Tag Archives: Neuroscience

Science Fiction in the Doldrums

There has been a rash of New schools in SF recently: New Pulp, New Weird, Strange SF, Optimistic SF, and the grand daddy of them all (since it started up around a decade ago) Mundane SF. There are more of course, but these are the ones that spring directly into my mind. You could even argue that Steampunk and its progeny (Diesel Punk, Clock Punk, Bio Punk—yeah I know that is a more direct offshoot of Cyberpunk—et al.) are part of the same movement.

What is the movement?

To give Science Fiction a new course when the winds of change are disturbed, erratic, leaving the genre becalmed. SF relies on change, it needs to lift the seeing glass to its eye and look ahead to new lands, new ideas, new knowledge. But the doldrums have it now and the oars are out, pulling it towards cleaner winds.

The problem?

None of the oarsmen (writers, critics, fans, publishers) can agree on which direction to row, so the ship circles endlessly as people argue about definitions and directions.

Why has this come about?

The problem lies not within the writers or the fans or the publishers or the words written down upon a page. The problem lies within the stars, or rather within science itself.

Science is in a period of evidence gathering right now. Like Copernicus, scientists are amassing data. They are waiting on the next Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Everett, to come along and create a new paradigm. They know that the theories they have right now don’t work. They know that Dark Matter and Dark Energy are fudges; they hope that they exist, because it will make everything easier, but easy is not something the universe provides—as a general rule.

So they amass data. They find the Higgs particle, they map the heavens in greater and greater detail, they take little slivers of data and try to say, ‘this means this,’ without anything to really stand on.

This is not an attack on science. This has happened before, moving from the geocentric model to the heliocentric model happened because of the evidence amassed by Copernicus and Galileo, because of the elliptical orbits plotted by Kepler, which gave Newton all the data he required to come up with his theory. At least, this time, science doesn’t have to deal with the inquisition.

The same thing is happening in the biological sciences, the genome project, and its successors, is evidence gathering at its finest. They are mapping the genes of life on Earth and discovering that things don’t quite add up, which is where epigenetics comes lunging into the debate.

Scientists know this is true. They know that their models of the universe and life are incomplete, they know they are waiting on enough data, they know they are waiting on the next genius who can use that data to make sense of it all.

But this all leaves Science Fiction in irons, waiting for a theory to start up the wild speculation and considered extrapolation that defines the genre.

The first true Science Fiction novel is generally considered to be Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein‘, which was built on the discovery that dead flesh could be reanimated by electricity. Jules Verne built his stories on the technological advances of the 19th century, that onrushing wave of progress that changed the world forever. HG Well’s ‘Time Machine‘ was really about the new scientific theory of evolution as was ‘War of the Worlds‘.

Then came Einstein. EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s ‘Classic Lensman Series‘ (that was on the covers of the books I read as a kid and that is how I think of it) invented the Inertialess Drive so that his characters could travel faster than the speed of light. He also used antimatter and evolution in his stories, plus the—very popular but since happily discredited—science of eugenics. He also created Space Opera as a by-product of his musings.

Do you see it yet?

Science Fiction needs Science to advance, to come up with new theories, to provide the winds for its sails.

Golden Age Science Fiction surfed Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Evolution, with a large doses of Eugenics and Cloning thrown into the mix.

New Wave Science Fiction dived into the underbelly of Science Fiction, using the new ‘sciences’ (in quotes because a science without a paradigm is not a science IMHO) of psychology and sociology and so forth to allow them to breathe down there in the deeps.

Cyberpunk was built on the onrushing wave of progress in electronics that changed the world.

Each of these periods changed Science Fiction completely. The Golden Age created the majority of the tropes. The New Wave subverted most of the tropes. And Cyberpunk gave a whole viewpoint on the tropes.

The New (there’s that word again) Space Operas could not exist without cyberpunk. It informs all the Shipminds, and Zones, and so forth.

Something else to note.

Jules Verne wrote his stories around the 1870s (or thereabouts). HG Wells wrote his stories around the turn of the 20th century. The Golden Age ran from about the 1920s to 1940s (this is where I could really do with doing some serious research (which I didn’t have time for)—Pulp Era, Golden Age, to me they are the same thing, but not to Wiki. The New Wave ran from about the 1960s. And Cyberpunk began in the 1980s.

So every 20 years or so Science Fiction has renewed itself.

It’s been 30 years since Cyberpunk, and no new thrust has appeared.

Steampunk looked backwards (and Jules Verne did not write Steampunk—just because you like his stories and try to recreate them with a more modern sensibility does not mean he was writing Steampunk 140 years ago. He was writing about the future. Steampunk isn’t. I like Steampunk, I like the sensibility of it, but this really irritates me).

Mundane Science Fiction takes the premise that Science Fiction should only use the known laws of the Universe. I can understand the reasoning. When people are out there calling Star Wars Science Fiction, you really want to stand up and say, ‘No, Science Fiction is based on scientific plausibility.’ Which means you need an answer when somebody says, ‘what about FTL, telepathy, parallel worlds etc, are they scientifically plausible?’ So Mundane Science Fiction is born. It would be an interesting challenge to write a story in that field, but it really isn’t the future of SF. It’s too limited.

But the new generation of Science Fiction fans and writers know that the field needs to renew itself. They understand that the clock is ticking. They want their new paradigm.

But Science is data gathering. All the current theories have been around for a while. None of them quite match the evidence and there are the fudgicles of, ‘the equations only work if we postulate that 90 plus percent of the universe is invisible’, ticking away like a time-bomb. The same is true in the biological science because they now have plenty of evidence that genetics is a hell of a lot stranger than they first thought. And the same is also true of the cognitive science (the grandchild of the ‘Soft’ sciences) because they are having a bit of difficulty defining consciousness.

The latest oarsmen calling out the stroke as ‘New Weird, New Pulp.’ ‘Same diff look at that unusual wave over there “Strange SF”.’ ‘Oh why can’t we be more optimistic?’ ‘Because the world is going to hell in a hand basket.’ ‘Pull this way.’ ‘No that way.’ ‘No over there.’ ‘Dammit I’m hungry.’ ‘I’m thirsty, any more of that “pan-galactic gargle blaster” left?” are all trying to spot the clouds building over the new lands, are trying to see the landlubber birds flying towards them, overheating the arguments as they try to see the surf crashing onto the beaches of the next reinvention of the genre.

It will arrive, we will get there, its only a matter of time. But really, Science, pull your bloody finger out, I’m getting heatstroke here.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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PK’s jaundiced futurism: Am I crazy Or Is It The Rest Of The Freaking World?

This io9 article  got an instant two letter answer from me, in a loud enough voice to disturb the librarian. I wasn’t actually in the library at the time, but she climbed the 1 in 3 hill to my house half a mile away just the say, “shhhhhhh”.

The answer was of course…

NO!!!!!!

A thousand bloody times no.

But that makes for a very short blog post so let me explain my gut reaction.

First, at the risk of upsetting Godwin’s law, ever heard of eugenics and the Nazis. Yeah, look them up, they took turn of the last century science and used it in a viciously nasty way. Do you really want to go down that route again? Do you think that if we start eliminating certain genes from the gene pool (via designer babies, abortion, or god knows what…post partum gene therapy maybe?) and make the culling (because that is what it is) a legal requirement that it will end there?

You give governments that sort of power at your peril. They should not even be allowed to look at your genetic code…ever. Not with your consent or without. DNA evidence at a crime scene (which is not the same as fingerprints. Fingerprints merely identify someone. DNA is the code used to build someone’s entire physical form—a slight difference there) does not mean the government should be able to go digging around in that code to find out stuff about the criminal, or at least it shouldn’t (they use the lovely term ‘genetic profiling’ for using the DNA to build a picture of the criminal—here’s a hint, they decide to make Jaywalking a criminal offence that requires a genetic swab being taken and bingo: you is being profiled, bruv) but they do.

It should not be legal to do this. We know that they will do it anyway, they’re governments, they don’t give a damn about your privacy or your rights, but they should have to do it under the counter not out in plain sight and if they get busted you should be able to sue them for the—frankly—disgusting invasion of privacy.

Why? Because they’re governments. What other reason do you need? Pick up a history book, read it, any period you like. See what governments will do if given the chance.

Don’t give them the chance.

Ever.

Okay, that’s one reason why I disturbed the librarian. Now onto the more philosophical reason.

Posit: we don’t bloody understand evolution fully and you buggers want to start playing around with the genetic code of the human race. What are you? Freaking crazy? (Hmmm…maybe philosophical was a bit of a stretch).

We have no idea what the genes that seem to point to a tendency towards psychopathic disorders are for, other than they seem to point to a tendency towards psychopathic disorders. So we go all snippy snippy on them and maybe we end up with an outcome we didn’t expect and that we can’t put right without genetically altering the entire human race. I’m not sure that is a particularly smart thing to do. It’s kinda like deliberately pumping tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere because you’d quite like to buy beachfront property in Alaska.

There is a law called “The Law of Unintended Consequences” because we live in a chaotic world. Start messing about with what makes us human (that’ll be the genes, and the expression of those genes, and the proteins that those genes produce, and the way those proteins fold, and methylation which leads on to epigenetics—which suggests that what your ancestors did in life affects how your genes are expressed. Grandmama lived through a famine, you have a propensity to put on weight. A good starting point for why we shouldn’t be futzing around with the human genome. And there are a whole host of other factors that I didn’t mention) and we don’t know where it will end up.

Start messing around with the human brain and there’s no way of knowing (at all) where we will end up. The human brain is the most complex organ in the world. We’re not really sure how it works. We’re not sure if the brain/mind duality exists or if the mind arises out of the brain through understandable process, we don’t even know, or are even close to understanding, how consciousness works. Evidence of this is shown by scientific papers using being awake as a synonym for consciousness, which technically in a writing sense it is, but it is not a synonym for mind.

I’m not against genetic medicine, but I think we should draw a line at germline medicine until we have more idea of how the germline actually works (and yes, eliminating psychopaths from the population will most definitely affect the germline).

It is not: plug this into there and that happens. It is: change this one thing in an individual and then let him/her loose to mix with all these other six billion individuals and then let their children mix with their children, and then let those children… It’s turtles all the way down and all of them can snap your bollocks off.

So, in conclusion, any chance of not screwing around with things you don’t understand just because you think you are doing it for the greater good?

Any chance at all?

No?

Didn’t think so.

But there will be soma, right?

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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