On a Facebook group devoted to reading science fiction I asked members if they’d stop reading a SF story if they thought the premise unscientific. The general consensus was no, that people read science fiction for storytelling not science. Good enough. On another thread a member asked if we should give up on science fiction about faster-than-light travel since science suggests that’s not possible. This time members objected because they felt we’d eventually find a way around the speed limit of light. I felt many of them were quite passionate about that too.
Over the years I’ve seen many heated discussions over science fictional concepts. That if you separate the concept from the science fiction, many fans will defend unscientific concepts. I believe science fiction has spread certain ideas that people now hold on faith as being possible. I believe a fair percentage of people now have a faith in a Star Trek/Star Wars kind of future where humanity roams the galaxy and colonizes other worlds. I believe a smaller percentage of the population, but a growing one, believes that brain downloading will be possible in the future. And, there’s another group that believes humans have, or have the potential for psychic powers. This group predates science fiction, but science fiction has claimed this concept too.
There is no scientific evidence that any of these three concepts have any validity at all. Some of the faithful of these beliefs say that science offers hope that interstellar travel, brain downloading, and psychic powers can or will exist, but I don’t think that’s really true. Many of these believers base their faith on the idea that science will eventually discover a way to achieve anything. One of their favorite bits of counter logic is to say that going faster than the speed of sound was considered scientifically impossible at one time, but we do it now. That wasn’t true either.
Their trump card is to always say we don’t know what science will discover. That’s true, but I also believe that’s a kind of faith, like faith in the unlimited power of God.
I can’t disprove that FTL is possible. I can’t prove we won’t develop psychic powers or never have our brains downloaded into robots or clones in the future. But the point I’m making isn’t about whether or not these things could exist. I’m fascinated that the faith in these concepts exist.
It’s rather psychologically revealing, don’t you think? For years I’ve considered science fiction a kind of substitution for religion in modern times. Doesn’t the galactic empires of Star Trek/Star Wars represent a kind of Heaven/Nirvana/Valhalla? Doesn’t brain downloading represent a new way of finding life after death? Isn’t psychic powers wanting to become more like God?
I recently reread “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson for our book club. On one hand it’s lovely fantasy science fiction, on the other hand, it’s a UFO cultist’s wildest wet dream. Carlotta, a sixteen-year-old girl is saved by space aliens and given everlasting life in the heavens with a great teleological explanation. What’s kind of funny is Wilson accepts the speed of light speed limit, and ignores psychic powers yet finds substitutes for both while basing everything on brain downloading. This story begs Freudian analysis, although I believe Freud is currently out of favor scientifically.
Probably most science fiction fans are rational enough to know these wonders aren’t meant for them, but they wish they were at some level, and have a kind of faith they might be possible for future people. And I’m sure most of them will deny their secret faith and claim science fiction is just fun stories.
Even if we’re completely scientific and aren’t tainted by these hopes we still love a good science fiction story based on the fantastic. Yesterday I read “An Infinite Summer” by Christopher Priest that was just beautiful. (see also Wikipedia, and Joachim Boaz)
“An Infinite Summer” is a very unique time travel love story that I doubt anyone would ever believe is possible. I believe it’s the purest form of fantasy science fiction. Most science fiction is fantasy science fiction. I do love scientific science fiction, but it’s not very common. (The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is an example.) I have often criticized fantasy science fiction for being unscientific. I think I’m wrong now. I believe I was really objecting to that whiff of faith I feel some people find in fantasy science fiction. In some ways faith is admirable, but in other ways, it’s a kind of sad hope for impossible dreams.
I love “An Infinite Summer” for being a work of art. It’s a beautiful work of imagination. So is “Utriusque Cosmi” is we only see it as fantasy science fiction. I guess what bothers me philosophically is faith in science fiction where we hope fantasy science fiction could become scientific science fiction.
By the way, I’d love to own a copy of Priest’s collection An Infinite Summer with this cover. Finding one is proving hard. But if anyone has a 300 dpi scan of it I’d love if you’d let me have a copy.
James Wallace Harris, 11/14/20