Science and Science Fiction
Turner v. Gribbin
The Arthur C. Clarke Award is given to the best SF novel of the previous year. In 1988, it was won by George Turner's novel The Sea and Summer (published as Drowning Towers in the US). His acceptance speech, first published in Vector 146, stressed what he saw as the moral duty of SF writers: scientific extrapolation. In the same issue, science (and sometime SF) writer John Gribbin responded.
I had never heard of the International Science Policy Foundation until I heard that The Sea and Summer had taken this year's Arthur C Clarke Award. In fact, I still know precious little about it but will certainly have to find out more, because the title sounds like that of an organisation which believes in some things that I believe in and would like to see put into practice.
The title of the seminar on 11 June 1988, "The Practical Applications of Science Fiction", set bells ringing in my ears. To explain why, let me read a short passage:
"... the question is one of convincing humanity that it must learn restraint, and of compensating for the resultant psychological losses. It needs study now, not in thirty years time.
"Humanity faces, in the next half century, not a crisis but a constellation of crises, and science fiction, which once had a genuine concern for the future, has scarcely a word to say about encroaching realities. It is the one genuinely optimistic branch of 20th century literature, the only one that believes that if you don't look, whatever it is will go away.
"It would be idle to pretend that a responsible science fiction could answer the bitter questions waiting, but it could begin the process of laying out, in dramatic form, the need for thought and the areas of need. Its largest readership is among today's young who will live to face the consequences of present thoughtlessness. Some thinking should begin in a genre specifically designed, in its origins, to foster thought."
I wrote those words four years ago, in a biographical memoir called In the Heart or In the Head, which has not been published outside Australia. I wrote them as part of an argument that a responsible literature must play a part in forming society, not merely reporting on it. And how can that role be better filled than by considering the future—its promises, its threats and its unclear, looming possibilities--and mediating upon them in a form assimilable by a mass readership?
Please don't try to remind me that science fiction already writes about the future. It does nothing of the sort. It merely fantasises about different times and places. It takes the easy way out. How much even semi-factual science fiction has been written about nuclear war? Practically none. What science fiction does is skip the hard part and proceed directly to the post-holocaust ear (postulating that there will indeed by one) and fill it with genetically impossible monsters, telepaths and, lately, sword-swinging Amazons.
How many stories do you read concerning the near future, based in logical fashion on the indications of the present? Damned few, and those few are usually too timid to matter.
What I am getting at is this: Having published these statements in a book widely read by science fiction fans in my own country, it was up to me to produce a novel in accordance with my own creed. The result was The Sea and Summer. I had two purposes in mind.
One was to write a science fiction novel in mainstream fashion, designed to appeal to the wider readership that so rightly distrusts science fiction. That is, to base a story firmly on people, not on wild imagining. Most science fiction stories are dictated by their fantasised background; the characters act as their background dictates, demonstrating ideas rather than the truth of behaviour. I wanted to se my characters against a background which, however fanciful, was to them the norm against which they operated. I wanted to write about people who would not only be people of their time but people of any time, living out what seem to them normal lives in familiar surroundings. I wanted to base the work firmly on strongly delineated characters who would allow the reader to see the future through their eyes, not merely the author's.
That was the literary ambition. The second and in some ways more important purpose was to produce a recognisable future, one fairly close to home, whose differences could immediately be understood as proceeding from present conditions.
Now, I know that so-called futurology is about as reliable as teacup reading. Any activity more than a year or two ahead of us is a mystery. The most obvious developments can be negated or transformed by a politician's throwaway line, a laboratory breakthrough, the rise of a mad mullah or something as simple as a rainstorm preventing a protest march while somebody's baby drowns in a flooded gutter. Remember Ray Bradbury's butterfly? The future is as fragile as that.
But--there are trends which will be difficult to reverse and some of them may lead to disaster; they are integral to the planet and to us. Something of them will survive to plague us, whatever happens.
Here are some of them:
—The Greenhouse Effect
—The failure to produce a durable economic theory
—Overuse of natural resources
—Inability to produce a philosophy of living to keep pace with explosive technological change
There are others, but there is a limit to what one rather ordinary bloke can handle in a single novel, and these were my choices. They were quite enough for the depiction of eight or nine major characters struggling for existence in a nation of wildly fluctuating weather conditions, melting icecaps, bankrupted treasury, near-total automation and a government driven to murderous devices to avert drowning in insoluble problems.
I admit freely that I chose a worst-case scenario, set in the years 2041—2061, and chose it deliberately. I have already said that forecasting the future is impossible, so what I have said in the novel is this:
Nobody cares about the future and we will pay for not caring.
We talk about leaving a better world for our children but don't give a tinker's damn for the grandchildren.
The reason for this neglect is simple: we are too busy surviving from day to day to plan beyond emergencies. I call it bandaid planning.
The situation with governments and administrative bodies is even worse. Often they cannot take necessary action against disaster and decay because to do so would see them thrown out of an office by an electorate that wants to be reassured and cossetted now, not tomorrow. And that includes Mrs Thatcher, who has bucked the odds pretty bravely but certainly knows how far she must not go. No government can plan beyond its terms of office—and so the future rolls on, unresisted.
An Australian scientist, the late Sir MacFarlane Burnett, said—this is the epigraph to The Sea and Summer—"We must plan for five years ahead and twenty years and a hundred years."
Indeed yes! But how?
And this is the final meaning of the novel, the bottom line, as the Yanks say:
Because of its limited tenure of office, no government exists or ever has existed that could plan against the truly menacing aspects of the future. It could set up study groups—and see its successors refuse funding because of some other urgent bandaid commitment.
So it is the common people who must be made aware of what is being done to our planet and ultimately to ourselves. Only an overwhelming mass of public opinion can force action in an area where Barry Jones, the Australian Minister for Science, has admitted the rightness of my statement that there are no votes in the future.
Sooner or later we must promote votes in the future.
Whether or not such an organisation as the ISPF can have any effect I do not know, but it sounds like a reasonable beginning.
A responsible science fiction can also play its part. Remember Brave New World and 1984? Neither was a great work of art but their ideas have become part of 20th century culture. Such impacts can be made again.
The Sea and Summer is an attempt at it, though I don't really expect to achieve the impact of Huxley or Orwell, but there are others who can surely do it better. I only hope they will.
And if anybody whines that they don't like novels with a message, let them drown when the sea rises, as it will. Every novel worth its salt has something to say. Some say it loudly, some subtly, but they say it. And it is nearly too late for the subtlety.
The future is rushing on us almost unstoppably—and science fiction, which should be aware and vocal, doesn't seem to have noticed.
As they would say in the gutters where I spent some of my low-life childhood, "Get the finger out, you mob! There's a job to do."
At a gathering at the Institute of Contemporary Arts this summer, the Arthur C Clarke Award for 1988 was presented to the publishers of The Sea and Summer, standing in for the author, George Turner. Turner wasn't present because he lives in Australia. But he sent along an audio tape with his thoughts on the award and his views regarding the role of science in science fiction. His decision to stay at home was a wise one—had he expressed these thoughts in person, someone might well have bopped him on the nose. As it is, I am moved to offer my own views on the role of science in science fiction to Vector, in the hope of finding out if it is me or him that is out of step.
Turner published the first of his four SF novels ten years ago, when he was 62. This didn't stop him castigating the entire genre for its failure to provide "scientific" accounts of the problems facing mankind, and thereby missing out on an opportunity to educate the huddled masses up to the point where they fling off their chains and rise up in rebellion against the terrible things that are done to them. His idea of good SF is 1984, or Brave New World. His own award-winning book is a gloomy tale of an overpopulated world with rising seas lapping around the slums of Melbourne. Anyone who has watched Neighbours may well regard this as the best reason to praise the greenhouse effect--but I'll let that pass. In The Sea and Summer there isn't really any science fiction at all; it is all science fact, at most extrapolation from present trends. Polemic and propaganda it may be—but if I'd been one of the judges, it wouldn't have got a sniff at an SF award, let alone one bearing Clarke's name.
So--does the science in science fiction matter? That rather depends on the fiction. Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, splendid though they are, will never be reviewed in the pages of New Scientist. On the other hand, Arthur Clarke, Fred Pohl and Charles Sheffield have all been discussed there recently, producing a grand total of two letters of complaint (out of half a million readers) protesting that a "serious scientific publication" should not stoop to discussing such rubbish. The bad news is that there have been precisely no letters in praise of the magazine's policy of reviewing SF. So, the editor (a former editor of Vector, by the way) threatens to sweep such stuff from its pages in response to public pressure.
As one of the writers contributing such reviews to that magazine, and strongly disagreeing with the views of those two letter-writers, I was delighted to learn of the award of the Arthur C Clarke "prize" to George Turner's book, in the naive hope (until I read it) that it would give me ammunition to shoot them down with, and to persuade the editor of the error of his ways. How cruelly my hopes were dashed. The "best" SF novel of the year it certainly is not. Although there are usually as many opinions on that score as there are novels published each year, even on its own terms of warning us about unpleasant futures it can't hold a candle to Bill Gibson. But the greenhouse theme is certainly a provocative and timely one. So why do I despair of using this novel to persuade those two critics of SF that there is a place for serious scientific speculation about our future, and that fiction can often bring home in gut-reaction terms truths that we already know with our minds, but have failed to appreciate emotionally?
The science in this kind of novel is not really fiction at all, except in the sense that it has not yet happened. There is no doubt that the world will get warmer because of the release of carbon dioxide to the air by human activities, no doubt that ice caps will melt as a result, and no doubt that the sea levels will rise, flooding Melbourne and, hopefully, washing Kylie Minogue away. The fiction lies in the description of the human response to this threat. Contrast this with, say, Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, which posits interstellar travel and faster than light communication, both of which most scientists would regard as pure fantasy. Or with Greg Bear's Blood Music, where the genetic engineering is uncomfortably close to the possibilities inherent in existing technology. The plausibility of the science varies from book to book; what makes a book worthwhile is not the plausibility of the science it contains, but how good the writing is. A good story with believable people facing real problems wins every time. If that book happens to deal with genuine scientific problems concerning the immediate future of humankind, then so much the better. But, speaking as a trained but non-practising scientist, I am quite happy to accept faster than light travel if that is necessary to make the wheels of the plot go round. What raises my scientific hackles is when such hokum is presented as plausible extrapolation of present day science—a sin which even Arthur Clarke himself is guilty of in at least one book.
So the thrust of my contribution to the debate Turner sparked may not be entirely what those who know my background expect. The science in science fiction is not, in my opinion, important as science. The criterion by which we jduge SF should be whether we care about the people in the story—or, simply, whether we enjoy it as a rattling good read. What is special about SF is that it can place its characters in situations that do not exist in the real world—facing the flood waters in Melbourne, struggling to repair a damaged spaceship in Mars orbit, or communicating with telepathic dragons. If we don't care whether or not the characters are engulfed by the flood waters, fail to mend their spacecraft, or get eaten by the dragons, then the book has failed, however impeccable its scientific pedigree.
Where does that leave The Sea and Summer? Some way below the top of division two. It is, indeed, good to see SF addressing real problems. But let's not get carried away singing the book's literary merits, which really do not stand up to very close inspection, and giving it awards which take the gloss off the name associated with the award. Fiction that really grips the reader is worth having even at the expense of scrupulous scientific accuracy; scientific accuracy is not much good if the fiction fails to grip.
This article first appeared in Vector 146. Back issues of Vector are available from