Why Science Fiction?

The fiction part speaks for itself - everyone loves a good story, but why science fiction?

Before I make my case for science fiction I‘d like to deal with the most common criticisms leveled against it: why is science fiction considered by many to be geeky, low-quality escapist fiction on the fringes of ‘serious‘ fiction?

In a word: ignorance.

Before this is taken as a wanton attack on the literati, let me elaborate. We hominids are products of our environment. Like all other animals we evolved over millions of years to succeed in certain conditions - in our case, we were mostly shaped by the parameters of the savannah here on Earth. Our oversized brains only achieved abstract thought in our most recent developmental form - that of homo sapiens sapiens, roughly 200,000 years ago. Exactly which of our faculties bloomed when (in our species as a whole) will be hotly debated for some time to come, but here are a few highlights as we currently understand them:

Hominids diverged from chimps - 6 million years ago
Genus Homo - 2 million years ago
Homo sapiens - 400,000 - 200,000 years ago
Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans) - 200,000 years ago
Spoken language 100,000 - 35,000 years ago
Music - at least 50,000 years ago
Arithmetic - 20,000 years ago
Crop farming - 11,000 years ago
Writing - 10,000 years ago
Animal husbandry - 5,000 years ago
Cities - at least 5,000 years ago
Astrology - 5,000 years ago
Science - 2,300 years ago
Astronomy (as separate from Astrology) - 500 years ago
Columbus‘ discovery of the New World - 500 years ago
The optical telescope - 400 years ago
Electric current - 261 years ago
Radio telescopes - 77 years ago
Genetic engineering - 56 years ago
The internet - 40 years ago

We can see that spoken language, the minimum requirement for fiction, has been with us for a long time. In contrast, science and technology, the minimum requirement for science fiction, are very recent developments. (Our most advanced society was still burning scientists at the stake a mere 400 years ago for claiming the Earth wasn‘t the center of the universe!)

You might feel that Homo sapiens have finally ‘grown up‘ in the guise of modern human beings, and that we‘ve put the ‘dark ages‘ behind us. Maybe so, but consider this: all of human history, all human knowledge, and every part of reality we‘ve ever explored or experienced, including all of fiction, happened here on planet Earth. Let‘s work out how much of reality we‘ve explored as a percentage of the observable universe.

Let‘s give ourselves a hefty boost & claim we‘ve explored our entire solar system, and assume it‘s spherical (which it‘s not, but then apparently nor is the universe, but I digress.) and has a volume of roughly 2 cubic light years. The size of the observable universe is about 4 times 10 to the 32 cubic light years. Expressed as a percentage, we‘ve explored about 5 times 10 to the minus 31 % of reality.

That‘s zero point 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 02 %. Talk about having our collective head in the sand!

Let‘s not fixate on the exact number of zeros in this back-of-the envelope calculation. One could make many objections, e.g. us being a land-based species and therefore having to calculate using the (dry?) surface area of Earth versus all the (dry?) rocky planets in the universe. Perhaps you feel that reality encompasses more than just space-time. But the point remains: there will still be far too many zeros left over for any Earth-centric smugness.

In fact, I‘d venture a guess and say that this number would represent the upper limit of our knowledge since we‘ve only calculated the percentage using space-time, i.e. objective reality. If we included subjective reality (as some ‘serious‘ fiction proponents might wish to) then we‘d have to start adding a lot more zeros, depending on how much other intelligent life there is (and was) in the entire universe.

Now, back the question of ‘Why science fiction?‘ Science and technology are the best tools we have for chipping away at all those zeros and I hope to show that, far from being escapist, SF is a very serious and worthwhile pastime indeed.

SF can be said to be the Study of the possible , embellished with many of the hallmarks of fiction: human interest, plot, drama and a narrative arc. Being human, we need the human interest to motivate our actions. In a sense, it‘s the ‘long arm of science‘ itself, since an SF novel is nothing more than a complex ‘what if‘ scenario. Indeed, what life form intelligent enough to influence its own destiny would not invest a fair amount of effort charting ‘what if‘ scenarios?

Using science, we can observe real worlds and, by extrapolating our technologies and knowledge of ourselves, we can imagine many possible worlds. By examining these worlds we can learn of the marvels and dangers they hold, hopefully thereby avoiding their pitfalls in our own future. Given the increasing influence of science and technology on our lives and our planet, we ignore this responsibility at our peril. We need look no further than our neighboring planet to see the result of runaway greenhouse ‘what if‘ scenario.

Armed with scientific knowledge, we can use our imaginations to do ‘thought exploration‘, and in so doing set the stage for real exploration. Thought experiments are a powerful tool in a scientist‘s arsenal. Sometimes the idea is all that‘s needed, but the idea always precedes the act , and SF has often later become fact.

I concede that SF could do with a healthy dose of great writers , but this is already happening as the genre gains greater acceptance. Be that as it may, the dozen or so grandmasters provide volumes of compelling reading.

We must make a distinction here between science fiction and fantasy. Although these two genres are often lumped together, they are fundamentally different. In truth, fantasy is as old as regular fiction and has much more in common with it than it does with science fiction.

So seek out good SF, leave this tiny spec of cosmic dust behind for a moment and get a glimpse of the ‘Real World‘.

J.D. Venne

"That was the river, and this is The Sea."
The Waterboys