What is Science Fiction?

I’m coming around on science fiction.

I don’t mean as a fan–I was, and remain, a rather casual follower of the genre, the kind who can’t begin to name any current authors but enjoys the material if it happens my way. And yes, I like Star Trek.

What I mean is I’m coming around on the name. For a long time I maintained that most science fiction should be called something else, because it isn’t about science.

For example, Jurassic Park, (the book, I mean) is about gene splicing and chaos theory, which sounds all nicely sciency, but the author clearly didn’t understand what chaos theory is. And don’t get me started on that otherwise wonderful movie, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which is has a plot entirely dependent on an object making noise in a vacuum.

In these types of stories, the writers don’t start out with scientific knowledge and work creatively from there, they start with the story they want to tell and add bits and pieces of science for seasoning, as long as it doesn’t ruin their story. And that’s not what science is about.

I’m not being a pedant. This has nothing to do with insisting on accuracy for its own sake. I like a lot of these stories. But I want fiction based rigorously in science. I want to read it and I want to write it, and I get really irritated by the general assumption that we’re supposed to leave our brains behind if we want to enjoy ourselves culturally.

And it’s always bothered me that I can’t call fiction rooted in science “science fiction” because that term is already taken by fantasies about robots and spaceships. As someone who cares about language, I just find it irritating not to be able to call a spade a spade.

For years, I’ve wanted to rename most of what is normally called science fiction “techno-fantasy,” and reassign “science fiction” to where I think it belongs.

But nobody asked me.

But now I’m starting to come around. After all, given my interests and background, I tend to see science from the inside, a thing I can do, or at least identify with doing. But most people don’t experience science that way–and never have.

For most people (and don’t get me wrong, this “most” includes lots of brilliant and well-educated people, you don’t have to be into science to be smart), science isn’t what we do, it’s what they do, and we have to deal with the consequences somehow.

How do we figure out how to think about those consequences? We write and read science fiction.

Cultures think slowly, much of the time. Individuals might mull something over and come to a conclusion in minutes or days, but get millions of us together, and we need decades or generations to think things through. Unfortunately for us, science often moves blindingly fast. Society needs a way to get a head start. Science fiction provides that head start.

For example, it is only just now that scientists are beginning to be able to edit the human genome. Only a few decades ago, nobody knew what the structure of DNA was, let alone how to alter it. Only 15 years ago, the human genome hadn’t been fully sequenced yet! And yet we’ve been telling each other stories about what happens when we make or alter life for a long time, now. From Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, we’ve had a lot of experience with this topic. Now, when we’re finally starting to address genetic engineering legally and politically, we’re already culturally well appraised of the potential pitfalls to look out for.

For science fiction in this sense to be useful, it doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate, it simply needs to address the issues that science brings up.

We don’t need to know what happens to an irradiated body, how it happens, or, really, what radiation is, to know that exposure to radiation is dangerous. Grade Z horror flicks about 50-foot-tall preying mantises express societal anxiety about nuclear power just as well as a sober story about acute radiation sickness and the elevated risk of leukemia and other cancers, maybe better.

It’s ok that objects can’t really make noise in space; Leonard Nimoy didn’t set out to make a movie about physics, he set out to make a movie about biodiversity conservation and he succeeded. The point of Star Trek IV, aside from entertainment (and it is entertaining) is that we should not push any species to extinction because we might end up needing it later. And that is absolutely correct.

Fiction is, in some sense, like dreaming, and a dream doesn’t need to be realistic in order to be psychologically important.

So these stories about futuristic technology and aliens have a place, and science fiction is indeed the appropriate name for them–because they are our collective dream of what science means.

But I still see value in those other stories, the ones about science as I see it, from the inside. In fact, I see at least three distinct values.

Science Fiction Plays “What If”

In my Author’s note to my first book, To Give a Rose, I pointed out that there are things the fossil record can’t tell us (color, behavior), yet we can’t form a full picture of the past without these details. Since we know giraffes, say, can’t be literally colorless (as in clear, like a glass shrimp), guessing about the color, even if we guess wrong, gives us a more accurate understanding of an extinct species, like the Juma giraffe. The job of the novelist, I said, is to “color in the giraffes. So, scientifically accurate fiction has a place in both science education and in the creative speculation scientists sometimes use to help plan their research.

Besides my own book, an excellent example of this sort of writing is the Earth Children Series, by Jean M. Auel. Although the series includes gets somewhat bogged down in places by strangely voyeuristic sex, and has a few other interesting flaws, the author manages to bring to life Ice Age Europe in impressively lifelike detail. I was particularly struck by a passage in the fourth book, Plains of Passage, about mammoths using their tusks to open up drinking holes in river ice in the winter, and how the availability of water year-round dramatically altered the ecosystem. I don’t know if mammoths really did that, but it’s a fascinating idea.

Science Fiction Gives Us Stories About Scientists

Scientists are people too, of course, but since their minds and hearts are wrapped up in issues most people know nothing about, it can be hard to really get at what makes them tick. And some of them tick in ways that make great stories.

To tell a story about a scientist, or a group of scientists, it may be necessary to explain science to the reader, at least up to a point. For example, Barbara Kingsolver’s character, in Flight Behavior, Ovid Byron, studies butterflies. He gets excited by butterflies, saddened by butterflies, inspired by butterflies…he connects with other people mostly by talking about butterflies, directly or indirectly. He’s also a really neat character. You can see why the protagonist has a crush on him. Even if the book covered science for no other reason (it does, in fact, have many other reasons), learning a bit about monarch butterflies would be worth it in order to understand Ovid Byron.

Another great example is Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. The protagonist is a 19th century woman who independently develops her own theory of evolution by natural selection while studying moss population dynamics and generally living her life. Unfortunately, Darwin and Wallace publish before she does, so she never goes public. As far as I know, she is entirely fictional, but she’s quite plausible. There may have been such a woman. But the interesting part is that the development of her theory is intimately bound up with her understanding of her personal life. To understand her human story (which is amazing), the reader has to also understand and care about both botany and evolutionary theory. And the writer has to present both correctly or the integrity of the character–and the importance of the human stories of real scientists–would be undermined.

Science Fiction Synchronizes Our Dreams to the World

Finally, there is a way in which the realism of our stories very much matters–because certain details have implications about the rest of the world. For example, in The Lion King, the boss hyena is female. That is correct, in that among actual spotted hyenas, females are much more aggressive than males and outrank them socially. The movie is also correct in portraying female lions as doing a greater share of the hunting, while the males are principally concerned with the political issue of who gets to be the pride’s male. There is, of course, much in that movie that isn’t accurate and doesn’t have to be, and the sex roles of other species isn’t directly relevant to human gender politics anyway. But imagine if the boss hyena had been male–that could have sent the message that patriarchy is so natural that even hyenas do it and that isn’t true.

If we tell stories that take as their basis inaccurate assumptions, we will fail to process the real world through our collective dreaming. The existence of climate change, the biological unreality of race (yes, we differ, but the biological differences don’t fit neatly into distinct races), the similarity of humans to other animals, and the existence of intersex and gender divergent individuals are all scientifically demonstrable truths that have clear bearing on how we think about ourselves and our world and how we make major ethical and political choices–and they are all facts thoroughly ignored or contradicted in the majority on mainstream fiction.

It is one thing to use free fantasy to process through our feelings about the world–the 50-foot-tall preying mantises as a stand-in for the dangerous of nuclear radiation. It is another thing to use fiction to reinforce misapprehensions and stereotypes, such that we expend our emotional energy worrying about problems that don’t exist and ignore the problems that do.

It is possible to acknowledge certain things as true intellectually, while ignoring them emotionally. We do it all the time. For example, many of us accept that humans evolved from apes, that we share common ancestry with living apes, and that we share with many animals most of the characteristics that make us human–and yet, many of us think and speak and act as though there were a categorical difference between humans and animals anyway.

What stories might we tell, if we start from the scientifically defensible premise that humans are not alone on this planet in our love and our anger and our grief? That our species has, in every sense of the word, relatives?

I’d like to read a book like that. I’d like to write one, and I did, in fact. I do wish we had the language, as writers, to talk about such stories as a distinct art, and how to write them and why.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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