Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Biologists Strike Back

The July 5th issue of Nature has a special science fictiony cover and an interesting-looking news feature "The Biologists Strike Back."
Time machines, spaceships, atomic blasters — the icons of science fiction tend to come from the physical sciences. But science fiction has a biological side too, finding drama and pathos in everything from alien evolution to the paradoxes of consciousness. Nature brought together four science-fiction writers with a background in the biological sciences to talk about life-science fiction.
While the original article is only available to subscribers, the full, unedited roundtable discussion is freely available as a supplementary pdf. It's great stuff.

The participants are science fiction authors Ken MacLeod (who has a masters in biomechanics), Joan Slonczewski (professor of biology at Kenyon College), Paul McAuley (formerly lecturer in botany at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland), and Peter Watts (who has done research in marine biology). The discussion ranges from how they developed their interests in biology and science fiction - often both at the same time, trying to create creatures that are stranger than those in nature, evolution, cloning, anti-science cautionary tales a la Crichton, gender, artificial intelligence

Joan Slonczewski made an interesting point about the value of science fiction in generating interest in science:
I used to agree with your point that bad science fiction was an obstruction to learning, but as a biology professor I learned that sometimes bad science fiction is better than none at all. For example, you could poke Michael Crichton's portrayal of dinosaur cloning full of holes, but those stories encouraged a whole generation of molecular-biology students.
That's one of the reasons why I created this blog; to use science fiction as a starting point to talking about biology. It may sometimes seem like I'm dissing SF that uses bad biology, the truth is I like lots of books, movies, and TV shows that pretty much gets it all wrong. Talking (and writing) about how it's wrong doesn't make me enjoy it any less.

I thought Paul McAuley made an interesting point about having more freedom to write about science as a novelist than as a scientist.
One of the useful things that science fiction does is to get out from under self-checking circuits that scientists must use when they're doing their work and just let rip and dance away with it. Doing science is like slogging through mud. Science fiction straps on mud shoes and dances off over the surface and onto the horizon, gesticulating madly and doing all sorts of silly little dances, but sometimes doing useful stuff.
That is part of the fun of science fiction - taking science to it's logical (and illogical) conclusion.

Favorite biological moments in science fiction:
  • Paul McAuley: In Greg Bear's Blood Music when the protagonists first sees that the bacteria have created little circuits:
  • Peter Watts: Alice Sheldon's The Screwfly Solution and it's biological pest control.
  • Joan Slonczewski: Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos, when the narrator decides that watching a million years of evolution is more compelling than going off to heaven.
  • Ken MacLeod: James Blish's Sunken Universe (aka Surface Tension) for its image of where we are and what we can do.
Other books and movies that are mentioned:
Go read the whole discussion!

This issue of Nature also marks the return on the Futures short science fiction series that originally ran between 1999 and 2006. The current story is a look at the 2068 Olympics by Richard A. Lovett. I'll have to wait until the dead tree version of Nature arrives before I can see what that's all about.

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