We are building upon a solid foundation, the age of fiction, and now we are creating and layering on a new age of science. Is fiction really the foundation for human culture? The universe played a nasty trick on our species. We got into an evolutionary arms race during which we competed with each other to see who had the better brain for predicting the behavior of other people. We constantly imagine what other people are going to do: our brains are fiction generating machines. Of course, we are not able to prevent ourselves from applying this great predictive tool (the human brain) to other parts of the universe besides people.
We are very good at imagining human-like agents that might account for the weather, the seasons….everything. Our naked primate senses cannot reveal the true nature of reality, but we are free to imagine “explanations” for the mysterious phenomena of the universe. And we’ve been at this myth making for a long time. Some of the most popular myths and memes are powerfully integrated into our cultural substance. The brain, as a fiction-generating device, has an interesting feature: we easily come to believe our own fictional accounts of reality.
Slowly, while stumbling around in our fictional gardens of Eden, humans found a few inroads to reality, surprising ways to escape from the blurry world view provided to us by our limited senses and our gorgeous imaginations. Ancient astronomers played an important role by systematically recording the positions of stars and imagining precise and predictive mathematical descriptions for cosmological phenomena. Then the fun began. Inconvenient truths such as heliocentrism contradicted some popular myths and now we have battles between those who seek the truth and those who pretend that their fictions already reveal the truth.
The era of science is still exploding and morphing and our culture’s foundation of fictions is creaking under the weight of science. Science has brought novelty and change to humanity and, as a species, we are like a surfer who is riding a big and wild wave. Western culture often seems split into two cultures, and the process continues by which those on the outside try to understand and adjust to the changes being wrought by science and technology.
If fiction and science are two different ways by which people explore the universe then what is science fiction? Strange things happened during the wars between the “two cultures” and between those who would defend faith in ancient myths against the shifting and invading sands of scientific objective knowledge. Attempts have been made to create a great barrier between fiction and science. That artificial barrier is being side-stepped by science fiction. Each time that scientific methods reveal new parts of the universe to us, that provides new opportunities for the creation of new fiction. Science fiction is stories that allow us to have fun with new ideas and explore what might be possible with new knowledge and technologies.
Of course, there are degenerate forms of science fiction, sometimes euphemistically described with terms such as “cautionary tale”. Writers who focus their fiction on the dystopian and the apocalyptic need not understand the science and technology that they write about. For such writers it has now become a lucrative proposition to write science fiction that adapts the form of some more ancient fiction genre and simply layers on a few techno-wiz-bangs. Such is the price for the success of science fiction.
Science fiction is in what I think of as its “half empty or half full” period. Visionaries such as Asimov and Clarke used their imaginations to take us to wonderful new places. Other writers label their work as “science fiction” and use the trappings of wiz-band tech to drag us back into their favorite age-old nightmare visions of doom and destruction. It takes all types, and I welcome everyone to the science fiction party, from Doris Lessing to James Cameron.
Much of what might be called “SciFi” allows old issues to be explored in new ways. My personal preference is to use science fiction as a way to explore new ideas and new possibilities. I’m also interested in the idea that new information processing and online collaboration tools will allow us to tell science fiction stories in new ways. Why can’t some stories be told through the creation of virtual reality environments where “readers” participate in and create the “story”? I hope that our current tools such as wikis and MMORPGs are hints of glorious new story telling opportunities that will soon be here. Along the way we might even be able to slip in some actual science.