Does sci-fi have a future?

Does sci-fi have a future?

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This week we’re quoting Primo Levi (Chemist and Novelist) and Tullio Regge (Theoretical Physicist)

We know – we usually quote LEAP speakers in these newsletters, not late scientists. Primo Levi died in 1987, followed by Tullio Regge in 2014.

They were both giants of Italian (and global) science. And this week we stumbled across a book called Conversations. Published in 1990, it’s a 68 page record of the two scientists in conversation with one another – and we couldn’t put it down.

The conversations dance through scientific theory and questions about what it means to be human. And somewhere in that dance, Levi and Regge got talking about sci-fi novels.

Levi said:

“The fact remains that at this point it seems completely senseless to me that anyone who is not a physicist should write a science fiction novel.

“By now science fiction literature is a private hunting preserve, something written by physicists and for physicists. The part that enters the commercial market is marginal dross.

“True science fiction is what circulates in the republic of physicists. It was founded by people who knew some physics and biology, which they were able to communicate, and in fact it was very successful.”

But even sci-fi written by real scientists is ageing fast

Regge pointed out that even the sci-fi novels written by practising scientists couldn’t stand the test of time – because science was moving too quickly.

“But it has aged frightfully,” he said. “If you reread the ‘Urania’ novels it seems impossible that in twenty years science fiction should have been surpassed by the facts to such an extent. All the trips to the Moon have become ridiculous, they look like papier-mache scenery.”

Levi countered this by saying “Except for Wells’s book,” referring to a novel called The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells, first published in 1901. Levi said it was centred around a beautiful idea, with a scientist who invents a substance that can intercept gravitational pull.

And Regge replied:

“Wells’s astuteness was that he did not try to explain the machines he built. They were far beyond the technological possibilities of his time and therefore they could not age.”

So what about now?

Is there any point in novelists (or for that matter, scientists) writing science fiction in 2023 and beyond, when science and technology are developing at such a rapid pace that the unimaginable will soon be imaginable?

In a time when authors aren’t likely to have the grace of even a decade between a fictional idea being exciting and new, and that idea becoming a reality?

We think that depends on what you think the point of sci-fi is.

And while writers in the past accurately predicted a number of future (err, now present) technologies, we don’t think that predicting technologies is the only purpose of sci-fi.

Sci-fi imagines different ways of being

Instead of simply outlining ideas for possible future technologies, we think sci-fi does something deeper. It offers alternative ways of existing – ideas for social life that don’t fit within our current cultural norms.

For readers, that opens up new worlds of possibility. It fights against tunnel-vision. It promises the potential for change and growth, even when the current reality feels fixed.

Science-fiction helps our society practise the art of the thought experiment. And when people learn how to think experimentally, they come up with new solutions for life and society.

What are sci-fi writers writing about now?

Well, climate destruction features heavily in current science-fiction.

In her 2020 novel Goldilocks, sci-fi author Laura Lam outlined a worst-case scenario for what the planet Earth might look like from orbit in 2050:

There were swathes of land where humans could no longer survive, and habitable areas were growing crowded.

Earth was such a little, vulnerable thing in the grand scope of the universe.

But a novel like this isn’t necessarily just a hopeless thing. It’s also a nudge: a call to move in a different direction, instead of continuing to walk towards destruction.

Other recent novels are centred around shifts in global power as a result of changing climate and developing technologies (like in Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi), and the intersection between the discovery of alien lifeforms and the development of technologies including machine learning (like in The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin).

Today’s sci-fi writers may not be able to invent far-fetched machines as confidently as their predecessors could. But their job still lies in wild, expansive imagination – and here at LEAP, we think there will always be immense value in that.

Maybe technologists need to write more sci-fi

In Conversations, Tullio Regge added:

“Asimov has stopped writing, but even his famous trilogy contains a fiction that doesn’t stand up: a journey at a speed greater than that of light, and since I’m a relativist this sort of thing gives me psychic traumas.”

But Primo Levi makes a good point:

“The demands of the story forced him to do that. One either stops writing or tries to smuggle in elements that go against known laws.”

Our vote is for writers to keep writing. And as technology continues to shape our future, perhaps technologists will be the most influential sci-fi writers of our time – just as physicists were in the past.

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