Monday, 24 November 2008

Science in Fiction

Last week I gave an invited talk in Port Hope, Ontario. It was sponsored by the Northumberland Learning Connection, a lovely organization (the website of which you can reach here) chaired by Joanne Bonebakker, which is a model of how to offer fascinating programs to a community. For five or six weeks in the autumn and again in the spring, a speaker is invited each week to give a lecture one evening and a seminar the next morning. The current series is entitled "Nudes and neutrons: Leaps of imagination in art and science."

I talked about how there was a small but rather interesting set of fictional pieces—novels and plays—about science and scientists. My set started with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which, in its opening chapters, takes its readers inside the mind of a scientist. One can imagine that some of what Victor Frankenstein thinks, as he works on how to endow inanimate matter with life, could be thought today by a graduate student working in artificial intelligence trying to create a system that would be more intelligent than human beings.

Despite the potential that novels have for taking us inside the minds of others, including scientists, the relatively small set of fictional works on scientists and science tends to focus not on this issue, but on repercussions of science. Perhaps most striking are issues of unwanted repercussions of scientific discoveries, of the kind that Mary Shelley wrote about when Frankenstein's creature started to wreak destruction. This idea, of course, became topical with Hiroshima, with Chernobyl, and more recently with the unwanted effects of the human use of fossil fuels.

For the most part, when science does enter fiction, the work is devoted to social implications, such as the rejection of scientific evidence on economic grounds, as in Henrik Ibsen's An enemy of the people, or the hostility to progress by established society in Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo.

Then there are fictional experiments on the social and personal effects of science and technology in science fiction, with writers like Ursula Le Guin. In The left hand of darkness, for instance, she offers a wonderful idea—a thought experiment—to imagine that for most of the time we were asexual but that, once a month for a few days, we would become sexualized as either male or female, depending on whom we were with.

Science fiction has, of course, become enormously popular. But when this is so, why is it that the mental processes of scientists as they strive for, and accomplish, the betterment of the human condition, has attracted relatively little interest?

Bertolt Brecht (1940). Life of Galileo. New York: Arcade (current edition 1994).

Henrik Ibsen (1882). An enemy of the people. In Four great plays by Henrik Ibsen, translated by R. F. Sharp, Bantam: New York (current edition 1958).

Ursula Le Guin (1969). The left hand of darkness. New York: Ace.

Mary Shelley (1811). Frankenstein: or The modern Prometheus. Harmondsworth: Penguin (current edition 1985).


Nicholas Tam said...

Interesting that you mention The Left Hand of Darkness: Le Guin's followup in the Hainish series, The Dispossessed, tackles precisely the conundrum of the scientist's place in a politicized world (or set of worlds). The implications of the science itself doesn't show up until the end of the novel, and are only clear at all when put into the perspective of other works like Darkness. But the "mental processes of scientists as they strive for, and accomplish, the betterment of the human condition", as you call them, are the heart of what The Dispossessed puts at stake.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Nicholas, for this comment. I am a fan of Ursula Le Guin, but I have not read The Dispossessed. It sounds interesting, and on your recommendation I shall go out and get it.

scot in exile said...

a thought experiment:

i wonder if science fiction were taught in schools, would its popularity wane?

i fear science fiction's gain is that it is largely a passive pastime, enjoyed through movies, books and so on.

science requires active engagement and comes up against a society lacking motivation to learn, despite the value in doing so.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Scot in Exile, for your thought experiment, and your thoughts. I know it is said that learning literature in schools puts people off: if that is true, then I am a counterexample. I first started to love Shakespeare at school, and can remember the experience. Perhaps it depends on the teacher.

I understand what you mean about science being active, but then, it seems to me, reading can be active too, whether it is science fiction or any other kind of fiction. I think there are two kinds of consideration. One is whether the writer invites the reader to think actively (to take part in a kind of partnership with the writer) or merely provides for the reader to go on a kind of passive ride, as you are implying. The other is whether the reader actually does start to think actively, in which case he or she is also likely to talk to others about it, to friends, or in a reading group perhaps, a further stage of activity, which includes learning.

scot in exile said...

i think your distinction is entirely right though i might add that science as a learning discipline can sometimes lack the narrative sweetener that allows a reader to go on that more passive journey.

Though not in every case, otherwise it might be a world full of writers and devoid of scientists...

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