Is Science Killing Science Fiction?

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Gregory Benford shared this on facebook, asking if this notion was true:
Strahan, Jonathan, “Introduction,” Edge of Infinity, Solaris, 2012. This is just a short introduction to Strahan’s latest book of short stories, but he has some fascinating ideas here. He explores what he calls “the Fourth Generation” of science fiction.

“Science fiction publishing is a somewhat morbid sub-culture. It is rather obsessed with the death of SF and SF publishing.” Not, he says, because the folks with that obsession are particularly depressive, but because “…science fiction is being killed…by science. Not just today, but always.”

My immediate reaction is that of course this notion is not true.  Maybe Strahan has different definitions of science, science fiction, and killing than I do. I also don’t have the short story collection with the complete introduction to put the quote in context.

It’s a little reminiscent to me of Buzz Aldrin complaining that science fiction was killing the space program (although it wasn’t “killing” it was “dampening interest” and I appreciate Aldrin’s point that much science fiction makes space travel look easy and fast when the reality is that it’s difficult and slow).

Personally, I think the only thing that can “kill” science fiction is the writers and fans.  If they stop creating it and liking it, that will kill it.  The worst science does is make some old science fiction look wrong, while there’s a huge boon to science fiction from science, in my opinion.

Science fiction is about creating innovative, speculative stories that are embedded in the reality of the universe as we know it.  Stories that are possible.  Otherwise I categorize the impossible as fantasy, which is fine, but beyond the realm of science and has not just speculative elements but elements that do not conform to what science has taught us.

Here’s how I see it, taking Mars as an example.  In the past, we had science fiction stories like H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, and, a bit later, Arthur C. Clarke’s Sands of Mars and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.  Maybe some of these were not intended to be such strict science fiction, but they were grounded in the (incorrect) ideas of the time that Mars might well host civilizations like our own, dying from the lack of water.  Blame astronomer Percival Lowell and his canals in part, but educated 19th century beliefs saw intelligent life on Mars as realistic.

(Left) This 1894 map of Mars was prepared by Eugene Antoniadi and redrawn by Lowell Hess. (Right) A Hubble Space Telescope photo of Mars shows the modern view of our neighboring planet. CREDIT: Tom Ruen, Eugene Antoniadi, Lowell Hess, Roy A. Gallant, HST, NASA
(Left) This 1894 map of Mars was prepared by Eugene Antoniadi and redrawn by Lowell Hess. (Right) A Hubble Space Telescope photo of Mars shows the modern view of our neighboring planet.
CREDIT: Tom Ruen, Eugene Antoniadi, Lowell Hess, Roy A. Gallant, HST, NASA

Science dramatically changed our views of Mars in the latter half of the 20th century, and NASA has been aggressively sending missions to Mars including Curiosity last summer, which attracted the public imagination.  Did that kill Martian science fiction?  Not in the slightest!  We have Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and sequels, Mars Crossing by Geoffrey Landis, Moving Mars by Greg Bear, and The Martian Race by Gregory Benford.  Oh, wait, also Marsbound by Joe Haldeman, and Red Planet Blues by Robert Sawyer.  If I’m not mistaken, there have also continued to be quite a few science fiction movies set on Mars of varying quality (Mission to Mars, Red Planet, etc.).

I think science is breathing new life into science fiction, far from killing it.  As we continue to learn more, we can tell new, more realistic stories about what it would actually be like to explore the real Mars.  The old Mars stories were fine for their day, and still fun as fantasy.  If science changing and recategorizing old science fiction into fantasy is “killing” it, maybe Strahan is right.

And there’s a lot more than Mars going on in science and science fiction.  New ideas in science lead directly to new ideas in science fiction.  I think it’s never been better for science fiction.  What about you?  Or do you think that science is indeed killing science fiction?

8 COMMENTS

  1. It's funny you should take Mars, and Percival Lowell, as your illustrative example, Mike. Jonathan Strahan does exactly the same thing, in basically exactly the same way, in his Edge of Infinity introduction. I think you might be interpreting the word 'killing' a little too literally.

    Here's what I got from the introduction (which may or may not be what Strahan intended): scientific progress is constantly undermining the romance upon which our science fiction is built. But SF needs romance, and thus SF writers are always having to find it in new places. Science killed off our dreams of travelling to the stars — it's too hard, the distances too vast — and so for a while SF turned to "an inward-focussed look at cyberspace; innerspace, even."

    But now, in what Strahan calls "the Fourth Generation", SF writers are finding their way back into space. Not interstellar space (yet), but our own Solar System. Books like 2312 and Blue Remembered Earth, and stories like those in Edge of Infinity.

    Put another way, it seems to me that you and Strahan are basically in agreement! Edge of Infinity is a really interesting anthology, by the way. I heartily recommend it.

    • That is funny! I just wanted to come up with a common subject found in science fiction that had undergone a lot of changes in our scientific understanding. Mars is an obvious choice, I guess, and great minds think alike.

      Personally, science for me never killed off our dreams of traveling to the stars, and I know a lot of science. It just makes it challenging, and challenging is interesting. Romantic even.

  2. While I certainly cannot speak for Strahan, and since I failed to find a copy of the entire introduction on line to which you can be directed, I am a bit hesitant to interpret Stahan's underlying premise. I do, however, wish that Dr. Benford would have cited these statements, which followed the part he excerpted. Had he done so, I believe you would have found the essay as a whole comes closer to the optimism for the field contained in in your post:

    "The bedrock of information upon which the science fiction writers work is constantly shifting and changing, as it should. This is a fine and wonderful thing, and I doubt a single science fiction writer on the planet will complain about it. However this constant barrage of facts can be the enemy of romance, and science fiction needs romance to survive…

    Not that science fiction hasn't risen to the challenge set by science. It did and continues to do so…

    ….During the Fourth Generation….another kind of story began to appear, one that saw a place for us in our Solar System, if not out in the stars (yet)….It was a story that appeared as the background to any number of short stories published over the past half-dozen years, and then flourishing in major novels like James S.. Corey's 'Leviathan Wakes' and Kim Stanley Robinson's stunning '2312.' It was a story filled with romance, adventure, abd with a love of science and our solar system. It is the story of the Fourth Age of Science Fiction."

    • I can agree with some of that. I disagree with the general notion that facts undermine romance. To a scientifically inclined person like myself, the facts enhance the romance, and the more I know, the cooler it is.

  3. You wrote that "I also don’t have the short story collection with the complete introduction to put the quote in context." I think that if you had read the complete introduction, you might well have had a very different reaction to what Strahan is actually saying rather than relying on a small, badly-edited, out-of-contex, part of a 5+ page essay.

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