Written by Nancy Kress
One of the scariest statements I ever heard came from a young relative of mine: “All the science I know I learned from your books!” To which I replied, gasping a little, “But you know I make it up, right?”
But not entirely—which raises a critical question. While much has been written about how to use science to create, plot, or enhance one’s fiction, not as much has been written about how speculative fiction impacts our understanding of science. Consider the following: Haijun Yao, editor of China’s major SF magazine, Science Fiction World, told me last year that the Chinese government, which banned SF during the Cultural Revolution, is now very enthusiastic about its publication. The reason, Mr. Yao said, is that reading science fiction encourages young people to learn about science.
Many, many more people see science fiction movies than read print SF.
Almost all SF movies, and much print SF as well, depicts science that is misleading at best, harmful at worst.
The misleading first. Whenever I have taught science fiction as literature, I have had students who believed the following:
- Cloning will lead to groups of people who are telepathic with each other, or who duplicate the moral bearings of the original DNA bearer, or are inherently evil and monstrous because, well, after all, they’re clones. Not “real” human beings.
- Aliens who contact Earth will aggressively want to use humans as slaves or food, or will want our gold or water or expertise.
- If we destroy the Earth’s ecology, future generations will just move to other planets, so don’t worry.
- Going into a black hole can take us into the past.
Sometimes it helps to point out obvious dissents:
- Cloning is just delayed twinning.
- Aliens, whose different evolutionary paths will result in biology probably not based on DNA, will be unable to eat us or mate with us. Water and gold are more profitably mined on an asteroid than carried up a gravity well. Robots are more efficient than human slaves at hard labor. Any star-faring race already has more scientific expertise than we do, or we would be going to them.
- No solar-system planet can as yet support sustainable human colonies, and the stars are way out of reach.
- A black hole smashes everything down into unrecognizable forms of matter—even Matthew McConaughey (yes, I hated that movie).
Alas, sometimes saying these things does no good. Movies and books are powerful.
However, that the “science” the public learns from SF is debatable doesn’t strike me as the worst problem. That comes from another source: Writers and scriptwriters often make science itself the villain. A problem involving some scientific advance—cloning, nanotechnology, AI—is set up, and all the negative aspects of the tech are brought out, exaggerated, falsified, and blamed. I understand the impetus for this—I’m a writer, too!—which is to create the conflict necessary to drive any story. But the cumulative net effect is the impression that new science and its offspring, new tech, are invariably bad.
In the movie Ex Machina, robots turn murderous.
In countless SF stories, AI tries to take over and must be fought, shut down, destroyed.
Cloning produces not crops or food animals that can feed an ever-expanding population, but rather the oppressive (and ridiculous) one-world biological totalitarianism of Gattaca.
There are exceptions, of course. The Martian, book and movie, portray science as savior. My favorite line is when the protagonist, faced with the problem of basic survival, vows, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” The film Contagion depicts an accurate, science-driven response to a worldwide pandemic (as, incidentally, does my own Tomorrow’s Kin, to a pandemic with much different causes). Many authors write thoughtful explorations, not hopped-up modern Luddism, about the implications of emerging technologies. There are not, in my not-all-that-humble opinion, enough such SF authors.
Before you try to lynch me with that symbol of nostalgic obsolescence, the used typewriter ribbon, let me just say that I’m not calling here for Pollyannaism about science, or for the removal of exciting adventure SF, or of that venerable SF subgenre, the cautionary tale. “If this goes on…big trouble ahead!” is a fair structure for SF. Nor am I saying that fantasy doesn’t have a cherished place in speculative fiction. Nor that such sui generis hybrids as Charlie Jane Anders’s delightful romp, All the Birds in the Sky, shouldn’t contain her wildly inventive combination of magic and implausible science—especially if they’re as wittily written as that award-winning novel.
I am saying that I wish writers and—particularly movie makers—would look harder, deeper, and more thoroughly into their scientific subjects when the tone of their work is hard-science plausibility. There are many dramatic ways to exploit, for fictional purposes, the actual boons and pitfalls of science, without an overload of wrong, sometimes ludicrous, disinformation.
After all, readers are listening, watching, noting. It would be nice if they didn’t get the impression that everything produced in a science lab (food, energy, medicines, data) is aimed at harming them. A little realistic balance is what I’m calling for here.
Is that really too much to ask?
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