Posted by Milton Davis on September 20, 2010
Okay, I'm calling y'all out. Though I enjoy this site (The Black Science Fiction Society) immensely, I've noticed a definite lack of 'science' science fiction. You know, stories that are based on a scientific concept, like Gattacca (genetic engineering), the Matrix (human/computer interaction) and I Robot (AI evolution). There's an abundance of spiritual based fiction, space operas, and superhero tales, but what about the stories that show how science affects the lives of ordinary people? If you think about it these are the stories we remember the most. This is what Octavia Butler did, this is what Philip K. Dick is famous for and that's why his stories become movies so often. It's also the reason I don't write as much science fiction. It's the stories that take big concepts and make them personal that move us the most. What say you? Am I wrong?
Speculative fiction, that is, fiction based on theoretically plausible scientific principles is very difficult to both write and to read, because they require some basis in scientific fact and an audience seeking to understand or appreciate the science and the situation the science leads to. Even the greatest writers of "hard" science fiction understood that they had to temper that science with a story that was relevant to the people who read them. Issac Asimov, Ben Bova, Larry Niven, are all known for their harder speculative fiction concepts. But those works that are based in harder science were also for the most part, niche works, that had very limited audiences. You quoted "I, Robot" but it was very much a niche work for most of its existence, and did not become a mainstream piece until it was made into a movie. The "Three Laws of Robotics" were known mostly within the computer and AI spheres of influence but were not part of mainstream consciousness.
Larry Niven's "Ringworld" novels were very well received, so much so, students at MIT were compelled to attempt to do the math and consider if the Ringworld could be built. What they discovered was that the Ringworld's primary construction component scrith would need to be stronger than the strong nuclear force to be able to be built. No such material can be said to exist now or in the future since it would violate the currently understood laws of physics and of matter itself! In later novels, Niven decided to make the Ringworld unstable since he had learned from those students that it could not theoretically exist at all. This does not invalidate his idea, since it was partially based on the idea of a Dyson's Sphere but it definitely complicated his novel and his writing.
I think many writers are not interested in working that hard to create scientifically sound principles as the driving force of their novels because science changes so quickly or it is very difficult to see the ramifications of an idea that is very deep and whose science may alter the very consciousness of the human race. For example: We never question the nature of the Matrix; an artificial reality created to provided electrical power for the continued existence of a set of artificial intelligences that had achieved independent sentience from mankind. These sentiences created elaborate electrical power plants using human beings as a biological electrical power source, since at the end of a conflict with humanity, the AIs no longer had access to solar energy as their primary source of energy.
The story does not address why the AI's felt it was necessary to create that artificial reality in the first place. If they were just going to use humans as power sources, why bother to stimulate their minds at all, let alone create such an elaborate virtual construct? Since the AIs had sophisticated technology at their disposal, why not create thermal boreholes which are large holes into the crust of the planet and using the geologic heat contained within the world to power their civilization and be done with pesky humans in the first place?
Surely this could have been done within the 200 or so years that they were "entertaining humans" with the Matrix? What the movie does not address and would have made the movies so much more interesting was the idea that perhaps the AI's felt a sense of obligation to humanity to try and find a way to "rehabilitate" the human species, since after all, they were technically indebted to and owed their existence to their Creators (of a sort). That would explain the Matrix and the elaborate setup required to maintain humans far better than the relatively entertaining mess created for the general movie-going audience. But to make this a concept for the average person opens too many heresies, too many challenges to the "human as supreme being" dynamic we are so fond of here on Earth.
I mention this because writing speculative fiction (science fiction with the ability to include more than a splash of science in the storyline) is both challenging to write and even harder to find an audience capable and interested in reading it. I cannot speak for humans all over the world but I find most people simply do not have enough scientific background to cope with even the simplest concepts. (A percentage of Americans still do not realize the year is based on the idea of the Earth taking 365 days to go around the sun...).
That said, I have attempted it in one of my pieces on the BSFS board, where I talk about a world whose use of energy requires a complete redevelopment of their lifestyles. But such pieces are more challenging to write, especially if you are talking about a variety of technologies such as nanotechnology, cellular or biological manipulation, artificial wombs, genetic manipulation, energy management on a planetary scale (since currently we can barely manage it on a nationwide scale), artificial/virtual reality and education, the challenges of, the necessity of, the side-effects of living and growing up in such realities are all very challenging concepts, especially if you want to do them justice. I understand why most writers will opt for something a little bit less challenging until they are confident they can do the ideas justice. My piece is the opening to something I am writing called the Twenty Moons of Toranor and A Fall to Earth, both will talk about mankind's slide away from technology due to an inability to create the next level of innovation required to develop new ideas before the encroachment of a new Dark Age. You can read the first piece here: The Twenty Moons of Toranor.
Now all of this is my opinion. I do not speak for anyone but myself but I am interested in hearing whether anyone agrees or disagrees with my point of view. I am not afraid of science, can and will write about science with the understanding that I am limiting my audience to those who are also embracing science and scientific ideals with an eye toward the future of our species.
A Matter of Scale - A science and technology blog