The Indifference Engine: How Science Fiction Contributes to the Public Understanding of Science, and How It Doesn't

By McLeod, Ken | Extrapolation, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Indifference Engine: How Science Fiction Contributes to the Public Understanding of Science, and How It Doesn't


McLeod, Ken, Extrapolation


Back in the 1990s, in the Internet's dreamtime, the main form of online discussion was Usenet newsgroups. One such group was (and is) rec.arts.sf.written. A frequent contributor to that and many other groups called himself Lizard. His motto, which he put in his signature line, was 'Evolution doesn't take prisoners.' To which someone eventually asked: 'What about mitochondria?'

When I tell this to science fiction (sf) fans, most of them laugh. When I tell it to people who aren't sf fans or scientists--and I've tested this scientifically, I can tell you--they give me a blank stare. (In case your response too is a blank stare: mitochondria are components of our cells that are widely thought to be descended from bacteria engulfed by ancestral single-celled organisms, and to have settled down to a symbiotic relationship.)

As a science fiction writer, I'm sometimes asked to give talks on science and science fiction, often under a rubric like: "Does science fiction contribute to the public understanding of science?" On the evidence of this little joke, at least, it does. But what I want to ask is why we expect it to. We don't ask of westerns that they contribute to the public understanding of American history. Romance novels don't contribute to the public understanding of sexual attraction. (Well...) We don't expect horror stories to contribute to the public understanding of chain-saws. The answer, I want to argue, is that written sf differs from other genres in its interaction with its core readership, and with its core subject. In doing this I will draw on some points made by Gary Westfahl in The Mechanics of Wonder.

Westfahl argues that sf, as a distinct and self-conscious genre, was founded by Hugo Gernsback in 1926 (and not, say, by Lucian of Samosata in the second century C.E. or Mary Shelley in the nineteenth). Gernsback's definition of sf was: "a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision'; the first term of this definition later being extended to 'thrilling adventure"(cited in Westfahl 38-39). The Gernsbackian definition of sf, then, has three elements:

1. charming romance/thrilling adventure: its form is a popular, mass-market narrative;

2. scientific fact: it is, or intends to be, compatible with current scientific knowledge, and it communicates this knowledge to its readers;

3. prophetic vision: it points up social consequences of this knowledge (most obviously, but not necessarily, by showing how it might affect a future society).

(The Gernsbackian definition, incidentally, enables us to recognize as sf, works set not in the future but in the present, such as William Gibson's Spook Country, or in the past, such as Neal Stephenson's The System of the World.)

Westfahl refers to the relationship these three elements create between the work and the reader as the 'Gernsbackian contract.' He has argued, and my own reading of sf confirms, that most sf writers stick to the terms of the Gernsbackian contract, whether they know it or not. An almost random example is Cory Doctorow's novel, which I happened to read on the plane over to Australia. The three elements are clearly present: it is an exciting adventure story, it conveys accurate information about cryptography and computers, and it has a definite social theme--in this case, the dangers of the security state, and the possible uses of computers and cryptography to circumvent and subvert that state.

Here, by way of further example, is a list (by no means complete) of scientific terms and names of scientists I first learned of through sf:

gas giant                symbiosis
light-speed limit        free fall (as true explanation of
                         weightlessness in orbit)
faster-than-light
hyperspace               Coriolis force
wormhole                 Venturi jet
Paul Dirac               space sickness
Hans Bethe               greenhouse effect
Tycho Brahe              ecology and ecological concepts
                         (the Elton pyramid, etc)
asteroid belt
Lagrange point           neutron star
Alpha Centauri           cyborg
Wolf 359                 AI
Hohmann transfer orbit   robot
female emancipation      waldo (special case, as the name
                         comes from sf)
great circle
mutant

So it would seem that the sf I've read over the years has duly fulfilled Clause 2 of the Gernsbackian contract.

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The Indifference Engine: How Science Fiction Contributes to the Public Understanding of Science, and How It Doesn't
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