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The wonders of science fiction are not the wonders of science


There has been some discussion of late of the role science fiction might play in inspiring science – see Damien G Walter’s piece here, Cheryl Morgan’s here, and Mark Charan Newton’s here. The argument being that, allegedly, innovators read science fiction, or many scientists chose their careers because of science fiction, and so the genre is assumed to have a very real influence on the future of science, technology and engineering.

I don’t buy it.

For one thing, most present-day science fiction has very little real science in it. Space opera, arguably the most visible form of sf, has almost none at all. It’s little more than space adventure stories. Which is not to say, of course, that space opera in any way epitomises the genre. However, what it does do is associate outrageous, non-realistic ideas in science or technology with science fiction. So when someone comes up with such an idea, it’s immediately labelled “science fiction”. Sf is not a tool for innovation, it is a licence to imagine, a legitimisation of blue-sky thinking. It suggests the unrealistic is feasible and/or desirable, it makes it palatable.

Take the example of a crewed base on the Moon. It has been the dream of NASA and space enthusiasts since the 1950s, if not earlier. Had the Apollo programme continued as originally planned, it might even had happened. Now it’s back on the space exploration agenda – or rather, it’s back in the public arena of space exploration. But there have been remarkably few science fiction novels published in the past fifteen years about such an endeavour. Sf novels set on a colonised Moon, yes; but about colonising the Moon? No.

Before Apollo, there were a number of sf novels published about the landing on the Moon – e.g., Jeff Sutton’s First On The Moon, Charles Eric Maine’s High Vacuum, or Hank Searle’s The Pilgrim Project. But even then they comprised only a small fraction of the genre’s output, and they were as much inspired by actual real studies on – and real work towards – Moon landings as they were by pure genre speculation. The truly speculative lunar landing novels had been written decades earlier; whereas the actual science of space exploration fed back into the sf of the 1950s – not that it was depicted especially accurately, it must be admitted.

Science fiction reflects the ambitions of its time. Some of it may speculate about the concerns of its time. Some of those concerns may be scientific, but if science fiction has one true role it is as a licence to free the imagination. It is a label that can be applied to ideas in the real world which are not really scientific, though they may involve science or technology. This, however, can swing both ways – both putting down innovation, as well as encouraging it.

It’s not science fiction which inspires innovation, it’s imagination. And that’s not something science fiction has a monopoly on.

12 thoughts on “The wonders of science fiction are not the wonders of science

  1. I almost agree with you Ian. What your post really highlights is the problem of hanging on to a very outmoded concept of what Science Fiction is. Science Fiction IS imaginative fiction. It’s only your limited definition separating them.

    • All fiction is imaginative. Just like all fiction is essentially speculative. But just because sf has “science” in its name, people think that any imaginative scientific idea must have come from sf.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “outmoded concept”. Like I said, space opera is arguably the most visible mode of sf, though it’s only a fraction of the genre. But in most people’s minds, sf still means spaceships and galactic wars – and it’s that they’re equating with innovative ideas in science.

  2. You’re right, Ian, in the sense that someone developing plans for a moonbase doesn’t necessarily need to have read novels about building moonbases. Nor, as you say, does SF have a monopoly on imagination. But I have no difficulty visualising a Venn diagram in which Set A (forward-thinking entrepreneurs) and Set B (forward-thinking SF readers) overlap to create a rather large subset. I think the argument is more about common traits than specific experiences.

    • Except I work in IT development, and I don’t know that many developers who read science fiction. Of those that do actually read fiction, most read fantasy not sf.

      And isn’t there an argument that Ayn Rand did more to inspire Silicon Valley innovators than any sf writer? (Not to mention inspiring those who have got us in our current economic mess.)

      • Fair comment, Ian. Indeed, many of the business leaders I’ve encountered don’t read fiction at all, only books about business leadership. Which I find depressing. On the other hand, I’ve met a number of entrepreneurs – and not necessarily techie types – who do read both SF and fantasy. Maybe there’s someone out there prepared to do a study on this subject …

  3. Hence, the rocket science project?

  4. # Except I work in IT development, and I
    # don’t know that many developers who
    # read science fiction. Of those that
    # do actually read fiction, most read
    # fantasy not sf.

    Then you live in a different universe to me! Throughout my life I’ve pretty much seen a two-way correlation between SF and computing. Indeed, I was one of the kids who got a computer before there were really computer games, (for about a year when the ZX spectrum came out, no one really knew what it was for), and all the guys like me (and we were all guys, which is another issue) were the same guys who were swapping SF books around. They were also the people consistently taking the ‘hard science’ classes at school, and yes, they were inspired to do those by SF.

    By now I imagine that this effect will have been much diluted, at least aas regards IT. Computers have become commonplace and vital to industry, so everyone will be getting in on the act, but all the early adopters I knew got computers because they read SF, and they were the first kids to learn how to program as well (most people who came in to computers as gaming machines never learned to program them). I went to eastercon this year, and it seemed like almost everyone I spoke to there was in IT.

    I think the factors that lead people to lifechoices are complex, but my own experience has been that the ‘early adopters’ in the IT world were SF readers, and I suspect the same was true of many people who wanted to work for NASA.

    Thing is though, I don’t really read fiction any more myself. But when I was young, I read SF voraciously, so the question isn’t “What are you reading now?” but “what were you reading at age 10?”

    It could be that I’m single small data-point and not representitive. It could also be that the causation here works the other way, with people who get a good education and have a technical bent being attracted to SF, rather than vis-a-vis, but I have to say that my personal experience is that reading SF does lead to having greater technical understanding than most peoople.

    A final point on this matter, not all that long ago my Boss and I ran an experiment, asking people we knew “What do you think a star is?” 50% had no idea. Yes, half the people asked had no idea what the pretty lights in the sky were, and said they’d never really thought about it. I very much doubt you would get this response from people who had read a lot of SF in their youths, and this is just the opening of a long list of technical questions you could ask, and I think you’d find the SF readers would outperform the majority of the population.

    All this said though, if you’re talking about who gets to be the leaders of technical revolutions, I suspect that there will be a far stronger correlation with parental wealth and general standard of schooling, than with anything that people were reading when they were young.


    • Twenty or thirty years ago I’d have agreed there was a high correlation between sf readers and those working in computing. But not any more. And the point is that situations that held true decades ago no longer hold true now. For one thing, sf is so pervasive in the modern-day cultural landscape that it’s almost impossible to point to any direct causal link between choice of reading material and career. Plus, of course, the most prevalent form that sf takes in that cultural landscape is hardly one that emphasises science, or even makes an effort to inspire others with the role science can play in society.

  5. If you start young people on hard science fiction that emphasises science, I think they will loose all interest in both science fiction and science.
    If you however start them out on Star Wars, they may get an interest in how lightsabers and lasers work.
    Everytime a see a science documentary about the future of science, they start with premises from Star Wars or Star Trek. And they have some of the leading scientists in the world talking about it, showing large knowledge of this science fiction.

    If you’d been more honest you would have called this article “only hard science fiction is really science fiction.”
    Your central point seems to be, “I like science fiction but I don’t like space opera, therefore space opera is not science fiction”.
    I don’t even understand that you read science fiction if the hard science is what is important to you. You’d be much better off reading popular science magazine articles about the future of science.

    It’s the ideas that leads to progress, not the hard science behind them

    You’re not only barking up the wrong tree here, you are barking in the wrong forest.

    • That’s not what I’m saying at all. I read and enjoy space opera. But space opera has very little science in it. So I fail to understand how it can be considered inspirational in regard to a career in the sciences. I think that whole thing is part-myth and part based on a situation which hasn’t pertained for several decades. Sf is not inspirational, but the mindset permitted by the existence of sf legitimises innovation.

  6. Perhaps one ought to call SF metaphysical fiction as the Nicholls & Clute SF Encyclopedia suggests given how the works within the genre frequently go beyond our current understanding of the universe. The central role they ascribe to Conceptual Breakthrough as a plot mechanism or theme and the significance of the Transcendent in many stories strengthens the case for the suitability of the term. Usually the heroes have to go where no man has gone before, beyond the limits of our current knowledge. Even in a childish space opera such as Star Wars, Luke has to explore the mystery of the Force, an occult power which determines the course of the universe, which does not lend itself to scientific comprehension & control and depends instead on the personal characteristics of the adept.

  7. Pingback: Mid-October blogosphere reading round up | On a Pale Star

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