"Science and literature are not two things, but two sides of one thing."
-- Thomas Huxley
I feel like I should start with an explanation. I'm one of those people who sits on the boundary between the world of science and the world of the arts and is not a specialist in either. Perhaps I picked a degree in English literature because I couldn't decide what I wanted to learn about and so I decided this was my best chance of reading about everything. I'm fascinated by what the future has in store, and it seems that Science Fiction is the best tool for anticipating what lies ahead. It can extrapolate on what we currently know about our world and lay out possible scenarios.
SF is often praised for 'predicting' specific scientific developments that we've now witnessed, implying that its authors have some kind of prophesying talent, and that 'the future is now.' This seems a rather naive view, and one that falls short of praising SF for what it is most useful for. I believe that the real predictive power of SF is not in predicting space travel or genetic engineering, but by predicting the implications of such developments: the social, environmental, political impact and more. It provides a window into our possible futures and ideally, would prevent us from making mistakes.
(I've just realised that this theory could be extended to all fiction, as an explanation of why we would want to read stories that are entirely made up. In a way, it could be practice. We might read a romance novel that resonates with our own lives so we can learn from the failures and successes of the protagonist so we can avoid the same mistakes and take advantage of situations presented to us.)
By choosing to write a blog about recent scientific developments and how such developments have been portrayed in literature, it is implied that I care a little about the relationship between the two and the extent to which literature is accurate in its representation of science. By seeking out such a blog, it is implied that you might care a little too.
Some such representations in literature might bear little resemblance to their real-science counterparts, as in the case of very early speculations in SF. Take Wells' time machine, for example. Of course, no such transport through time is likely to be possible for some time, but today's scientists, and everyone with an amateur interest in physics, would understand the limitations of Wells' design. In fact, the mechanisms of Wells' creation are as mysterious as his protagonist, known simply as 'The Time Traveller.' But surely this just illustrates the point of SF - the notion of time travel was so radical that it didn't need to be glossed, or the issue confused, with details. The Time Traveller was the one, the one who travelled through time. Now he finds competition from other such time-travellers, such as Doctor Who and his companions, Back to the Future's Marty McFly or Quantum Leap's Dr Sam Beckett.
Different people have different expectations for SF, and so it's easy to get bogged down in discussions of the definition of the genre. The audience is an important factor: whether the readership have an advanced knowledge of science, an amateur interest or very limited knowledge will affect their response and their sense of satisfaction. It could be argued that the greatest SF writers of all time have degrees in science to validate the science behind their speculations. Issac Asimov, considered by many to be the master of hard SF, was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, while author of 2001: Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke, earned a first class degree in physics and mathematics from King's College London. A background in science, however, is not the only prerequisite for good SF writing. Phillip K Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has no educational background in science, and yet is still considered one of SF's greats. As long as the writer shows due consideration to his/her readership by doing thorough research, it seems they can write convincing fiction grounded in science.
Style is also a consideration, and some would say that while some of the greatest SF writers have produced work with some spectacular ideas, their writing style leaves something to be desired. Writing can also benefit from being cut loose from the constraints of a highly logical brain, and non-scientists may be capable of seeing literary potential in some aspects of science beyond how a scientist would see it. Considering the most praised SF of the last century, it seems that imagination is as important, and some might argue, more important, than scientific rigour.
A writer with a background in the humanities for example, would be more likely to show interest in the social, political and philosophical implications of the developments of science, to produce what is unflatteringly referred to as 'soft SF.' This is in opposition to 'hard SF,' which deals more directly with the core science subjects of Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology. The apparent disdain of 'soft SF' has not hindered its appeal: Frank Herbert's Dune, which deals more with themes of ecology, human social structure, evolution and politics than with hard science, is the best-selling SF novel of all time.
Plausibility is also a factor regarding what makes good SF, but raises questions of its own. You may be of the opinion that SF is entitled to stretch the boundaries of plausibility to where it becomes almost fantasy. You may believe that SF has a duty to remain rooted in testable science, or appreciate SF's attempts to extrapolate known science to envisage possible futures. Margaret Atwood denies, rather confusingly, that her writing is SF, because she defines SF as 'fiction in which things happen that are not possible today.' She's one of many writers who try to avoid being labelled as SF writers in an effort to be taken seriously, and so the term 'speculative fiction' arises. However, the definitions of each term are still discussed at length with no satisfying consensus having been drawn, other than the agreement that we'll all quite sick of discussing it. Bruce Sterling has suggested the term 'Slipstream' to cover SF, fantasy and other related genres. This includes novels that seem to have something in common but don't quite fit anywhere else. The definition of 'Slipstream' is ambiguous: 'this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late 20th century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.' However, there seems to be general agreement over what novels could be counted under 'Slipstream,' and the vast majority of these novels draw their impact from not being consigned to a specific genre. I have written at length on the crucial role of genre ambiguity in certain pieces of apparent 'Slipstream' literature, including Atwood's 'Oryx and Crake.' Other such examples include Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' and Michel Faber's 'Under the Skin.'
The world doesn't need another discussion about the definition of SF, and I'm not interested in starting one. This is why I don't intend to criticise any piece of literature for its inaccuracies, nor to suggest that scientific accuracy doesn't matter in SF. I believe that scientific fact and the literary imagination can work alongside each other to provide a thorough analysis that is beneficial both to scientists and to writers of SF. Science Fiction writing has a lot to reveal about the human condition and our need to speculate and think critically. There's a lot to be learned from exploring how we transform our observations into speculations.
References & Further Reading
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