Social Enterprise

Science versus science fiction--The Podcasts

Another pair of gems from SFSignal: a podcast of Vanderbilt University physicist Robert Scherrer comparing and contrasting science fiction and real science, and multi-Hugo-winner and Star Trek scribe Joe Haldeman speaking about The Craft of Science Fiction in an MIT podcast.

To quote the Vandy news service: "Scherrer explores such questions as, What are the ground rules for introducing unproven new ideas in science fiction, and how do they differ from the corresponding rules in physics?  How predictive is science fiction?  (For that matter, how predictive is theoretical physics?) He also contrasts the way in which information is presented in science fiction, as opposed to its presentation in scientific papers, the relative importance of ideas (as opposed to the importance of the way in which these ideas are presented), and whether or not a background as a research scientist provides any advantage in writing science fiction." 

To quote the MIT blurb: "'The thing about science fiction,' says Haldeman, 'is that it’s a form of writing but it’s also a way of looking at things – a mode of thought.' Early sci-fi writers sought to educate young people, and direct them toward careers as scientists or engineers. Not all of the writing was stellar. Some of the 'old stuff can be ugly stuff,' he says. Haldeman can’t read the Foundation trilogy now – 'My eyes lock,' the writing’s so bad. But some of the stories from the 1930s inspired the scientists on both sides of World War 2, those behind radar, the atom bomb and Germany’s V1 and V2 rockets. Today, as fewer people read novels, Haldeman says, science fiction has become less important. 'The idea that science fiction can educate isn’t there anymore.'" 

I respect the heck out of Joe Haldeman—his Forever War / Forever Peace duology is a standard-bearer for military sci-fi—but I think he may have overstated the educational deficit of science fiction a bit. While space opera has never been a really fertile ground of practical scientific ideas, some of the new "singularity SF" by Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge and John Varley are rife with intriguing, even world-changing plausibilities. Moreover, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is amazingly grounded in viable scientific ideas (with the possible exception of his genetic immortality ideas). I think the real issue is that science fiction has become more insular, speaking only to its own members, without making any effort to draw in the layperson—or, if it does, to do so at the expense of science, a la Star Wars. It's hard to educate if you have no willing students.

Or, as John Scalzi puts it: "I personally believe the problem is somewhat more prosaic, and it comes down to marketing and writing problems that science fiction literature has that fantasy does not; namely, that math is hard, and science fiction looks rather suspiciously like math."

Anybody out there willing to stand up for the educational prowess of contemporary science fiction (as in, stuff written since the dawn of the internet age, or about 1992 when the first Mosaic browser was released)? I can't be the only one. 

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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