Every so often there is a discussion about the relationship between science and science fiction. One is going on right now thanks to the Tomorrow Project and ARC magazine. So let me throw in a few random thoughts on the matter…
The relationship between science and science fiction is complex.
At the simplest level science fiction can supply a wish list for scientists to focus their efforts of invention. Even if scientists think the ultimate wish is impossible, that will not stop them going some way towards it. Take Star Trek’s tractor beam, the kind that pulls objects towards the USS Enterprise as an instance. It was thought impossible until someone showed that they could go a little way towards it by using the ricochet mechanism of laser beams. Of course if we can control artificial gravity, then the tractor beam becomes even more of a possibility. We may not know how to generate gravity at the moment, but don’t forget tachyons are the gravity generating sub-atomic particles. So you never know in the future…
Science of course supplies the tech and science for world-building. Sometimes the writers extrapolate from where we are now. Other times they just do anything that is not deemed impossible. And there are some who do go onto the write about the impossible, exploring the what if hypothesis. What if we can travel faster than light? Look at all the places we might be able to explore within a lifetime. Exploring what can be done with faster than light travel in science fiction has put it high on the human wish list.
But the relationship is far more complicated than this.
For instance identifying how ideas are generated for science fiction means that those generation mechanisms can be used in science. This is a real tangible benefit of science fiction for science. Similarly mechanisms of how hypotheses are generated in science can be used to generate ideas in science fiction. So this is a two-way street so to speak.
Science fiction is also good at pointing out the possible impact of inventions on society. It acts as a warning board for possible dangers of future technology as well as (to a lesser extent) indicating the benefits of certain technologies for the future. It helps us to make decisions of where we want to be in the future.
Another benefit of science fiction is that it can warn us about future changes and gives us a breathing space to get round to accepting them. The changes when they do come in are less of a shock.
With all these benefits I find it surprising that there are not more people reading science fiction.
Part of the science fiction writing community has realised all of this, and are moving more towards a literary style which allows the reader to have more empathy with what they are reading. In other words, science fiction is moving away from relying on intellectual arguments to get its message across and engaging more on the emotional or empathy level.
So why is the readership below par for what science fiction can give to the community?
I’m not sure of the answer, but I can make some guesses:
1) Science fiction is being mixed up with fantasy in some people’s minds. Yes, fantasy has its own benefits to society, but are they as big as what science fiction can offer? I don’t think so. Yet in the UK fantasy sells at 7 times the rate of science fiction.
2) There is a perception that science fiction has nothing new to offer. I think that perception has been reinforced in recent years of recession by the publishing industry not willing to take the risks that they used to. They have, after all, got to show a profit, or at least break even. If they don’t they go out of business. Unfortunately this is what is called a detrimental feedback loop. Publishers need to publish what they feel sure will sell, which means stories similar to what has sold in the past, which in turn means the readers don’t read as much new stuff, which in turn means it doesn’t attract more readers, which of course means that the publishers have to be more sure of stories they invest in to sell to the public. And so it goes on round and round…
3) There is too much dystopia in science fiction as we know it today. It puts people off reading the genre. Where are the happy endings? I have a sneaking suspicion that dystopian TV programmes / series don’t need as much investment as utopian ones and therefore the dystopias will get preference from the investment gurus of the trade.
4) The up and coming science and technology is not as widely understood today as it was even 20 years ago. Tech puts people off reading science fiction… I know I’ve had comments from my beta readers saying take the tech detail out… but sometimes in the process it loses the purpose of the story or you end up doing a tech lecture – and very few people want to read one of those for pleasure! But it was the tech science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s that inspired many older techies to become techies. But they are dwindling number. Therefore there are less ‘techie’ science fiction writers of today. Because there are less of those, there are fewer people inspired to go into technology as a career. And so we have another detrimental loop at play.
What to do about all this? How to break the mould of traditional science fiction while making the publishers a profit?
If I knew the answer I would not be sitting here, writing this… I’d be doing something about it.