David Pax


The blog contains some of my thoughts on things like writing, science and how that all works together to affect society.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science fiction is ready for change. At one time science fiction included fiction being written by scientists, but in the later part of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century there is little hard science fiction in the mass market. There are many possible reasons for that, but whatever the causes, there is a need for science fiction to address twenty-first century technological challenges.

There has never been a clear line between true science fiction and science fantasy. Many examples exist of the edges of the genre, but there is a broad middle ground. Arthur C. Clarke is well known as a scientist who wrote science fiction, and where his science blends with speculation it remains grounded in what is known to be possible. This is the way that advanced technologies find their way from the pages of fiction to the hard reality of practical application. Other stories such as George Lucas' Star Wars have never been anything but science fantasy, where classical tales are retold in a setting of wondrous worlds filled with advanced gadgets.

Personally, I enjoy many of the stories told by both Clarke and Lucas. The difference is that Clarke has directly impacted development of current technology, and it is this aspect that is generally missing from current science fiction and fantasy. Science fantasy can tell enjoyable stories, but without a solid grounding in the physical world it will not lead to technological development. And at this time there is a need for stories that help guide technological development.

We are surrounded by devices that have been created or inspired by earlier science fiction. Our computers, tablets, phones, communication systems, vehicles, and entertainment are some of the aspects of our lives that were influenced by hard science fiction. It's hard to imagine real items inspired by most current science fiction stories, though. The worlds we so often see are dressed up in a veneer of advanced technology, but lack a scientific basis. There is nothing wrong with stories that are told strictly as entertainment, unless we expect those tales to impact the way our technology develops.

Writing hard science fiction requires some level of scientific knowledge. Without a background in science it's impossible to create a nuanced story that will affect future technology. It's easy to imagine interesting gadgets, but inspiring new innovations requires understanding how those gadgets might be made to work. At least a basic understanding of energy, for example, is needed to create fictional devices that might one day become real. A hand held communication device with a range of hundreds of miles is not impossible with sensitive enough amplifiers, but a hand held laser capable of slicing entirely through a building in a second is. There is simply too much energy needed, and it would generate too much heat to hold in a hand. There are other issues with the way lasers are portrayed in current science fiction as well, such as the combat effectiveness of a weapon that literally draws a line to the source of the beam. A laser as a point defense emplacement is possible, and could be an effective defense against drones, but a hand held laser would not make an effective weapon.

There is always the question of whether it is important that science fiction inspire new technology. Stories have their own value as fiction, regardless of whether they lead to practical devices or not. Hard science fiction stories offer us a way to discuss technology, the problems it might solve and the issues it might create. All fiction offers us the opportunity to explore our worlds and learn new perspectives, hard science fiction simply offers a venue for conversations about how we interact with technology. As technology continues to develop it becomes more and more important for science fiction to address the cultural implications of new technologies.

Science fiction in the middle of the twentieth century had a focus on mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and the potential new creations that could be developed from those sciences. One measure of time is years Before Physics and After Physics, based on the levels of background radiation before and after the detonations of atomic bombs. Unleashing atomic forces completely changed our world, both in physical ways and social ones. At the same time the level of background radiation was being changed by atomic bombs, semiconductors began to enable new technologies and binary mathematics were moving from the abstract into the real. Humans were reaching into space for the first time, stepping onto our moon just a few decades after practical large rockets were first developed. It was natural for science fiction to imagine where these technologies might go, what they might develop into. The focus on tangible, physical, objects and processes was also natural.

In the early twenty-first century we have grown used to the presence of advanced physical objects, and much of what science fiction imagined in the twentieth century has become routine. Some of these imaginings became practical, such as geosynchronous communication satellites. Others, such as the artificial brains, have been obsoleted by developments in the fields of technologies they imagined. Most of the recent stories about Artificial Intelligence have not been as interesting as the actual developments in the field of AI, or the understanding of the human brain learned through the study of neuroscience. There is no need to imagine things that can be easily purchased at the nearest mall, so the current prevalence of science fantasy over hard science fiction is understandable. To excite readers with ideas of new physical items we have to venture into fantasy, leave the world of the possible behind and imagine things that are not bounded by the physical world. That serves the purpose of entertainment, but does not create science fiction that leads to new technological development.

For science fiction to retake a position of leading technological development it needs to turn to the areas of rapid advancement today. Stories about rockets and atomic power and the potential of computers will not lead to new innovations the way they once did. Stories about advances in engineering, materials, neuroscience, biology, and the social sciences will lead to innovation in the real world. To have relevance these stories must be written with some understanding of the underlying science, so must either be written by scientists or engineers who are already experienced in a subject, or writers willing to study the science. There is an interesting potential for collaboration between scientists and writers as well.

My stories explore these new frontiers of human experience. They present situations where humans interact with technology, and how we will integrate it into our lives. Science fiction is ready for change.

Kris Butler