Intent of the Founders

An Oxford professor wonders if science fiction stories might be used to convey real science to influence world policy-makers.

When did he begin to suspect? Did Hugo Gernsback blab?

Actually, T. N. Palmer’s article “Is Science Fiction a Genre for Communicating Scientific Research? A Case Study in Climate Prediction” in the October 2010 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society is interested the highly focused question of whether SF can promote the acceptance of climate change science by key leaders:

Are there situations where science fiction is an effective genre for communicating—for example, to key policy- and decision makers—results from contemporary scientific research? Indeed, might sci-fi sometimes be a more effective genre for communication than conventional means? I want to discuss this question in the context of anthropogenic climate change. Certainly there have been a number of sci-fi stories that deal with the climate change problem (e.g., by Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Crichton), including one very memorable movie: The Day After Tomorrow. I am sure readers will have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of such works of fiction in promoting the science underlying climate change.

It’s probably my duty as a fan to quibble about the use of the term “sci-fi” in relation to hard science stories. Isn’t the whole thrust of “sci-fi” a certain crowd-pleasing abandonment of strict adherence to genuine science? But that’s a minor point.

The major road block in the way of Palmer’s vision of using SF to promote climate change science is that readers are not being wooed by just one side. There are SF writers positioned on both sides of the debate — setting aside for the moment the technicality that only one side considers there to be anything to debate. So there is a significant noise level to overcome (or the free exchange of ideas in the intellectual marketplace, depending upon your view.)

Another consideration is that SF is a skeptical genre – obedient compliance with massive governmental initiatives and conformity to emergency measures is the opposite of most readers’ idea of entertainment.

However, most people will find something to like in Palmer’s short story “Sunrise” (PDF file), a homage to “Nightfall” that accompanies his article as a demonstration of the didactic fiction he has in mind.

Palmer knows it’s hard to save a world from climate change even if the need is generally accepted – in fact, so hard his characters fail, and a civilization-destroying disaster ends the story.

And isn’t that what readers respond to, genuine science or not? Like Raymond Chandler’s dictum about what must happen if a gun is mentioned at the beginning of a mystery, science fiction writers are not allowed to dwell on a predicted disaster then end a story by waving a cape as it passes everyone by.   

[Thanks to Sam Long for the link.]

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4 thoughts on “Intent of the Founders

  1. I find it slightly ironic that “Sunrise” turns our current global warming discussion on its head in multiple ways. The fundamental error, within the story, turns out to be that of the scientists. They are too hidebound to think any form of knowledge other than their own is of any value.

    Back to reality, what frustrates some of us is that neither side seems even marginally willing to investigate the claims of the other. They are two ostriches with their heads stuck in opposite sides of the sandbox. One refuses to admit that there is a global warming problem at all. (“It’s all a cycle! We’ll be back in an Ice Age in no time! No action should be taken!”) The other refuses to admit that if the amount of the warming that is anthropogenic is a small fraction of the overall change, it should have an impact on policy. (“We don’t care that warming will continue even if humans die off! We must dismantle our global economy, if that’s what it takes!” “Every possible action must be taken!”)

    Neither of those extreme views is very rational. Stopping global warming entirely would require a massive international effort that would, bluntly, kill a lot of people, mostly indirectly. Doing nothing would also kill a lot of people, also mostly indirectly. Most of us think that is a bad thing either way, and the Bengali people won’t be happy regardless of whether our choices starve them or drown them.

    SF can suggest a lot of things (clouds of sun-blocking satellites, genetic manipulation to darken our skins, let Darwinism take its course, move all the Polynesians to Australia). It is a genre where the “thought experiment” a la Ursula K. LeGuin is an accepted technique. But SF can’t make the people whose opinions matter, on either side, think with open minds.


  2. Like Raymond Chandler’s dictum about what must happen if a gun is mentioned at the beginning of a mystery […]

    Not Chekhov?

    One issue that these debates leave off is that the outcome of global climate change is not equally disadvantageous. Take a Neo-Oligocene:

    Most experts agree that drowning every coastal city on the Gulf and coasts [1] and reducing America’s breadbasket to an arid wasteland is a small price to pay if people in Canada’s urban corridor no longer have to shovel snow in the winter.

    1: Providentially, even a 13 meter rise in sea level doesn’t affect Toronto and affects Montreal only a little [2]. Even Vancouver …. well, Toronto and Montreal will be OK.

    2: What happens with the Great Lakes is still open to question, I believe.

  3. I saw the Chekov play “The Cherry Orchard” a few years ago and was intrigued to note that early on in the play one character mentions that he always carries a revolver.

    And it’s never mentioned again.

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