Monday, July 14, 2008

SF Stories that Inspire and Hinder Real Science

Many kids who read science fiction in their youth and teen years were inspired to pursue a career in science. But apparently some SF can have the opposite effect, scaring people away from the sciences. For example, MIT synthetic biologist Drew Endy told io9's Annalee Newitz that "his area of research has also suffered because so much science fiction portrays bio-hacking as horrific (think Frankenstein) or silly (think South Park's "four-assed monkey")." Newitz has rounded up a list of SF stories that either are "inspiring" or "hindering" science.

The inspiring stories show science as part of the progress of human society. Her list includes Ian M. Banks' Look to Windward ("synthetic biology is simply a logical way that humans extend their capabilities, but it does not turn them into monsters or make them authoritarian overlords"), China Mieville's The Scar ("human-animal hybrids are often less disturbing than so-called normal humans.") and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time ("potential world of eco-friendly, multicultural feminists is founded on many complex technologies including artificial wombs, green mass transit, a rapid internet-like communications system, and complicated bio-engineering and waste-recycling tech").

The hindering stories, on the other hand are tales of science run amok, with serious negative impact on society. She includes the movie Gattaca, Greg Bear's Blood Music, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

I'd add to her list of hinderers most of Michael Crichton's science fiction output, which usually features scientists who cause great destruction by a combination of their arrogance and ignorance. That would include The Andromeda Strain (lethal strain of bacteria is brought to earth by a satellite trying to find microbes to create bioweapons), Jurassic Park and its sequels (scientists recreate lethal and clever dinosaurs that are unexpectedly able to reproduce), Prey (swarms of bacterially-produced predatory nanobots that escape the lab and run amok), and Next (unethical genetic engineering of humans and animals). It's harder to come up with stories that portray biotechnology positively. Brin's stories that take place in his Uplift universe (genetic engineering is used for the "uplift" of dolphins and chimpanzees) could be on that list.

I wonder, though how much of an effect the "hindering" stories really have on the study of science. Sure, they negatively portray science and scientists, but from Newitz's list it's pretty clear that that kind of mad science story isn't anything new. In fact, Frankenstein was published almost 200 years ago. It seems to me that while SF certainly can affect the perception of science by the general public, I'm not sure that it has that much of an effect on those who are interested in the science enough to read up on the facts behind the fiction. Or maybe it's because readers with a science bent tend to read widely, becoming exposed to stories that both "hinder" and "inspire".

In any case, the issue of public perception of science and scientists is an important one, if only because that public perception influences politics and funding. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the anti-science stories actually ring true to many people who have a deep distrust (and dislike) of corporations, the government, and anyone who is an "expert". It can be satisfying to see arrogant establishment types who believe themselves to be very clever shown up as bumbling and foolish, even if it does mean death and disaster as a result. Hell, I often enjoy those kind of stories, and I like science.

So what's the solution? More positive SF? That certainly couldn't hurt. But there's no guarantee that any particular novel or movie will become popular enough to really make a difference in public perception. I suspect that education is really the key. Part of what feeds people's fear of scientific progress is that they don't understand it. I'm not sure how we can go about that, though, beyond ensuring kids get a thorough science education in school. Public lectures are a possibility, as are entertaining exhibitions at science museums, and maybe blogs too. I'd like to think that anyway.

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1 comment:

arvind mishra said...

Excellent post Peggy,Sort of a 'food for thought 'kind. But I have my own reservations ..such critiques in fact inculcate some prejudices and dogmas in the minds of sf writers .And may even affect the spontaneity of the literary works.Should we take a lesson from this to go for writing the so called 'inspiring' sort of sf only?
Science and sf too for that matter are never bad or good.A lot depends how a person looks at it.
An apparently horrible looking sf may be doing a great service to warn humans regarding some imminent danger.'The Brave New World' although a dystopia meticulously portrays the perils of a mechanized society.In which category you would like to classify this all time great classic?