Homework

Thank you all, for your thoughts on the best Hollywood faces to graft onto my characters. There are some great suggestions there; some head-slappingly perfect, some popular but utterly mysterious (Ellen Page as Lenie? What am I missing?), and some of limited utility but nonetheless entertaining. I will steal shamelessly from you all.

But in the meantime there’s this other thing I have to do for the greater good. Stephanie Svan and Peggy Kolm (she of “Biology in Science Fiction” fame) are attending ScienceOnline09, where they’ll be running a session on science fiction as a tool for science communication. To that end they’ve been circulating two sets of generic questions: one for science Bloggers, the other for sf writers. Participants post answers on their own blogs, link those answers to BiSF, and hilarity ensues. And because I both write science fiction and post real science commentary on the ‘crawl, I get to answer both sets.

So basically, you can stop reading here. If you’ve been coming here for more than a couple of weeks you already know who I wanted to be when I grew up, the role that science plays in my fiction, and why I think the Mundanistas have their heads up their asses. What follows is homework, pure and simple; your time will be better spent watching the latest episode of Sarah Connor Chronicles, or posting an online picture of your naked belly in support of Amanda Palmer’s ongoing battle with Roadrunner Records. Or even Googling around to try and figure out what the fuck I was talking about right there.

You there, Pegster? This is for you:

Questions for Science Bloggers

What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it?

Watch, write. And play. Mustn’t forget play, even though the scientific verisimilitude in even the best computer games is still pretty abysmal. Give it time.

Still read the stuff, slowly, and after a fashion. More often I simply let it pile up on the shelf and promise myself I’ll get to it any day now, honestly, just as soon as I finish the goddamn outline.

What/who do you like and why?

Most influenced, growing up, by John Brunner, Samuel Delany, Robert Silverberg. Tried to imitate William Gibson and Neal Stephenson while breaking into the field. It’s probably just as well I didn’t succeed.

What do you see as science fiction’s role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science?

I believe the genre can slip a little real science under the reader’s guard, but more importantly I think it can help instill scientific attitudes. The best science fiction carries the subtext that the universe works according to consistent rules, dammit, and if you’re smart enough you can pop the hood and figure them out. (Contrast this with fantasy, a largely faith-based genre in which one simply accepts magic or “the force” as given, with no explanation required.) Good science fiction consists of thought experiments: given this stimulus, how will society respond? If this physical law were to change, what would happen to the cosmos? Whether the models described in these stories are founded in real-world science is almost irrelevant; after all, even in the real world the models keep changing. (Fifteen years ago we didn’t even know that dark matter existed; in another fifteen we’ll probably figure out that it actually doesn’t). SF doesn’t say “this is the truth”, but rather, “suppose this were true; what then?” And if there was ever a time when we were in dire need of people able to look more than two inches beyond their own noses, that time is—

Actually, I guess that time is most of recorded history. Never mind.

Can it harm the cause of science?

Sure, especially if it’s anti-science polemic tarted up in sf tropes. Did Michael Crichton ever write a novel in which there weren’t Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know?

Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science?

All the time.

Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?

That first thing. There’s far, far fewer examples to keep track of.

Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

www.scienceblogs.com carries a combined RSS feed for all the coolest science blogs, from heavy hitters like Pharyngula all the way down to personal grad-student journals. There’s Slashdot, of course, and the online sites for the journals Science and Nature (not blogs, but still a good source of cutting-edge science coverage). Same for New Scientist; and KurzweilAI is a decent clearing house for stuff you may have missed at the other spots.

In terms of science fiction blogs, I have a soft spot for GalacticMu; they’re small, but have a cranky attitude that I find very endearing. Futurismic and the Velcro City Tourist Board are both definitely worth bookmarking, as is . io9 is flashy (albeit a bit heavy on the puff pieces), but I think they hate me for some reason. And Biology in Science Fiction has carved out its own little niche straddling the biology/sf interface.

Of course, any or all of these sites could be dead by now for all I know. I’ve been so snowed under by other things that I’ve barely had a chance to glance at any of them in the past couple of weeks.

Questions for Science Fiction Writers

Why are you writing science fiction in particular?

Because it’s the only genre big enough to wonder where we’re headed and what we’re doing to ourselves as a species. In fact, any story that shoots for that goal, that explores the impact of science on flesh, becomes a work of science fiction pretty much by definition.

What does the science add?

Wrong question. The science is what you start with. What you add after that is up to you.

What is your relationship to science? Do you have a favorite field?

I’m a marine biologist in a former life; I tried to revisit molecular genetics in the current one, but sucked at it.

Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool?

It’s all cool until you actually have to learn the nuts and bolts, at which point it becomes drudgery. While my field of (former) expertise is the behavioral ecophysics of marine mammals, my current favorite field is neuroscience— partly because it really puts that arrogant little homunculus in its place, and partly because it’s easy to pan for sf gold in that stream without actually knowing very much.

How important is it to you that the science be right?

More important than it should be; my formal training has left me scarred with the usual need to cover my ass against nitpickers and professional rivals. That said, though, I think too strict an adherence to the known scientific state-of-the-art is a straitjacket that constrains the imagination. There’s a reason they call it science fiction; to keep all your stories within the realm of today’s established science is to suggest that there are no more breakthroughs to be made, that we pretty much know everything already. That’s a profoundly antiscientific attitude.

What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?

I can access pretty much any scientific journal I want, thanks to some connections in the University community. Also I get telepathic messages from my cats. But again, too much obsessing over “accuracy” turns literature into essay, and the last thing I want is to end up associated with the Mundanistas.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday November 27 2008at 05:11 pm , filed under ink on art, public interface, scilitics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “Homework”

  1. As the reprobate responsible for throwing Ellen Page into the mix, I feel a slight glimmer of joy at your confusion ~ your books have made my head swim in dark places, so it's thrilling to have returned the favour, albeit only slightly.

    If you've not seen her in Hard Candy, you should. I picked her because I think she's the finest actor of her generation, and it's going to take every ounce of that talent to bring Lenie's complexities to life. Also because with SF film, its easy to lose the human side of things amidst the dark & shiny, and I think she'd be an utterly compelling lead.

  2. “(Ellen Page as Lenie? What am I missing?)”

    OK, I was also one of those that suggested ellen Page. But that was because I was too embarrassed to suggest Avril Levign. Not for her musical or acting abilities (oxymoron alert) but just for her look.

  3. I’m a marine biologist in a former life

    Ever met Ken MacLeod? I think he dealt with marine invertebrates though.

  4. Cats are well known for their scientific insights.

    I personally appreciate that you work on getting the science right. I think that the way the biosciences – and especially neuroscience – are often portrayed is closer to vitalism than science, and that’s one of my pet peeves. The brain is marvelous and strange enough without adding mystical woo on top of it.

    Thanks for answering the questions!