stories that don't feature the kid genius who is able to penetrate the innermost secrets of nature on a tight schedule cause that's what geniuses do. Even if the ideas in science fiction novels made sense, which they usually don't, the way the characters arrive at 'em are unrealistic. Actual science, with very few exceptions, requires people with excellent work habits, iron butts, and a tremendous tolerance for detail. i.e. scientists are usually more like CPAs than test pilots or artists. There are a handful of stories and novels that really do reflect what real science and scientists are like; but as Michael Crichton once pointed out in an article in SCIENCE, such works have very limited appeal since science is extremely boring to most people, though, obviously, it's fascinating to scientists themselves and a few fellow travelers.

SF belongs in a genre akin to mythological narratives like the Sanskrit Puranas or Ovid's Metamorphosis. Which is not a criticism of science fiction.

I'm with the commenters near the top who think you've been reading different SF than we have. I've wondered whether this is to some extent a difference between American and British science fiction (for example, compare "literary" novelists in both countries who have written "science fiction" novels). I don't remember a lot of mad scientists in the science fiction I used to read. True, I don't remember a lot of sex in the books either, in the SF I found in the middle school library or was given by my uncle (in fact I stopped reading SF around age 13, when I started looking elsewhere and found more male sex fantasies than I had much interest in). I have more here.

I was a great SF fan in my younger days. I have a complete collection of Astounding/Analog from 1950 through 1980. Much of SF involved physics or chemistry as an extention of what we know into what we don't know. FTL, time travel, parallel universes, etc. Many of the writers had some background in the hard sciences. There was a shift, as the importance of biology for shaping the future became better realized. Unfortunately few writers had an adequate background in biology to write biology themed stories which still allowed me to suspend disbelief. So I lost interest in SF around 1980 and dropped my Analog subscription. I still read an occasional SF story, but find few really interesting.

I recommend Asimov's two-volume autobiography to any reader interested in SF.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 28 Nov 2008 #permalink

As a form of cultural production, sci-fi tends to reflect the "popular" views regarding science in any given era. As these views change, so too does sci-fi. Contemporary sci-fi, especially elements of what one could call "post-cyberpunk", is critical of science and perhaps rightly so. What is really problematic is assuming sci-fi exists in the narrow perspective you paint it in. There is way more going on in the genre than you let on here. Beyond the big-time novel or movie, for example, lies the short story, which one could argue is the ultimate form for expressing ideas in sci-fi...