Science As Fantastic As Science Fiction

Science fiction magazine editors often complain they don’t get enough science fiction stories submitted to them.  What they need to do is convince the popular science writers showcased in the latest edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 to also write fictionalized versions of their latest essays.  Or maybe, all those would-be science fiction writers stuffing their slush piles should study this volume, integrate the ideas into their work, and then they’d impress those editors.  I kid you not, there are some far-out, fantastic, sense-of-wonder concepts in these essays.  Just do a bit of sampling here, and you’ll see what I mean.

Start with the Freeman Dyson prediction about green technology.  He’s not talking about windmill generators, but plants with silicon leaves, engineering biology and taking over the role of evolution to remake the Earth.  If you want to know about alien minds, trying reading the essays by Colapinto and Cook.  They don’t look to the stars and little green men who think different, but to South America.  Then Jon Mooallem looks at the history of people seeking anti-gravity and gravity radio.  Each essay, no matter how down to earth, could be used to inspire SF stories.

Here’s the table of contents with links to the articles on the web:

Just the fact that I can link to full-text versions of all but three of these articles on the web is science fictional.  It represents a major paradigm shift in copyright, economics and the dissemination of knowledge.  And I’m not linking to these articles to give you free reads, you should buy the volume and study it.  I’m linking to web pages as a way to review this book, because just sampling these links will give you a taste of what I’m talking about far better than I could with descriptive words.  Most people do not like to read off computer screens, but having these essays online is an excellent way to recommend them to your friends.

This collection is a snapshot of our times but far different from what you see on the news at night.  These articles are overwhelmingly about the future, either predicting fantastic new developments, or warning us of dire happenings if things continue as they are now.  All the concepts that science fiction writers use to write visionary science fiction.  I’ve been getting this volume each year for awhile now, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else that recommends it.  That’s a real shame.  Science was never so accessible, so why isn’t it more popular?

Could this be why the SF mag editors aren’t seeing that many science fiction stories cross their desks?  Because we now live in a world that seems science fictional compared to what we grew up in just a few decades ago.  I was watching a new cop show called Life on Mars, about a detective thrown into the distant past of 1973, and I was struck by the scene where he’s wishing for a cell phone.  Or another time when he mutters about wanting a computer.  I’d love to time travel back to see The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, or the Beatles in Germany, but I don’t know if I could live without my sixth sense, the Internet.

The world and election I remember seeing through a 19″ black and white TV in 1960 is so very different from how I see reality in 2008 while watching a 52″ high definition set.  I think we take science for granted now, and back then science was that gee-whiz Mr. Science stuff that nobody paid any attention to other than the proto-geeks.  Many of the science stories in this year’s collection come from The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other mundane periodicals.  Today I can switch on my TV and see an hour documentary on the history of the black hole, and the controversy over the information paradox that Stephen Hawking had proposed that angered scientists for years.  When I was growing up, my choices were Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

In the early days of three channel television, there wasn’t room for physics and astronomy shows.  Today I can find several science documentaries on every night, and not boring ones like we used to see on 16mm film in science class, but fantastic shows with killer computer graphic clips beautifully illustrating cutting edge science, like string theory and the effects of dark matter of galaxy formation.

Sheila Williams, the editor at Asimov’s SF Magazine, complains she receives too many stories beginning with exploding space ships.  That was a popular way to begin a story back in the 1930s.  Explosions are dramatic and quickly lead to action, but what people want today are new far-out ideas to create sense-of-wonder SF, and evidently too many potential science fiction writers are living on ancient clichés.  They need to be reading the science essays and watching the science documentaries on TV, because the mundane world has passed old science fiction by, leaving it quaint and suitable for nostalgia retrospectives.

The Donlan and Dyson articles inspired me to envision fantastic changes in our everyday landscapes.  Donlan writes about scientists wanting to repopulate the American plains with substitute “megafauna” like that found 13,000 years ago during the Pleistocene overkill, which would make traveling out west like a safari crossing a well populated African wildlife preserve.  Imagine tooling west on Interstate 70 and seeing elephants, tigers, lions, camels dwelling in the high grass beyond the highway fences?  If you add in Dyson’s biological experiments, and think about T. Boone Pickens’ giant windmill farms, our country is going to look very different.  When I was growing up, the future was exciting because of rocket travel.  Traveling to Mars may end up boring compared to just staying home.

I think about the recent hurricanes, Katrina and Ike, and wonder what our coastlines would be like if we could build houses that were indifferent to big waves and wind.  In my neighborhood I’m seeing hawks, raccoons and red foxes set up habitats.  I know there’s a chance that possums, coyotes and armadillos exist unseen.  It wouldn’t take much to let our lawns become urban prairies and adapt our lifestyle to allow for more wildlife, renewable energy, shifting ecologies so where we live would no longer be manicured sameness.

If we listen to Freeman Dyson, we could have all kinds of scientifically created plants and animals joining us, like shrubs that produce electricity.  How do you make such a neighborhood biosphere into a science fiction story?

On the TV at night, the news is all bad, dwelling on lost jobs, crashing stock markets, terrorism, melting glaciers, oil panics that make me worry that the future will be dim and full of drudgery.  Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008, makes me think the future will be more like living in Oz.  I wonder what the mood of the country would be like if ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news programs shifted their focus from Wall Street to science laboratories around the world, would we all feel better about the future?

The public fear you see in the news is all about economics, and that’s because economists are uncertain about the future.  Reporters should spend more time interviewing scientists, who are more confident about what’s ahead.  Reading Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman made me feel a whole lot better about the next forty years because he interviewed hundreds of people with solutions, not problems.  The articles in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 aren’t gosh-wow futurism like the 1939 World’s Fair, but working class science, as real and ordinary as cloning and gene splicing.

JWH 10-11-8

6 Responses

  1. A lot of interesting thoughts here! I wanted to reinforce your suggestion about getting the real science into the science fiction making editors take notice. Michael Swanwick was complaining about this to my Clarion class way back in 1994 and wanted us to do some research and try to get it in there. I used to write plenty of fantasy and horror, but I switched to writing primarily hard sf and sold the first novel I wrote to Tor. I’ve also read some of the previous years non-fiction collections you discuss, and recommend those essays, too. Some aren’t great, but some are fantastic and already read like science fiction.

  2. [...] Harris calls for more real science in science fiction, and discusses how there’s science as fantastic as science fiction already out there to inspire and to steal from.  Steal is my word, not his, but it’s a [...]

  3. Hi Jim! It’s G from your CW class. Once lurker, now commenter. :)

    One of my professional hats is as a science librarian, and I think I can speak to this a little.

    American culture has this weirdly ambivalent attitude about science. An awful lot of the more mainstream SF that I do see (particularly in the movies) is cautionary. Doing science itself is too often portrayed as this geeky or arcane pursuit. (Scientists complain about this all the time.) I have to give the movie Iron Man props for being exceptional in this respect; whatever my other issues with the flick, Tony Stark’s sheer delight and inevitable foibles when he’s creating his suit is SUCH fun to watch.

    The other thing is that most popular science reporting is awful. The essays you mention are great, and the book is on my to-read list, but a lot of what gets passed off as science reporting on TV and in newspapers is terribly written by people who clearly never took an undergraduate biology course. (To be fair, neither did I.) Actual scientific publications are beyond the understanding of an awful lot of people, so there’s this gap.

    For me personally, whatever scientific or fantastical tropes I’m working with have to serve the story. I can at least point to my one pro publication so far and say that while I think the technology on offer in “Kip, Running” is feasible, its feasibility isn’t really the point.

    I do think there’s some enormous opportunity being missed here somewhere, when it comes to short SF generally. Online SF markets with some or all content free to readers are a good start.

  4. I would have loved to been a science librarian. Especially in a quiet library were I had time to read the journals and books during working hours.

    Science really is treated weirdly in the media. Look at the CSI shows, which love glitzy hi-tech. Science is often shown as magical, rather than logical. People consider shows like Fringe and Sanctuary as science fiction, rather than fantasy. And by the way, is the Big Bang Theory, the first show about scientists? We’ve always had cop shows, doctor shows, lawyer shows, teacher shows, but has there ever been any scientist shows?

    Jim

  5. By that measure, our library is definitely not quiet! Though I find time to skim Science and Nature on occasion–at least so far as I can understand their content.

    I can’t really think of any scientist shows offhand, but I’m not the best person to ask since I don’t really watch TV.

    It’s funny, because when I write SF, even when the science content is pretty low, it’s definitely a different mindset than when I write fantasy. Although, in the case of fantasy, when there’s magic involved I make it follow its own internally consistent logic. More interesting that way.

  6. What a great post, Jim. Putting all those scientific articles into one post is going to cut a chunk out of my research time. I’m always looking for science facts so I can ask “but what if it went this way”.

    I’ve put this post on my list of things to be pored over in detail once I finish studying. Only two major assignments to go so it’s foreseeable.

    I also had an idea that one of the reasons SF became a major player in fiction, apart from mirroring the huge advances being made in science, was to present different future scenarios based on social and economic turmoil of the present. The current financial situation lends itself to loads of interesting future scenarios. I don’t think SF has to have a ‘pure’ science basis – sociology is considered the science of society, isn’t it?

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