The discussion about what fiction can do for science is best encapsulated by the often heard, emblematic plea: Where’s my bloody jetpack, then?
Okay, so the technorati may still be earthbound on Segways while they wait for the price of a Virgin Galactic trip to dip below the stratosphere, but that doesn’t mean that we all don’t secretly hope that science fiction’s most amazing promises will one day come to light. Very recently, I shared a public platform with novelist and futurist Neal Stephenson in a discussion at the Edinburgh Book Festival (adroitly moderated by LabLit regular Pippa Goldschmit), talking about what science can do for fiction.
It was a jam-packed tent in Charlotte Gardens, and the audience was vocal, passionate and articulate. Stephenson kicked off with an interesting anecdote about how science fiction can almost be like market research – he was once approached by a bunch of engineers interested in one of the technologies he’d invented in a novel. Apparently they were using his premise as a catalyst to brainstorm all sorts of real-life technology. Science fiction, in that way, almost gives you permission to speculate about things that you’d be laughed out of the Senior Common Room for entertaining otherwise. And in fact, in one of the essays in Stephenson’s new book, a collection called Some Remarks, he states that science fiction has functioned as a “loophole” for academics to be able to escape the “strict and cruelly enforced” rules of academic publishing:
And indeed there have been any number of hard science fiction professors who have donned the motley, taken up the pen, and written more or less successful works of hard science fiction as a way of dodging those two terrible strictures against popularization/simplification, and synoptic pulling-together-of-diverse-strands.
The conversation that sunny afternoon ranged far and wide, including a ruthless examination of scientist characters in fiction. One audience member lamented that the boffins in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus were almost too human, in that they were complete emotional wrecks – we’ve come a long way from Mr Spock, essentially, and that wasn’t a good thing. But Stephenson countered: although Spock was a revelation in his day, isn’t it a sort of progress that scientist characters have evolved beyond that paragon of logic and objectivity?
Although my basic position is that true portrayals of the scientific process – the good, the bad and the ugly – can function as a PR tool to humanize scientists and make their message more trustworthy, Stephenson produced a rather surprising view: enough with the dystopia already. As long as science fiction’s most popular modus operandi remains “it can all go horribly wrong”, he contended, we’re never going to get anywhere with rolling up our sleeves and fixing the world’s many problems with science and technology. It’s hard to write an engaging plot without some skulduggery, though, so focusing on the negativity of science – its ethical trespasses, its mistakes, its cover-ups, its ten-foot mutant lab rat escapees – may be a lot easier for a writer of fiction than penning something all sweetness and light. But I think he may have a point.
Following the event, I had the thrilling experience of sharing a book-signing table with Stephenson. His line was very long – and less demographically diverse – compared with mine, but it was a fascinating insight into the minds of his many hard-core fans (who, in their thirty or so seconds on the spot, rattled off biographies like “Reading Snow Crash inspired me to go into medieval literature”). Afterwards in the Author’s Yurt, Stephenson told me that before that day, he’d never really thought about just how few scientist characters there were in literature – it was ludicrous, he marveled, that we could name almost all of them in one hour-long discussion. The lab lit rarity problem I sketched at the beginning of the event, he said, articulated something that he’d been subconsciously aware of for some time but had never quite surfaced until that moment, and that it was a cause worth fighting for.
I couldn’t have hoped for a more ringing endorsement.
(All photos by Richard P. Grant)