Monday, July 23, 2007

Is Science Fiction Obsolete?

Last week Discover posted an article that claims "sci-fi helped make the present; now it's obsolete." The author, Bruno Maddox, bases his argument on the assumption that the primary purpose of science fiction is to predict future technological development. I'm reluctant to take an article on science fiction too seriously when it uses notoriously anti-science author Michael Crichton as its primary example.*
But Jurassic Park, which came out in 1990, was pretty much it for Crichton as an effective, hard-SF prognosticator. When he returns to science fiction in 1999 with Timeline, something clearly has changed. The topic is time travel, and true to his career-long hard-SF principles, Crichton does at least sketch out for the reader how such a thing might actually be possible. Sort of. The key, he ventures, might be “quantum foam.” In the real world, quantum foam is a term used by hard-core physicists standing beside vast, cantilevered chalkboards full of squiggles to describe a theoretical state, or scale, or reality at which particles of time and space blink in and out of existence in a soup of their own mathematical justification. But in Crichton’s hands, it’s actual foam. His heroes step into their time machine, pass quickly through a metaphysical car wash of suds, and then spend the rest of the novel jousting with black-armored knights and rolling under descending portcullises. The science, in other words, is pure nonsense, and the science fiction is not so much “hard” or “soft” as what you might call, well, “bad.”
See, the thing is that Jurassic Park isn't very good prognostication either. Filling in the gaps in the recovered dinosaur DNA sequences with frog DNA is not a very likely scenario.

Of course Maddox's real point appears to be that fiction itself is dead.

As to the question of what happened, not just to Crichton but to all serious science fictionists, I reckon it boils down, like so many things, to a pair of factors.

For one, it was around that time, the mid-1990s, that fiction—all fiction—finally became obsolete as a delivery system for big ideas. Whatever the cause—dwindling attention spans, underfunded schools, something to do with the Internet—the fact is these days that if a Top Thinker wakes up one morning aghast at man’s inhumanity to man, he’s probably going to dash off a 300-word op-ed and e-mail it to The New York Times, or better still, just stick it up on his blog, typos and all, not cancel his appointments for the next seven years so he can bang out War and Peace in a shed.
The sense I get is that Maddox isn't much of a science fiction reader. If he was, he would realize that science fiction isn't just about predicting the future of technology. There's also social commentary - all the way back to H.G. Wells - and simply entertaining stories. And if you read science fiction by author's other than Crichton you would know that there is many a tale out there that is on the cutting edge of science. Certainly that's true in biology based sci fi - cloning, genetic engineering, uploading of memories to silicon and other biological wonders abound. We can only know in retrospect whether today's tales predict the future or are flights of fantasy.

* It also wastes a whole paragraph that on a slightly bizarre bean dip analogy.

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3 comments:

DoubleW said...

It doesn't help that quite a few sci-fi authors have bragged in the past about predicting this or that technology, as if that was the most important part of their stories. And let's face it, sometimes that's all "hard sci-fi" stories are really about -- new high-tech gadgetry (i.e. "boys and their toys").

But overall, you're right: The author of that essay obviously doesn't read much science fiction. The best of the genre also is about social commentary, or at least telling an entertaining story that leaves you thinking a little deeper about some aspect of the world.

Michal said...

Another thing that Maddox leaves out is the philosophical (for lack of a better word) aspects of some science fiction. Karl Schroeder is a good example in writing about how the way we approach life will influence the kinds of technologies we use. Permanence, for example, is a big ideas book that uses future technology as a jumping off point to speculate about the kinds of society we might create.

arvind mishra said...

Its just an unthoughtful sweeping remark-how it could be dead as many of imaginative feats depicted in our mythologies such as shape changing aircrafts ready ever to accommodate any last time passenger like one of Hindu mythology named Puspak Viman and traveling in one's energy form ,some sort of virtual existence also depicted in INDIAN MYTHOLOGY as Parkaya prakash , are still remain to be realized.The end of sf would be the end of humanity itself.