Science, science fiction and the real world: some perspectives

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2010

OK, here are three interesting essays about science fiction and its relationship to reality we inhabit. I’ve got a lot of other stuff cluttering up my brain today, so I’ll leave it to you lot to do your own synthesis…

First of all, Roz Kaveney at The Guardian:

One problem with being a long-term reader of science fiction and fantasy is that you get blase about science itself because you have seen it all before. My sense of wonder was overloaded by the time I was 16; I am never going to get that rush again. Even major breakthroughs make me go ‘Whatever!’.

[…]

Another part of the problem is that we do, in fact, live in a world that is a collage of a lot of sci fi tropes – but, as the writer Neil Gaiman’s Second Law tells us: “All scientifically possible technology and social change predicted in science fiction will come to pass, but none of it will work properly.” It’s amazing that we have tiny mobile phones with which we can send photographs of masturbating walruses to our friends on the other side of the world, but less fabulous that you lose signal in a five-yard patch on the Hackney Road just as someone is telling you something important. One of the reasons why Dick and Ballard speak to our condition so well is that they saw the future and it was pretty rubbish.

Secondly, Damien Walter, also at The Guardian:

Looking at the television screen, and the surrounding mediasphere, it seems difficult to deny that much of what might once have been real has been displaced by fiction. Fictional conflicts stand at the heart of dramas that help us ignore the truth. Coke and Pepsi have been fighting it out for decades, but if one ever won would we notice that both are just fizzy brown water with sugar in? The neocons are going to save us from the Taliban – or is it the other way round … Every day it’s getting harder to tell one group of religious fundamentalists from another. Kate and Pete and Brad and Jen are in and out of love – but how’s your own marriage doing? The ConDem coalition is squaring off against old New Labour. No one believes this is representative democracy for a second but, gosh darn it, the theatre is so good we just can’t help watching, even while the real power is snatched by corporate actors behind the scenes.

[…]

For the last few centuries the realist novel has done little more than find ever more obsessive ways to reflect back at us the comforting fictions we accept as reality, making the contemporary literary novelist merely a second idiot, retelling the tale the first idiot already told. Realist fiction’s unquestioning acceptance of modern life makes it difficult for the contemporary literary novel to find anything resembling the truth when it tackles issues of poverty, race, gender, politics, society or philosophy. The easy cop-out of post-modernist relativism beckons.

If the outer world is flooded with fictions, then perhaps Ballard is right when he claims that “the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads”. Maybe our inner world of dreams and imagination offers not merely escape, but our best way of finding truth in the confusing fictional landscape of modern reality.

And thirdly, Athena Andreadis, not at The Guardian:

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow.  I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

What are you thinking?

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3 Responses to “Science, science fiction and the real world: some perspectives”

  1. AnthonyA says:

    I would venture to say that nearly all major leaders have been such, because they had a dream of what they wanted the future to be. Rightly, wrongly, saintly or evilly, they dreamed a different future, and worked to make it come to pass.

    So yes, dreaming of a better tomorrow is what keeps us going, and science fiction has been (and will be) and important part of it. So too is the romance novel, the noir story, anything that, at least for a moment, gets someone to ‘think about what could be, rather than what is’.

  2. Buffalo says:

    Well, I don’t get the sense that these people are really talking about a “better” future exactly. Dreams aren’t always logical or particularly interested in improving things, which to me is the point. The cell phone is a brilliant example of a sci-fi “technology” finally actualized, though I do think that even in speculative fiction it never quite works right all the time. Isn’t that part of the plot of much of the stuff anyway? Technology advances, becomes so complex that we lose control of and the ability to understand it, and the chaos/plot takes off from there?

  3. Fredosphere says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m pretty much in agreement. I do have to protest one of Damien Walter’s illustrations:

    Coke and Pepsi have been fighting it out for decades, but if one ever won would we notice that both are just fizzy brown water with sugar in?

    Does Mr. Walter possess even one working taste bud??? As a bonus irritant, the sentence contains a factual assertion not true for those of us unlucky enough to live under USA’s tariff regimen: there are any number of excellent colas available in the USA that are sweetened with sugar; Coke and Pepsi are not among them.

    (Or maybe the problem here is that I’m picky to the point of neurosis. Hmmm. Naw; Walter must be the nutjob, not me.)