Thursday, July 18

From Science Fiction to Science (and back again)


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Title: From Science Fiction to Science (and back again)
Author: Clea Saal
Born: May 23,2022
Genre: Essays, technology, science, science fiction
Format: Paperback
Page count: 232 pages
Price: $12.95 (paperback) $9.95 (Kindle eBook)

1. A Science Fiction Writer’s Mind Is a Weird Place

A science fiction writer’s mind is a weird place. It tends to accumulate ridiculous amounts of information from the most disparate of sources, and likes to assemble that information into new and unusual patterns, while providing the connective tissue necessary to weave those pieces together into something remotely resembling a coherent narrative. Why? Well, because while in school we are taught to compartmentalize knowledge into a series of neat little boxes (this is physics, that is biology, over there we have history), that is not how the world works. Reality is one, things are interconnected, and when you write science fiction you must often bring together facts from what are traditionally deemed to be different disciplines. Also, as far as most science fiction writers are concerned, specialization is not a thing… or maybe that’s just me. Another thing that’s not a thing, at least not as far as I am concerned? Bibliographies.

Simply put, given that I consider myself to be primarily a fiction writer, when I research I am not exactly expecting that at the end of the day someone is going to come chasing after me, asking me to justify my thought process, list my sources, or anything like that. To me it is all about letting my imagination soar. It is about seeing not just what things are, but also what they could, and maybe should, have been. Yes, I freely admit I am something of a hoarder when it comes to gathering facts, factoids, and other tidbits, and that like most attics the one that is tucked between my ears is kind of dusty and messy, but while rummaging through those facts to put a story together is all about having fun, in my mind there are few things that would be as good at sucking all the joy out of that particular process as would be the need to keep track of a bibliography.

Anyway, that was just a heads up with regards to the fact that while this book does deal with science, if you are expecting to find a neat little bibliography at the end, and to have every claim carefully annotated, you have most definitely come to the wrong place. In fact, if that is a deal breaker as far as you are concerned, I would recommend that you stop reading right about now.

Still here? Good, now let me tell you a little more about what this thing is about.

It is about the ways in which science and science fiction interact, how they feed off each other, and it is also about how, by bridging the gap between a number of disciplines, science fiction may enable us to see things scientists, with their hyper-specialized focus, tend to overlook. Also, it is important to keep in mind that while we tend to treat science and science fiction as entirely different beasts, they do at times overlap to a degree scientists would much rather not talk about.

The most obvious example of this overlap, one you are all but certain to be familiar with, would be the experts’ predictions when it comes to the subject of climate change. Google the words climate change 2050 if you want to see the kinds of things experts think we are likely to experience within our lifetimes, or climate change 2100 if you want to get a general idea of what may be in store for the next generation (spoiler alert: it’s not pretty). Are these predictions based on science? Undoubtedly, and we dismiss them as fiction at our peril, but at the same time these scenarios are also highly speculative, and based on our current knowledge, not to mention that they depend on a number of variables that may or may not come to pass. As time goes by, as the future becomes the past, and the outcome becomes known, those predictions will either be confirmed as solid science, or they will come to be dismissed as ‘little more than fiction’… an attitude I despise because as far as I’m concerned there is nothing wrong with fiction, but back to the subject at hand.

The point I was trying to make was that at times the line between science and science fiction can become kind of blurry, and that is one of the angles I am going to be looking at in this book… and now that that explanation about the nature of this particular beast is safely out of the way, a word about how is this thing actually organized.

For the most part this book can be subdivided into three sections. The first one focuses on our distant past, on the quest for ancient and lost civilizations (think Atlantis and all that), and as such it deals primarily with archeology. When it comes to that one I do admit that at times I am more sympathetic towards a number of theories archeologists tend to dismiss as pseudoarcheology than the establishment is willing to tolerate, but then again that is a luxury I have as a fiction writer. No, I don’t believe aliens built the pyramids, but one of the things I can afford to do is say ‘I don’t know’. Science, on the other hand, is kind of expected to provide us with an explanation, and the end result is that sometimes we wind up with one that doesn’t really make much sense, but as that officially accepted explanation is taught in schools and universities as a ‘fact’ it grows into a sort of dogma that is passed down from one generation of ‘experts’ to the next until it becomes all but impossible to question it, especially as new research is built on that foundation. Add to that the fact that archeology effectively straddles the divide between the humanities and the hard sciences, and some of the inherent contradictions between those very different fields of knowledge also come to the fore. But more on that in a future chapter, as it makes more sense for me to try to explain my position in that regard when presenting the evidence for and against the official version. As for the subjects I will deal with in that section, we have how we perceive human remains, and how our own views can color our judgement; some areas where new evidence is coming to the fore that seems to contradict our traditionally held beliefs; and Egypt, Egypt, Egypt!

The second section deals with the quest for alien life, and alien civilizations, another area where science and science fiction tend to overlap (in fact one in which science fiction often takes the lead, and where scientists can let their imaginations soar because more often than not we are dealing with theories that are unlikely to be confirmed within our lifetimes, if ever), and also a quest that brings together all kinds of disciplines that don’t always work well together. In that section I will cover things like just where was it that life came from, our chances of coming across other lifeforms in our own solar system, whether or not an advanced civilization could possibly exist under water, and the granddaddy of them all, the question of whether or not there is intelligent life out there (as for the question of whether or not there is intelligent life here on earth, well, I think most of us tend to have a rather strong opinion when it comes to that one, but I digress). The thing is that the questions are we alone, and if we are not, why isn’t anyone talking to us, what did we do to offend them, are among the ones that have been puzzling scientists for decades. I would say centuries, but the truth is that, at least in the West, as long as the Bible was held by most to be the literal truth, that was a question that wasn’t even asked, as the answer was assumed to be a resounding ‘no’. For the ancients the planets were the gods, and while there was some speculation on the subject back in Ancient Greece, the fact that the sun is a star was not confirmed until the middle of the nineteenth century. In fact back in 1600 Giordano Bruno was burnt to a crisp by the Inquisition, among other things for daring to suggest that there were a multitude of planets out there, and that the sun was actually a star (and Galileo barely escaped a similar fate a couple of decades later for daring to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around, and yes, back in the seventeenth century the Church’s position was most definitely perceived as science).

The third section, on the other hand, deals with a more recent concern (okay, not a more recent concern, but one that has taken an entirely new form over the past eighty years or so), and that is the question of how does the world end. Yes, there have always been a number of mostly theological debates when it comes to that one, and one of my favorite works of art of all times is Rogier van der Weyden Beaunne’s Altarpiece, a polyptych depicting the Last Judgement, which absolutely blows my mind, but that is not the kind of end of the world we are talking about here. In fact I focus mostly on the three scenarios that tend to come to mind in the modern world: nuclear war, climate change, and one that has recently come to the fore: what might a real pandemic do to us? (and for the record, let me just say that, devastating as it has been, by historical standards the whole COVID-19 pandemic has basically been peanuts. It’s a baby pandemic. The good news is that a pandemic is unlikely to wipe out humanity as a whole. The bad news is that human society as we know it is an entirely different matter. In fact that one is far more fragile than we realize, it is growing more fragile by the hour, and it probably wouldn’t take much of a push to cause it to topple).

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And finally I top things off with two additional chapters that didn’t quite fit anywhere else, but that I felt were relevant nonetheless. The first one of those has to do with the subject of artificial intelligence, and the second one has to do with how our own perception of the future has been transformed over the past hundred years or so, as the rate of change accelerates, and we suddenly find ourselves being left behind within our lifetimes.

That is, at a glance, the outline of this book, a book that, just like science fiction, tries to straddle the line between science and fiction, two concepts we usually see as contradictory rather than complementary, and it is that dichotomy that makes this particular genre so fascinating… and it is also because of this apparent contradiction that looking at science from the perspective of science fiction can be both so revealing, and so rewarding.

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