Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Science and Science Fiction: What the scientists say: Do you like SF?

As you may recall, Stephanie Zvan and I will be moderating a panel at the fast-approaching ScienceOnline09 conference about the role of science fiction in science communication. We asked a bunch of science fiction writers and scientists (and a number of people who are both) several questions about their thoughts on science in SF.

This is the first in a series of posts that gives overview of the answers the scientists gave - there are links to the full replies on my original post. Meanwhile, Stephanie is summarizing the writer's responses over at her blog. Be sure to check them out too.

What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?

All of the people who answered the questions read or watch at least a bit of science fiction. That's not particularly surprising, considering that number of the responses are from science fiction writers with science backgrounds, or scientists who regularly write about SF.

It may be overly reductionist, but it seems to me that the reasons why science types like science fiction can be roughly split into three categories:

1. Imaginative ideas and exploring strange new worlds

David Brin "Science Fiction is the literature of change... the genre that admits that human life is in flux and that transformations occur all of the time. Sometimes these are propelled by scientific advances or technology. But not always. The changing roles of women in society, for example. These have long been grist for SF stories that predicted the important shifts that have taken place. Modern environmentalism was first pushed in SF."

Kim @ All My Faults are Stress Related : "As an adult, I like stories that imagine societies different from ours. Science fiction (and also fantasy) seem like great ways to explore human-ness by imagining what happens if things were a little different. Maybe the difference is some kind of technology. Maybe the difference is a cultural attitude. In a way, it's like experiments in science."

Z @ It's The Thought that Counts : "In general I think sci-fi appeals to me because of its capabilities to challenge our most basic assumptions and to explore human nature in different settings. Sci-fi is not just narrowly about imagining future technology, but rather about imagining future society in the context of human discoveries and how they influence our lifestyles. Also, I’m impressed by the many discoveries and inventions that were foreshadowed in science fiction, and to some extent as a scientist I read sci-fi to find new ways of thinking about research questions."

Lee @ Cocktail Party Physics : "What attracts me to science fiction and its various subgenres is not just the hardware or the science but the world-building: how that science fits into the larger scheme of things, how it shapes society, how society interacts with it, how society shapes science in turn. I've been at least as fascinated by the interaction as I've been by the science itself. I think scientists sometimes unconsciously think of their research as occurring in a vacuum; it's pure and righteous because it's the search for knowledge. But history is full of boxes that were opened too early, or that couldn't be slammed shut again and I think that's one of the useful checks and balances of science fiction. It asks those questions about consequences."

Martin R. @ Aardvarchaeology : "That honour goes to good old sense of wonder. Sf is good when it's gripping and exciting, preferably emotionally, artistically and intellectually. And if you learn some science along the way, real or fictional, then all the better. It's probably very hard to remain ignorant of and hostile to science if you like sf, but then, if such is your background, chances are you won't seek out sf anyway." Scicurious @ Neurotopia (version 2.0) : "I love thinking about aliens: what if they weren't carbon-based? Would they be anything we would even recognize? What other self-replicating systems could there be beyond DNA? These are ideas that bench scientists often consider a waste of time, and it's great to know that there are writers out there thinking of it and making us all think deeper than we might ever go on our own. We spend a lot of time confronted by the dull face of reality. I love that writers in general, and Sci-fi and fantasy writers in particular, look beyond that, and give us the funny little questions that make us stop, and make us think. If there were androids, would they dream of electric sheep? I also feel that Sci-fi (and fantasy) provides another lens for looking at issues of society and morality. It is easier to look from the outside when you're looking a society of aliens. Personality traits can be thrown into sharp relief and actions can be emphasized to raise moral and psychological questions."

Chad Orzel @ Uncertain Principles :"The science aspect was definitely a draw, but I think the real attraction was a little more mundane-- science fiction books were books in which Really Cool Things Happened-- space battles and alien encounters and gateways to different dimensions-- as opposed to boring mainstream stories about people with relationship problems and beloved pets who die in the last chapter. "

John S. Wilkins @ Evolving Thoughts : "The flights of imagination about large things, ideas and worlds, was enough to trigger off my own imagination. I read pretty well everything I could for over two decades before it all petered out into second rate thick books of fantasy and Star Wars knockoffs. Science fiction had a use-by date, and roughly when Dick Tracy's radio watch became ordinary, it stopped appealing, and I started getting interested in the science."

Janet Stemwedel @ Adventures in Ethics and Science :"[...] I'm interested in science fiction's ability to paint a picture of everyday human relations in worlds that did not follow precisely the same course that ours has. The strange worlds of science fiction play out against different environmental backdrops, different choices made at crucial junctures, and different assumptions about what people can do and about what will make them happy. Yet, for the fiction to succeed, there needs to be a way for the real-world reader to relate to the characters -- which is to say, they are not completely different from us but rather are people like us moving through a world interestingly different from our own."

Nina Munteanu @ The Alien Next Door: "My favorite movies are those which ask the deeper questions about us as a species and where we are going and, yes, how science propels us into new territory that forces us to ask even deeper questions about ourselves, God and the universe."

2. Entertainment and escapism

Ken @ GeoSlice: "I read primarily for entertainment and escape, though I certainly enjoy some ‘meat’ to the books I read. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly why I enjoy SFF specifically – I imagine that a large reason why that I deal with the ‘real world’ all the time, so I want something different, something more, when I read. I also think that SFF allows a lot more flexibility in an author than ‘normal’ fiction and seeing what authors do with that flexibility is quite rewarding."

Miriam Goldstein @ The Oyster's Garter : "I suppose I’m kind of sterotypically girly in that I care a lot about character development and less about speculative technology, though I do love me some space fights."

kcsphil of DC Dispatches : "I think it gives me the opportunity to let my imagination go, instead of thinking about how much damage this r that policy is doing to science."

Eva Amsen @ Expression Patterns : "I used to watch Star Trek years ago, and last year I was introduced to Doctor Who and Torchwood. They all have in common that anything can be explained away with some supernatural “science”. That’s not what I like about them. In all three cases I think I just liked the characters and stories as a few minutes of distraction. And then I obviously watched ReGenesis, which is different from the classical genre of science fiction because its based on real science and set in our regular world. It’s more a drama/mystery series with lots of scientists. [...] I like mysteries that are set in a regular world, and that need believable solutions."
3. An optimistic view of the future

Arvind Mishra @ Science Fiction in India : I like the stories particularly with optimistic note and happy endings. This may be due to the deep sacraments through which an Indian undergoes since his childhood. As a matter of fact most of the Indian stories have happy endings and a positive thought towards human life [...]

Dr Isis @ On Being a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess : "So why did [Star Trek:TOS, Star Trek:TNG, Star Trek: Voyager] have such an impact on Dr. Isis? There are two reasons. First, each series demonstrated a progressive inclusion of women and minorities in science and technology. [...] Second, Dr. Isis appreciated the idea of the pursuit of science as a means to fulfill one's own curiosity -- the mission to explore where no totally hot domestic and laboratory goddess had gone before. [...] So, I suppose Virginia, the role I see for science fiction in science is to offer us a vision of how the future might be and to give us something to dream about. [...]"
Of course there is overlap between those categories - imaginative world building creates those optimistic futures, and I doubt anyone would care for either if the stories weren't entertaining.

So what about me? Obviously I enjoy science fiction or this blog wouldn't exist. I have always been a voracious reader, but I didn't start really getting into science fiction until I was in my early teens. I enjoyed the adventures and reading about strange places, but the science was a big part of my enjoyment too. You see, I was a bit of a know-it-all, and I felt like the bits of science I picked up just made me that much smarter (Reading that, I realize I must have been a bit insufferable. Sorry mom.). Neutron stars, cloning, even the bad sex found in so much SF - I gobbled it all up. I think all the SF I read influenced - or at least reinforced - my view that while the universe is full of wonders both known and unknown, it operates under knowable physical laws. Learning those laws, even if it takes thousands of years, will let humankind conquer both the stars and mother Earth. I like the optimism of that idea.

Over the years my tastes have changed a bit. While I still like a good adventure, these days I'm less interested in stories that include diagrams of black holes and more interested in character development and the effects of changing technology on society. I've also become a lot more sensitive to the way that women are portrayed. I like to read about futures where women have interesting roles to play other than just being wives and secretaries. Ultimately, though, I think SF should have either an extremely interesting idea that it explores, or an entertaining storyline. Ideally, it has both.

Some favorite SF writers:

Peter Watts @ No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons (Reloaded) : Most influenced, growing up, by John Brunner, Samuel Delany, Robert Silverberg. Tried to imitate William Gibson and Neal Stephenson while breaking into the field. It's probably just as well I didn't succeed.

Arvind Mishra @ Science Fiction in India :"My all time favorite sf writer has been Issac Asimov who still has many of his admirers in India.His many stories have social implications and is appreciated by Indian audience. "

Mike Brotherton : "As for writers, I have one list posted on my website and happily keep finding others. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War was my most recent happy discovery. My shortlist of current writers I like would have to include: Scalzi, Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Robert Sawyer, Robert Charles Wilson, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, Michael Swanwick, Eric Nylund, Robert Reed, Jack McDevitt, and many more."

Schadwen @ Elemental Home : "My first introduction to science fiction was H.G. Wells and The War of the Worlds. More Wells followed with The Time Machine and The Invisible Man. I've read others of his works, so I learned about cavorite, but none of the others really captured me like the big three. [...] I read the Dune series, and a few of his other books, and was very depressed when he died. And then I found Robert Heinlein, and Job introduced me to the wide range of alternate realities. And then I found Larry Niven who has consistently remained my favorite for science fiction. Known Space keeps me coming back wishing for more. "

Z @ It's The Thought that Counts :"My favorite book of all time is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and I love the rest of that series as well. Some other examples of books I like for the above reasons are Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Galapagos, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and pretty much everything ever written by Philip K. Dick."

Miriam Goldstein @ The Oyster's Garter : "Though I read all kinds of tripe in my callow youth, I now no longer enjoy books without decent female characters. (Though I don’t mind if they’re sexbots as long as they have a personality and actual humanoid motivations - I thought Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children was tons of fun.) My favorite scifi author is Ray Bradbury. I’m going to count China Mieville in there too, since he kind of writes about speculative (albeit dystopian) biotechnology."

Lee @ Cocktail Party Physics : "I cut my teeth on the original Star Trek in the 60s and quickly moved on to harder drugs in the 70s: Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, Cherryh, Norton, Pohl, Niven, Clarke, Frank Herbert, and reluctantly, Philip K. Dick. [...] Currently, I'm following Iain M. Banks, China Mieville, Melissa Scott, Neal Stephenson, Dan Simmons, Connie Willis, and William Gibson, among others. [...] I also have a deep fondness for Spider Robinson, who is one of the most humanist of contemporary science fiction writers, but because he's funny as all hell, gets little credit. He's the guy who first got me interested in Tesla. How could I resist someone who carries lightning in his pockets?"

Scicurious @ Neurotopia (version 2.0) : "Reading-wise, I'm a big fan of Dan Simmons, the famous writer of the "Hyperion" cantos. I really admire the way he combines the old (referencing things like Proust, Shakespeare, the Iliad, etc) with the futuristic, adding extra layers to the plot and characters that leave you interpreting actions for days."

Martin R. @ Aardvarchaeology : "I started to read novels and ploughed through Heinlein and Clarke. I remember finding Stranger in a Strange Land a little weird at about age eleven, but I enjoyed it. Later I became a devotee of LeGuin and Lovecraft. Sf was such an obvious thing to me from an early age, and so the fantasy of Tolkien and his tradition came as more of a revelation to me when I discovered it. I spent ten years in the Stockholm Tolkien Society, and when the time came for me to choose a profession, there were really only two alternatives: either astronomy (inspired by sf) or archaeology (inspired by fantasy). [...] Weaning myself off television as a teen, and never a being a big moviegoer, I may not look much like an SF/F fan to people who have the Babylon Five and Battlestar Galactica boxed sets on their shelves. But I read, and I listen to weekly short-fiction podcasts like Escape Pod."

As for me, I've always been a voracious - some might say promiscuous - reader. During my teen years I think I checked out most of the SF books at my small local library, which was in addition to many murder mysteries, thrillers, mainstream YA and adult fiction, and the occasional fantasy. When I find a novel I like, I usually seek out all the sequels, even if they don't quite measure up to the original. I've read a lot of junk and a lot of gems.

Connie Willis is one of my favorite writers, as is Neal Stephenson (particularly Snow Crash and Diamond Age). Spider Robinson's terrible puns and hippie heroes have given me hours of reading pleasure, although I'm not sure I'd want to read all the Callahan books in one sitting. I recently read and enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson's Spin and Chronoliths, and like to find more from him. Some other SF novels that particularly stnd out to me: Herbert's Dune, Heinlein's The Moon is Harsh Mistress and the collected "Past Through Tomorrow" stories, Huxley's Brave New World (one of my favorites in high school), Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Butler's Dawn, Niven's Ringworld, Pohl's Gateway, Asimov's Robot novels and the original Foundation series (which is really dated, but fascinating). I also have fond memories of Steve Perry's Matador series, maybe more because my husband had those on his bookshelf when we started dating than because I particularly enjoy SF-martial arts novels. I'm sure I've left some off the list, but those are what come to mind immediately. And I'm a huge fan of short stories, which I think are the perfect vehicle for exploring interesting ideas.

Some favorite TV shows and movies:

Mike Brotherton : "My favorite on TV right now is Battlestar Galactica, although it has its flaws, and I watch Heroes, although the “science” is laughable. Waiting to see if Life on Mars fully hooks me. I haven’t seen what I would consider a really good science fiction film released in many years — Gattaca and Contact are two that come to mind. I have my top ten list of my own favorite sf movies."

Schadwen @ Elemental Home : "As for watching science fiction, it's really difficult sometimes. I will refrain from naming the trinity of geology movie bastardizations. My favorites for science fiction are "Firefly"/"Serenity", "Eureka", and the lamented "Journeyman"."

Miriam Goldstein @ The Oyster's Garter : "I listen to several scifi podcasts, mainly Escape Pod. My favorite scifi show is Battlestar Galactica, particularly the first and second seasons, with their optimal combination of space fights, daring rescues, and interesting, flawed characters. (Please, gentle readers, DO NOT spoil the fourth season. I watch it on DVD so I haven’t seen it yet!) I still pine for Firefly. I found Heroes tedious and derivative, and could never bear any of the Stargate series."

Lee @ Cocktail Party Physics : "I still think Babylon 5 is one of the finest pieces of TV science fiction ever made, though Firefly is certainly interesting and could have been a close rival had it gone on longer. Networks have a bad habit of canceling stuff just when it gets interesting, which is why I've always been more of a fan of SF (or specfic) in print than on TV or in the movies. That said, Star Wars hooked me when it first came out and deeply disappointed me later (though I'm an undying fan). I also saw Silent Running at about the same time and still think of it fondly. It kind of rode in on the cusp of the ecology movement and the thought of that orbiting forest was just heartbreaking. I still hope it wasn't prophetic. And, of course, there was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I didn't see until several years after it came out. That just reinforced my interest in astronomy, cosmology and space travel, Hal or no. "It's full of stars!"

Scicurious @ Neurotopia (version 2.0) : "I've been a Sci-Fi geek since my youthful days, watching Star Trek with my mom. Now I read, watch, whatever. I've always been a Next Gen fan, mostly because Patrick Stewart is SO brilliant. [...] I also love Firefly, though since it's a "Space-Western", I'm not entirely sure it counts. Excellent character development and fantastically funny writing."

Dr Isis @ On Being a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess : "Dr. Isis grew up a huge Star Trek fan. I mean, massively huge. She started out watching The Original Series and all but lost her junk when The Next Generation started. While Dr. Isis prefers to pretend that Deep Space Nine and Enterprise never happened, she is one of the few who enjoyed Voyager (yes, even when Seven of Nine showed up). Dr. Isis might own the three complete serieses on DVD and consider an ideal night to be a glass of wine, an Aveda clay mask, and the tribbles episode."

Like Dr. Isis, I was a big fan of the original Star Trek growing up. When I think back, it seems like was on every afternoon all through the 70s, but that can't have been the case, can it? Anyway, I loved the exploration of a new world in each, the trials of wits and character where humanity was always demonstrated to be a superior moral species, and the heavy-handed (in restrospect) morality tales. But what I think I liked best was the easy camaraderie of the crew, who seemed more like a bunch of buddies than members of the military. I don't think the subsequent series never really recaptured that completely, even though they were entertaining (and I did watch them all from TNG through Enterprise). I went through a Doctor Who phase in high school and watched Babylon 5 religiously in grad school. My current favorite is the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which has sadly run its course. Sometimes I hope next season's new shows turn out to be duds, because I spend far too much time infront of the TV.

Next up:

What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?

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  1. A very imressive analyis Peggy .Its a great going ..kindly accept my all good wishes for a sucseesful moderation of the session in your charge!

  2. Thanks for the good wishes! I believe there will be video of the session. I'll post about it when I learn more.

  3. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 1/8/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  4. Anonymous9:31 PM

    All along I believed that scientists won't dig sci-fi novels and movies. They are ok depending on how will the plot go.

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