Science As Fantastic As Science Fiction

Science fiction magazine editors often complain they don’t get enough science fiction stories submitted to them.  What they need to do is convince the popular science writers showcased in the latest edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 to also write fictionalized versions of their latest essays.  Or maybe, all those would-be science fiction writers stuffing their slush piles should study this volume, integrate the ideas into their work, and then they’d impress those editors.  I kid you not, there are some far-out, fantastic, sense-of-wonder concepts in these essays.  Just do a bit of sampling here, and you’ll see what I mean.

Start with the Freeman Dyson prediction about green technology.  He’s not talking about windmill generators, but plants with silicon leaves, engineering biology and taking over the role of evolution to remake the Earth.  If you want to know about alien minds, trying reading the essays by Colapinto and Cook.  They don’t look to the stars and little green men who think different, but to South America.  Then Jon Mooallem looks at the history of people seeking anti-gravity and gravity radio.  Each essay, no matter how down to earth, could be used to inspire SF stories.

Here’s the table of contents with links to the articles on the web:

Just the fact that I can link to full-text versions of all but three of these articles on the web is science fictional.  It represents a major paradigm shift in copyright, economics and the dissemination of knowledge.  And I’m not linking to these articles to give you free reads, you should buy the volume and study it.  I’m linking to web pages as a way to review this book, because just sampling these links will give you a taste of what I’m talking about far better than I could with descriptive words.  Most people do not like to read off computer screens, but having these essays online is an excellent way to recommend them to your friends.

This collection is a snapshot of our times but far different from what you see on the news at night.  These articles are overwhelmingly about the future, either predicting fantastic new developments, or warning us of dire happenings if things continue as they are now.  All the concepts that science fiction writers use to write visionary science fiction.  I’ve been getting this volume each year for awhile now, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else that recommends it.  That’s a real shame.  Science was never so accessible, so why isn’t it more popular?

Could this be why the SF mag editors aren’t seeing that many science fiction stories cross their desks?  Because we now live in a world that seems science fictional compared to what we grew up in just a few decades ago.  I was watching a new cop show called Life on Mars, about a detective thrown into the distant past of 1973, and I was struck by the scene where he’s wishing for a cell phone.  Or another time when he mutters about wanting a computer.  I’d love to time travel back to see The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, or the Beatles in Germany, but I don’t know if I could live without my sixth sense, the Internet.

The world and election I remember seeing through a 19″ black and white TV in 1960 is so very different from how I see reality in 2008 while watching a 52″ high definition set.  I think we take science for granted now, and back then science was that gee-whiz Mr. Science stuff that nobody paid any attention to other than the proto-geeks.  Many of the science stories in this year’s collection come from The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other mundane periodicals.  Today I can switch on my TV and see an hour documentary on the history of the black hole, and the controversy over the information paradox that Stephen Hawking had proposed that angered scientists for years.  When I was growing up, my choices were Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

In the early days of three channel television, there wasn’t room for physics and astronomy shows.  Today I can find several science documentaries on every night, and not boring ones like we used to see on 16mm film in science class, but fantastic shows with killer computer graphic clips beautifully illustrating cutting edge science, like string theory and the effects of dark matter of galaxy formation.

Sheila Williams, the editor at Asimov’s SF Magazine, complains she receives too many stories beginning with exploding space ships.  That was a popular way to begin a story back in the 1930s.  Explosions are dramatic and quickly lead to action, but what people want today are new far-out ideas to create sense-of-wonder SF, and evidently too many potential science fiction writers are living on ancient clichés.  They need to be reading the science essays and watching the science documentaries on TV, because the mundane world has passed old science fiction by, leaving it quaint and suitable for nostalgia retrospectives.

The Donlan and Dyson articles inspired me to envision fantastic changes in our everyday landscapes.  Donlan writes about scientists wanting to repopulate the American plains with substitute “megafauna” like that found 13,000 years ago during the Pleistocene overkill, which would make traveling out west like a safari crossing a well populated African wildlife preserve.  Imagine tooling west on Interstate 70 and seeing elephants, tigers, lions, camels dwelling in the high grass beyond the highway fences?  If you add in Dyson’s biological experiments, and think about T. Boone Pickens’ giant windmill farms, our country is going to look very different.  When I was growing up, the future was exciting because of rocket travel.  Traveling to Mars may end up boring compared to just staying home.

I think about the recent hurricanes, Katrina and Ike, and wonder what our coastlines would be like if we could build houses that were indifferent to big waves and wind.  In my neighborhood I’m seeing hawks, raccoons and red foxes set up habitats.  I know there’s a chance that possums, coyotes and armadillos exist unseen.  It wouldn’t take much to let our lawns become urban prairies and adapt our lifestyle to allow for more wildlife, renewable energy, shifting ecologies so where we live would no longer be manicured sameness.

If we listen to Freeman Dyson, we could have all kinds of scientifically created plants and animals joining us, like shrubs that produce electricity.  How do you make such a neighborhood biosphere into a science fiction story?

On the TV at night, the news is all bad, dwelling on lost jobs, crashing stock markets, terrorism, melting glaciers, oil panics that make me worry that the future will be dim and full of drudgery.  Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008, makes me think the future will be more like living in Oz.  I wonder what the mood of the country would be like if ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news programs shifted their focus from Wall Street to science laboratories around the world, would we all feel better about the future?

The public fear you see in the news is all about economics, and that’s because economists are uncertain about the future.  Reporters should spend more time interviewing scientists, who are more confident about what’s ahead.  Reading Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman made me feel a whole lot better about the next forty years because he interviewed hundreds of people with solutions, not problems.  The articles in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 aren’t gosh-wow futurism like the 1939 World’s Fair, but working class science, as real and ordinary as cloning and gene splicing.

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