Friday, December 11, 2009


I used to be a scientist, and (on the principle of write about what you’re interested in rather than write about what you know) a fair number of my novels feature scientists. Here’s one, in The Secret of Life, thinking about science:
There are no mysteries, Mariella thinks, only unrevealed truths. If people will only do a little work, will subject themselves to a little discipline, a little effort, then they too can understand, they too will be amazed not by mystery but by truth. But they don't. Science has built a vast edifice of thought that reaches out to the furthest ends of the Universe, all the way back in time to the first femtosecond of the Universe's creation, all the way forward to matter's final end in the dissolution of protons, a hundred billion years from now. A cathedral of thought built by the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of minds, the greatest achievement of humanity. But most will not even acknowledge it, much less try to understand it.

She still remembers the casual slights and sneers of certain pompous arts students at Cambridge. The moneyed as oblivious to their wealth as fish to water, interested only in maintaining the status quo, with braying upper middle class students their eager collaborators. Proud in their ignorance of science, yet scornful of those who were not interested in the minutia of Renaissance art, opera, or the intricacies of their social seasons. Mariella knows now that their scorn was based on fear. To them, scientists are useful but dangerous, and so must be kept in their place, like Morlocks in the engine-room of the world. And most people take their cue from their leaders, believe that science is a conspiracy only the initiated few can understand, something to be feared. It is partly the fault of mediocre scientists, of course, who react to criticism like spoiled priests fearful of unfrocking, but it is mostly the fault of those who in their ignorance set themselves as the legislators of science, and those, their prejudices set in stone, who have declared themselves to be its moral superiors.
Now, Mariella has a massive chip on her shoulder (she would say she’s evenly balanced, with massive chips on both shoulders), but she also has a point. I was reminded of her the other day, while reading this interesting interview with sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard on the psychology of climate change denial:
‘Any community organizer knows that if you want people to respond to something, you need to tell them what to do, and make it seem do-able. Stanford University psychologist Jon Krosnick has studied this, and showed that people stop paying attention to climate change when they realize there’s no easy solution. People judge as serious only those problems for which actions can be taken.’
The problems Norgaard refers to are the kind most often featured in SF stories and novels, and the kind of science deployed to solve them is too often highly simplified. You know the kind of thing: lone geniuses who go against the grain of current thinking; oddballs who stumble upon a new paradigm, like a metal-detecting hobbyist lucking out on a hoard of Roman gold; science advanced by epiphanies that explode with the frequency of flashguns at a film premiere (and in films, often require really fast typing to defuse some last-minute knucklebiting threat involving overflux in the intertubes that would otherwise create deadly feedback in everyone’s hypothalami).

But most science is mostly a cooperative, slow, patient accretive process. Even stone geniuses like Newton famously acknowledged that they couldn’t have got where they did without standing on the shoulders of giants (Newton, who was not the nicest of men, may have been poking fun at his height-challenged rival Leibniz, but it’s still a valid point). And an awful lot of science isn’t about the sudden apprehension of a universal truth, but the gainsaying of alternate explanations for an observed phenomenon or fact - such as this nugget of recent research, which doesn’t prove that methane on Mars (which is constantly destroyed by chemical processes in Martian soil, so must also be constantly produced by some as yet unknown agency) was produced by Martian bacteria, but eliminates the idea that it is created by passage of meteorite through the Martian atmosphere, making the possibility of the bacterial origin of methane slightly more likely.

Of course, this kind of science isn’t much use in the construction of stories in which heroes slice through the Gordian knot of some world-threatening problem, or make some world-changing discovery. But it’s the kind of science that serious SF should at least acknowledge - just as any kind of serious fiction should acknowledge the complexity of the happening world, and the knotty and often ambiguous moral choices real people have to make.

Heroes simplify the world. Sometimes this is useful and good, at those moments in history when a binary choice - black or white, yes or no - must be made. But many problems - like climate change - aren’t easily solved. The information is complicated and the choices we have to make aren’t easy: none of them will allow us to continue to live in the way we’ve been living. Easier then, more comforting, to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, or that it has nothing to do with us, or it can be solved - at a stroke - by brute geoengineering. But not necessarily useful, or right. Not science, but science fantasy.


Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

One of my favorite passages from a novel filled with them, and which I admire immensely.

I continue, in fact, to feel an occasional pang for Anchee Ye (apologies if that's a spoiler) and consider the dialogues (and dialectic!) between her and Mariella to be models of both how to work real ideas into real dialogue, and how to do so while enhancing rather than diverting narrative flow.

For that matter, the extended run (ultimately literally so) with Penn Brown and, remotely, Dr. Wu is both active- and action-, and idea- and insight-filled. Really superbly done.

It shows of course that you think as hard about the ideas in the fiction as the fiction in which the ideas are embedded: lovely combination and all too rare.

Plus you got to work with Ellen Datlow -- something I always envy.

But I still miss Anchee.

December 11, 2009 4:46 pm  
Blogger talkie_tim said...

I do hope to some day save the world through some really fast typing.

As an Engineer I feel I should comment based on what I know. Engineers excel at breaking down massive untenable problems into smaller, easier to handle tasks. Designing the underlying technology for a 3G mobile phone (The stack and hardware) took more man-hours and effort than building the Pyramids at Giza did. But broken down into smaller modules, and distributed around some (very large) engineering teams, it was accomplished in a few years.

The global warming parallel is a good one. Incremental improvements to efficiency, a gradual improvement to the energy mix, increasing the number of electric and hybrid cars all help individually, and add to the whole in ways that people can understand. The problem is really one of economics and government to make an environment that pushes engineers and scientists towards these goals. It is that overhaul of huge systems that people think is not do-able, and that they are scared by.

For a story that includes this kind of frustration, and a handful of the hundreds of incremental improvements that follow monumental changes in leadership, I refer to Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy, particularly Frank's frustration with truck drivers.

December 11, 2009 5:16 pm  
Blogger Ken said...

That passage was one we used in our Social Session on the image of the scientist in literature and in science studies. Andrew Wilson read it out in the right tone of voice.

December 12, 2009 6:30 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts