I do applaud Henry Gee of Nature for including an SF short story at the back of that august journal for years on end now; this is one delightful way that science fact and science fiction interact. Meanwhile, out in the mundane British world, how often we see daft comments in newspapers, or hear them on the radio, along the lines of “this is sheer science fiction”, regarding some scientific notion that seems a bit far-out at the moment, or conversely “this isn’t science fiction; it’s real,” if some formerly far-out notion has attained practical reality. Us SF writers labour cheerfully under this double-edged sword of dominant cultural perception in Britain. Damned if we do; damned if we don’t, as it were. Every month the witty SF news magazine Ansible gathers examples of inanities in its “How Others See Us” section. (An “ansible” being an instantaneous interstellar communication device dreamed up by Ursula le Guin.) No, on the whole we don’t write about dragons and flying saucers. In other countries the situation can be different. In France, SF is a valid form of intellectual activity, ever since the surrealist poet Boris Vian translated the works of the American A.E. van Vogt, which to us might seem somewhat crazy and clunky, doing for them what Baudelaire did for Edgar Allen Poe a century earlier. And in the wake of 9/11 I hear that the CIA called in SF writers to discuss future terrorist scenarios.
Now it isn’t actually likely that SF writers are going to envision future scientific breakthroughs or future technology accurately, although on the scattershot principle occasionally this might happen. But I remember when Stephen Hawking announced that micro black holes must exist, and SF writers enthusiastically wrote stories using these as garbage disposal energy generators, or as perfect murder weapons, until about 18 months later Hawking completed the sentence with, “but they evaporate in 10 to the minus 23 of a second,” or some such. And I remember when the experimental division of British Telecom organised a conference of British SF writers to forecast future developments, and were mildly unhappy that we weren’t far-out enough. And I remember researching the climate of Mars very carefully for a novel, so that I knew the polar caps were frozen carbon dioxide, until the day when the proofs of my book arrived to correct and simultaneously New Scientist with its cover proclaiming WATER ICE ON MARS! I’d have been better off blithely assuming all along that a polar cap obviously contains frozen water, rather than getting it right, which turned out to be wrong. Fortunately, while I was tearing my hair out, there came a knock on the door and by amazing good fortunate there stood Gregory Benford, plasma physicist and SF author, who had been at JPL a few days earlier and was privy to the latest findings.
So let’s say that there’s a complex dialectic between science fact and science fiction. A recent, undoubtedly short-lived school of thought, Mundane SF, wishes to stick to the facts and eschew any flights of fancy such as starships or aliens. How very boring of them, say I. What, no zany thought experiments? Zaniness is an important part of SF, as well as operating within a certain framework of rationality, as opposed to the “rules” of magic which prevail in fantasy novels – though not forgetting Arthur Clarke’s adage that any sufficiently advanced technology might seem to us akin to magic. And the universe may still turn out to be fundamentally stranger that we suppose even yet, although I’d like to think it isn’t stranger than we can suppose. These are thrilling times, for skin after skin of the onion of what we thought we knew is constantly being stripped away, revealing deeper hidden skins – as it were, I should add; for SF is nothing if not metaphorical in essence, seeking metaphors for the impact of knowledge, and applied knowledge, upon us human beings, incarnating our hopes and fears regarding the future which arrives so rapidly these days. And if the future which swiftly becomes the present invalidates the bases of SF books, such as the one-time oceans and jungles of Venus, to take one extreme instance, this doesn’t invalidate the power and pleasure of such bygone texts, any more than Gulliver’s Travels is invalidated by GPS.
Recently some SF has increasingly been looking back, as if nostalgically, to alternative pasts, “steampunk” variations upon, say, the Victorian era with Babbage analytical engines in full swing, almost as if the future has become too complex and multi-faceted to contemplate. Is this a kind of treason to the original “progressive” vision of SF? (Though let’s not forget all the dystopian visions.) No, I’d say; it’s just another part of the rich metaphorical tapestry. SF, too, has been somewhat eclipsed for years now by Fantasy literature, as though science has failed us, becoming the bogeyman responsible for ecological disaster, climate instability, nuclear weapons, potential designer plagues, and such. Possibly, if an “impossible” time machine could be invented, one should burn down Tolkien’s house just after he finished Lord of the Rings rather than trying, say, to assassinate Hitler. Yet in fact we are ever more pledged to science as solution rather than cause of woes. And what times we are living in, with the Large Hadron Collider on the one hand, and on the other Nick Bostrom’s very logical argument that we’re actually living in a simulation operated by an advanced future civilization. Plenty of scope for the imagination! Imagination is what makes us unique – for the moment, unless we do ever contact alien life that is comprehensible. Creative imagination of one kind is at the root of the best science, while a different, though allied kind, is at the root of the best science fiction.
Of course, if we do ever find imaginative and scientific aliens, it’ll be interesting to know if they write, or ever wrote, science fiction.
Ian Watson is the founder and co-chairman of the Northampton SF Writers Group.
this article was written in 2009 and is reprinted here with permission.
(c) Ian Watson 2009, all rights reserved