Science fiction: The genre of the scientifically aware critic

Science fiction is but fantasy enabled by the awareness of technology. Like fantasy, it presents a world other than what we see around us – an alternate world. It opens up vistas of potentials, probable futures and possible histories. Like fantasy, science fiction lies; but it never shuns the truth. It merely asks questions. It questions the course of science and the rigidity of reality. It doesn’t cry out for change, it only makes suggestions. Like fantasy and contrary to reality, it does not believe in imposing itself upon the reader. The reader may choose to seek morals in it or may disregard it if it does not appeal to him. Science fiction is not a bunch of predictions, neither is it a random buzz of ideas. It is the imagination of a scientifically informed mind – all the more reason why a student of science should cross lines with it.

Science Fiction – the proponent of the possibility of alternate sciences

A few days back one of the professors here, for whom I have high regard and respect, when asked about Sci-Fi said, “Science is real, it should not be looked upon as fiction or as a source of it.” Although the statement was made in a light-hearted manner, I beg to differ from it. If there were no fiction, no fantasy and no imagination, science would have been meaningless. Science might have existed, yes. But to put science to practical use or to conjure up a new science out of need needs no little imagination. I do not wish to go ahead and cook up examples of either of these situations; I am sure there are plenty more of quotable instances than I may have heard of.

I always feel that Sci-Fi as the proposer of alternatives has always been downplayed. It deserves more plaudit than it has received for its attempt to break the shackles of linear – or as Kuhn put it, ‘normal’ – science. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is undoubtedly one of the books of the century. In a rather queer manner, it does precisely what science fiction has been doing for the past few decades – question science, its limits, its rigidity and its authority. The simplest example of a science fiction plot: “Man in a spaceship – finds alien life – has fun/gets killed” is in itself voice against the confines of science. Just because our science has been unable to find alien life, does it mean that we deny the possibility of alien life altogether? It is not a question of discarding reason; it is matter of not blinding ourselves to possibilities.

Along the lines of Thomas Kuhn’s book is a lesser-known book that is closer on the heels of Sci-Fi than its predecessor. Bobby Henderson’s ‘The gospel of the flying spaghetti monster’ may not be the next big thing to hit bookstores the world over, but it stunning how closely it follows the principle highlighted in Kuhn’s book. At the core of the book lies the idea – If a theory has not been proven, then one suggested theory is as good as any other. The book then goes on to describe an alternative theory to Newton’s theory of gravity called the FSM (Flying Spaghetti Monster) theory of gravity. As per the book, gravity arises from the fact that the FSM is pushing us down with his ‘Noodly Appendages’. Though we can laugh off this theory, we cannot not take notice of what the book says next – “The Newton’s theory of gravity, until proven, should not be taught as fact.” Anyone who has had the pleasure of intelligibly reading Kuhn’s work would realize the parallels that this book has drawn with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But perhaps the wickedest statement in the book says – “The creator of us all, the FSM, has, unlike our contemporary scientists, a sense of humor. Until someone can prove me wrong, that is my theory.”

Isaac Asimov has been one of the greatest and the most prolific Science Fiction writers to date. He, through his books, is the creator of the ‘Three laws of Robotics’ and the creator of a super science – ‘Psychohistory’. The science lies at the heart of the Foundation series of novels by the author. It says, ‘Though we might not be able to predict the actions of a single person, we can predict, with certain probabilities, the actions of a mass of people through mathematics.’ It is one of the most brilliant inventions in Science Fiction, Psychohistory. In fact, there were pockets of scientists who tried to invent what Asimov had imagined. They were captivated by the possibility that Asimov had offered to them; all the more reason why science fiction is no small force in innovation and a major source of possibilities.

Man – created in God’s own image?

Man regards himself as God’s ‘Ultimate creation’. The theory of evolution has not suggested any form of life to which humans might evolve. Science Fiction, of course, breaks those shackles. As we saw in the movie ‘Alien’, there was a form of life superior to our own. Was the alien too created in another God’s own image? How would mankind react if such a life form were indeed found by our beloved science? Science Fiction opens our eyes to the possibility of existence of such an alien life form. Again, it is not outright fantasy. Rather, it is an informed guess. Science does tell us that the universe is infinite in size. Sci-Fi uses this fact to propel its fantasy – the possibility of the existence of unimagined life and wonders somewhere out in the vast spaces.

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ is a classic in terms of the exploitation of the fact that the universe is limitless. It projects the human race as the only one that is unaware of the construction of the Inter-galactic superhighway. It speaks of things that are ‘bizarre but possible’. In an interview, the author, Douglas Adams said, ‘There are only a limited number of objects we know, but an infinite universe. How do you know that there is no place in the universe where mattresses grow in marshes or no planet where screwdrivers hang from trees?’ Bizarre? Yes. Impossible? No.

Albert Einstein himself once said, “God must be really fond of beetles.” It was in recognition of how weak and defenseless man really is. If it weren’t for our brains, we would have been free food for the beasts of the wild – like flightless, featherless chickens. As Bobby Henderson once put it, “If I had my way in evolution, I would have been armored to the teeth. Oh, and perhaps equipped with a laser gun or two.” In reality, man has no spikes, no fangs, no claws and no hard exoskeleton. Not even wings to at least fly away from fights. God’s own image? Really?

Virtual Reality is one of the ways by which man has sought to overcome his defects even if temporarily and by illusion. ‘Headcrash’ is a book that takes VR quite a few steps further. It allows man to delve in his greatest desires and be someone he can perhaps never be in real life. As the narrator puts it, “In the real world I am a no one, but here I am MAX_COOL, the headiest person in the district.”

Man playing God

Deep within, we know our shortcomings. Perhaps, that is why we are inherently scared of lizards, mice and roaches; basically, anything that is small and has multiple legs. We know we are defenseless against an onslaught by one of these creatures that happen to share a planet with us. Deep within, we know God didn’t do a very good job of creating us. Can’t we play God? What would we do then? We would create the ultimate human (machine) – the Terminator.

The humanoid robot is man’s perverted fantasy. There is no reason, if at all a robot is created, that it should be bipedal and with opposing thumbs. Our good old science has shown that insects and reptiles (better known as creepy-crawlies) are more efficient at locomotion than the stupidly erect Homo erectus and his fellow Homo-whatevers. The sole reason behind the robot assuming a human form is man’s desire to play God. Science Fiction recognizes this. Science may not yet have enabled us to create life forms, but Science Fiction allows us to create Terminators, I Robots, Frankenstein’s monsters and the like. Science Fiction refuses to let the constraints of science restrict human imagination. A question was raised in class, “Why does man need to create machines that learn?” It is another of man’s fantasies born out of the desire to emulate God. Science Fiction brings out the fantasy and gives it shape.

Is man really better?

In spite of the windows of imagination that Sci-Fi opens for us, it has subtle ways of mocking the human civilization. ‘District 9’, ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ project man as a backward species. The latter goes to the extent of proclaiming man to be the third most intelligent species on earth (after mice and dolphins). ‘Wall-E’, ‘Bladerunner’ and the Foundation series depict human civilization to be one that is crumbling upon its foundations. ‘The planet of the apes’ shows man to be a failed species.

Science Fiction asks questions of the science we pursue. Is it the ultimate science? Is even the path it is taking right? What makes us sure of our survival? What makes man and his science better at all? Kuhn, through his book, erases the qualities ‘Pure’, ‘Progressive’, ‘Cumulative’ and ‘Unpredictable’ from the tabard of science. It is not entirely impossible that man, in spite of all the glories he claims and his scientific advances, may be replaceable or even disposable. Honestly, the earth would be better off without him.

Man was born with the power to protect all other species but has emerged as the ultimate destroyer. His ‘superiority’ to other species is an illusion. He dies the same deaths, crumbles to the same powers and is constantly at war with himself. So here humankind lies, with a science that is not proven to be perfect and an uncertain future. Science Fiction is not being pessimistic; it is merely asking us to open our eyes to possibilities; to ask questions. Are we really better?

“If you take an infinite number of monkeys and seat them at an infinite number of keyboards, one of them will eventually write a C program. And in all probability, he will also evolve into man.”

Fantasy – the language of the rebel

Fantasy is not all about dreams. It is, as suggested before, an alternate reality. Authors of the genre have been extremely clever in conjuring parallels between the real and the fantasy world. Through these parallels they endeavor to highlight the malice of the real world or maybe even praise its qualities. Terminator-2 for example, was a very American movie in the fact that it highlighted ‘qualities’ of the human race – motherly love, morals (the scientist committing suicide) and an almost patriotic desire to protect the human race.

On the other hand, Sci-Fi is not always very liberal with its depiction of mankind. Godzilla and Frankenstein are classics that question the morals of scientific experiments. Metropolis and District 9 shed light on the class divide in the human race, while the not-so-rosy picture of science that Sci-Fi propagates is also the cause of a large numbers of works in the genre being set in a dystopic environment.

Philip K. Dick is one of the major authors who use the genre as a base for launching their criticism at how society perceives things. As a result, his novels are strong and moving. ‘Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep’ and ‘Martian Time Slip’ voice his opinion against man’s disregard for his creations and society’s treatment of the ‘differently-abled’ respectively. One of the greatest Sci-Fi short stories – Nightfall, (by Isaac Asimov) shows how society crumbles in the face of adversity.

In many ways, the genre appeals to us to back on ourselves, at our seemingly pristine science. In every sense of the word, Science Fiction is the genre of Thomas Kuhn – the genre of the scientifically aware critic.

Just another Sci-Fi post

The year is 1024 S.I. (Since Internet) – years after the world realized that there have to be bigger milestones in the history of mankind than the birth of a man who could walk on water. Centuries have passed since man settled on Proximus-42A – A little insignificant blue-green planet on an unimportant arm of a rather non glamorous spiral galaxy. At least it is better than the earth, they say.

The world now unites under a single ruler; these are the times of Joseph-VII’s reign of power. It was a bloody route to the throne. It is believed that Joseph-VII exterminated all of his seven brothers in order to make the throne his own. Rumor has it that the eldest of them was pushed into a particle disintegrator. Parts of him still exist out there, in their atomic form, hoping to combine with other intelligible atoms and evolving into primitive life forms. A prophecy says he will not only be successful in thus bringing himself back to life, but after trillions of years of evolution later, he will turn into a savage beast seeking revenge on his brother. The fine print in the prophecy states that in all probability he would resemble a raccoon.

Talking of evolution, not too many years have passed since man found the true ‘missing link’ in his evolution chain. It turned out, for all these years, scientists were looking in the wrong places for the wrong ‘links’. Contrary to the popular belief that humans arose from a section highly intelligent apes, evidence has been found to prove that humans are merely the result of an ancient chimpanzee hobnobbing with a featherless chicken. It explains everything from the hairless bodies to the bipedal walking ability. As a result, the fossils of the missing link were found, not in a prehistoric cave filled with primitive art forms, but among what had been previously thought to be dinosaur eggs. The discovery was not met with too much enthusiasm, for it is not everyday that a man finds out he had originally hatched from an egg. Ten of the twelve-man team committed suicide, one of was found weeping and doing shots in a remote joint in southern Alaska and the last one ironically died of bird flu.

Hundreds of thousands of millions of humans and fauna alike called the discovery a farce and claimed that the fossils had put there by the man who could walk on water to test their faith in him. There were a sizable number of others who spoke little and merely threw stones at a slightly bigger stone to express their anger. However, slowly, nearly all of them came to accept it as a fact that they would have to live with (except the chickens, who committed mass suicide).

There are still people left on earth, although the vast majority of people have left it for the new-found blue-green planet. Those who refused to shift base were those who were too old, too poor, too weak, too sick and those who loved KFC too much. Still, there are enough people here to ensure the survival of mankind. Under Joseph-VII, mankind sees a new beginning (although the fear of the particle disintegrator has quadrupled).