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Blinded by Science: Fictional Reality

Sci-fi helped make the present; now it's obsolete.

By Bruno Maddox
Jul 20, 2007 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:47 AM


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In a sulfurous chasm beneath Reality, lit by the orange glow from what appears to be a river of molten Time, the serpent and the eagle have reached their moment of final reckoning. The eagle swoops in for the kill with talons extended, each mighty feather a-bristle with fury. The serpent marshals what’s left of its coiled strength and turns its fanged and slavering maw to meet the eagle’s gaping beak in a cosmic kiss of death that will obliterate countless worlds, if not, in fact, all of them.

Other than this, however—the design on the back of the Hawaiian-cut shirt of a very old man investigating the bean dip over at the buffet table—this gathering of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is palpably low on excitement. We’re on the 38th floor of a Marriott hotel in Lower Manhattan, in a poky beige suite filled with the same cheap, gestural furniture you find in those fake rooms that get set fire to in fire-safety videos. And with the exception, obviously, of this correspondent, we’re a fairly drab and subdued sort of bunch. The demographic is middle-aged to old. The median shirt type is sweat-. And there are several grown men apparently untroubled by the fact that they’re wearing backpacks to a social event, yet troubled to the point of madness and eczema by pretty much everything else.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is, after all, a gathering of fiction writers, and if fiction writers were good at going to parties, well, most of them wouldn’t be fiction writers. Fiction is a job for people with Big Ideas, not a flair for small talk—and with the exception of Tom Wolfe, they’re generally too concerned with topics like the human condition and the fate of the world to worry about their appearance.

But this is science fiction, which I thought was supposed to be different. I wasn’t hoping for Naomi Campbell in Vera Wang, just a few people dressed as Klingons, perhaps, or painted green, even very faintly, or even just in a nice houndstooth jacket or something, wildly gesticulating with the stem of an unlit pipe. Energy is what I’m missing, that raw, spittly, unsocialized fizz that only an overexcited nerd can produce.

I suppose they may all be fatigued. After all, this is only Night One of their annual Nebula Awards Weekend, and apparently many have driven all the way across the country to be here.

Then again, it could also be the other thing—the thing that nobody’s quite bringing up over the plastic cups of Yellowtail Merlot. Which is that science fiction, the genre that lit the way for a nervous mankind as it crept through the shadows of the 20th century, has suddenly and entirely ceased to matter.

Granted, the ways in which it once did matter were never obvious. The early days of science fiction, much like all its later days, found its exponents bickering about what the genre was, what it should be, and what its relationship was—if indeed it had one—with the more established human pursuit known as Science.

One view, subscribed to by the towering French figure of Jules Gabriel Verne, a man with a better claim to being the Father of Science Fiction than anyone else, was that the genre should consider itself almost a legitimate field of science proper, or at least should try to hold itself to an analogous code of rigor. Verne conjured up imaginary futures, and he sent his heroes on adventures armed with as-yet-uninvented technologies. But he didn’t like to make scientific leaps of faith just for the sake of the story. If Verne had his heroes travel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a pimped-out luxury submarine, his personal code required him to explain how such a contraption could be built according to the principles of physics as they were understood at the time of writing: 1870. When he wanted to send protagonists From the Earth to the Moon, he first had to figure out how to get them there. It was rocket science, literally, but the poor sap muddled through, eventually dispatching a three-man crew from a space center in Florida riding a rocket made of newly discovered aluminum at a speed of 12,000 yards per second. Fortunately, Verne had been dead for 64 years by the time of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and was thus spared the embarrassment of knowing the actual launch speed of the aluminum craft that would carry the three men would be 11,424 yards per second, and that part of the rocket would be named “Columbia,” not his own ludicrously off-base suggestion, “Columbiad.”

The other view of science fiction, figure­headed in retrospect by one Herbert George Wells—“H. G.” to pretty much everyone—was that actual science was best left to actual scientists and science-themed novelists should feel free to make stuff up if it helped uncover the social and philosophical pitfalls in humanity’s road ahead. The Time Machine does not contain a blueprint for a working time machine, but it does contain a fairly rigorous and careful projection of where early-20th-century capitalist society, and science itself, might leave the species if certain changes weren’t made. In due course, this approach would be given the label “soft science fiction,” as opposed to the “hard,” nuts-and-bolts approach of Jules Verne, but the schism was palpable even back then. According to lore, Verne publicly accused Wells of “scientifically implausible ideas,” and Wells, firing back in fittingly less forensic language, went public with the observation that “Jules Verne can’t write his way out of a paper sack,” further twisting the knife by failing to provide any details as how such a large sack would be constructed or how Jules Verne might find himself trapped within it.

Seems petty now, especially if one forgets that Verne and Wells were fighting for the soul of an art form that would frame the great debates of the modern age. It is hard to imagine how opponents of genetic engineering would function without the noun-turned-prefix “Frankenstein,” coined and imbued with dreadful power by Mary Shelley’s 1818 soft SF classic. As for “Orwellian,” where does one even begin? It seems safe to say that the book 1984 is more an expression of George Orwell’s revulsion with the actual totalitarian societies of 1948 than a warning for future generations about the dangers of interactive television, but the Soviet Union has collapsed and the meme of Orwellianism lives on. Would we even be bothered by the proliferation of surveillance cameras if we didn’t recognize the phenomenon as “Orwellian” and know, therefore, that it is bad? Probably, but I think you see my point.

Nor were SF’s gifts to humanity confined to the world of ideas. Space precludes a full listing here of every real-world marvel lifted straight from a work of futuristic fiction, but suffice it to say that an artificial Earth-orbiting satellite was depicted in the sci-fi short story “Brick Moon” by Edward Everett Hale in 1869. And though it would irk Jules Verne no end, there’s also the fact that Leo Szilard, the man who first theorized about a nuclear chain reaction, said he was directly inspired by the work of H. G. Wells, in whose book The World Set Free, the term “atomic bomb,” as well as the vague mechanics of same, were first published. Atomic bombs and satellites. Is there another field of literary fiction to rival science fiction’s impact on the world? Chicklit? Chicano realism? I rather think not.

All of which underscores the question of how it came to this: Why are the heirs to such a grand tradition dipping their tortilla chips into bean dip that has not even been decanted from its original plastic container into a proper bowl? A plastic container, furthermore, to whose circumference still adhere flapping shreds of cellophane safety seal, the bulk of it clearly peeled off and discarded by someone who has ceased to even give a damn? Why are they not holding their annual meetings in some sort of gilded purpose-built pyramid while humanity waits breathlessly outside to receive their inklings into our future? Less poignantly but more shockingly, why are the science fiction shelves of bookstores glutted with brightly colored works of “fantasy” whose protagonists, judging by the covers, are shirtless bodybuilders with Thor hairstyles fighting dragons with swords?

One clue, I would submit, is preserved in the fossil record that is the written work of one Michael Crichton. There might be purists who’d argue that what Crichton writes are better classified as techno-thrillers than works of science fiction, because drawing petty distinctions is what being a purist is all about. But we can surely all agree that for decades the man has been writing fiction about science, and that his visions of the dangers of as-yet-uninvented, or only-just-invented technologies have influenced the way we think more than those of any other living novelist. “Could we be looking at an Andromeda Strain scenario here?” news anchors will even today inquire of experts whenever some mysterious virus escapes from a lab. And no advance in our understanding of dinosaur genetics can be reported without an assurance, tinged with disappointment, that cloned T. rexes aren’t about to start trying to eat our children the way they did in Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park | NULL

But Jurassic Park, which came out in 1990, was pretty much it for Crichton as an effective, hard-SF prognosticator. When he returns to science fiction in 1999 with Timeline, something clearly has changed. The topic is time travel, and true to his career-long hard-SF principles, Crichton does at least sketch out for the reader how such a thing might actually be possible. Sort of. The key, he ventures, might be “quantum foam.” In the real world, quantum foam is a term used by hard-core physicists standing beside vast, cantilevered chalkboards full of squiggles to describe a theoretical state, or scale, or reality at which particles of time and space blink in and out of existence in a soup of their own mathematical justification. But in Crichton’s hands, it’s actual foam. His heroes step into their time machine, pass quickly through a metaphysical car wash of suds, and then spend the rest of the novel jousting with black-armored knights and rolling under descending portcullises. The science, in other words, is pure nonsense, and the science fiction is not so much “hard” or “soft” as what you might call, well, “bad.”

And there’s more of it in Crichton’s next book, Prey. The threat this time is from nanotechnology and the “emergent behaviors” by which large groups of tiny mindless entities shape themselves into a single purposeful, highly intelligent organism. At least here the science is real; nanotechnology actually exists; geese really do fly in a V formation without discussing it beforehand. But in Crichton’s hands it’s just so much foam. His little particles coalesce into swirling, malevolent clouds, but their intelligence maxes out at roughly the IQ of a Nazi without a speaking part in a war movie, just another evil presence for his heroes to outrun and outfox.

As to the question of what happened, not just to Crichton but to all serious science fictionists, I reckon it boils down, like so many things, to a pair of factors.

For one, it was around that time, the mid-1990s, that fiction—all fiction—finally became obsolete as a delivery system for big ideas. Whatever the cause—dwindling attention spans, underfunded schools, something to do with the Internet—the fact is these days that if a Top Thinker wakes up one morning aghast at man’s inhumanity to man, he’s probably going to dash off a 300-word op-ed and e-mail it to The New York Times, or better still, just stick it up on his blog, typos and all, not cancel his appointments for the next seven years so he can bang out War and Peace in a shed. If one truly has something to say, seems to be the consensus, then why not just come out and say it? If your goal is to persuade and be believed about the truth of a particular point, then what would possess you to choose to work in a genre whose very name, fiction, explicitly warns the reader not to believe a word she reads?

This trend in global epistemology would probably have made science fiction irrelevant all by itself, I reckon. But the genre has an even bigger dragon to slay with its new profusion of cheesy, dwarf-wrought superswords: the scarcity of foreseeable future.

The world is speeding up, you may have noticed, and the rate at which it’s speeding up is speeding up, and the natural human curiosity that science fiction was invented to meet is increasingly being met by reality. Why would I spend my money on a book about amazing-but-fake technology when we’re only a few weeks away from Steve Jobs unveiling a cell phone that doubles as a jetpack and a travel iron? As for the poor authors, well, who would actually lock themselves in a shed for years to try to predict the future when, in this age, you can’t even predict the present?

But the science fiction writers—not only of America, but of the world—should not beat themselves up. If, through their talent and imagination, our species has progressed to the point that it no longer requires their services, then that should be a source of pride, not shame, and the rest of us should be honoring these obsolete souls, not making fun of their beards and backpacks in snarky, supposedly humorous commentaries.

There is only one tribute commensurate with the debt. Let all of us, today, march into the fiction section of our bookstores, with phasers set to give-me-a-minute-I-know-what-I’m-doing, and quietly relabel the shelves to set the record straight.

Let everything but the truth be “Fantasy,” I say, and let the truth—the searing, unmanageable, discombobulating truth of the lives we have invented for ourselves in a world it took artists to imagine—be Science Fiction.

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