Miércoles 19 de Noviembre de 2008, Ip nº 255

Sci-fi special: Is science fiction dying?
Por Marcus Chown

YEARS ago, on one of my first assignments for New Scientist, I was sent to London's Dorchester Hotel to interview Carl Sagan, the American astronomer. Sagan was famous for his popular science books, the blockbuster TV series Cosmos, and his science fiction novel Contact, which was turned into a film starring Jodie Foster. Rather overawed by Sagan's palatial suite and by meeting the man himself, I asked him which he preferred - science or science fiction? "Science," he replied without hesitation. "Because science is stranger than science fiction."

That was two decades ago. Since then, we have discovered that 73 per cent of the mass-energy of the universe is in the form of mysterious "dark energy", invisible stuff whose repulsive gravity is speeding up cosmic expansion; we have discovered micro-organisms surviving in total darkness kilometres down in solid rock and even around the cores of nuclear reactors; and we have seen the rise of superstring theory, which views the ultimate building blocks of matter as impossibly small "strings" that vibrate in a 10-dimensional space. If science was stranger than science fiction at the time Sagan spoke to me, it is even more strange now.

This has led some to claim that science - and its handmaiden, technology - are changing so fast that it is impossible for science fiction to keep up. In the past, science fiction notably failed to predict the transistor, whose year-on-year miniaturisation has enabled computers to conquer the modern world. In the future, goes the argument, it is going to be even harder for science fiction writers to predict the technological developments which will transform our lives. Science fiction, claim the doomsayers, is dead - or, if not dead, in terminal decline.

"The discussion of whether science has made science fiction obsolete has been going on at science fiction conventions as long as I have attended them," says John Cramer, a science fiction writer and a physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "I even recall, perhaps 15 years ago, a prominent editor of science fiction novels asserting that the space programme had made science fiction based on space travel unnecessary."

Such claims seem reminiscent of the perennial claims that science is dead or dying, most famously expounded by the prominent physicist Lord Kelvin in 1900, when he declared: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." This, of course, was just before the atom came apart, the quantum genie burst free and all scientific hell broke loose. In the case of science fiction, the premise of the doomsayers' claims is that the genre is about predicting the future. In fact, very little of it is.

The question "What is science fiction?" is often the subject of heated debate. However, at its most basic level, science and the extrapolation of science simply provide alternative worlds in which to set a story. Storytellers have invoked different worlds ever since hunter-gatherers regaled their companions with tales that took them out of themselves and gave meaning to the events of their daily existence.

As well as a mere storytelling device, science fiction often articulates our present-day concerns and anxieties - paradoxically, it is often about the here and now rather than the future. As Stephen Baxter points out (see "Stephen Baxter"), H. G. Wells's ground-breaking 1895 novella The Time Machine - famous for popularising the idea of time travel - was more concerned with where Darwinian natural selection was taking the human race than with the actual nuts and bolts of time travel. In the 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner imagined the dire consequences of overpopulation. Arthur C. Clarke's The Lion of Comarre explored the terrible allure of computer-generated artificial realities, which - god forbid - people might actually choose over the far-from-seductive messiness of the real world.

All of these books are about imagining where present-day, often worrying, scientific and technological trends might be leading us. They can act as a warning or, at the bare minimum, cushion us from what American writer Alvin Toffler so memorably described as "future shock".

Science fiction is the literature of change. It is no coincidence that it emerged as a recognisable genre with writers such as Jules Verne in the late 19th century, an era when, for the first time in history, children could expect to grow up in a world radically different from that of their parents. As change accelerated in the 20th century, science fiction mushroomed. As long as change is an integral part of our lives, science fiction is likely to survive. Even the fact that science may be stranger than science fiction should not deter writers. "We simply have to keep our thought processes lubricated so as to avoid imagination atrophy," says Cramer. "It's something we 'hard' science fiction writers do as a matter of course."

There is, though, a sense in which science fiction, rather than dying, is changing. From the 1930s to the 1950s, science fiction existed in the ghetto of the lurid pulp magazines, with their covers depicting bug-eyed aliens pursuing scantily clad heroines. Thereafter it managed to break free of these shackles, and the modern, semi-respectable science fiction novel was born. Latterly, we have not only seen sci-fi novels hit the mainstream best-seller lists, the genre has reached truly gargantuan audiences through gaming and films such as Star Wars and The Matrix.

Sci-fi themes have infiltrated mainstream fiction too. Malorie Blackman, in her best-selling Noughts and Crosses trilogy for teenagers, explores a world in which the situations of black and white people are reversed. Kazuo Ishiguro, in his beautifully written novel Never Let Me Go, recounts a heartbreaking tale of people who have been cloned specifically to donate their organs, one by one. And what of Nobel-prizewinner Doris Lessing and the "space fiction" of her wonderful Shikasta novels, and Haruki Murakami, Japan's most famous novelist, to whom critics attribute science fiction themes in novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? The lines between what we define as science fiction and "mainstream literature" may be increasingly blurred, but the genre will no doubt always have its own a section in the bookstore, even if only for the mind-bending stuff - aka "hard" sci-fi - that isn't everyone's cup of tea.

Like the dinosaurs that, far from vanishing from the Earth, changed into the birds which still populate the length and breadth of the planet, science fiction has morphed into a multitude of forms, many of which are alive and kicking. The speed of change, highlighted by Sagan, has simply raised the bar for the imagination of the current generation of writers. There is no reason to believe that they will not rise to the challenge.

The future of sci-fi

Six leading science fiction authors tell us where they think the genre is going:

Margaret Atwood

Stephen Baxter

William Gibson

Ursula K Le Guin

Kim Stanley Robinson

Nick Sagan


  12/11/2008. New Scientist Magazine.