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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Your Limbs Are Belong to Us: SF's Future

Long long ago in a place somewhat similar to today, with technology not quite like it is now, but with minds exploring the unimaginable bounds of space, human intelligence, and technology itself, someone came up with the brilliant idea of 'robotic' prosthetic limbs. Probably the iconic example is Luke Skywalker, who loses his hand in a brilliantly dark and emotionally complex scene with his would-be father slash evil right hand of the Emperor. We remember the end of Empire Strikes Back as Lando Calrissian and Chewie prepare to shoot off into a galactic spacescape to save Han Solo that our hero Luke Skywalker has been given a new hand filled with mechanical joints and gizmos and feeling. Literally a replacement for his former hand that is just about as good as the last, or maybe better.
Well that 'future' is becoming a reality. Futurismic brought an interesting article to me through their RSS feed that talks about a prosthetic limb that can sense touch and heat. Nothing there about pain, obviously, and I can't imagine you'd want to give such a device painful sensations, but this is a wonderful example of how science fiction has shaped our society. Forty years ago people wouldn't have thought we'd be building fake hands that can move and feel. They also didn't think we'd ever really figure out how to make robotic machines function via the thought of a human, something which we're actually working on and slowly developing. This trend, which I've brought up numerous times, is exactly why SF needs to be paid attention to. It isn't a genre of a bunch of idiots running around coming up with futures that are completely realistic, though I imagine that some are. If we looked to writers like Robert J. Sawyer we can see now, just as it was way back when, that SF writers are handling real world issues and presenting solutions and ideas to the world. Why are we ignoring them? Perhaps it has to do with science.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr. recently tackled the concern over scientific study here. The post suggested the recent destruction of the education system, an idea that Modesitt considers to be a systematic removal of the science-born minds of our world. Whether it's true that our current administration is actually trying to dumb us up and make us susceptible to governmental rule due to our ignorance is for another argument, but the point still stands that the U.S. has a lot to answer for in regards to its obvious reduction in innovation and scientific interest. Modesitt hits the nail on the head by bringing up the recent fund-cut in Physics by the government:
Now... some may claim that might be going a bit too far, but, in support of the Bush war budget, the latest Congressional appropriations take huge cuts out of fundamental research in physics, so much so that Fermilab in Illinois and Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center together will lay off more than 300 scientists and employees, essentially closing for all practical purposes. Why? Supposedly because the something like $95-$100 million required is needed more to fund the war than for physics research.
Pardon me, but I don't see cuts in $200 million bridges to nowhere, and the cuts in federal funds for physics research amount to tenths of a percent of the annual costs of waging the war in Iraq. Such research cuts won't add anything meaningful to the war funding, but they will cripple American physics research for years, if not longer.
Modesitt sees a trend in society that we should be incredibly concerned about. Budget cuts for education and science are huge concerns not only for those intending to move into the science world--a field that is absolutely a necessity if this country intends to do anything of considerable value in the next few decades--but also for SF writers like Modesitt. We have seen a reduction of scientific thought and scientific-minded people in the U.S. and a rise of, shall we say radical religious politics. Religion is on the rise and science is being shut out. Why? One would have to assume there is some logic here, but there isn't any. Science is, plain and simple, absolute, in the same sense that God is absolute, in its mission to learn and enhance human knowledge. That is what science does, and without science our world would not exist. Science gave us the car, the computer, the airplane, etc. What lies below all that are SF writers, who came up with these amazing creations that were once thought to be a load of bologna.
My concerns, however, are not necessarily that SF is going to die of its own accord, but that it will die, at least in the U.S., due to a failing system of thought (I use 'will' loosely here, because it's not necessarily going to die for certain, but if things don't change it very well could). Religion is not better than science, and neither is science better than religion. Both have tremendous benefits, when used correctly. Science, however, is the practical solution to an advancing society, or world for that matter. Likewise, science fiction greatly depends on an environment where scientific thought is open and able to grow. If airplanes had never been invented, would SF have ever been more than pulp fiction? What if computers, space ships, etc. had never seen the light of day? SF would have simply been another 'fantasy' genre, with no basis in reality. We're fortunate to have seen these creations come into existence, and fortunate to see things like prosthetic arms that can feel be brought to life. Without scientific advancement where will SF writers have to go?
Certainly writers like Tobias S. Buckell will still be writing great stories, but he writes a specific 'type' of SF story. Tobias is not what I would call your 'hard SF' writer, though his stories do hinge on realistic ideas of science, to some extent. His stories are sort of like more complicated Space Opera, only better (not New Space Opera, but the old kind). They are adventure stories in the best sense of the term. That being said, one has to look at writers like Ben Bova, Chris Moriarty, Charles Stross, and many others whose ability to write or sell SF in the U.S. might be diminished. This is a two-edged sword, though.
First, the loss of scientific thought might very well prevent U.S. writers from writing those works that have influenced and shaped our world. If scientists can't come up with new ideas and implement them, then anything such SF writers can come up with will lose value. People might stop caring altogether about futuristic ideas and SF might very well fall into a state of adventure and politics over science. That's not to say that adventure stories are bad, and please do not misconstrue this. Tobias' works are fantastic--Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin--but what makes SF so wonderful is that it is diverse. It doesn't sit and write only one general type of story. Everyone is writing works entirely different from Tobias', as they should be. The genre would be clouded by cliches and repeated themes if not for diversity, which in SF would destroy the genre itself. Unlike fantasy, SF cannot fall pray to a repetition of themes because it, unfortunately, cannot benefit from the creation of entirely new worlds, to some extent (obviously SF writers do create new worlds, but it is within the framework of reality, rather than devising entirely different worlds that CAN'T exist. That's the difference.). This concern is a significant concern, I think, in that U.S. writers may be forced to find new outlets if they want their overly complex ideas to see the light. Why? On to the second problem.
If science is pushed aside in the U.S., so too will scientific thought be suppressed and reduced in schools, which is already happening. I'm only 24, but I can attest to the complete lack of knowledge in the sciences, as I have seen it myself. There is little to advance learning of physics and biology. We learn the very, very basics and only if you're interested enough do you go to college and take an advanced course. But the public school system is not prepared to teach a society of Americans who are either polarized by differing opinions on what is realistic and what isn't (i.e. creationism vs. evolution) or simply can't comprehend something like Einstein's theory of relativity, to which I would say we need a collection of Dummy books for the various concepts in science to make things very clear and understandable (some scientific theories are written in such complex manners that even scientifically knowledgeable people such as myself have problems understanding them). In addition, our system is designed to teach temporary retention, not comprehension. This means that we require our children and college students to remember certain things long enough to pass the test, but don't try to make them comprehend it. You don't have to understand how a cell works to pass a biology test in high school. I know, I've done it. Our system needs to be signed so that it creates comprehension over temporary retention. Focusing on testing is not the solution and never was--and it likely has caused more damage than it was supposed to.
Why does this second one become a problem? If science-literacy is reduced to a state below rudimentary understanding, SF will have problems addressing the audience, except where non-scientific based more adventure style SF is concerned. Certainly SF in its 'harder' form would exist outside the U.S. should other countries maintain innovative and scientific thought, however they will be forced to send their works elsewhere. The U.S. has one of the world's largest publishing industries. We consume books like we consume music, to some extent (well, maybe not, but we do consume books rather readily here). Literacy is already a huge concern in the U.S., but so is science literacy. SF is not, in general, a wholly complex genre of fiction (on the outside; I can admit that it gets very complex and interesting when you really dig in). In a lot of ways it is really quite accessible, even the hard stuff. There are very few novels written in a fashion that isn't understandable; such novels are oddities in a huge market of SF. Regardless, one really needs some grasp of science to understand a lot of SF. This isn't to say you need to know physics or biology, or anything like that, in any sort of significant manner, but you should know the basic rules of physics and how cells divide and have some mental understanding what it means to say 'genetic manipulation' or 'zero G'. Yet there are a lot of people that don't understand. These are the folks that either aren't paying attention because of a lack of understanding or are asking "what does that mean?" only to be met with definitions beyond them.
The end result, then, is for countries to maintain some sort of positive support of the sciences. SF not only depends on it, but so does society. Look around you. See the things that have made your life easier, simpler, or even more exciting. Think about how fun it is to drive a car, or to get on an airplane, or ride a rollercoaster (you'd be surprised how much science goes into those, by the way), etc. This is the world you live in. SF is everywhere and so is science. Our lives are rooted in the stuff and we have a duty to keep it coming. If scientific thought goes away, then imagine what our future will be like. This is probably the most frightening prospect I have encountered: the thought of science actually devolving, or falling away. Changes have to be made to prevent it. Technology must survive; science must survive; science fiction must survive. Protect it as if it were a child, because just like a is our future.

P.S.: I know that last bit was rather corny. On a side note I want to make it very clear that I am not in any way insulting Tobias S. Buckell's writing. Please do not misunderstand this. I love his work, but it is a type of SF that isn't 'hard SF'. That doesn't mean it is bad, it just means it's not the type of SF that intentionally throws in loads of quantum physics, string theory, etc. His works use science, but indirectly, meaning that there is science beneath it all, but it's not brought to the front very much. He writes adventure/space opera type stuff, which is a wonderful, exciting, enthralling genre. No insult is meant.

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  1. One person always makes a difference & it's great you are an advocate for science, technology, and SF.

    I agree that math & science are dwindling inside our schools. I choose to take Calculus, Advanced Chemistry, and Physics in high school while also following through in college. I'm 10 years difference in your age & with teenagers in my life today - they don't have the choices to take the higher level classes I had. It is especially sad when I hear them dream of being doctors since they don't have the knowledge base to obtain that goal.

    Now, where there is a will there is a way. If a person has determination, they can be anything they want to be.

    Hopefully our generation stands strong and continues to speak out so we don't lose SF, technology, etc.

  2. I'm a huge advocate of science and technology, within reason. Obviously there are some things I don't want in society, however, I think we should always research everything before we determine it's not safe for use. I don't agree with the ban on human cloning. Why? Because I think if such a technology could be perfected it would be an AMAZING way to grow PERFECT replacement organs for people with unfortunate conditions. It's not easy at all to find a new kidney, and especially difficult to find a new heart. A lot of people simply die because they can't get a replacement. Alternately, people also die because their bodies reject replacement organs. If you could clone a perfect replica of a healthy kidney or heart for a person, isn't that a good thing? I don't want actual human clones wandering around, mostly because we have enough people on the planet as it is, but certainly we could do that, not to mention all the other things we might learn.

    Rambling of course.
    On the subject of being anything you want to be. That's semi-true. You can be anything you want to be provided it is within your physical ability to do so. I can never be an astronaut, though I would love to be one, and I'll likely never see space with my own eyes from the window of a spaceship. That's because I have asthma and such a condition would prevent me from getting to go.

    Our education system desperately needs an overhaul, without religious intervention. Keep religion in church. that's where it belongs. At church and at home, not in school (except private schools). We need better schools, better teaching methods, and more enthusiastic teachers. The only reason I ever finished my required two semesters of Spanish in college was because the teacher I had was absolutely awesome. She made the subject fun and exciting for me. Previous teachers had failed to do so and in turn that led me to fail. If you make subjects interesting to adults and children alike, they'll do better in it. Make science fun and interesting. We did a project once in a biology class in high school where we had to make our own little ecosystems with little plants and bugs. That was so exciting to watch! We started coming up with our own little mythology to explain the deaths of the spiders and the rise of the potato was so awesome and exciting, and I enjoyed that. If all biology was like that I would be interested in learning all of it. Now, I learn science on my own time, when I'm interested.

    Anywho...I doubt we'll lose SF entirely, but I think if the U.S. doesn't change it won't exist in the U.S. in its present form anymore and those of us that are alive now will have to go elsewhere for hard SF work. Not that softer SF is bad, but it's not the same :P. I like both actually...almost all SF is good to me.