05 October 2010

Does SF influence science or science influence SF?

I have a sort of 'chicken and egg' question for you: Does SF influence science or does science influence SF? To investigate, I'm going to look at Kim Stanley Robinson's 1993 novel Red Mars. In Red Mars Robinson addresses many scientific issues including manned missions to Mars, terraforming, experimental gerontology, and overpopulation.

Let's look first at manned space travel and more specifically a manned mission to Mars. Robinson describes his characters leaving earth in explicit detail:At first it felt like a shove in the chest. Then they were pushed back in their chairs... The Ares had been orbiting Earth at 28,000 kilometers per hour. For several minutes they accelerated, the rockets' push so powerful that their vision blurred as corneas flattened, and it took an effort to inhale. At 40,000 kilometers per hour the burn ended. They were free of the Earth's pull, in orbit to nothing but the sun.

Notice the numerous specific scientific elements; this is a hallmark of hard science fiction. In Kathryn Cramer's "Hard science fiction" she says, ...hard sf has digested the more disheartening findings of planetary exploration, and has begun to appreciate the planets as they actually are (rather than as we had hoped they might be)...

Robinson certainly describes the surface of Mars as it actually is, for example, The ground was a dark rusty orange, covered with an even litter of rocks the same color, although some of the rocks showed tints of red or black or yellow.

Although scientists haven't made it to Mars yet, in April 2010, President Obama called for a manned mission to Mars: "By the mid-2030's, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth,"said Obama. "A landing on Mars will follow," he added. (Information Week)

In Red Mars the pressures of overpopulation lead to a revolution on Mars, in which, It was not hard to destroy Martian towns. No harder than breaking a window, or popping a balloon.

Overpopulation may well be the greatest challenge humanity will ever face and is only now starting to be addressed by journalists. In July 2010 two articles appeared in The Independent. Steve Conner wrote an article which Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston says, "We really do have to look at where we are going in relation to population. If we don't do it, we may survive but we won't flourish..." ( The Independent)

Michael McCarthy described the concerns of environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, who says an inquiry into population is long overdue but "Governments have just found it too hot to handle..." (The Independent)

In fact, scientists have yet to begin to study how human population affects planet Earth, its climate, its ecology, and its resources because of the moral, ethical and political concerns surrounding population control. Let's hope something comes of these recent articles and scientists do address the issue before Earth undergoes its own revolution, because as John Clute writes in "Science fiction from 1980 to the present" The Mars trilogy ... is, of course, sf as advocacy... The stakes ...are high. ... By the twenty-first century, ... [Robinson] thinks, "rapid technological development on all fronts [has combined] to turn our entire social reality into one giant science fiction novel, which we are all writing together in the great collaboration called history."

I, for one, would prefer a happy ending to that story

So, what do you think? Does Science influence SF or is it the other way around?


Catherine Stine said...

Both, of course.
Clarke was a scientist turned writer. Others who write sci fi seem to be aspiring scientists. I heard Steven Hawking on a talk show recently (hawking his newest book--pardon the pun). He said something to the effect of: If our stupidity and selfishness don't kill us off in the next two hundred years, we might have enough people seeded through the galaxy to endure as a species.

lesleylsmith said...

I think you're right, Catherine! Thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

What nice answer