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20/12/2014

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Science + fiction = science fiction

One term is missing, says Francis Keenan

Geoff Ryman (ed) (2009), When it changed.  Science into fiction: an anthology Comma Press  ISBN 1905583192 

This collection of short stories, edited by Geoff Ryman, brings together authors and scientists in an innovative fashion. Each story is based in part on real research being undertaken by a scientist, with the latter providing an afterword to the story which includes an overview of the scientific concepts involved.

The aim of the book — to show that SF based on real science can be just as exciting as that based on 'fantasy' science (such as faster-than-light travel) — is commendable. As noted in the introduction to the collection, science is under threat, often due to ignorance or misunderstanding of the subject. One way to address this is to make people more aware of how scientists actually work and what science they produce. If this can be achieved via the medium of entertainment, be it books, TV or films, then so much the better.

Not compelling

Unfortunately, I found it difficult to be enthused by the stories in this collection, which do not convey the excitement of real scientific research and discovery. For example, the 'Global Collider Generation: an Idyll', by Paul Cornell, deals with the construction of a particle collider which encircles the Earth, and mentions a successor which encircles the whole Solar System, outside the orbit of Neptune. However, the story itself is not compelling and does not bring out the sense of wonder generated by such amazing devices as the Large Hadron Collider, on which it is based.

Some of the stories, such as 'Death Knocks', by Ken MacLeod, are entertaining, but have a rather tenuous link to the science topic under consideration (distributed computing in the case of 'Death Knocks').

Missing the point

The Introduction criticises the bad science in TV shows such as Battlestar  Galactica, and its copy of Bush-era America. This completely misses the point.

Battlestar Galactica is not about science and should not be judged on this basis. It uses an SF setting to comment on current issues, including the war on terror, religion and fundamentalism, in an entertaining and (hopefully) thought-provoking manner. Its quality was recognised in 2005 when it received a prestigious Peabody Award.

Similarly, the original Star Trek TV show, which also contained lots of bad science, used the medium of SF to cover a range of issues relevant to the time it was made (the 1960s), including the Vietnam War and racial intolerance.

Bad science does not necessarily mean bad SF storytelling. Indeed, given a choice between bad science and a good story, or good science and a bad story, most readers would opt for the former. This is the problem with this collection; the science is good, but is not matched by the stories.

Inspiring SF 

It is well known that Star Trek helped to inspire many schoolchildren in the US and UK in the 1960s and 1970s to study science and engineering at university. More recently, the success of CSI: Crime Scene  Investigation led to a major increase in applications to forensic science courses at universities. In both Star Trek and CSI, science and scientists are portrayed in a very positive manner, even if the science itself is not always accurate. Is this lack of scientific accuracy a worry? To some extent, but is outweighed by the fact that such programmes do at least show that science is exciting and entertaining.

If this collection of stories has even a small fraction of the impact that Star Trek and CSI have had on the image of science and scientists, that would be a very positive outcome. However, in my opinion it is simply not entertaining enough for this to happen. I hope I am wrong.

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Professor Francis Keenan
Professor Francis Keenan is Head of the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s University, Belfast. Supported by AWE Aldermaston and PPARC, he has developed presentations to schoolchildren and the general public on the science in science-fiction films and television programmes.
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