Ken MacLeod at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
A sunny Saturday
afternoon (18 August, 5-6 pm) saw the Scottish Power Theatre tent filled almost
to capacity for the Wellcome Trust Event 'Putting the Cult into Culture', a discussion on science
fiction and science in fiction. Chaired by Forum Writer in Residence, Pippa Goldschmidt, the discussion featured best-selling SF writer and tech
guru Neal Stephenson, with cell biologist, novelist and LabLit editor Jennifer Rohn.
Rohn began by
explaining that lab lit, as distinct from science fiction, is fiction about
scientists and scientific practice in the real world, historical or
present-day, rather than in imagined or future worlds. The number of novels
that fit this description is suprisingly small - she knew of about 120 in
English, which is not a lot to show for the four centuries (more or less) in
which science and the novel have flourished in the English-speaking world.
went on, are 'not trusted messengers'. Their views on controversial topics,
even within their own specialty, are seen as just their opinion. By showing
scientists as human beings, and showing their daily work realistically, lab lit
could help to overcome popular suspicion and incomprehension of what scientists
are up to. It could also, of course, be of value and enjoyment to scientists
and science students to see their world and way of life reflected in
literature, and these are among lab lit's most avid readers.
looked at the topic from a different angle: the role of science fiction as a
stimulus to scientific and technological advance, not just in attracting young
people to study or work in these fields (as it evidently does) but in inspiring
scientists and engineers with visions of what they could do. Here, he argued,
science fiction writers have been falling down on the job: instead of
envisioning big projects such as space exploration or robotics - as their
forebears in the 1920s-1950s did - they have wallowed in dystopian gloom. Thus
they are partly responsible for the lack of major technological innovations
which are sorely needed in such areas as energy supply. Heinlein's rockets and
Asimov's robots gave engineers something to shoot for. We should try to do at
least as well, or better. Stephenson has presented this view at conferences, and set up a website, Hieroglyph, to open a
new dialogue between SF and technology.
discussion followed, in which I didn't get a word in edgeways, which is
probably just as well because I wouldn't have been polite. At a Genomics
Forum-sponsored event at the 2006 Book Festival, SF writer Charlie Stross
provocatively said that SF is the literary wing of a totalitarian movement that
never got a mound of skulls to call its own: Technocracy. I've found this a
useful quip for resisting attempts to impose an agenda on the genre - including,
I have to say, that of 'public understanding of/engagement with science'.
my view, has got the problem exactly backwards. There's no shortage of grand
visions of technically practicable and/or boldly innovative projects, in SF and
in the imaginations of engineers and scientists themselves. The reasons why
they're not implemented, or even seriously proposed, are social, economic, and
political. We need - in the first instance - to understand these obstacles,
rather than present yet more shiny visions of what could be done if they were
overcome. Needless to say, opinions as to what the obstacles are will differ.
For one example of such an analysis, I'd point to David Graeber's recent
stimulating if perhaps over-stated
polemical essay Of Flying Cars and the Falling Rate of Profit.
A bit of
dystopian gloom is just what we need. Sheer dismay at where we're going could
yet drag us out of the rut.