Sci-Fi vs Science: How Authors View the Greatest Scientific Challenges of Our Time

Ever since Mary Shelley’s seminal Frankenstein, science fiction has been responding to modern science, reflecting its progress and challenges and raising questions about its social impacts. Sci-fi has always been quick to follow the zeitgeist, seemingly predicting various discoveries and their societal consequences, asking important questions before policy-makers do, and addressing scientific challenges. What are the scientific challenges perceived by current SF authors, and do they see a way of overcoming them—with or without the help of science fiction?

Our world is rife with serious challenges of both scientific and social nature, often closely intertwined. Just as earlier science fiction warned of weapons of mass destruction and then responded to the actual development and use of the atomic bomb, today—while the threat of nuclear annihilation is not gone—frontiers such as climate change or environmental destruction have emerged. Lots of fictional works have reflected on these topics in passing, as a part of the background; some focused on them through elaborate metaphors; some addressed them head-on. Last year’s The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson constitutes a prime example of the latter, blending together fiction heavily extrapolating from the present and intertext parts dipping into various aspects of anthropogenic climate change and tackling it.

Subgenres such as solarpunk and cli-fi have been present on the SF scene for some time and are becoming increasingly popular internationally. However, while climate change is probably the most salient challenge on most people’s minds, SF has long been addressing numerous topics challenging our world such as ecosystem degradation, genetic engineering in the context of social and economic inequalities, artificial intelligence and its more and less expected uses and consequences, bodily modifications, cryptography, space exploration…

Earlier this year, I started working on an anthology titled Life Beyond Us, revolving around the titular theme and introducing the science of astrobiology through stories and accompanying short science essays. The aim is to not just publish mind-blowing SF, but promote science understanding, critical thinking and interest in STE(A)M at the same time, so when I interviewed the contributing authors for their spotlights during the book’s Kickstarter campaign (that ended successfully in early May), I naturally asked about their relationship to science and what they see as the greatest scientific challenge of our time. After all, isn’t tackling these one of SF’s long-standing ambitions?

As expected, many mentioned climate change. It was the biggest challenge perceived by authors like Mary Robinette Kowal, Tobias S. Buckell, Eugen Bacon, Rich Larson, Julie E. Czerneda and Simone Heller, and indirectly as a part of stabilizing the Earth’s biosphere by Gregory Benford. However, there is a larger problem behind tackling anthropogenic climate change, and that is our ability and most of all willingness to do so. To what extent are we willing to change our way of life? What can an individual really do, and what political measures—international, ideally even global—can we expect to be realistically taken? Like Mary Robinette Kowal said: “The real challenge isn’t the science, but the funding of the science. We understand what the problem is, we know how to ameliorate it, we have people who want to do it, it’s just a matter of prioritizing and funding it.” On a similar note, Tobias S. Buckell added: “Our brains are poorly designed for handling larger, more abstract, very slow, challenges. Our societies have come far, but still struggle to create structures for handling an existential crisis like this.”

Indeed, we’re not greatly equipped for thinking in the long term. Peter Watts warns that even if we manage to overcome one crisis, another may well end up being the last one, unless we change: “The proximate challenge is our ongoing devastation of the biosphere… We’re wiping out somewhere between 50,000 and 130,000 species every year according to the estimates I’ve seen. Even if you’re a Human supremacist, an utterly selfish asshole who doesn’t give a shit about any species but your own, we’re talking about our life-support system here. You can only yank so many rivets out of the fuselage before the wing falls off. But that’s only proximate. The sad truth is that even if we do manage to cheat our way out of the current crisis, we’ll just make another one further down the line. It’s easy to forget that we were in danger of blowing ourselves up with nukes before anyone had ever heard of anthropogenic climate change; fifty years hence we may be in mortal danger from a grey-goo scenario or runaway paperclip-building AIs. The root problem of all these things is Human Nature; so ultimately, that’s what has to change. We have to immunize ourselves against trolley paradoxes and kin selection, we have to eliminate hyperbolic discounting from the human mindset. We have to weed out all these destructive circuits at the neurochemical level.”

That is a great challenge from both the scientific and social standpoint. Watts’ work often revolves around changing Human Nature (e.g. in Blindsight, the Sunflowers cycle stories, “Incorruptible” or “Repeating The Past”), partly or as the main story theme, and he finds inspiration for his fiction in cutting-edge research: “For example, victims of Parkinson’s tend to be less religious than the rest of the population: if you could isolate that one impact, there’s a chance we could weed religious belief out of the human mindset, which would make us a lot less pernicious right out of the gate. Certain types of brain lesions make people a lot more effective at utilitarian choices, make us less moral and more ethical. Amping up the brain’s production of nociceptin could counteract some of the more pernicious, addictive, reward-seeking effects of dopamine—make us less greedy, in other words. So there are hints of a long-term solution. But as far as I know, there isn’t even the whiff of an actual research program on the horizon, and that’s no surprise. Try to get funding for a project whose stated goal is to save Humanity by making it less Human.”

A grand vision worthy of SF, and one that might very well be actually helpful, but how many people in the near future would willingly give up Humanity with the capital H? Wouldn’t an attempt to avert the social problems standing in the way of a more sustainable civilization run into the same social problems?

G. David Nordley said: “We need to understand better why so many people do irrational things that endanger the well-being, if not the existence, of their own species.” The problem is, though, that for the most part, we do know—it’s just hard to change, unless we start thinking of changing ourselves, like outlined above. That’s related not just to our response to climate change, but also the pandemic and other disasters. We’ve seen—and are still seeing—many people, even in influential positions, play down the dangers of Covid, disregard expert advice, refuse to wear a mask among others, reject vaccines, spread rumors with no foundation in science… It’s alarming that even countries that started vaccinating early and quickly are now having trouble reaching somewhere near the expected herd immunity threshold—not because they lacked vaccines, but because they lack adults willing to get their jab and protect themselves and others. Conquering diseases was the challenge Lucie Lukačovičová raised, along with transhumanism as one of the ways SF works have suggested as a potential solution (coming with its own problems).

Tessa Fisher mentioned “climate change, skyrocketing inequity, and ecological degradation”, and went on to add “none of these are purely scientific problems, however, and that means scientists are going to have to be willing to engage people outside their fields, or outside science entirely, if they want to make a meaningful contribution to building a better future.”

But is it really up to scientists? When I interviewed Peter Watts for Clarkesworld back in 2014, we discussed the role of scientists in communicating scientific issues, and he refused the notion that scientists are to blame for people fighting against evolution, climate change, vaccination… It’s the underlying biases we need to address beside communication, because “if you present someone with ironclad, irrefutable, expert evidence that their cherished beliefs are wrong, they’ll just dig in their heels and clutch those beliefs even closer to their bosoms, while at the same time vilifying the expert who contradicted them. It’s not that they don’t understand the arguments; it’s just that they’ll reject anything that’s inconsistent with their preferred worldview.” In a way, it’s funny how rarely we encounter this kind of issue in the science-fictional world. There, problems so often have a scientific or technical solution—and people seem to readily accept it, their biases and opinions notwithstanding (think of Star Trek, with some notable exceptions). But what is the solution if we elect leaders who mistrust or actively undermine science and gain a large following?

In line with that, author and aerospace engineer Eric Choi cited “lack of scientific and medical literacy amongst the political leadership of many countries” as a problem we face. In a similar vein, Bogi Takács, beside mentioning P versus NP (which is an amazing problem whose solution could overturn computing, cryptography and the whole society!), stated that “many of the great scientific challenges are magnified by a lack of political/institutional will to dedicate resources to solving them, and this can’t really be separated out from the magnitude of the challenge.”

Lots of biases of the human psyche and society contribute to the situation. In a way, we’re stuck in a destructive feedback loop powered by endless “that’s not my problem”, “but everyone does that”, “I don’t believe so” and “but I want this”. But we’re not helpless against it as long as we’re conscious of it. What can you do if the metaphorical payoff matrix of the game suggests striving for short-term gain, and all losing long-term? Change the payoffs—make it a different game. Can SF help address these challenges? We can see critiques of mindless profit-seeking even in interwar SF such as Karel Čapek’s novel The War With the Newts, where short-term profit gained by using the large intelligent newts for labor (and then war) not only blinds people to the risk of the newts rebelling, but makes them oblivious to destroying their own planet for the sake of nation and prestige.

Neuroscientist and writer Arula Ratnakar sees a possible way out in greater interdisciplinarity: “Many people don’t believe they can succeed in science, and many also don’t believe they can succeed in the arts, if they are in one discipline or the other. In reality, both require creativity, imagination, problem solving, and determination. The future is in interdisciplinary education and interdisciplinary career trajectories. The more we stop boxing ourselves into single specializations as a consequence of our current, flawed education system, the more our species will collaborate and progress. Science fiction as an art form does this interdisciplinary synthesis already, which is why I love it. Through science fiction I can design buildings and experiments and people and plots all at the same time.”

SF does indeed help us experiment and design different worlds—better worlds, sometimes, to perhaps inspire us to pursue them, or worse ones, to maybe warn us if we’re perceptive enough. It’s no panacea. Despite all the think tanks and design fiction and advisory councils, science fiction holds little power over the fate of the world. Is that a reason to give up, though? Instead, we can exercise the little power while writing brilliant fiction at the same time—which is, after all, one of the goals of Life Beyond Us. Being SF authors, perhaps it makes sense that we’re mostly being optimistic about the role of science fiction in helping us tackle current (scientific and societal) challenges. As Rich Larson said: “There’s also been a push for more solution-oriented stories, instead of just wallowing in disaster narratives. I’m a pessimist by nature, but I see the value in inspiring people and showing off the end goals of real technologies currently being worked on.” One can see this trend in SF with publications such as Imagine 2200, Sunvault (edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland), Cities of Light (edited by Joey Eschrich and Clark A. Miller), Hieroglyph (edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer) and many other ones, predominantly in the solarpunk subgenre.

Tomáš Petrásek expressed a similar sentiment: “The greatest challenge will be to ensure that humanity will be there long enough for all the scientific challenges of our time to be resolved—and that it won’t lose motivation to solve them. Which is what good science fiction is all about: showing the possible futures to strive for, or to avoid, and raising the sense of wonder.” Finally, Julie E. Czerneda said: “I do like work that pushes toward a sustainable, desirable future. I’ve no patience for an apocalypse.” I think we can all agree with that—at least for the real-world kind of apocalypse.

***

Life Beyond Us is edited by Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest, and published by Laksa Media under the aegis of the European Astrobiology Institute (EAI). It includes stories by Eugen Bacon, Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, Renan Bernardo, Jana Bianchi, Tobias S. Buckell, Eric Choi, Julie E. Czerneda, Tessa Fisher, Simone Heller, Valentin Ivanov, Mary Robinette Kowal, Lisa Jenny Krieg, Geoffrey A. Landis, Rich Larson, Lucie Lukačovičová, Premee Mohamed, G. David Nordley, Malka Older, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Tomáš Petrásek, Brian Rappatta, Arula Ratnakar, DA Xiaolin Spires, Bogi Takács, Peter Watts, Liu Yang and B. Zelkovich, and accompanying essays by leading astrobiologists.

Julie Nováková is a scientist, educator and award-winning Czech author, editor and translator of science fiction, fantasy and detective stories. She published seven novels, one anthology, one story collection and over thirty short pieces in Czech. Her work in English appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog and elsewhere. Her works have been translated into eight languages so far, and she translates Czech stories into English (in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Welkin Magazine). She edited or co-edited an anthology of Czech speculative fiction in translation, Dreams From Beyond, a book of European SF in Filipino translation, Haka, an outreach e-book of astrobiological SF, Strangest of All, and its more ambitious follow-up print and e-book anthology Life Beyond Us (Laksa Media, upcoming in late 2022). Julie’s newest book is a story collection titled The Ship Whisperer (Arbiter Press, 2020). She is a recipient of the European fandom’s Encouragement Award and multiple Czech genre awards. She’s active in science outreach, education and nonfiction writing, and co-leads the outreach group of the European Astrobiology Institute. She’s a member of the XPRIZE Sci-fi Advisory Council.

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