Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Rationality" Sets Science Fiction Apart from Fantasy

In an article published in the journal CLCWeb:Comparative Litarature and Culture, Simone Caroti argues that "cognition" is what sets science fiction apart from fantasy, using Greg Bear's Blood Music
as an example:
The act of cognition, of rationally making sense of – and coming to terms with – the estranging elements, increases the sense of wonder inherent in [science fiction], whereas it destroys the pleasure of reading [fantasy]. Magic as represented by writers like Tolkien is best left unexplained, because it belongs to the realm of the irrational. Like a fairy, it is a fragile thing, and trying to rationalize it or explain it away will kill it. On the other hand, a rationally constructed estranging element thrives on cognition, as will readily become apparent when a typical example of the genre is examined. Greg Bear's Blood Music (1985) is set in our times, and at the beginning of the novel no difference from the world we know is offered. However, estrangement soon rears its head in the form of a biologist's development of a new strain of sentient bacteria. When the private lab he is working for cuts his funds and fires him, deeming his experiment illegal and dangerous, this modern-day Victor Frankenstein injects himself with he latest batch of his creations and goes away. In only a few days, these bacteria spread from their original host to contaminate half the population of the planet. As the novel nears its completion, the world has indeed become estranged from what the reader is used to, but this is nothing compared to the discovery lying in wait at the very end, when the true nature of this biological agent is revealed. Far from being just another outlandish example of malevolent disease (like the monstrous alien virus in John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing), these bacteria have in fact evolved into a completely new life-form inhabiting an entirely different plane of existence, and have taken with them all the human beings who were thought dead. After finishing the last page, the sense of wonder is still with us, even stronger than before.
Caroti's conclusion - that plausible scientific revelations in science fiction are part of what makes the genre entertaining – is one I agree with. As he puts it:
The cognitive discovery of the new life-form's true nature implies a series of revelations regarding our understanding of reality and our place in the universe. Far from diminishing our sense of wonder, these revelations greatly increase it, first of all by grounding its presence within a plausible rational framework, and then by extending the implications of this framework far beyond what we had at first imagined.
I'm just not sure that "cognitive discovery"  universally separates science fiction from fantasy.

There are many science fiction novels in which the "cognitive discoveries" have little basis in real science, and sometimes are difficult to distinguish from magic. I haven't read that much fantasy, but it also rings false to me that magic is necessarily always "unexplained" and "irrational", at least in the context of the story.

I think there's a great gray area between Tolkien's fantasy and Bear's hard science fiction, which includes science fiction with a seemingly fantasy setting like the McCaffrey's Pern novels or Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, space operas that are focused on adventure and space battles, science fictional heroes with amazing mental or physical powers who seem to differ from wizards in name only, and stories with science fictional settings like Le Guin's The Dispossessed that explore political systems, rather than science or technology.

It's kind of fun to try to imagine the classics of fantasy rewritten as science fiction.  In the Lord of the Rings the One Ring could have been fabricated in a laboratory by a mad genius scientist, rather than forged in the heat of a volcano by a powerful wizard.  In the Harry Potter novels, the horcruxes would be computer devices for storing copies of Lord Voldemort's uploaded mind, rather than magical devices used to hide "a part of his soul for the purpose of attaining immortality".  But while the plot and characters might stay essentially the same in such a re-genred novel, that shift from magical devices to objects developed through science and technology represents a significant difference in world view.

What sets science fiction apart from fantasy is not just the tropes of the genre –  future or extraterrestrial setting, space travel, advanced technology or scientific discoveries.  It also the underlying assumption that the universe is controlled by natural mechanisms, rather than supernatural forces.  Even though a sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic,  such a technology must have been created through the application of scientific principals. And as speculative as that technology or the science it is based on might be, it's a feat that humans could hope to achieve. Magic, on the other hand, can exist only in the realm of fiction.

So I agree with Caroti that science fiction uses a "plausible rational framework" to support the speculative aspects of the story. Where I think we disagree is whether the "cognitive discovery" that's central to hard science fiction stories like Bear's Blood Music is also a necessary part of SF, or if the framework alone is enough to set the genre apart from fantasy.  I'd argue the latter.


Caroti, Simone. "Science Fiction, Forbidden Planet, and Shakespeare's The Tempest." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 6.1 (2004):

Monday, October 18, 2010

Are Homo sapiens the only people?

Alien Anatomy
I've been watching the new NBC series The Event. So far it's hasn't been tell-all-your-friends awesome, but I've been finding interesting enough to keep watching.

The premise is that in 1944 a plane carrying aliens crashed in Alaska. While many of the aliens escaped, those who were injured  - and their leader, "Sophia Maguire" - were captured and interred in the secret Inostranka military base.1 In the present day, there have been a series of strange events seemingly precipitated by the aliens who avoided capture.

Unlike the other recent "aliens are among us" series, V, the US government in The Event is more realistically suspicious of the aliens motives.  And unlike V's lizard-like aliens in beautiful human skins,  the aliens of The Event are primates like us.
While the series probably won't reveal the aliens' origins and purpose on Earth for some time, I think the possibilities are intriguing.

Here's the scene in the second episode that shows us what the US government knows about the aliens' biology:

Agent Lee:  Well, as you can see, outwardly they look very much like us, which could indicate a common ancestor, or even a parallel evolutionary process. But there are differences.

Now, initially, scientists were only able to detect small variations in their circulatory systems and blood composition. But over time it became clear that they age at a much slower rate that we do. Meaning that there had to be substantial differences we couldn't detect and that we didn't understand.

Now recent advances in DNA sequencing are starting to change that. We now know their DNA varies from ours by slightly less than 1%.

President Martinez: 1%? So they're people.

Blake Sterling: They're absolutely not. 1% is actually quite significant genetically. A chimpanzee's DNA differs from ours by only 2%, for example.
When I first saw that scene, my first reaction was "Wow, they are closely related to humans", followed by a puzzled "How are they not people?"   I suppose it all comes down to your definition of a "person.

It's true that a difference in genomic DNA sequence of even "slightly less than 1%" is significant.  It would definitely make the aliens a different species than Homo sapiens. They are not modern humans. But while they aren't human, they are more genetically similar to us than our close primate cousins the chimpanzees.

Reconstructed Neandertal family.  People?
Depending on the method you use to calculate similarity, human and chimp genomes differ anywhere from 1% to 6%.  That means you can't really compare the information thrown out in The Event. But the method of genome comparison that shows a 1.2% genomic difference between humans and chimps, shows a difference between the human and Neandertal genomes of 0.3%.

The ancestors of humans and chimps diverged roughly 6.5 millions years ago.  The ancestors of humans and Neandertals diverged between 500,000 and 800,000 years ago.  
I'd put the difference between the DNA of humans and the aliens of The Event somewhere between chimpanzees and Neandertals.  That means the ancestors the "aliens" would have split off from our human ancestors a couple of million years ago.

So what does that mean for the evolutionary origins of the aliens? 

Based on the similarity of their genome to humans, I'd say it would be extraordinarily unlikely that the aliens (or "aliens") originated anywhere other than Earth.  To produce intelligent humanoids more genetically similar to humans than other Earthly primates, evolution would have had to progress identically on Earth and on an alien world for many millions of years. That just couldn't happen – at least not without some sort of supernatural or superhuman intervention.

Where have the "aliens" been all this time? Perhaps they were moved from the Earth to another planet by more technologically advanced aliens.  Or maybe they've been living in an isolated enclave right here on Earth for a million years.  If it turns out they had been living all those millennia on a plateau in the South American jungle, on a tropical island in the Pacific, or in a valley high in the Himalayas, that would be a nice reference to the science fictiony "lost civilization" stories of the early 20th century.

I'm hoping that the origins of the "aliens" turns out to be both interesting and not entirely inconsistent with biology. Of course depictions of evolution in Hollywood unfortunately tend to be really bad, so I'm not going to be too surprised if the story ends up disappointingly silly.

So terrestrial origin or no, that leaves the question of whether the aliens are "people".

Maybe I've watched and read too much science fiction, but I consider any humanoid sentient being to be a "person". The Event's aliens are more similar to humans than Klingons or Vulcans or Minbari or Centauri or Gallifreyans - of course they are people!

Whether they turn out to be "people" with friendly intentions towards Homo sapiens remains to be seen.


Watch episodes of The Event on Hulu. (available only in the US, and only for a limited time)

Further technical reading on human evolution:
• Cohen J. Relative Differences: The Myth of 1%.  Science 316: 1836 (2007)(pdf)).
Green RE et al. A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Science 328:710-722. (2010) (pdf))
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: What does it mean to be human? 

Top image: Still from The Event episode "To Keep Us Safe". Agent Lee points out key features of the alien anatomy he knows so well.

Bottom image: Reconstruction of a Neandertal group. © Johannes Krause.  Source: Neandertal Genome Project Press Kit.

1. There is also a plot line with a computer programming genius trying to rescue his sexy fiance  (apparently a scientist of some sort), who has been kidnapped by a homicidal group whose origins and plans are unclear.  Their story line isn't nearly as interesting as the interactions between Sophia and the President Martinez.  Hopefully that will change.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tall Girls Represent!

If you browse through the science fiction bookshelf at Project Gutenberg, you can find a number of complete issues of Astounding Stories of Super-Science from its first year of publication.  I've spent some time browsing through the stories from those collections, but until I saw this post at Marooned, I hadn't realized that I was missing something awesome: the letters to the editor*.

Readers provided feedback about the stories, discussed the fictional science and technology, and provided suggestions as to how the pulp magazine's format could be improved (14-year-old Forrest J Ackerman thought it should be larger). It's interesting to see that the same discussions have been going on for generations.

But what really made me smile were the letters from the girls.  Even eighty years ago science fiction wasn't just for boys.

In the May 1930 issue, Ruth Miller of Cleveland wrote:
Saw your new magazine at the newsstand and bought it at once. I like the following stories in this issue: "The Beetle Horde," "Phantoms of Reality," "The Stolen Mind." I did not care much for the others, and least of all for "Tanks."

I believe that readers, like myself, who are interested in scientific fantasies, prefer stories of interplanetary travels and fourth dimensional stories, and variations of these themes. Such as various space-ships and vibration machines for visiting other planets and traveling backward and forward in time. Stories of lost continents and of strange races of people living in unknown places on our own Earth are interesting also.

A magazine of this kind has unlimited possibilities for stories of the aforementioned types, and I believe that readers who buy magazines of these subjects expect to find therein really Astounding Stories.
Hard to argue with that.

Sue O'Bara's letter in the September 1930 issue was give the headline "From the Other Sex":
You'll be surprised to hear from a girl, as I notice only boys wrote to praise your new magazine. I tried reading some of the Science Fiction magazines my brother buys every month but I'd start reading a story only to leave it unfinished. But your magazine is different. When I picked it up to read it I thought I'd soon throw it down and read something else, but the moment I started to read one of the stories of your new magazine I read it to the finish. I never read such vivid and exciting stories. Even my brother who loves all kinds of Science Fiction magazines couldn't stop praising your new magazine. He said Astounding Stories beats them all.
[. . .]
Will recommend your new magazine to all my friends.
I wonder if Sue convinced her friends to become Astounding readers?

The next month, in a letter published in the October 1930 issue, Josephine Frankhouser of Philadelphia shared her interest in both science and science fiction:

I am only a young girl sixteen years of age but am greatly interested in science. I have no master mind by any means, but have worked out many a difficult problem in school for my science prof. Your magazine is a wiz. I haven't missed an instalment since it started. Give us more stories like "Monsters of Moyen," and "The Beetle Horde."
The Beetle Horde - a story about giant beetles trying to take over the world - seems to have been quite popular.  It sounds like the precursor to SyFy's "big critters gone bad" movies.

But it's 18-year-old Gertrude Hemken of Chicago who really won my heart with her letter in the March 1931 issue. She's responding to a previous letter by a Mr. Johnston, who complains that the science in the stories is so bad that only "a young child or a moron" could "read and enjoy such futile nonsense". Gertrude takes him to task:
And if Mr. Johnston of Newark believes us who like [Astounding Stories] to be morons, why let's be morons! for when ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise. I'd like to inform this highly intelligent person that our mag is dealing with pure Science Fiction, and why should any author go into detail describing how cities are made to float and why invisible cloaks are invisible? Why, if every paragraph were broken off to let us know how this or that is possible, I'm sure we'd all be yawning and nodding over the magazine, and finally discard it entirely in search of something more to our liking!
Why waste your time, Mr. Johnston, telling us you don't like A. S.? Just don't purchase it, if it isn't to your liking. We're satisfied with what we have.
What if the stories are like fairy tales? Isn't all fiction more or less of a fairy tale? I want Mr. Johnston to get this point: what we want is fiction, pure Science Fiction and not instructions. We read A. S. as a pleasure. We do not have to be scientists just because we are interested in science!
Learning how to determine latitude by using a sextant is Senta Osoling, student at Polytechnic High School, Los Angeles, Calif. Navigation classes are part of the school's program for training its students for specific contributions to the war effort (LOC
A great response to a cranky-pants like Mr. Johnston.  I may complain about the science (or lack thereof) in SF stories, but I nevertheless am entertained - I wouldn't bother to read or watch otherwise.

After detailing the stories she's enjoyed, Gertrude makes plea for some female characters who aren't sweet little things:
Another word to ye Authors: Please do not always have the girls in your stories such sweet little bundles of humanity. Aren't there any tall girls in your imaginations? Please give us tall girls a break once in a while. It makes me feel better. Thanks.
Amen to that!

I wonder if the Ruths and Sues and Gertrudes who were science fiction fans 80 years ago continued reading the pulps into adulthood, or if they gave them up along with the other trappings of their youth. I like to imagine that they continued to enjoy a space fantasy story now and then, and eventually passed on the love of science fiction to their daughters or nieces or students.

* I also like the ads. Where else could you find answers to burning questions like "Why is Listerine to be found in the offices of a majority of American business men? Why do they use it at the noon hour? Why do they sometimes halt important meetings, to gargle with it?", while ordering "French Love Drops" and "Learning to Play Hawaiian Guitar Like the Hawaiians!"

 (Post at Marooned via SF Signal)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

On Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction

I quite like this post by molecular biologist Hanna Waters on why she thinks scientists should read science fiction.  She points out that science fiction captures both the combination of excitement at new scientific discoveries with anxiety about the larger implications of new technologies
We are slowly inching closer to developing lab-produced organs, which would be incredibly beneficial for a lot of obvious reasons.  Just this month there have been developments toward mass-produced red blood cells, as well as bioartificial lungs.  Eerily, I read about these discoveries as I was tearing my way through Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a speculative fiction novel about a bio-engineered future, including “pigoons” (pig/balloon) that have grown to massive sizes in order to grow 6 kidneys at a time for organ harvest, and “ChickieNobs,” a fast food product made from transgenic chickens that have no brains or beaks and grow 8 chicken breasts at once.  While reading, I simultaneously was in wonderment about how we could be reaching the ability to actually engineer these creatures, but obviously nervous about the implications described in the novel. 
And because science fiction is part of the popular culture, it reflects the public's concerns about new technology, which is information scientists can use to help better address those concerns.   I would also argue that science fiction - particularly on TV and in the movies - can influence the public's perception of science. But the result is the same: scientists should be aware of how their research is perceived by non-scientists, and science fiction can provide a window to those attitudes.

But science fiction isn't just about the possible dangers of technology. It also captures the wonder of science:
Science is about that excitement.  About that drive to discovery, about idealism and hope.  It’s easy to forget that, working away at my lab bench, pipetting DNA into tubes.  Now we know a little more about science – enough that we no longer dream of mutated superheroes.  But we still dream about the day when we’ll make our big discovery, solve our own scientific problem.
Yes this!  The day-to-day practice of science can be pretty mundane. And sometimes the progress of science seems to take baby steps, rather than giant leaps.

Even when the science in science fiction isn't very plausible, it can provide that sense of wonder (or "sensawunda") that not only is there is much to be yet discovered in the universe, but that given the resources we can and will make those discoveries. 

The point is that science fiction can capture both sides of scientific progress: the excitement and progress of new discoveries along with the potential dangers those discoveries might lead to.  I think that's why many scientists do indeed enjoy reading (and watching) SF.

Read "Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction" at Culturing Science.

Monday, October 04, 2010

SIMF: Night and Day

Excitement, enticement, shrilling from the sun-side of the world. I come! … The sun is changing again too. Sun is walking in the night! Sun is walking back to Summer in the warming of the light! … Warm is Me-Moggadeet Myself. Forget the bad-time winter. 

~"Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death", James Tiptree, Jr.

I have a new post up at Science in My Fiction that looks at how changes in the number of hours of light and darkness might affect biology on other planets.

Read "Night and Day".

Some of my other recent posts at SIMF:

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins: What would aliens look like?

Last Tuesday Howard University hosted a discussion between evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson billed "The Poetry of Science" (a title I love). Their conversation touched on the beauty of science, life and the universe. and - among other topics - aliens.

Journalism grad student Karen Frantz summarizes:
Tyson argued that representations of aliens in pop culture tend to be anthropomorphized, depicting beings with similar body structures and facial features as ours. He said that it’s egocentric to assume that life on another planet would resemble life on our own, and that to him the most plausible alien character depicted in sci-fi was the Blob -- an amoeba-like villain in the classic 50’s flick.

Dawkins countered by saying that life on Earth has followed predictable paths of evolution, and we might very well expect life on other planets to take a similar course. For example, on Earth, animals on separate continents still share similar genes and characteristics -- eyes and stingers, for example -- despite having long ago split apart on the evolutionary chain.
Video of their discussion is being posted by Black Atheists of America - you can watch part 1 and part 2 Those videos are now private. Sorry about that.