Doing Science in the Spirit World: Order, Chaos and H.G. Wells in a Billion Years till the End of the Earth

By Slusser, George | Extrapolation, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Doing Science in the Spirit World: Order, Chaos and H.G. Wells in a Billion Years till the End of the Earth


Slusser, George, Extrapolation


* The Strugatskys' novel A Billion Years to the End of the World [Za milliard let do kontsa sveta (1976); English translation Definitely Maybe (1976)] is an important work, both in terms of the writers' own development, and as a unique contribution to the growing international literature in this century about scientists practicing science. Early Strugatsky work is generally optimistic about the possibility of scientific advancement in a classless future. This is later tempered by a sense that neither human institutions nor human nature are straight-line affairs; the problem remains one of individuals rather than of the systems themselves. In A Billion Years, however, scientists work in a universe where institutional and natural systems appear to obey a like set of oppressive "laws." Scientific and political bureaucracy--restrictions rising from the depths of Russian literature and culture--is mirrored in the presence of natural control measures, those of the so-called Homeostatic Universe. Within such totaliz ing forms of "order," if there is to be any future imagination of human progress, different forms of scientific activity are needed. What might these be?

There is more here however than Soviet politics or Russian culture. There is H.G. Wells. This novel has a deep Wellsian intertext, which represents a subtle dialogue with the English master of the SF genre. Chaos and order, after all, and the inadequacies of social structures in the face of catastrophe, are the themes of Wells's early scientific romances. More pertinently, Wells explored the collapse of the rational mind, of unaided scientific method, in the face of new and unknown phenomena--the future in The Time Machine, invasion from outer space in War of the Worlds, and invisibility in The Invisible Man. Elements of the two last novels provide models for a solution to the problem of the Homeostatic Universe. Deciphering this Wellsian intertext offers an exercise in comparative science fictions.

At the far edge of SF commonly called "hard"--defined by Gregory Benford in his essay "Is There a Technological Fix for the Human Situation," as the form that "highly prize[s] fidelity to the physical facts of the universe while constructing a new objective 'reality' within a fictional matrix"--is a form that depicts not only how a scientist reasons but how he or she works: What does "doing science entail (82)? Benford, a physicist and the major practitioner of this "works and days" type of SF in the United States, goes on to say that answering this question takes us beyond literary criticism, "into realms of sociology, Zeitgeistery and political theory" (82). In fact, as Benford tells us in "A String of Days: The Profession of Science Fiction, 22," this kind of narrative, as fiction, has limited appeal to a traditional audience: "I suspect the characters...whose interests are cerebral, won't appeal to the large readership who apparently want something currently passing for hugely relevant, forward-thinking i nsight: sensitive far-future folk atop their heroic horses" (10). A narrative then that tells this cerebral activity, which involves practicing science within a modem bureaucratic frame, consists of small steps rather than great leaps forward: observations, experiments, hypotheses, more observations. Faced with the vast mystery of the physical universe, the working scientist has no absolute "heroic" breakthroughs, instead triumphs that are partial, tentative, unobserved. But if science is long, narrative is short. How then is one to narrate this fundamentally "unheroic" adventure of the mind in ways that still compel readers? The Strugatskys take up the challenge in A Billion Years till the End of the World. And in a way that bears comparison to Benford.

To help define the particular way in which the Strugatskys approach this question of doing science, a little sociology and "Zeitgeistery" are in order, as is a comparison with Benford's "method," which presents the other side of the Cold War equation.

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