Oct 15, 2013 Dodecahedron Books Media Centre, Edmonton Alberta
Part Two – Categories of Science Fiction and the Limits of Scientific Possibility
Writer: Helena Puumala (Kati of Terra series, Witches Stones, Northern Gothic short story collection).
Astrophysicist: Scott Olausen ( PhD student, several papers in The Astrophysical Journal).
Blogger: Dodecahedron Books blog writer (also a statistician in his day job).
Blogger: Previously, we talked about categories of science fiction/fantasy and the boundaries that define them, however indistinctly. How about we give some concrete examples that might typify these categories. So, the next question: From your different perspectives, give me an idea of what you would include in the categories Hard SF, Middle SF, Soft SF and Fantasy.
Writer: I think Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example of Hard Science Fiction. He wrote the very scientifically credible Mars trilogy. For Middle SF, I will give my own book, The Witches’ Stones: Igniting the Blaze as an example. Is that ok?
Blogger: That’s always acceptable on my Dodecahedron Books blog.
Writer: No surprise there. Well, then, for Soft SF I will go with my Kati of Terra books, which follow the conventions of Science Fiction, but focus on the human side of things and throw in a nice side order of romance.
Blogger: They do, at that.
Writer: And for my example of Fantasy, I will go with a classic, the Toklien stories - The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Astrophysicist: I will use the previously mentioned move “Gravity” for my example of Hard SF. All the science in it is completely credible, though you might say that the engineering takes liberties. I think I would place the Star Trek universe in the Middle SF category. They have a lot of far out edge science, such as teleportation and warp drive, but they still sort of care about the science being at least vaguely plausible. For Soft SF, I will go with Dr. Who. It gives a nod to science, but is generally a lot further out there than Star Trek. For Fantasy, I will say Game of Thrones.
Writer: Dr. Who is interesting. It seems to me that series intersects with folklore archetypes to a great extent. It is both Science Fiction and Fairy Tale. That’s not surprising, since the show started off as a kid’s show and is meant to appeal to both kids and adults now.
Blogger: Yes, a recent Dr. Who episode had a wonderful scene where the Doctor explains to someone the scientific creation story of the Big Bang and the brings alive the concept of the many universes theory. It really did make the Big Bang seem as amazing as any religious myth or fairy tale - and I mean that in a good way.
What about books like 1984 or Brave New World? Where do they fit in?
Astrophysicist: Political dystopia, with the trappings of SF.
Writer: And since the year 1984 has come and gone, you can’t really say it is even futuristic, which is a pretty significant aspect of science fiction.
Blogger: How about James Bond?
Writer: Skirts the edges of SF, but that’s about it.
Blogger: Ok, here’s a little Rorschach test regarding science and Science Fiction. On a scale from 1 to 10, rate the scientific credibility or plausibility of the following:
Life on Other Planets
Astrophysicist: Almost a sure thing, at least some form of life.
Writer: I consider it an established fact, based on some of the Viking Lander results, the obvious existence of water on Mars, and the reports of methane in the atmosphere there. Beyond that, we now know of so many exoplanets that there must be life on some of them.
Intelligent Life on Other Planets
Astrophysicist: It’s probably much less common than life in general, but given our existence, we are pretty well guaranteed that intelligent life is out there somewhere, or at least has been out there somewhere. Otherwise, we would be absolutely unique, which goes against the principle of mediocrity. We can use the Drake Equation as a guide to the question, but there are a lot of unknowns, so it doesn’t narrow things down much. At least not yet.
Writer: All that being said, we shouldn’t necessarily expect intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to be much like us. Naturally in the Kati of Terra universe I have had to make the intelligent creatures recognizable to us, but in the real universe that might not be the case. It could vary immensely - intelligent gas clouds, intelligent undersea creatures, non-Oxygen based, non-Carbon based, perhaps pure energy, perhaps beings in other dimensions as in the frontier physics we read about.
Signals from or Contact with Intelligent Life on Other Planets (SETI/CETI)
Astrophysicist: Not impossible, but probably technically very difficult. There are so many things that have to come together just so - for example, proximity in space, proximity in time (e.g. the lifespan of civilizations, the length of time that signals will be sent, accidentally or on purpose) and the likelihood of actually being able to make any sense out of a signal even if one is detected.
Writer: It’s possible that if it happens it could be through something like ESP rather than physical signals, like radio or laser light. If the physical is impossible then it will happen in a non-physical way, something to do with consciousness reaching out and contacting other consciousness. Anyway, I posit that sort of thing in the Kati books, if anyone wants to explore those ideas further.
Astrophysicist: Well, in a limited sense we are on our way with Pioneer and Voyager, which are interstellar ships of a sort. Generation ships are possible, I suppose, but you almost need breakthrough physics, as the economics of generation ships are so formidable. Near light speed ships also have formidable technical and economic challenges. Warps and wormholes get talked about, but they are still a long ways off, if ever. Current theories say you would need strange matter, for example. But who knows, in 1000 years what might be possible.
Writer - Well, as a science fiction writer, I have to assume that this is possible. The actual means of doing it may be so beyond our current understanding, though, that we can’t even begin to guess.
Blogger: I will just put in a word or two about rockets and warp drive. Supposedly, the first rockets were used by the Chinese in the twelfth century. So, in principle, the basic idea for the propellant technology that was eventually used for Apollo and the other interplanetary probes existed for nearly a millennium, before humanity perfected it for those purposes. So, perhaps warp drive might be the same. Perhaps the current theorising behind things like the Alcubierre drive is the equivalent of those twelfth century rockets.
Machine Intelligence, that would pass the Turing Test
Astrophysicist: It seems possible, but we still don’t know much about consciousness and sentience. It may be a lot more difficult than the optimists (e.g. The Singularity is Near) believe.
Writer: I admit that I really don’t like the idea. It seems to postulate a rigid materialism that I am not comfortable with. If it ever did come about, it might still be that some sort of non-physical entity would be instantiated or be used by this apparent machine intelligence.
Astrophysicist: Shrug, can’t say. That’s getting a little too far out there for someone without tenure.
Writer: I think we all have it. I think I do.
Astrophysicist: There are ways to solve general relativity and special relativity that can lead to these possibilities. But still, the logical paradoxes…
Writer: You would need multiple universes to deal with paradox, but hey, I’m a Science Fiction writer.
Blogger: So, summing up our discussions, what’s more important - a good story or good science?
Astrophysicist: Ultimately, a good story is most important. That’s the point of fiction. If I want something narrowly focussed on science, I can read the Astrophysical Journal (or write for it).
Writer: Who can argue with that? Fiction is fiction, and we need our entertainment. Exceeding the bounds of current science also helps to inspire hope and wonder, and we need that too.
Blogger: Indeed, who can argue with any of that? Based on our discussions, I would say that creative people should keep the science at least vaguely plausible, don’t insult the audience’s intelligence, maintain internal consistency, and write a compelling story. That’s good Science Fiction.