Monday, October 02, 2006

Are hard science fiction readers squeamish?

Science fiction author Chris Moriarty (most recent book: Spin Control) has an essay on his web site about "hard" science fiction. He points out that until recently some considered the biological sciences were considered to be too "fantastic" to be science fiction. He speculates, though, that perhaps part of the problem that the biosciences have had in being accepted into the "hard science fiction" realm is that descriptions of biology (particularly human biology) make some readers uncomfortable.
Hard sf may be a broad field and getting broader daily -- I remember when people said C. J. Cherry's Cyteen wasn't hard sf because cloning was 'fantasy science' (5) -- but it will always be a genre written by and for people who are passionate (albeit at times foolishly passionate) about science and technology.

(5) Actually, I think there may be another, non-political factor behind the longstanding reluctance to include stories based on biology in the hard SF cannon. Part of it is a straightforward and perfectly understandable aesthetic impulse; until the advent of genetic engineering and mathematical biology, there was a truly deplorable absence of equations in most biology texts, which made biology-based sf stories a hard sell for the numerophilic hard-cord hard SF fan. However, I can't quite buck the suspicion that part of hard SF's historic biology phobia was mere squeamishness. The kind of squeamishness so entertainingly encapsulated in the old Star Trek episode, Amok Time, where Spock precedes a highly euphemistic discussion of salmon spawning procedures with the shamefaced admission that his illness "has to do with biology . . . Vulcan biology."

Is that true? It certainly sounds plausible to me. I've certainly met "engineering types" that are much happier in a simple universe made up of numbers and circuits and metal than the fluids and squishiness of the biological world.

Oh, and the dialog from Amok Time"? Here is a sample of the dialog where Spock dances around the basics of Vulcan biology:
"There are precedents in nature, Captain... the giant eel-birds of Regulus Five. Once each eleven years, they must return to the caverns where they hatched. On your Earth, the salmon. They must return to that one stream where they were born, to spawn – or die in trying."
"But you're not a fish, Mr. Spock–"
"No – nor am I a man... I'm a Vulcan. I had hoped I would be spared this, but the ancient drives are too strong. Eventually, they catch up with us... and we are driven by forces we cannot control – to return home, and take a wife... or die."
(pause) "I haven't heard a word you said – and I'll get you to Vulcan, somehow."
- Spock and Kirk
It's silly dialog, but I suspect it was written as much to get around television censorship of anything having to do with s-e-x as squeamishness on the part of the writers and fans. I could be wrong, of course, since Star Trek has a long history of really crappy biology. (But happily for me, lots of blog fodder).

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  1. Good question. I suspect the answer is yes, and at a rather deep level -- partly because physics doesn't really question what it is to be human, and biology does.

    Would we be human without our gut bacteria? Nope.

    What kind of environment do we thrive best in, and with what kind of human contact in that environment, to propagate 'human' genetic material -- including the organisms that live in our gut, under our gums, and so on?

    This isn't rocket science:


    "Our adult bodies harbor10 times more microbial than human cells. Their genomes (the microbiome)
    endow us with physiologic capacities that we have not had to evolve on our own and thus are both a
    manifestation of who we are genetically and metabolically, and a reflection of our state of well-being.
    "Our distal gut is the highest density natural bacterial ecosystem known, the most comprehensively
    surveyed to date, and the most highly represented in pure culture.

    "The total number of genes in the various species represented in our indigenous microbial communi-
    ties likely exceeds the number of our human genes by at least two orders of magnitude (1). Thus, it
    seems appropriate to consider ourselves as a composite of many species — human, bacterial, and ar-
    chaeal — and our genome as an amalgam of human genes and the genes of our microbial ‘selves’.
    Without understanding the interactions between our human and microbial genomes, it is impossible to
    obtain a complete picture of our biology.
    Our microbiome is largely unexplored...."

    And if we're going to leave Earth, we have to take all the pieces with us that make us human. It may be rather a large and complicated list.

  2. That's a good point about the necessity of our indigenous bacterial flora. I think the average person out there would be shocked at the numbers, and assume that bacteria = bad. Advertising tells us over and over that we need antibacterial soap and cleanser and towlettes, and the only mention of E. coli on the news is when there is a contamination problem with a virulent strain. Bacteria don't get no respect!

    I wonder if we did ever come into contact with an alien species if the benevolent bugs we carry would be deadly to them, or if their own physiology would be different enough that there would be no effect.


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