Science, Scientists and Science Fiction

    I grew up reading science fiction and assumed adulthood would bring a career in science. It didn’t happen that way. In the last week I’ve bumbled across several current websites where people my age did grow up to become scientists and are discussing their formative reading. Jason Pontin, the editor in chief of Technology Review wrote recently On Science Fiction: How it influences the imagination of technologiest, “To this day, my tastes and choices as an editor and journalist are bluntly science fictional: I look for technologies that are in themselves ingenious and that have the potential to change our established ways of doing things. Best of all, I like technologies that expand our sense of what it might mean to be human.” That’s quiet an interesting bias, and I don’t think he’s alone.

    Over in the March, 2007 issue of IEEE Spectrum they have a story, The Books That Make A Difference, that quotes Vinton Cert, Donald Christiansen, David Mindell, James Isaak, Samuel C. Florman, Vernor Vinge, Danny Hillis, Barrett Hazeltine, Nick Tredenick, Steven W. Squyres, Jaron Lanier, Henry Petroski, Jon Rubinstein and Owen K. Garriott discusing the books that influenced them. Most of the books are science fiction, or books that science fiction fans often love. Danny Hillis chose my favorite SF book, Have Space Suit-Will Travel and explained that the hero of the book saves the world, gets the girl and gets admitted to MIT. He claims he decided to go to MIT because of this.  I read this book many times.  I wanted to go to MIT too, but I never had the right academic stuff.

    There is no way to know, but would these men have become scientists without science fiction? Is science itself not inspiring enough? Maybe science fiction is fairy tales that appeal to logical and mathematical minded children who would have always grown up to be scientists. Or do we just live in a dazzling science fictional age – where the influence of science fiction is so widespread as to be mundane.

    If I could have read about my present life of programming computers during the day and writing blogs at night maybe it would have been an exciting story to my thirteen year old self. If I could show my kid self a photo of my desk right now with its hi-rez wide-screen LCD monitor, color printer/copier/scanner all-in-one machine the size of a small breadbox, the CD player and iPod, I think he would have been wowed! I grew up with manual typewriters, LPs and slide-rules. I know my 56″ HDTV would have been something he expected as standard in all households, but would I have imagined that one day I’d be discussing on a world-wide network the value of the books I was reading back then. It’s funny, but when I was a kid reading science fiction I never pictured growing up and being old reading science fiction. I thought I would be living it.

    Wherever I go on the net I always find people who grew up reading science fiction. What’s weird is when I was reading science fiction in the years before Star Trek I found damn few other people that read it.  How’d there get to be so many SF fans now?  Star Trek, and then Star Wars programmed millions of kids into science fiction fans. I used to go to SF conventions and we’d lament the influence of SF media fans.  How come the same boom didn’t create a boom in scientists?

    Over at ScienceBlogs I found “The Biggest Geek and the SF List” where computer scientist Marck C. Chu-Carroll throws in his comments to a group of blogging scientists discussing the top 50 science fiction books of the last fifty years. The funny thing is most of their books are on my Classics of Science Fictionlist, so there is sort of a consensus about classic science fiction. As one writer pointed out, there are few recent books showing up on everyone’s list. I’m wondering if the SF of the 1940-1990 era didn’t affect a whole generation of scientists.  MarkCC has some good comments about how these books have stood the test of time.

    It would be an ultra-cool science study to analyze all the people who read the SF classics and determine if those books did influence the readers in any significant way. I don’t know how they could do such a study but if can get so canny at suggesting what I like from my buying habits, I think an analysis of common traits of the people who fondly remember the same books should come up with some interesting tidbits.

    Then they should find a control group, say kids growing up in India or Tibet, and see how not reading classic Sci-Fi might have affected the group. India has lots of scientists – were they influence by science fiction? Another interesting experiment would be to isolate schools from the rest of our massive pop culture and only teach them about certain types of books. It would be the ultimate test of the old GIGO principle (Garbage In – Garbage Out). I certainly remember a lot of my teachers asking why I read such trashy books.

    Does anyone ever really know why they make the decisions that they do? Countless factors come into play for such decisions so can we consciously know how we were programmed? Or it might be simple – you become a rocket scientist because you discovered Estes Rockets when you were a kid or read a book on Robert H. Goddard or read Rocket Ship Galileo.  Or you become a robotics engineer because Mindstorm Legos or you read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot

      Or maybe, you read Rocket Ship Galileo then looked up Robert H. Goddard and then discovered Estes Rockets.  Which is what I did.  To be honest though, I followed every launch of the Mercury program before reading Rocket Ship Galileo.  To dig deeper I must ask why I followed the NASA space program so closely in elementary school?  Deep in the primordial recesses of my mind are memories of the 1950s, before NASA, of watching old black and white Sci-Fi movies, The Twilight Zone and numerous cartoons and kid shows dealing with rocket travel.  I can not unearth the first time I encountered the concept of rocket travel.

      Another weird thought that just popped into my mind – maybe I didn’t become a scientist because my favorite Sci-Fi writer was Heinlein and grew up to become an opinionated dirty old man instead.


“The Star Pit” – The Limits of Limitations

        Time was 1967 at Miami-Killian Senior High.  Sitting at the freak table in the cafeteria during home room, while listening to complex improvised percussions of the black guys at their table pounding out Afro-identity-rhythms with their hands, elbows and feet, I read a small digest pulp magazine called Worlds of Tomorrow.  I tried to concentrate on the story I was reading, “The Star Pit,” while the kid next to me was lecturing our table about his amazing discovery of shooting drops of wine.  He normally shot speed but he and his buddies had a dry period and decided to experiment.  Although I wasn’t as dumb as this kid, I wasn’t beyond using chemicals to gain altitude, but what I really wanted was to be an astronaut and fly aboard a Gemini space capsule atop a Titan II rocket.

        “The Star Pit,” a novella by Samuel R. Delany, is one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories that I’ve reread every few years since 1967.  It is thrilling, inventive and most of all philosophical – and it has a theme that I never tire of contemplating.  It’s about barriers.  I like the think of an aquarium full of fish as an analogy to this story.  Some fish living in a tank swim around and accept their limited world, but there are always other fish that constantly patrol the glass looking for a way past the barriers.  As human we don’t bump into glass walls, but we’re all confined by invisible barriers.

When I first read “The Star Pit,” I did not know anything about the author.  I later learned Delany was black, gay and very young, about 23, when he wrote “The Star Pit.”  While I was in homeroom, Delany, nine years older than I, was already a big success in the science fiction world.  By then he had already published five novels, including a trilogy.  He grew up in Harlem, attended the Bronx High School of Science, married the poet Marilyn Hacker and started publishing novels by age 19.  These are all clues to understanding this beautiful story.   I could only imagine the ambitions that fueled Delany to write this story.  It is also important to understand what was happening in the world of 1965-1967, the most important being the space race and the Vietnam War, but New York in the sixties was something special too.

        If you can imagine a black, gay kid from Harlem wanting to be an astronaut with The Right Stuff, or even one of the guys who writes science fiction in 1965, you can begin to understand some of the barriers I am talking about.  It goes deeper than that.  All of Delany’s early work has reoccurring themes about being young and artistic – and especially about being original and always meeting other artists who were younger, more original and more artistic.  My guess was Delany was a prodigy who achieved much too much success too early and hit lots of walls.  I also expected he had lots of emotional trouble growing up.

        We all want success when we’re young and few achieve their dreams.  Most people settle down to accept life, swimming in the middle and never make a run at the glass anymore.  Others continue to bash their heads, or like me, who constantly linger near the barrier thinking, “Jeez, how am I going to escape?”  It’s now forty years later and I know I’m not going to be an astronaut.  Like Dirty Harry said, a man must know his limitations, but if you test them enough you begin to wonder if the barrier will give just a little bit.

        Living with confined desires changes your ambitions to adapt to the barriers.  The conventional wisdom says if a person is going to be creative, they’re going to succeed when they are young.  You might win a Nobel Prize when you’re old, but it’s for work your brain did when it was young.  Most of our limits are related to brain function, genes and the health of our bodies.  We know death is the ultimate barrier to ambition and that the odds are if we haven’t achieved success by thirty it won’t be at all, but some people refuse to ever throw in the towel despite all facts to the contrary.

        I know I’ll never get to the Moon or Mars, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t write a sci-fi book about such adventures.  Or is that being unrealistic?  Even when you compromise you never know what the real limitations are.  Take for instance a very tiny experiment I conducted.  Scientists have discovered that the brain can still grow new neural pathways much later in life than previously thought and suggest that it’s never too late to learn new tricks.  I decided to teach myself chess as a test.  I didn’t get very far.

        Like the Ratlit in “The Star Pit” who resents the Golden, those humans that can travel to other galaxies, I resent the young who can take up chess so easily while I butt my head against the 8×8 board.  I wasn’t expecting to be a grandmaster, but had the lowly ambition of just beating the computer at the easiest level.  I can’t even do that.  Even now I like to pretend I could still succeed if I would only apply myself and study hard thirty minutes a day for a couple years.  However, failing is teaching me something.  I’m learning that there are a whole host of barriers that keep me back from succeeding, even at my unambitious ambition.  Just to succeed at this tiny chess problem I suffer:

·         Limits of concentration

·         Limits of memory

·         Limits of effort

·         Limits of perception

·         Limits of logic

·         Limits of pattern recognition

·         Limits of age

·         Limits of ambition

·         Limits of language

·         Limits of knowledge

·         Limits of talent

·         Limits of skills

·         Limits of health

·         Limits of vitality

·         Limits of analysis

·         Limits of organization

·         Limits of intellect

·         Limits of overcoming limits

·         Limits of time

        That’s a lot of limits – and there are probably a lot more that I haven’t noticed since I’m so limited at observing my limits.  I can’t just say I’m bad at chess because poor chess playing is only a symptom of my real disease.  I could whine that I’m getting old, but I’m sure there are plenty of people decades older than me that can take up chess and beat the computer.

        The real research question here is whether or not I can do anything about my limitations.  Can I exercise my power of concentration and beat that limitation?  If I studied chess books and improved my skills and knowledge about the game, might I push back some barriers?  Yet, there are other barriers that keep me from doing that: energy, time, health, effort, etc.  So why?  Why don’t I just go swim in the middle of the aquarium and just watch television like the other fish?  Why, I wonder myself.

        You can read “The Star Pit” in Delany’s collection, aye, and gomorrah and other stories.  Every evening writing this blog I pound against the barrier that keeps me from expressing in words the things that I see and think.  “The Star Pit” haunts me with its frail characters fighting their hurricane force ambitions.  I have no idea if the story will succeed with you like it has succeeded with me.  It begins:

            Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.           

            But once some of our four-to-six-year-olds built an ecologarium, with six-foot plastic panels and grooved aluminum bars to hold corners and top down.  They put it out on the sand.

An ancient radio presentation of “The Star Pit” can be found here on MP3.

Communicating Across Time

        I just finished reading Timescape by Gregory Benford and Walden by Henry David Thoreau and the two books strike me as a perfect set for a meditation on time travel.  I doubt Henry David Thoreau ever thought about time travel, but any writer that produces a classic book is communicating across time, sending messages centuries into the future.  Imagine if Thoreau had some kind of magical book and we could send messages back to him sitting in his little shack by Walden Pond.  What would you tell him about life in the future and reading his book?  Timescape by Gregory Benford is about sending messages backwards in time, allowing the future to talk to the past.  Unfortunately, Benford tries to stick closely to a theoretical idea in physics which has limited application.  His story is timid by science fictional standards, but wonderfully ambitious by defying the traditions of the genre.

        I often want to communicate with the past.  I’m currently reading The Scarlet Letter and figure it would be great fun to show the Puritans an hour of MTV.  On the surface that sounds cruel, but I keep thinking if we could talk across the ages we’d realize new philosophical dimensions.  Of course we know about the tyrannical nature of religious societies just by watching the nightly news, but it helps to remember that Americans once wore funny religious clothes and treated women like Islamic fundamentalists.  The real test would be to have a time traveler show up today and let us know about the future and how our beliefs and actions are embarrassing to them.  Are the liberated women on MTV a step forward in women’s expression as individuals or are they freed women to act out men’s fantasies?

        The eight hundred pound gorilla in this essay is global warming.  Will the people of the future all lie in the beds at night wishing they could talk to us?  Benford’s story written in the 1970s and published in 1980 isn’t about global warming but another ecological catastrophe caused by the people of the 1950s and 1960s but which kills the people of 1998.  Yes, his future is now our past but that doesn’t make the book dated.  Timescape is #41 on The Classics of Science Fiction list – but it deserves to be higher.  The idea of sending messages to the past is just as original as any of H. G. Wells’ great primal science fictional ideas.

If you read the reader reviews on Amazon you will find most readers giving Timescape five stars but many giving it one star.  It’s a polarizing science fiction novel because it’s not a gee-whiz action story, but a quiet story about science and scientists.  Critics loved it but many fans didn’t.  I assume most adolescent readers would prefer a story about time travelers going back to hunt dinosaurs rather than read about a clever plot based on a theoretical sub-atomic particle called the tachyon.  I can also infer that most page turning readers don’t want to be burden by bad tidings from the future.

In Timescape a few 1998 people desperately try to get a message to a few scientists in 1963 hoping to save their world.  If the people of 1963 had listened to Thoreau message from 1854 the people in 1998 might not have ever needed to send a message backwards in time.  Walden is a timeless essay about paying attention to details and questioning the status quo.  Thoreau might be considered America’s original hippie, but he was a brilliant thinker, as was his friend Nathan Hawthorne who peered with nineteenth century eyes into the seventeenth century with A Scarlett Letter.  There are still puritanical threads woven into our twenty-first century philosophy.  The lessons of history have always been one way – think how dynamically philosophic history would be if we could tune in the future with tachyon radios.

I’m not shunning the Puritans when I mention them, they may have valid messages to send us too, points that we’re missing, and yes we’re still receiving their messages, for example, the current fad of Purity Balls.  The key is to study Thoreau and learn to discern the ecology of our thoughts like he studied the ecology of Walden Pond.  Are the Puritans four centuries away, or merely a few thousand miles?  Scattered across this earth are people living in situations that mirror all the times of history.  Every society might represent a different expression of innate programming to comprehend right and wrong – it may even be hardwired in our genes as Moral Minds suggests.  Classic books may be classic because they show characters at the cutting edge of ethical dramas.

Global warming will be the ethical issue of our times.  To overcome this obstacle we will all have to live life with the spiritual observational skills of Henry David Thoreau.  Science fictional books like Timescape illustrates that every casual decision we make today affects the people of tomorrow.  The emotional dynamics of how we judge our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth is portrayed in The Scarlet Letter.  For years I have contemplated why some books become classics and others don’t.  I’m never sure how to define a classic, but I know if you are reading books that don’t make you think, that you can’t interconnect with the communications across time, then more than likely you are only reading for escapism and that book isn’t a classic.

Twenty Years Ago the Classics Were Different

    Twenty years ago I wrote an article about the classics of science fiction for the fanzine Lan’s Lantern – and later made the essay into a web site at The Classics of Science Fiction. My friend Mike inspired the project when he asked me about my favorite science fiction books. I started reading science fiction as a kid in 1961, and then gave up SF in 1974 after dropping out of college to find reality. I returned to reading science fiction in 1984 after I had gotten married, finished college and settled down. By the time I wrote the essay in 1987 I had probably read well over a thousand science fiction books.

    Now looking back with twenty years of hindsight I’m not sure how many science fiction books I would consider classic. The final Classics of Science Fiction list wasn’t selected by me, but was assembled from the most frequently recommended books from 28 best-of lists and other sources dating back to the 1950s. Of the 193 books on the list, I’m not sure how many I would personally recommend today. I’ve read most of the books on the list, and still reread many of them. I’m currently seeking out and listening to audio editions of books from the list. This week I’m listening to Timescape by Gregory Benford, #41 on the list, and a book on 16 of the 28 recommended references. I think it is a classic of sorts, but it’s doubtful you’ll find it at your favorite bookstore. I was surprised that Recorded Books had an unabridged audio edition. [By the way, RB is the very best place to find audio editions of the SF Classics.]

    A few months ago I listened to Foundation by Isaac Asimov and I was appalled by how bad it was. I had forgotten most of the story. I had read the original Foundation trilogy back in the 1960s and accepted it then as a classic because everyone said it was so. Listening to it now it was obvious that it was a fix-up novel from a handful of Astounding pulp fiction stories.  Even though I considered it bad writing it had ideas that made me wonder if it had been inspiration to George Lucas for Star Wars. As far as I was concerned it was too simplistic and had nothing to offer the modern reader. The Foundation Trilogy is #4 on the Science Fiction Classics List and was recommended by 24 of the 28 lists. It is well loved, but not by me anymore.

    I wonder if the other fans, critics, writers and editors who created the original 28 recommendation lists still love all the books they once recommended Has the last twenty years changed them too? Here are the books I’ve listened to in the last five years:

#4 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov

#8 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

#19 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

#22 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

#29 – Fahrenheit 451 – by Ray Bradbury

#32 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

#37 – The Humanoids by Jack Williamson

#41 – Timescape by Gregory Benford

#48 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (abridged) by Philip K. Dick

#58 – Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

#61 – Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

#67 – Startide Rising by David Brin

#87 – Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

#93 – Blood Music (novella version) by Greg Bear

#94 – Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

I have more SF Classics lined up to listen to, like Dune by Frank Herbert, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and a few others. They are on my Recorded Books Unlimited queue. Most of the books I have listened to were very entertaining, but I don’t know if I would call them classics. Library of America, a company known for publishing classic books, will publish a volume called Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick in June of 2007. The four novels are The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ubik (1969) – all but Stigmata were on the Classics of Science Fiction list.

Are these the real classics of science fiction? I don’t know. PKD’s books hold up well in their audio editions and many of his stories have been made into movies, but his books were never mainstream science fiction. PKD was one strange dude, maybe a Poe or Meville of the sci-fi pulp writers, and although he wrote some books set in outer space, he was never considered an inspiration to the space opera crowd. I am a huge fan of PKD and I’m overjoyed that LOA has selected his books, but I don’t think PKD represents science fiction nor do I think his books represent American literature. Personally, I think Robert A. Heinlein fits that role better, but I’m not sure I’d pick any of his books as classics of American literature either.  Many of Heinlein’s novels are my all time favorite books that I read and reread, but I don’t know if they represent America or its times.  I think Have Space Suit-Will Travel represents the 1950s in the U.S. in a very special way but will future readers see that.  Would nineteenth century New England want to be represented by Moby Dick?

The trouble is I don’t see any science fiction book becoming the Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations to the readers of the twenty-second century as those two books have become classics to us. Whether Jane Austin or Charles Dickens wrote accurate portraits of their times, their books do represent the times in which they were set for all future readers. Huckleberry Finn and Little Women will represent nineteen century America, like The Great Gatsby will represent the twenthieth century. Strange in a Strange Land is a 1960s book, but it will never be a book about the 1960s. Science fiction books will have to be classics like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are classics but I’m not sure how many science fiction books will appeal to the young readers of the future.

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The World of the Wars have become classic books read by children for a century. Are there any books from the Classics of Science Fiction list that will follow in Mr. Wells’ steps? Ender’s Game might. Not on the list, but a book that might have a chance is Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. It was recently made into a full-cast audio book and it holds up very well and doesn’t feel dated.  But I think it only has an extremely rare chance.  Dune might succeed since it has already had two film incarnations, which is a good indication. Fahrenheit 451 might have a chance since it is a timeless allegory about reading, but I don’t hold out much hope for The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s other classic that is so loved outside of the SF world. Flowers for Algernon has potential. Overall though, I don’t have much hope for any book on the Classic of Science Fiction list lasting another century and remaining popular.  I think Wells and Verne will fall out of favor – if they already haven’t. 

As many observers have noted, modern children prefer movies, video games and movies over books, so there’s always a chance that books won’t be popular in the future. However, I think hard-core science fiction readers will continue to seek and find the books on The Classics of Science Fiction list. The average science fiction reader will be content with the latest fad in science fiction and fantasy books. I think the desire to read science fiction is mostly based on the urge to find new and novel excitements – so the classic books that come from the 1940s and 1950s pulp magazines will feel old and quaint to them. Eventually, even the New Wave times of the 1960s and 1970s will seem old wave. Books from the 1920s and 1930s seemed quaint to me in the 1960s. I have a feeling that the most sophisticated science fiction written today will feel like a dime novel does to us when read by our grandchildren.

I guess my conclusion is science fiction goes out of date too fast to become classic. I wish I could live to be two hundred and find out the answer though.  I think there are other reasons why these books won’t become classics but those ideas will have to be explored in a future blog entry.  The main reason I think this is I’ve read many many great books in the last twenty years that I consider better than the books on the Classics of Science Fiction List.  





The Religion that Failed to Achieve Orbit

    For seventy-five years during the 20th century there flourished a minor religion called science fiction. Most religions speculate about life in the heavens after death – this radical religion promoted life in the heavens during life – a startling proposition for its prophets. By advocating the power of mankind over the power of God it attracted millions of believers. Sadly, this unique religion was short lived because the miracles promised by science fiction were undermined by gritty details of reality. The priests of science fiction failed to observe that any religion that makes promises about the here and now fail quickly.

    Science fiction held that applied science would lead to transcending everyday life on Earth. This was science fiction’s major appeal because most of the 20th century aptly demonstrated the success of applied technology. Science fiction suffered its ironic collapse due to the success of space travel. Six manned trips to the Moon quashed all desire for further explorations of the heavens by the general public. It was rocks, more rocks and icy rocks all the way to the stars. Mars the most romantic of science fiction’s destinations turned out to be paradise that only geologists could love.

    The tenets of science fiction were often similar to older religions, and it eventually parried the promise of everlasting life after death with immortal life on Earth. Science fiction told its adherents not to seek to be the children of God, but instead told them to bury God and become the creators of their own destiny. Science fiction even named its rockets after gods – Mercury, Atlas, Saturn and Apollo.

    Why did this remarkable religion fail? Did it promise miracles it could not deliver? Could it be resurrected with a new testament? Is it possible to satisfy humans with a transcendental experience based in the physical world? Why do the majority of humans prefer the promises of the next world over the reality of this world?

    Science fiction like many failed religions before it has become the providence of fanciful mythic tales. Years from now, such as the distance in time from the ancient Greeks to our times, humans will marvel at the fantastic beliefs of the people from the twentieth century.