I have, I reckon, a pretty good grip on the distinction between science fiction and reality. I read a lot of non-fiction along with my fiction. Without diverting into epistemology, I see a difference. Also, reading and writing about science for a few decades encourages you to develop a good working bullshit detector.
I am even inclined to react to the common 21st century observation that we now live in a science-fictional reality with the raised eyebrow of a
simple soul pedant. If it’s reality, it ain’t fictional.
But working on the current project for NESTA on SF and innovation has brought home more strongly that fact and fiction are deeply interwoven in some areas of science and technology.
The prime exhibit here, I think, is nanotechnology. It is a hard case to analyse clearly because the term is so vague. It is partly an extension of materials science, with finer control over the composition of the product, down to the molecular or even atomic level. It is also a label for a much broader collection of ideas, involving nanometre scale devices – equipped with some power source and computing and communication capacity – which would be able to do many wonderful things. The ostensibly non-fiction accounts of the latter prospectus often draw on science fiction tropes, a habit that extends on occasion to government reports.
These science-fictional roots of the more exotic possibilities of nanotechnology have attracted much attention. Conclusions about their significance differ widely. Some say that nanotechnology concepts are inherently science fictional, and this is a bad thing. Others maintain that it is true but does not matter. Science fiction either helps or hinders funding, confuses or informs policy-makers, inspires support, or raises unrealistic expectations and evokes public fears. Maybe all of these things have been true at some point, I don’t know. But it seems inescapably true that discussion of nanotechnology and its potential has always been a science fiction discourse, even when the point being made is that some claims are “science fiction” and therefore illegitimate. I like Chris Toumey’s formulation here: “Nanotechnology needs a language that describes the future because, no matter how good the science is now, most of the technology is still over the horizon.” That language is inherently science-fictional.
Now I’m wondering whether there is a category of technologies which are inherently science fiction in a similar way. They would need to be things which were realisable in principle (or someone claims are realisable – which is where many of the nano-disputes arise) but not yet achievable in practice. I’d rule out faster than light travel or time travel, as our current scientific understanding doesn’t offer any basis for thinking they will happen. That may change, but for now they are more simply fictional.
A clearer example of what I mean is terraforming. There are reasonable scenarios for how it might be done. We perhaps know enough geophysics and atmospheric chemistry to map routes to altering suitable planets to make them more hospitable than we find them. The topic remains inherently fictional as we do not have any planets to try out these ideas on.
Or do we? Terraforming as an intellectual problem blends seamlessly with geoengineering, which is still imaginary but could become a usefully real prospect before the century is out. We might need to do some terraforming on Earth.
In which case, it is interesting to ask how SF accounts of refashioning other planets might influence ideas about geoengineering. The same authors have certainly touched on both topics. James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, turned to fiction – with co-author Michael Allaby – to describe the terraforming of Mars. Later on, he proposed schemes for geoengineering on Earth to combat the effects of climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars trilogy has probably the most detailed account of terraforming, went on to elaborate some geoengineering scenarios in his subsequent near-future Earth trilogy about climate change. Gregory Benford has written both fiction and non-fiction about terraforming, citing Heinlein as an inspiration there, and was an early proponent of geoengineering as a possible response to climate change, in 1997.
Then there are films, which as usual will have been seen by more people. Does that make them more influential? No idea. Terraforming is going on in Aliens (“we call them shake and bake planets”), and we see a vast industrial plant which is the colonists’ “atmosphere processor”, though don’t get any discussion of what it is actually doing. The wondrously silly scene at the end of Total Recall when Mars has its atmosphere reoxygenated in about half a minute also comes to mind, but only as a cheerful trashing of the laws of physics.
It would be interesting, though, to catalogue these and similar depictions and consider what effect they may have had on broader discussion of the merits of geoengineering. Which other examples should go on the list? Matt Williams has an interesting post on this, starting with Olaf Stapledon and working through Arthur Clarke (who turns Phobos into a Sun!) Heinlein, Asimov and Robinson. Any more?