Science Fiction and Reality

December 26, 2012 — Leave a comment

This time of year is a busy one, made busier with my additional work on a science outreach project. I will post details on this project once our Kickstarter page goes live. It will be an exciting one, and I promise to provide details on the techniques I employed for my portion of the promo video. This busy time of year led me to write less posts, but do not fret. Today I discuss a topic slightly removed from science and medicine, and that topic is science fiction. This should provide a nice reprieve for a holiday season.

A friend recently asked, “What genre do you read the most? And what is your opinion of science fiction?” Both of those questions require complex answers, and I am not an authority on the latter topic. However, I’ll tell you what draws me to science fiction, even though most of my reading is on Pubmed or arXiv and novels I read are rooted more in ethics and philosophy than in science fiction or fantasy (see: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, “Ishmael”). Science fiction is more than phasers, hyperdrive, ansibles, and soylent green.

The genre begins at our present reality and extends it. Concepts from science,medicine, and even politics are nudged to new heights, and a story is birthed. Suspension of disbelief is often required. Unlike fantasy or even magical realism, the story is deemed plausible, as explanations are required from the author. For example, faster than light communication, a technology that breaks our current understanding of the universe, requires some mechanism. This extension of reality allows writers to do something wonderful. They explore social structures, morality, religion, and more. It is this that makes the genre wonderful. While I may not agree with the science in science fiction, that word, “science,” implies a level of critical thinking. The memorable stories from the genre apply such critical thinking to contemporary issues, and they delve into fundamental questions in philosophy. This is not a requirement for the genre, but it is what draws me to its best works.

Every genre has traits like this. Biographies, for example, relay information about a person’s life experiences. However, these books may also impart wisdom through lessons gleaned by the protagonist. In Team of Rivals, we learn that a former President was inspired by a cabinet with whom he disagreed. In one of Richard Feynman’s memoirs, we learn lessons of love and humility. For example, he tells the story of a pen commissioned by NASA that could write in microgravity. After months of work and significant money spent, the team revealed their “space pen” to the Soviets. Moscow responded, stating that they solved the problem by using pencils! This lesson, gleaned from a memoir, taught me a valuable lesson. This function of biographies is what raises their quality and timelessness. Fantasy provides similar critiques of society, yet it functions as an escape mechanism from the challenges of a difficult life.

Nonfiction educates, yet it is limited by the constraints of reality. Science fiction takes realty and extends it. Star Trek asked, “What makes us human?” Ender’s Game delved into questions of militarism and genocide. Many writers, such as Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, created dystopias where a flicker in decision making led to a scary world. These were rooted in the contexts of the time, and we still reference such works when critiquing current societal measures.

So, what is my take on science fiction? While myriad laws are broken in the writing of these novels, I am drawn to them. These novels apply the scientific method in a work of fiction. They ask a question about an alternate reality, create and experiment with this reality with an artistic license, and draw a set of conclusions from the simulations they employ. We can debate the lessons learned from such novels. That debate alone is further evidence that the works initiated a conversation.

However, remember this: Orson Scott Card really has no idea how time dilation works.

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