Is science killing science fiction?

by Mark Rosenfelder

Has you noticed a certain thinness or claustrophobia in modern science?

I'm not talking about stuffiness or closed-mindedness. I like scientists. No, it's a matter of the range of possible events and entities. To put it bluntly, science puts rigid clanking limits on the kinds of things that can be and that can happen.

Really, what is there in the universe? A few families of elementary particles and four forces. The complications of their interactions, and the range of objects they form at ever-larger scales are marvelous, of course; but at the lowest level that's all there is.

It's kind of austere.

Things were easier for the sf writer a hundred years ago. If the scientists weren't discovering a new force they were isolating a new element; and on their off days they overhauled a backwater science or two. X-rays, radium, radio, the atom, relativity, evolution-- science has never seemed so dynamic and exciting. It's no wonder sf was crystalizing at the same time, and no wonder writers projected into futurity the cataract of technological wonders they saw all around them. They'd toss off new elements without breaking a sweat, and contemplate six new fundamental forces before tiffin.

The comics still work this way. The Marvel Universe is so full of extraordinary substances, hyperpowerful beings and fantastically advanced hidden civilizations that one wonders how the destruction of the Earth can be so frequently mooted; about ten supercivilizations or pantheons would be up in arms at once.

But now the scientific rationale for all this has evaporated. The elements are all known up to atomic weights in the hundreds, and beyond that they're uselessly unstable. The forms of radiation from the basso profundissimo of radio waves to the tinniest of gamma rays are all neatly catalogued. Finding a new force beyond the four known to physics is as unlikely as discovering a new civilization hidden in the Amazon (another staple of fiction past). Whatever bright idea you've got-- slow glass, inhabited electrons, gridfire-- is almost certainly a violation of physical law.

All this casts a bit of a pall on the scrupulous sf writer. To liven things up even a "hard" writer like Niven invests heavily in imaginations unsanctioned by science: stasis fields, scrith, FTL travel, impermeable hulls, teleportation, ESP, reactionless drives. The technological pizzazz is necessary because science as we know it today narrows rather than widens the power of imagination. The next star over may harbor some neat aliens or cool toys, but unless we ignore what science already knows, it's likely to hold little that sparks the sense of wonder.

And it's getting worse. What's happened in the physical sciences is happening, slowly, in psychology. As we learn more of how the mind works, it kills off one sf dream after another. I'm afraid that the genius-level infants, the telepathy, the eidetic memories (alive and well in as recent a work as Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis) will go the way of antigravity, force fields, and Martians. Most of these capabilities are based on the notion that we use only a fraction of our brains (if it weren't for wishful thinking, who could believe this? You really thought most of that three-pound universe was just sitting there unused?), or the supposition that past participles, story problems, and the calculus are a bigger tax on our brains than learning to see and talk (funny, computers have been doing the first for thirty years and still can't translate or play football worth a damn).

I wonder if sf will survive this narrowing of possibilities.

Oh, sure, the genre will survive. But in part it will survive simply by becoming fantasy. It's already happened, to some extent. FTL drives and antigravity and time travel are as much fantasy today as tales about giants and elves and sorcerers. There's more of an attempt in sf to sound scientific, of course, but that's just a respectful bow to the past, a time when the letters column of Astounding was filled with technical nitpicking. (For that matter, many a modern book treats magic as prosily as a log table. When was the last time you saw it handled as a spiritual force?)

And sf can keep up with science, to some extent. We can always write about the next fifty years. It's getting hard to emulate the optimism and sense of dynamism of the early writers, however. Cyberpunk, for example, seems to amount to a statement that John W. Campbell was wrong-- the future is going to be pretty much like the present would be if Maggie Thatcher and Bill Gates had absolute power.

But unless science changes its tune, and returns to the last century's rather Trotskyite state of permanent revolution, I fear that the change-drunk flamboyance of early sf is gone. We can now imagine plenty of worlds that simply can't be true. They can be written about and enjoyed, but the loss of plausibility does change the flavor. It's no longer exactly science fiction.

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