Category Archives: science fiction

The Point of Science Fiction

Years ago, I read a cartoon strip that has stuck with me.  Sort of.  The caption was something like, ‘the earliest science fiction pieces,’ and it had four panels.  Panel one was a cave man with a stone hammer hitting a larger rock, while I guy behind him yelled out, ‘thag, you crazy, you play god!’ and the panel after that shows the earth being split in two, presumably from the cave man hitting one rock with the other.  Then there was another one, this time with a cave man trying to start a fire while another cave man warns him of his insanity, followed by a picture of the world in flames.

It struck with me because I’d never seen science fiction this way before, but looking at the images, it kind of made sense.  There is a theme in SF of someone pushing the bounds of science, being warned against it, and then the entire world is in jeopardy because of their hubris.

And I do, from time to time, find myself reading a comment online from someone commenting on some scientific experiment with, ‘Oh my god, didn’t you read Jurassic Park?  This is how the world gets overrun by dinosaurs!’ or someone talking about how cloning is a terrible idea because of all the ways it could go wrong, usually exemplified by some pivotal piece of science fiction.

So, it kind of make sense to look at science fiction as being anti-science.  But that’s not really how I’ve ever read it.

To me, science fiction isn’t about the dangers of science, it’s a reminder that no matter how far technology goes, people will always be people.  We’re always subject to the same flaws in thinking, the same impatience, the same hubris.

The problem isn’t what technology can do, it’s what people might do with technology.  Cloning won’t bring about the destruction of humanity, but the people who control it might.

The Writer’s Role

So, a while back I saw a cartoon on Facebook that really stuck with me.  It’s been a while, so I may have some of the details wrong, but I remember the gist of it.  The title was, ‘the world’s first science fiction stories.’  One of them showed a caveman hitting a rock against another rock, while some other caveman yelled at him:  ‘Thag!  You Crazy!  You destroy us all!’  In the next panel we saw the world splitting in half with a mighty ‘crack’ as Thag did indeed destroy us all.  The next cartoon showed a similar scenario, with one caveman trying to start a fire, while another stood behind him shouting.  ‘Grog gone mad!  He kill us all!’  And in the following panel, well, you guessed it, the world was on fire.

My first reaction was to chuckle because, well, that’s pretty damned funny.  But after that I couldn’t help but think about what was being said.

Science fiction, in this scenario, was playing the role of the fear monger.  It shied away from any form of progress, or really, any kind of change at all.  And it was an accurate depiction of many science fiction stories.  Not all, obviously.  Star Trek’s attitude towards technology tends towards optimism, and according to some television shows, technology is the solution to most of lives problems.

But there are definitely stories that fall into the framework described in the cartoons.  One of the more obvious ones being ‘Jurassic Park.’  An eccentric billionaire figures out how to clone dinosaurs.  He is warned of the dangers, but does it anyway, and the world falls apart because of it.  Or at least, an island falls apart because of it.

So, is there a divide in science fiction?  Fear mongering on one side, and hopeful idealism on the other?

I don’t think that’s the case.  Partly because I enjoy the occasional ‘destroyed by their own hubris,’ story, but also because these stories don’t make we want to hide my head in the sand.  At least, not forever.

I watched Terminator, and I still want us to start building AIs.  I read ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,’ and I still want us to build androids. I read Jurassic Park, and I still want someone to start bringing back extinct species (in fact, I’d very much like to bring back the Dodo bird just to start a fast food franchise).

More than once, I’ve encountered people who treat science fiction as though it were prophetic.  Arguments against the creation of artificial intelligence that amount to: ‘didn’t you see terminator?  Don’t you know what will happen?’

But that isn’t the message that I take from those stories.  To me they exist as reminders that we’re responsible for what happens now.  Throughout much of human existence, when bad things happened, they were external forces which happened to us.  Attacks by wild animals, natural disasters, what have you.  But we have, as a species, reached a sort of puberty, and much of what lies ahead of us is going to be the result of the choices that we make.

In fairness, that’s reading quite a bit into what is, on a very real level, ‘just a story.’  But I think that it is a more valid message than, ‘fear change.’

How much realism is too much realism?

So there’s a science fiction story that I kind of want to work on that involves a crew living in a stellar system where a large number of the planets and moons have been terraformed.

Brief sidenote, I found out recently, the reason our solar system is a solar system is because our sun’s name is sol.  So if you’re in another stellar system you apparently either have to call it a stellar system, or use whatever name it has.  I’m currently planning on their sun Luyt, thus making it a luytar system, but I digress.

Anyhow, one of the things that’s frustrating me is determining the weather on these worlds.  I mean, in order to have them survivable I’m just basically going to pretend like humans come up with some kind of system of custom building atmospheres so if you live closer to the sun, it reflects and refracts a lot of the light, and if you live a long way off, they build up the greenhouse gasses to keep as much heat as possible in the atmosphere.  I’m willing to make that leap, or more accurately I’m wiling to assume that my readers will take that leap of faith with me.  But even so,there are questions that need to be answered, like what would the sky look like on a world that has to block out that much sunlight?  Probably opaque and light colored?

But let’s forget about that, the big question, the one that’s driving me nuts, is what life would be like on a moon.  First off, it’s going to spend half its time behind the planet it’s orbiting.  It won’t necessarily be hidden from the sun for all of that, but for some of it, certainly.  Especially if it’s orbiting, let’s say, a gas giant.  And what would the weather and seasons be like?  The earth tilts back and forth creating the seasons, right?  So what would a moon do?  it would tilt even more because of its planet, but it would also be moving closer and farther from the sun as it circles the planet.  Would that make it notably hotter and notably colder, or is the only important question how much sunlight it’s getting?

Part of me wants to ignore these things.  I certainly haven’t read anything about it in any other books I’ve come across, and even if i do figure this out, I’m honestly not sure if it will play a part in the story i want to write, but dammit, it could be incredibly important!  And how the hell do you find something like that out?!