Science Friction

REPOST: This was first posted in February 2009. This semester ends with a ‘Chemistry of Science Fiction’ lecture-workshop so it seems appropriate.

Perhaps science fiction is to blame for science’s image. Yes, I know you’re rolling your eyes thinking ‘but I loved science fiction and now look at me, the scientist’. Did you ever consider that you liked science fiction because you had a natural disposition towards science? Perhaps the science fiction was feeding some kind of propensity towards science stuff.
We’re also a self-selecting bunch. Just as I am continually reminded to not judge my students by my own attitude towards study, knowledge and learning, so scientists have been selected by their attitudes and aptitudes.
What about science fiction? Let’s look at the list of sins we can lay at the feet of that creepy critter in it’s Mom’s basement. We can start with the utopian visions of the future where life is just great, thanks mainly to technological advances. OK, so society has progressed, problems have been solved, but I’m not sure where the ‘science bit’ is. Most of the gory details are conveniently glossed over, like the bits where we developed tolerance, virtue, kindness and where everyone became inquisitive citizens of the universe. Then there is the dystopia. The ones where we’re doomed to subsist in miseries beyond hope, or fester across multiple planets, stagnant and dying.
In either case, it doesn’t sound good for the science part of the fiction. On one hand we have technological miracle cures, on the other hand we have a vision of the future that is bleaker than the present. I’d prefer it to be called ‘future fiction’ or plain and simple drama. The word science is just misleading. Science fiction is also a much stereotyped genre, something to be enjoyed in secret, without admission, something that is widely misunderstood. Sounds grimly familiar!
I don’t think science fiction furthers the cause of science, but I’m not convinced it hinders it that much. This topic has just been playing on my mind for a while since another blogging site had a wide discussion about the role of science fiction in influencing the career choices of scientists.

6 thoughts on “Science Friction

  1. Katherine – when was the last time you read any science fiction?

  2. It’s the usual confusion between science and technology, in most cases: science only comes into the story by virtue of the fact that scientists (or, often, some lone hypergenius) were responsible for the faster-than-light mind-reading nanomachines, with little appreciation of the fundamental changes in the way we see the world necessary to get such lovely toys.
    So you could be right.

  3. I think it has been rightly and reasonably said that SF prepares the world ( general public ? ) for the future / discoveries / paradigms etc etc – I am not talking about fantasy rubbish but serious science fiction written by scientists ( Clarke Asimov Niven Reynolds et al. )
    alternatively if you just want to read a good oldfashioned space opera buy my new book, Ringturn. Loads of fast moving action and derring-do but no impossible FTL travel either. Available at Amazon and all good book stores. http://www.ringturn.net

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