Ask a ScienceBlogger: Science Fiction Promotes Science?

The Corporate Masters have decreed a new question Ask a
ScienceBlogger question, and this one’s right up my alley:

What do you see as science fiction’s role in promoting science, if any?

If you look over in the left sidebar, you’ll see a SF category, which
is all about, well, science fiction stuff. I read a lot of SF,
regularly attend Boskone (a Boston-based convention), and we scheduled
our big Japan trip to coincide with the Worldcon in Yokohama. So,
yeah, this is a question I can spend a little time on…

The short version of the answer is that there is no short version
of the answer. Or, rather, there isn’t a single well-defined role for
SF in promoting science, because both science and science fiction are
too big for the question to be well formed.

It does seem like there ought to be a connection between the two,
though. And there is, but it’s a complicated issue. A large number of
scientists and engineers are or were science fiction readers. It’s a
little hard to sort out what’s cause and what’s effect, though– are
these people drawn into science because reading SF inspired a love of
the subject, or are they drawn to science fiction because it provides
an appealing literary option for people who are into math and

I suspect there’s a little of both. I know a number of scientists
who are fond of science fiction, but I know at least as many who have
no real interest in it at all. I also know a lot of fans, and even
some writers of science fiction who have no technical or mathematical
aptitude to speak of.

Personally, I was interested in science before I became someone who
read primarily SF (as opposed to just reading whatever I got my hands
on). The science aspect was definitely a draw, but I think the real
attraction was a little more mundane– science fiction books were
books in which Really Cool Things Happened– space battles and alien
encounters and gateways to different dimensions– as opposed to boring
mainstream stories about people with relationship problems and beloved
pets who die in the last chapter. There’s a strain of fandom that
constantly hypes SF as a “Literature of Ideas,” but honestly, I got
into it because it was a Literature of Explosions.

As I’ve gotten older, and become a professional scientist, I find
that I’m less likely to read “Hard SF,” the subgenre that is most
consciously about Science, and prides itself on being all rigorous and
technical. This is largely because as I’ve learned more about science,
I’ve become more able to spot the places where the author really
doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and I frequently end up being
irritated by the results.

This is not to say that I’ve become one of those humorless dorks
who takes grim pleasure in pointing out that there’s no air in space,
and thus you wouldn’t be able to hear the Death Star exploding. On the
contrary, I’m much more likely to read the pulpier Space Opera side of
the genre, where I will happily shut off my brain and ignore all the
ridiculously implausible things that happen, provided the plot moves
along quickly and the Good Guys win in the end.

But that’s getting away from the question at hand, which is about
the role of SF in promoting science. I think there is a role there,
but it’s not a direct link. SF’s role in promoting science has little
to do with concrete facts, and more to do with inspiration and

Science fiction, for the most part, does a really lousy job of
teaching science. I’m sure that I’ll get a couple of
comments from people who learned everything there is to know about
orbital mechanics from reading old Hal Clement stories, but the
science in most science fiction tends to be pretty
. It’s often dated, almost always distorted, and frequently
warped to serve dramatic purposes. When the science is correct, it
usually comes at the expense of the story– you get two-dimensional
characters holding forth at great length about scientific principles,
speaking in ways that no real, live human would ever do, and stopping
everything dead for pages at a time.

The real power of SF, it seems to me, is to show people,
particularly younger kids, a world in which science really matters,
and Knowing Stuff is cool. The occasional disaster novel aside, the
heroes of most science fiction books and movies succeed because they
know things, and more importantly, they remain calm and think their
way through the problems that get in their way. If you look at really
good Young Adult novels in SF– Steven Gould’s Jumper,
say– that’s one of the main things they do. The heroes succeed not
because of the power of their unstoppable awesomeness, but because
they think things through, figure things out, and make plans. That
sort of systematic approach to the world is the essence of

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to have the occasional spectacular
extrapolation from some current “what-if” to connect things back to
specific areas of science. Plenty of young people are pushed toward
physics by stories that riff off various odd quantum phenomena, or
talk about black holes and curved space-time, and all that
astrophysical stuff. They’re a little like the students who take
archaeology because they really loved the Indiana Jones movies, in
that they need to have some misconceptions beaten out of them (that’s
what vector calculus is for), but that inspiration is not to be
sneered at. If even a fraction of the students who were turned on by
reading SF survive to become real physicists, that’s a net gain for
the profession.

16 thoughts on “Ask a ScienceBlogger: Science Fiction Promotes Science?

  1. I’m one of the many scientists who got into science via science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke were the Big Three, and you could tell that they took their science seriously. (Indeed, Asimov’s later anthologies would point out where things they thought were true in the 1950s turned out not to be true.) You see this theme in a few currently active writers such as Greg Benford (whom I met in his day job capacity before learning he wrote science fiction) and Kim Stanley Robinson.

    But there is also a large body of science fiction which is more anti-science. This line of thought goes back to the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and more recently has been represented by the likes of Michael Crichton.

    Aside: Why do bookstores always group science fiction together with fantasy? These are two completely different genres, with very little overlap (the only author I know of who has done both is Heinlein).

  2. Published science fiction has led directly to patents.

    The late Sir Arthur C. Clarke famously invented the synvhronous communication satellite, and failed to patent it because it was ridiculed by the UK Patent Office. His essay on this, I seem to recall, was: “How I lost a biliion dollars in my spare time.”

    The Water Bed was described so well by Robert A. Heinlein that the person who applied for a patent had the application denied by Heinlein’s Prior Art.

    The late Dr. Robert Forward described “true microgravity” (i.e. less than 10^-6 g) attainable in orbit at the centroid of 4 massive spheres of heavy metal. Within 365 days of publication, he submitted the patent application. Which was granted.

    Similarly, he described a device with three components: Sun, Earth, and solar sail, with the solar sail (pushed by light pressure and pulled by gravity) maintaining a stable position over the Earth NOT in Keplerian orbit. And the patent was granted.

    I had a short story, published in the special Rose Parade/Rose Bowl issue of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, including the Pasadena Star News, which described the use of magnetoencephalography to read the intention of muscular action roughly 200 milliseconds before the human is conscious of that intention, in order to do teleoperation of devices in Earth orbit beyond LEO, and had the aerospace company that was my employer agree that this was patentable, and thus pay for my copying and postage expenses to submit the long version for Scxience Fiction magazine publication.

    I did publish the 1980 prediction in Omni Magazine that we would find a giant black hole in the center of our Milky Way, and the 1979 prediction in Omni that we would have a fierce political debate over a new generation of space-based antiballistic missile defenses (now known by the science fiction name of “Star Wars”).

    For that matter, I had a story “Skiing the Methane Snows of Pluto” in Volume 1, Number 1 of Focus, the magazine of the British Science Fiction Association. In this story, I explicitly predicted — years before the Voyager spacecraft provided dramatic confirmation — volcanos on Io, the tectonically active pizza- colored moon of Jupiter.

    One critic said: “That might be a lucky guess…”

    Well, in a word, yes.

    But these examples suggest another reason that one may see science fiction’s role in promoting science.

  3. Aside: Why do bookstores always group science fiction together with fantasy? These are two completely different genres, with very little overlap (the only author I know of who has done both is Heinlein).

    There is far, far more overlap than that, even just in terms of authors; off the top of my head I can name C. J. Cherryh, Douglas Adams, David Weber, Ursula LeGuin, Elisabeth Moon, Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, Alan Dean Foster, Terry Pratchett, Tanith Lee, Brian Daley, Patricia McKillip, Jack Vance, Catherine Moore … a much longer list could be easily compiled.

    Then there are many deliberate attempts to blur the boundaries between genres, whether by the deliberate adoption of fantasy tropes into a science-fiction framework (e.g. Star Wars, or Cherryh’s Morgaine books), the choice of a nominally science-fiction setting for a fantasy story (e.g. Vance’s Dying Earth stories), or outright crossovers…

  4. There’s a strain of fandom that constantly hypes SF as a “Literature of Ideas,” but honestly, I got into it because it was a Literature of Explosions.

    Preach it, brother….

  5. I’ve been discussing the value of science and science fiction for a long time. It really is true that a lot of scientists did get their start in reading science fiction, which has the advantage that it makes science seem cool. (These days it seems that CSI is doing the same thing!). Science fiction can very graphically capture the “wow!” aspect of science.

    On the other hand, science fiction does tend to mislead people about science. Everything is always so easy! The scientists take a wild guesses, never do math, and their hypotheses always seem to be right and their gadgets always seem to work first time (or, if they don’t work, they do something even cooler and more exciting than what they were designed for). It leads, in a way, to a population that is impatient with real science and real space exploration, because they have a visceral “knowledge” gained from SF that space exploration is easy, and that if it’s difficult and painstaking and you have to check everything twice and follow rules, that means it’s not being done right.

    But, when it’s done right, you can still get that “wow, cool!” feeling from SF.

  6. The real power of SF, it seems to me, is to show people, particularly younger kids, a world in which science really matters, and Knowing Stuff is cool.

    Yes! You could not have said it better.

    For me, science fiction was the literature that showed me that living in the future and knowing stuff means wonder and adventure. Well, not so glamorous all the time — but I mean that it made me interested in the world around me. (I was already interested in science, but in an abstract way and not as a part of my life and way of interacting with things.)

  7. I believe another aspect of science fiction is to explore societal issues extrapolated years into the future. For instance, environmental destruction, over population, war, disease, technology run amuck, genetic engineering, etc. In a narrative form it makes these topics more appealing to the general public and perhaps makes some people a little more thoughtful.

  8. “science fiction does tend to mislead people about science. Everything is always so easy!”

    “Mainstream” fiction is guilty of this sort of thing, too. In real life a college professor having an afair with his student rarely comes out of the situation with greater self-insight and a stronger relationship to the people who matter.

    When my implausibility meter starts to peg into the red, I just remind myself of that the author has a choice of stories to tell. If a scientist were to come up with a wild hypothesis and prove it right without doing math and save the Universe in the process, wouldn’t you write a story about that? In the infinite worlds of fiction, that has to happen at least once in a while, so of course that’s the story you pick to tell.

  9. Agreed with Jim Ward, science fiction is great for exploring societal issues. Particularly if those issues involve or lead to big explosions!

    As an aside, there’s a subculture of readers out there who assume that as an SF writer, it is your sworn duty to be engaged in pure boosterism for science and engineering. It’s really strange.

  10. Sci-fi/fantasy overlap: you forgot to mention G.R.R. Martin – I don’t care much for his fantasy novels and later work but ‘Sandkings’ and ‘A Song for Lya’ were a disturbing alien sci-fi stories of the heaviest caliber

  11. Growing up I only knew a couple of other kids who also read sf and enjoyed real science. The two interests to me seemed naturally linked. So later on it was a genuine shock to meet those who read the fiction but had little interest nor knowledge of science.
    A “sense of wonder” moment about a lack of wonder…

  12. Although my interests in science and science fiction developed together, my planned career path from ages 8 to 18 evolved from writer, to science fiction writer, to scienctist. Perhaps science fiction writer seemed a more accesible career as a kid. I always loved the hard sci fi classics and originally wanted to get a science degree to follow in the footsteps of favorite authors. I still think sometimes that if this whole academic career thing becomes unsatisfactory (which, fortunately, it has not yet) I might turn back to the writing side of idea exploration.

  13. Aside: Why do bookstores always group science fiction together with fantasy? These are two completely different genres, with very little overlap (the only author I know of who has done both is Heinlein).

    The aforementioned intentional crossovers aside, where do you draw the line? McCaffrey’s Pern novels have telepathic dragons — clearly fantasy; but wait! They’re genetically engineered dragons on a human-colonized world. Now what is it? Does it matter whether the science is crap or not? What about books that contain both magic AND science? Where do you shelve those?
    I get so very tired of the people who claim that SF and Fantasy are “completely different genres”. Typically, they are people who read only hard SF, and have little familiarity or respect for fantasy (not always, but typically). In any case, the answer is purely practical: They are not completely distinct genres, there are far more crossover novels than people who say this think there are, and drawing the line is just too difficult. Distinguishing between some horror and fantasy or SF is hard enough, but the line between SF and F is too blurry, and if a bookstore tried it, they’d get all kinds of complaints from patrons who object to the shelving of any given book.
    Sorry, you hit a minor peeve of mine.

  14. This is an interesting subject, and one that will have different meaning and connotation to just about everyone.

    For myself, I was interested in science long before I began to read regularly. I remember being fascinated by the space program early in grade school. By the time I found science fiction some time in middle school, I was long hooked on science itself. This made the fiction that much more enthralling.

    Oddly, I did not go on to become a scientist, except in the broadest, most dissolute sense.

  15. Have I missed any? Are there more than these 12% that can in any reasonable way be classified as Science, Science Fiction, or Fantasy in the New York Times’s “100 Notable Books of 2008”

    Published: November 26, 2008

    “The Book Review has selected this list from books reviewed since Dec. 2, 2007, when we published our previous Notables list.”

    THE SACRED BOOK OF THE WEREWOLF. By Victor Pelevin. Translated by Andrew Bromfield. (Viking, $25.95.) A supernatural call girl narrates Pelevin’s satirical allegory of post-Soviet, post-9/11 Russia.

    THE SCHOOL ON HEART’S CONTENT ROAD. By Carolyn Chute. (Atlantic Monthly, $24.) In Chute’s first novel in nearly 10 years, disparate characters cluster around an off-the-grid communal settlement.

    BLOOD MATTERS: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene. By Masha Gessen. (Harcourt, $25.) Hard choices followed Gessen’s discovery that she carries a dangerous genetic mutation.

    DESCARTES’ BONES: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. By Russell Shorto. (Doubleday, $26.) Shorto’s smart, elegant study turns the early separation of Descartes’s skull from the rest of his remains into an irresistible metaphor.

    THE DRUNKARD’S WALK: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. By Leonard Mlodinow. (Pantheon, $24.95.) This breezy crash course intersperses probabilistic mind-benders with profiles of theorists.

    SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT: A New Verse Translation. By Simon Armitage. (Norton, $25.95.) One of the eerie, exuberant joys of Middle English poetry, in an alliterative rendering that captures the original’s drive, dialect and landscape.

    THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK. By John Updike. (Knopf, $24.95.) In this ingenious sequel to “The Witches of Eastwick,” the three title characters, old ladies now, renew their sisterhood, return to their old hometown and contrive to atone for past crimes.


    THE BIG SORT: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. By Bill Bishop with Robert G. Cushing. (Houghton Mifflin, $25.) A journalist and a statistician see political dangers in the country’s increasing tendency to separate into solipsistic blocs.

    HOT, FLAT, AND CROWDED: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America. By Thomas L. Friedman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.95.) The Times columnist turns his attention to possible business-friendly solutions to global warming.

    PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. By Dan Ariely. (Harper/HarperCollins, $25.95.) Moving comfortably from the lab to broad social questions to his own life, an M.I.T. economist pokes holes in conventional market theory.

    THE SUPERORGANISM: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. By Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson. (Norton, $55.) The central conceit of this astonishing study is that an insect colony is a single animal raised to a higher level.

    TRAFFIC: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us). By Tom Vanderbilt. (Knopf, $24.95.) A surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of the human beings behind the steering wheels.

    [no, despite the title being the same as a great Joe Haldeman novel, we can’t count THE FOREVER WAR. By Dexter Filkins. (Knopf, $25.) Filkins, a New York Times reporter who was embedded with American troops during the attack on Falluja, has written an account of the Iraq war in the tradition of Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.”]

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