Thursday, May 26, 2016

ARCHIVE: Has Science Spoiled Science Fiction?

Posted by: CobraMisfit
Let me preface this by saying I love Science Fiction. My bookshelves are packed with novels from the genre. Every time I walk into my local bookstore, my first stop is the Science Fiction section.

That said, these days, why would anyone read Science Fiction?

There was a time not too long ago when Science Fiction was just that: fictional science. Humans traveled to space, built sentient computers, developed cybernetic limbs, etc. It was a world where possibilities were limited only by human imagination. The ideals of our species were made reality through the efforts of science and technology, but that existed somewhere many generations in the future.

When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his John Carter series at the turn of the 20th century, the thought of our species visiting other planets was still a distant dream. Carter, a Civil War hero for the Confederacy, travels to Barsoom (aka: Mars) only to discover a planet filled with aliens and amazing wonders. Readers were transported to another world, but it only existed in their minds.

Now we have Curiosity roving around the Red Planet. Barsoom, it seems, is not as fantastical as Burroughs imagined. It’s even better. Granted, there are no aliens, but we are getting first-hand accounts of old stream beds, eye-witness accounts of geological surveys, and perhaps signs of microscopic alien life. What was once a land of make-believe is now a centerpiece of attention because the reality is simply amazing.

In more recent literature history, Scott Westerfield wrote one of my favorite Space Operas, The Risen Empire. There’s a scene in the first novel where pilots are flying drones the size of dust particles. At the time, I remember thinking how amazing and dangerous that kind of technology could be. Then I read articles on the shrinking of drone technology to machines smaller than insects and beyond.

These days, Science seems on the verge of upstaging Fiction. We used elaborate jet-packs and parachutes to place rovers on Mars in our quest to expand our understanding of our own solar system. For the first time in history we nailed a comet with the Rosetta spacecraft. Independent entrepreneurs are bringing everyday space travel closer to reality. We’ve developed cybernetics that are so advanced, Skynet seems more and more plausible every day. The computers that put humans on a moon once filled up rooms at NASA. Now we carry phones in our pockets that not only stampede far beyond the power of those machines, they also have a universe of knowledge at our fingertips*. We can peer farther into the universe than ever before while, at the same time, zoom into the human body to the molecular level and beyond. What once seemed scientifically impossible has become commonplace, almost mundane.

It’s not just “old Science Fiction” like Burroughs that runs the risk of being left behind, but new Science Fiction as well. With a greater understanding and knowledge of Science, many consumers are more critical of the depiction of “Sci-Tech” and its effects on society as a whole. Science Fiction writers face quite a challenge to make their stories fantastical while at the same time believable because their readers are less willing to just accept ideas. They are too educated, too knowledgeable, and too experienced to simply press the “I Believe” button. While it becomes harder for Sci-Fi authors, it seems to become more important to consumers.

Even our heroes have shifted more towards Science and less to Science Fiction. As a kid, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Buck Rogers. They lived in galaxies far, far away, wielding weapons that ignited my imagination. Given the keys to an X-Wing, I would have been the happiest kid off the planet.

Today, however, there’s no denying that a name on everyone’s lips is Neil deGrasse Tyson. As the current head of the Hayden Planetarium and voice of StarTalk, he is lauded both in the scientific community and on social media. And he is just one of hundreds that are becoming better known as Science breaks new barriers. When Curiosity landed on Mars, my Dragon Brother e-mailed me. “I like the sound of ‘Mrs. Bobak Ferdowsi’” he wrote. "Mohawk Guy" transcended from a-smart-guy-at-a-computer to a sexy icon almost overnight. 

Film and TV have also made the transition from fiction to Science. A Beautiful Mind, The Theory of Everything, and two biopics about Steve Jobs praise the work of brilliant people. And while Dragnet and Hill Street Blues were all about the detectives and cops on the street, CSI has enjoyed a long life, and two spin-offs, focusing on the “lab rats”. Shows like Castle, NCIS, and even Psych almost always spend part of the story explaining the Science behind a murder or crime. The heroes are as much the men and women in lab coats as they are the ones walking the streets, kicking in doors. Even in the recent CW hit, The Flash, the heroes are the Police of the CCPD and the Scientists of STAR Labs as they are Barry himself.

Yet despite all this, Science Fiction seems to still be in the spotlight. Battlestar Galactica was a renowned success on TV, as is Defiance. Star Wars continues to capture the imagination of new generations. Debut author Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was a resounding smash while Dune, all these years later, remains a cult classic.

Are these examples viable because they are good stories? Absolutely. But I also wonder if they aren’t saved from being cast aside because the Science in them becomes more and more plausible every day. At some point we may have sentient robots, space ships designed for fighting, or nanotechnology that can cure diseases at the atomic level. By being so close to reality, so easy to comprehend, does it make its appeal more universal than ever before?

Time keeps marching forward and with it, humanity’s understanding of our species, our world, and the universe around us. Technology leaps forward exponentially, far outpacing what we once thought possible. And yet we keep reading and watching tales of a future where more questions are answered and life is a little more advanced than today.

So has Science spoiled Science Fiction? Or do we simply keep looking to the future for improvements, hoping that one day reality will surpass our dreams?

*Although we STILL don’t have Hoverboards. Thanks for nothing, modern technology! 


Joshua Roots is a car collector, beekeeper, and storyteller. He enjoys singing with his a cappella chorus, golf, and all facets of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. He's still waiting for his acceptance letter to Hogwarts and Rogue Squadron. He and his wife will talk your ear off about their bees if you let them.

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  1. It's exciting, I think, when science catches up with and overtakes science fiction. It would also be pretty awesome for an author to see something they imagined become real. I don't think science has spoiled science fiction, though. If anything, it drives us to think farther ahead and to the side, to come up with more puzzles for our scientists to explain.

    My favourite aspect of science fiction will never be threatened by our own advances. I think there will always be room for stories about how we adapt to new technology. How we, as a society, integrate new ways of doing things. The laws that might arise as a result. The new social attitudes. What becomes normal and what we decide we can no longer live without.

    No one had a cell phone when I was a kid. Only a few people had computers and the internet was for serious folks (and serious nerds, geeks, whatever). Now we have Twitter.

    A series I really liked is Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict novels. Alex is an antiquities dealer. Set nearly ten thousand years in our future, McDevitt's world is a fascinating mix of strange and familiar. His characters take for granted technology that doesn't exist for us yet. Holo communications, intelligent avatars, artificial intelligence, FTL travel and the vast reach of humanity as we spread across the stars. What I love about the books, though, are the plots. Alex is fascinated by the past and each book has him uncovering a mystery to do with humanity's expansion. Our triumphs and failures. So, these stories are relevant to a modern reader, but if our world goes the way Jack McDevitt thinks it might, these stories will also fascinate modern readers then thousand years in the future. As will our stories.

    I also love Mark Van Name's Jon and Lobo series. Jon is a human infused with awesome nano-tech. Lobo is his armoured vehicle and friend. Together, they help the unfortunate. Again, what I love about these books is the glimpse of humanity in a far flung future.

    I could start rambling about Peter Hamilton next. Or Robert Charles Wilson, whose stories are often set frighteningly close to our own future. But...I should be writing. Deadlines wait for no man, woman or distracted bibliophile. :)

    But, yeah, I think what I love about science fiction will never change, and that's us, in our own futures. The continuing story of humankind.

    1. I will definitely check out the Alex Benedict stories. They sounds like they're right up my alley. But you're right, Sci-Fi really is the continuing story of humankind. Well said!

  2. Quite the opposite, I think. Science may advance, but it's the job of science fiction to then look beyond, to envision the world that will come about as a result of new developments in our technology, in our understanding of the world. Moreover, we may be "on" Mars, but we're certainly not standing there yet, and I think that there is an allure there born out of the countless works that have had us standing on the surface of Mars, or looking not up at the stars, but out through a window. It's the job of science fiction to stir the imagination, to think about what the world will be like, to warn or inspire or both.

    Maybe science has caught up with a lot, and it's 2015 and we don't have the technology we saw in 2001, but with the exception of psychopathic AI< we're not all that far off, either. And I think that's part of what good sci-fi does, as well, is give us something to aim for.

    1. "And I think that's part of what good sci-fi does, as well, is give us something to aim for."

      Well said, Bos. Well said, indeed!


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