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How sci-fi moves with the times

Can science fiction keep up with modern science?

Does the genre need to stay up to date with the latest breakthroughs in order to be relevant?

Four of the UK's leading writers of science fiction comment on its relationship with science fact. The discussion took place as part of National Science and Engineering Week.


Ken Macleod
Ken Macleod says scientific accuracy is important, up to a point

"Science fiction," said the robot, "has become science fact!"

That's the opening line of one of my novels - the irony being, of course, that the robot is pointing out a marvel (a space elevator, as it happens) while the marvel of a robot pointing out anything at all, let alone enthusing about it, has become everyday in the story.

Science fiction is the only form of literature that sets out to bring home to our imaginations the surprising universe that science has discovered. How well it does that job depends on its scientific accuracy - up to a point.

If we as readers catch a writer getting some well-established scientific fact wrong, we may suspect that we're reading incompetent science fiction - or mainstream literature.

If we trip over the impossible, we lose the willing suspension of disbelief that lets us accept the merely improbable - like aliens or artificial intelligence.

On the other hand, we can still enjoy fiction based on obsolete science - the canals of Mars and the jungles of Venus are still evocative - as long as we know the writer was doing their honest best at the time.

Getting the "science fact" right, these days, has become both exciting and difficult. Science and technology are moving so quickly that science fiction has to run to keep up.

I work with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Genomics Policy and Research Forum, and every day an email full of links to the latest bioscience stories hits my inbox.

Each day there's a new marvel - a single molecule radio here, a synthetic ribosome there. But the marvel that's easy to miss is that this email is compiled by a computer program, trawling for key words and phrases on the internet.

It's a bit like having a robot telling me that science fiction is becoming science fact.

Paul Cornell
Paul Cornell says it is an exciting moment for the genre

Science fiction has always been about right now.

Its central phrase is: "If this goes on..." As such it's a very specific form of satire.

And right now, the genre is going through a bit of a crisis of faith.

The mundane movement is challenging writers to drop ideas that once promised to be scientific ones, but are now considered as fantasy - faster than light travel, telepathy etc - and to concentrate on the problems of the human race being confined to an Earth it is using up.

But this is as much an artistic movement as an ethical one. The existence of such a movement, though, suggests that science fiction feels a sense of mission.

Unlike its cousin, fantasy, it wants to be talking about the real world in ways other than metaphorical.

One of the problems is that where once there was a consensus view, broadly, of what the future was going to be like - bases on the Moon, robots etc - post-Cold War chaos leaves everyone thrashing around, having to invent the future anew.

Artificial intelligence, aliens and easy space travel just haven't shown up. They may never do so.

It's an exciting moment, but the genre needs to be strong to survive it, and see off fantasy's vast land grabs of the territory of the stranded human heart.

I think it will.

Iain Banks
Iain Banks uses science fiction themes in his new novel

I wear two hats: I'm a science fiction and a mainstream writer. And in terms of keeping my writing believable, a lot of it comes down to common sense - having a rough idea of how things really work.

But that's the case in all types of writing, not just science fiction. You need to pay attention to the psychology of characters, the way things work in organisations and politics.

But certainly, to write science fiction, you need to have an idea of the way science and technology work too.

I consider myself a reasonably well-informed lay person. I read New Scientist and Scientific American, but I'm not reading peer-reviewed journals to keep up with latest science.

Occasionally, I take ideas and inspiration from these sources and incorporate them into a science fiction novel. But I certainly don't feel pressure to keep stories completely realistic.

My new book is a mainstream novel that borrows science fiction tropes. It plays with the idea that there are an infinite number of different worlds.

So it's using speculative hard science. And it's important to the book that there's a degree of respectability about the idea of the multiverse, or the many-worlds theory.

But in my science fiction, I merrily break as many laws as I can get my hands on. Especially faster than light travel - I have my starships going at unfeasibly high speeds.

Sometimes I pay no attention whatsoever to what's possible and realistic. It really depends on the novel.

This approach to science fiction comes from a general respect for science. And, for me, that's all bound up with being an atheist and a humanist. I don't have very much time for superstition - a category into which I would quite happily lump religion in general.

So it's more of an attitude. It's about cause and effect. There should always be some sort of reason for something happening. And there is usually some sort of rational explanation - not always though, that would be boring.


Ian Watson
Ian Watson thinks it unlikely that sci-fi will envision future breakthroughs

On the whole, we don't write about dragons and flying saucers.

But it isn't likely that science fiction authors are going to envision future scientific breakthroughs or future technology accurately. Although, on the scattershot principle, this occasionally might happen.

In the wake of 9/11, I heard that the CIA called in science fiction writers to discuss future terrorist scenarios.

And when Stephen Hawking announced that micro black holes must exist, science fiction writers enthusiastically wrote stories using them as garbage disposal energy generators, or perfect murder weapons.

Later, Professor Hawking completed the sentence with: "but they evaporate in 10 to the minus 23 of a second," or some such.

So there's a complex dialectic between science fact and science fiction.

A recent, undoubtedly short-lived school of thought, mundane science fiction, wishes to stick to the facts and eschew any flights of fancy such as starships or aliens.

How very boring of them, say I. What, no zany thought experiments?

Zaniness is an important part of science fiction, as well as operating within a certain framework of rationality.

And these are thrilling times for science - skin after skin of the onion of what we thought we knew is constantly being stripped away, revealing deeper hidden skins.

If the future, which swiftly becomes the present, invalidates the basis of science fiction stories, such as the one-time oceans and jungles of Venus; this doesn't invalidate the power and pleasure of bygone texts any more than Gulliver's Travels is invalidated by GPS.

Science fiction too has been somewhat eclipsed for years now by fantasy literature, as though science has failed us. It's become the bogeyman responsible for ecological disaster, climate instability, nuclear weapons and potential designer plagues.

Yet, in fact, we are ever more pledged to science as a solution rather than cause of woes.

And what times we are living in, with the Large Hadron Collider on the one hand, and on the other, Nick Bostrom's very logical argument that we're actually living in a simulation operated by an advanced future civilization.

That's plenty of scope for the imagination. And imagination is what makes us unique - for the moment. That is unless we do ever contact alien life that is comprehensible.

Of course, if we do ever find imaginative and scientific aliens, it'll be interesting to know if they write, or ever wrote, science fiction.

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