Science & Art: We need better science fiction
Why is science fiction important? Ask the Chinese. Or rather, ask Neil Gaiman, who in 2007 was invited to Chengdu for the first-ever government-sponsored sci-fi convention in China. As the story goes, he asked why the state was promoting the subject. The reply was that although China had become the workshop of the world, things were not being invented there. To understand how things were invented in the USA, Chinese officials had visited and interviewed people at companies like Google & Apple. They discovered that the inventors had all read science fiction when they were young, and the officials decided to start promoting the subject in their home country.
Fast forward a few years, and Chinese science fiction has gone global. Mark Zuckerburg included Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem in his ‘Year of Reading’ (the only Chinese author in his list). There’s been at least one breakout Chinese science fiction film — The Wandering Earth — on Netflix. And Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie became the first work to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards combined (all 3 are the premier awards in science fiction).
What is science fiction? Isaac Asimov — one of the biggest names in the genre — defines it as below:
“Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”
There are two broad subcategories of science fiction: ‘hard’ sci-fi that focuses on the accuracy of the science in the story, and ‘soft’ sci-fi that focuses on the impact of technology on society & people.
I like Asimov’s definition for its focus on the societal and personal impact that technology has on people. Because while there are the two subcategories, the memorable ones have always straddled both (Asimov himself did this as well). This combination of fact and impact is what makes for the best stories, and we’re a species built on stories after all — Harari’s spiel has become almost trite but that doesn’t make it less true.
But this blend of fact & impact is hard to achieve. Star Wars is one of the most popular sci-fi franchises ever. When the first film released in 1977, it had pathbreaking effects, starships the size of small planets, and the romance of knights battling evil. The film was a hit right away and provided a huge boost for the sci-fi genre. And, as Jurassic Park would make palaeontology popular for an entire generation a decade and a half later, the impact of Star Wars to popularise science was felt far and wide.
But Star Wars was conceived and released during a time when science fiction was not mainstream. In conceptualising space travel, George Lucas leaned on his love of World War II aerial dogfights and bombing runs as inspiration to create the space battles for the film. The result was a film that has been undoubtedly important in the annals of science fiction history and remains evergreen with its lessons of hope, but one that was hopelessly outdated even at release in its portrayal of space travel.
Science fiction has not always relied on wonton gimmickry — indeed the (almost) equally popular Star Trek was released almost a decade before Star Wars. Star Trek relies more on science than Star Wars, going in so far as to literally explain the 2009 franchise reboot by way of parallel universes and alternate timelines — something that quantum physics theoretically allows for. But even Star Trek today shows its age with wild explanations of how ships in space would recreate gravity (gravitons!) — though, to be fair, recreating shots with zero gravity is a costly affair and used sparingly even in big-budget productions.
To be sure though, there has recently been a slew of films & TV shows that have begun mixing in strong elements of science into art. Gravity, The Martian, and the Planet of the Apes have all been commercial successes while also leaning towards the side of scientific accuracy.
But these are all based on current technology and are literally grounded (to their credit). None of these are about space travel to the far reaches of the solar system or galaxy, or speculation of what could become possible in the future. And without taking away from them, they don’t produce the same sense of wonder that the original Star Trek & Star Wars franchises did for a whole generation.
To that end, there’s a show I feel that does this exceptionally well but doesn’t get enough credit: The Expanse. In this show, travelling & communicating through space is not done with warp drives but with regular rockets. Gravity is generated by accelerating towards a destination and then at the halfway point, turning around and doing a deceleration burn (which also generates gravity). There’s also a consistent time delay in communications across large distances as would be the case in reality, and weapons are all ballistic / propulsion centred — no ‘phasers on stun’ here. The creative leap the show takes is the discovery of a hyper-efficient mode of rocket engine technology. This frees ships from the need to carry thousands of tons of fuel. The show also does away with the “no sound in space” effect. But given everything else it has going for it, these adjustments are minor.
This kind of sci-fi puts forward scenarios that humans would likely face when travelling in space given what we know — questions like how important is gravity in simple medical procedures (spoiler: VERY). Normalising these concepts is possibly the first step to building a society with a strong bias towards rationality & technology, to say nothing about an aspiration for space travel. And if the old saying that ‘we are what we eat’ is true for our physical selves, then the same can be said for our thoughts and the kind of media they consume.
And the Chinese? Last year, when the 50th anniversary of the moon landings was celebrated, a survey conducted among children reportedly found that when they grew up, American & UK kids wanted to become Vloggers, while children in China overwhelmingly wanted to become astronauts.