THIS IS MY RESPONSE TO THE EDGE QUESTION OF A FEW YEARS BACK: WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT? MY ANSWER: The intrinsic beauty and elegance of mathematics allows it to describe nature. Many believe this seeming axiom, that beauty leads to descriptive power. Our experience seems to show this, mostly from the successes of physics. There is some truth to it, but also some illusion.
A genre that science fiction writers have been attempting to colonize with some regularity is that of the suspense thriller. Here the dissolution of genre boundaries is more subtle, since the imaginative material and narrative conventions of science fiction may be retained, while the plot, structure, and tone are borrowed from a mode of paranoid pursuit melodrama pioneered in espionage novels from John Buchan to Robert Ludlum. Initially, those novelists who seemed most successful—at least commercially—in effecting this merger were novelists whose starting point was the thriller rather than the science fiction tale: Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, and Peter Benchley are among the most prominent examples, with Crichton having based nearly his entire career on science fiction conceits.
Strolling the streets before Loncon, I saw how the London world works: Autocratic hypercapitalism (Russia, China, some of southeast Asia) without Western checks and balances produces new elites whose dream is then an American or British lifestyle, with education for their children. Having made it big in autocratic countries with corrupt legal systems (if that), a cowed press and rampant corruption, oligarchs and crony capitalists wake up one day and find that they like nothing as much as democratic systems under the rule of law held accountable by an independent press.
In his 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation”, published in the journal Science, Freeman Dyson famously argued that the long term evolution of technological alien societies might lead to capturing the bulk of all their star’s emissions, forming what came to be called by others Dyson Spheres. Dyson once said, “Science is my territory, but science fiction is the landscape of my dreams.” Though he has never written science fiction, his scientific imagination has inspired a great deal of it. Here he looks again at the very long term, but this time for life far from stars. Still, his focus is their energy needs.
Robert Frost’s famous imagery—fire or ice, take your pick—pretty much sums it up. But lately, largely unnoticed, a revolution has unwound in the thinking about such matters, in the hands of that most rarefied of tribes, the theoretical physicists. Maybe, just maybe, ice isn’t going to be the whole story. Of course, linking the human prospect to cosmology itself is not at all new. The endings of stories are important, because we believe that how things turn out implies what they ultimately mean. This comes from being pointed toward the future, as any ambitious species must be.
George Slusser is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of California in Riverside (UCR, CA, U.S.A.), Ph.D., Comparative Literature (Harvard University),the first Curator (Emeritus) of the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of Science Fiction &Fantasy Utopian and Horror Literature (UCR, CA, U.S.A. – the world’s biggest SF collection), Harvard Traveling Fellow, Fulbright Lecturer, Coordinator of twenty three Eaton SF Conferences, Author of numerous books, studies and articles in the science fiction studies domain.
The following questions are a follow-up on what I see as a long and successful career as an SF writer, exploring certain implications of your work, things left unsaid concerning your ultimate definition of SF and your sense of what SF has become and where it seems to be going. I also what to ask a few questions about SF as a literature of ideas, and what you see as the most appropriate narrative form for developing these ideas. I want to explore your “world view,” how you see yourself, as scientist and writer, in relation to the great rationalist philosophers of science: Descartes and Pascal. Finally, how you see yourself as an SF writer in the future.
Consider two novels separated by 127 years in publication, both dealing with the moon, yet oddly alike. Both tell us something about the evolution of hard science fiction. Arguably, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon announced for a broad audience the invention of modern science fiction—stories with the scientific content foregrounded, as much a character as any person, and lending credibility to the imaginings to come. Verne boasted incorrectly that “I have invented myself” this new fiction (Poe had a clear prior claim), but he did make the new form widely popular, and became the first and last sf writer to be blessed by the Pope for doing so.
One iconic image expresses our existential condition: the pale blue dot. That photograph of Earth the Voyager 1 spacecraft took in 1990 from 6 billion kilometers away told us how small we are. What worries me is that dot may be all we ever have, all we can command, for the indefinite future. Humanity could become like rats stuck on the skin of our spherical world, which would look more and more like a trap.
I find most beautiful not a particular equation or explanation, but the astounding fact that we have beauty and precision in science at all. That exactness comes from using mathematics to measure, check and even predict events. The deepest question is, why does this splendor work?