In the first two episodes of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis lays the blame for the current economic crisis and last century’s ecological crisis on ideas propagated by two works of science fiction masquerading as non-fiction. The first is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a frankly risible book, whose philosophy of Objectivism led to decades of fiscal mismanagement and economic blunders. The second is Eugene P Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, which posited a deeply-flawed model of nature and society that corrupted several branches of science and technology for much of the twentieth century.
And while it may be stretching a point, given that Atlas Shrugged was a work of fiction but Fundamentals of Ecology claimed to be scientific non-fiction, I have to wonder how healthy has been science fiction’s magpie and indiscriminate approach to scientific and pseudo-scientific theories through the decades. Not just John W Campbell’s championing of Dianetics, or even L Ron Hubbard’s creation of Scientology, but also, for example, Jack Vance basing his The Languages of Pao on the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis. In fact, it might be said that science fiction has been little more than a delivery mechanism for bad ideas to impressionable members of society.
It could be argued, in other words, that science fiction is, and always has been, intellectually bankrupt.
But is this really surprising? Remember how the genre began, as a predictive and didactic mode of fiction invented by Hugo Gernsback, the author of Ralph 124C 41+ and publisher of several home electronics magazines. Science fiction is essentially prescriptive – it takes ideas and from them defines plot and world. The idea may be a thought experiment, albeit one that’s in service to a plot, but thought experiments built on flawed concepts cannot generate useful results.
Science fiction, unlike mimetic fiction, has never been observational. It models, rather than presents empirical evidence. It is machine-fiction, built upon calculated extrapolation from an initial position, presenting simplified conclusions drawn from simplified data sets. Because it seeks to explain.
I’ve written before of hard limits in science – these are not hypotheses or inventions, but known physical laws and theories, like gravity, chemical reactions, the speed of light… Our understanding of how chemicals react may change, but that altered understanding will not affect the amount of energy generated when two specific chemicals are mixed together. Likewise, no matter what we learn about the universe, the distances between stars will remain unchanged and, at present, far beyond our current ability to cross. There is room within the genre for fictions predicated on this approach to science and technology. Marry it with a mimetic mode of fiction, a mode which is first and foremost observational, and perhaps you have a new direction for the genre, or a new sub-genre.
Call it “hard-limits science fiction”.