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IS SCIENCE FICTION BAD FOR US?

For years now—decades even—there has been an argument in play in political circles in this country that violent action in movies, television, and especially now in video games has a desensitizing effect on children. The “logic” is that if children “witness” thousands of murders before, say, their eighteenth birthday, they grow up to be violent adults, having been taught by the media that not only is there nothing wrong (scary, distasteful, or even illegal) about violence, but that acting out violently makes you cool.

Or something like that.

I imagine by now you’ve sorted out from my use of quotes how I feel about this post hoc ergo propter hoc argument in terms of violent behavior stemming directly from violent fictional content. If you haven’t figured it out from the quotes, I’ll just say it: I think it’s crap.

But then something else just happened.

On December 2, astronomers announced that there are actually three times as many stars in the universe as we thought there were. That same day, NASA confirmed that they had discovered arsenic-based life in Mono Lake, California, which seems to indicate the presence of a terrestrial shadow biosphere. That day I was all aflutter with these two news items, popping in and out of my SF-author/fan-heavy corner of the Twitterverse, which was equally aflutter . . . but then I rejoined the mainstream world.

I’ll bet you real money a nationwide poll would tell you that more Americans know the name of the porn star who rode out Charlie Sheen’s latest drug-fueled tantrum than had even heard of either of these events, much less exhibit the simplest understanding of their implications.

Why is that?

I’ll admit that the larger implications of a possible second biosphere on Earth (and a microbial one at that), much less the number of red dwarves in the universe can be esoteric at best. But the relative weight of the day’s “news” made me stop and think about why scientific developments so rarely capture the attention of the media, which is ostensibly making decisions on what to cover based on what their customers have told them they want to hear about.

I did a little Googling, and this is what I found: A search for “Mono Lake arsenic life” yielded 243,000 Google results, while the term “Charlie Sheen porn star” gave back 341,000 results. Vagaries in Google’s metrics aside, that seems to indicate that there are 98,000 more web sites that mention “Charlie Sheen” and “porn star” in the same breath than mention “Mono Lake” and “arsenic life.” But again, the implications of the Mono Lake find are a little on the obscure side, so what if we just went with personalities?

On a lark I figured I’d Google the most famous living scientist I know of, Stephen Hawking, and came up with a heartening 4,730,000 results, which made me really excited when I discovered that, sans “porn star,” Charlie Sheen netted only 3,700,000 results, which I insist means that Stephen Hawking is more famous than Charlie Sheen. A win for science! Until, that is, I typed in the name Paris Hilton and was knocked on my faux Gucci handbag by her whopping 51,500,000 Google search results.

Granted, that news is probably most disturbing to Charlie Sheen, but I would really like it to be disturbing to everyone.

At the same time NASA was telling us about lots more stars and critters we didn’t know we’ve been sharing our planet with, I’ve been reading more science fiction, including the Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle classic The Mote in God’s Eye, as well as a little science: The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies, both of which I’ve written about at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. Something made me ask: Is all this science fiction’s fault?

If violent video games desensitize people to violence, does science fiction desensitize people to science?

Let’s face it, there’s nothing about the first inklings of the possibility of a terrestrial shadow biosphere that’s as entertaining as the extraterrestrial car/robots of Transformers, the cantina scene in Star Wars, even the remake of V, or any of the other thousands and thousands of depictions of extraterrestrials science fiction has provided us. And a few more stars, even a few planets orbiting them? Big deal. The crew of the Enterprise went to a new planet every week or so. I couldn’t help getting the feeling that the overwhelming majority of the public greets science reporting with a cynical grunt and, “Yeah, let me know when it’s about to grab my face and lay an egg in my stomach.” Until then, it’s just not interesting.

And that goes double for technology. I’m enough of a full on geek that my new 4G smart phone blows my freakin’ mind. I feel as though I’m living the science fiction novels I read as a kid in the seventies. But it seems that almost everyone else just shrugs this stuff off, like, “Sure, my phone can tell me where I am on Earth—anywhere I am on Earth—at the flick of a touch screen. Why couldn’t it?” In fact, it’s gotten to be a sort of hobby, people criticizing science fiction for all the times they got the future wrong.

In his article “Space Colonization in Three Histories of the Future,” John Hickman wrote:

“Retrospective story telling is attractive not only because of the overlap in the audiences for popular science and hard science fiction but also it lends a measure of pleasing inevitability to the promise of space colonization. For writers intent on sneaking past the messy problems of financing and populating their future space colony, there is nothing quite so effective as the sense of inevitability for giving readers permission to engage in wishful thinking. Crucial to the perpetration of this literary deception is analogy to some incorrectly conceived historical episode of frontier opening on Earth.”

I interpret this to mean that SF is fun, but pretty much entirely without basis and results only in some pointless thought-experiments. Setting aside the fact that he’s missing the point of what science fiction actually is, which is a means of commenting on the present by extrapolating into the future and only in the most naive cases is it actually meant to postulate some future reality. But Hickman’s criticisms continue by targeting the 2008 Robert Zubrin book:

“How to Live on Mars is loosely modeled on the dozens of guidebooks published for prospective emigrants to the mid-19th century interior American West. The perhaps unintentional irony is that it shares some of their worst flaws. Typically the products of journalistic imagination rather than direct experience on the frontier, those old guidebooks usually promoted the economic interests of particular railroad lines and particular towns.”

From this we’re led to believe that at least one of SF’s sacred cows (that space colonization is akin to the colonization of North America) is utterly baseless, or at least based on a convenient/populist mis-read of history. In other words, if we press out into space with that in mind, we’re doomed to repeat our forefathers’ worst mistakes. There are science fiction novels and movies, including the ham-fisted Avatar, that actually recognize this potential, that we might spread the worst of our mercantile and environmental sins into a galaxy of innocent aborigines.

The colonization of the moon for the purpose of mining helium-3 is another trope that Hickman tore down:

“Beyond the optimistic projections that . . . fusion reactor technology will become a practical way to generate electricity, there are two other obvious wrinkles in the tissue of expectation.”

I’m leaving off what those two insurmountable obstacles to moon colonization might be, mostly because he’s generally correct, but I like that line: “wrinkles in the tissue of expectation.” See? Science fiction gives us unhealthy expectations of a utopian future.

If you’re willing to believe that violent games cause real violence, it’s at least as easy to see that futurist predictions that don’t come true cause cynical reactions against the would-be prognosticators who made them, despite the fact that specific technological predication is rarely the SF author’s aim.

In “15 Predictions About the Future That Failed Miserably,” Stephen Kral started out with: “If you watched movies or TV shows at all in the last fifty or so years, then you’ve seen just about everything the future has in store for us. You’ve seen us conquer aliens, you’ve seen machines conquer us, and you’ve seen crazy batshit technology doing crazy batshit things. The only kicker is that you never got to see this stuff in real life. Which, in most cases, would be a good thing (Alien invasions? No thank you), but then there’s the stuff that we would want and that we are still waiting for (flying cars anyone?). Here are some of those cases. That is, the most noteworthy cases in which the future predictions of television and cinema, failed us miserably . . .”

The article then goes on to bemoan the absence of all the horrible things that didn’t happen, including Terminator’s nuclear apocalypse, 1984’s, well, Orwellian totalitarian oligarchy (which has come true, by the way), or Red Dawn’s ridiculous invasion of the United States by USSR-supported Nicaragua and Cuba.

Really? You’re mad because no one ever actually built Skynet, and Skynet didn’t actually become self aware in either 1997 or 2004, and didn’t actually try to kill us all with nuclear weapons and unstoppable robotic assassins? Sorry, and yeah, James Cameron is a big fat liar.

This business was turned upside down, thankfully, in Sarah Kessler’s article “11 Astounding Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True” in which she points out that SF authors have indeed gotten it right sometimes, and have predicted everything from the iPad (described in spooky detail in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—and you can see a moon astronaut using one in the movie) to Hugo Gernsback’s 1911 description, in “Ralph 124C 41+,” of a device that operates entirely like RADAR, which was not actually realized until 1933.

And in my recommendation of Paul Davies’s The Eerie Silence at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, I threw myself at the feet of scientists who were inspired, like Davies, into a career in science by way of the SF they were exposed to as kids.

Okay, so tripling the number of stars and doubling the number of biospheres isn’t as viscerally entertaining as that opening space battle in Star Wars Episode III, and I guess I’m in the minority in being more caught up in the idea of setting out from the Gateway asteroid on a mysterious journey to the farthest reaches of space than I am in imagining being trapped in the bathroom while Charlie Sheen trashes a hotel room. But in the same way that actual crime statistics argue the direct opposite of the violent games equals violent kids argument, there might be an argument against the same post hoc ergo propter hoc argument that science fiction creates scientific ambivalence.

Damien G. Walter wrote in his article for the Guardian,Stranger Than Science Fiction”: “. . . throughout human history, from Homer to Milton and beyond, the form of fiction most trusted to touch the truth was not realism but fantasy and myth. It seems the permeability of the barrier between fiction and reality is nothing new, at least to writers.”

And the fact that Grand Theft Auto was most popular during one of the least violent periods in recorded history and a movement was organized around the opposite assumption, might just mean that I should go back to thinking SF is good for us, because after all, Avatar was released smack dab in the middle of a scientific and technological golden age unparalleled in all of human history, and no one seems to give a crap.

Except science fiction fans.

—Philip Athans


Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including the just-released The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook (http://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/), is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He now resides in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.