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Another of my Cognitive Mapping columns. This one first appeared in Vector 211, May-June 2000.

Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars, interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords, and many more instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe. I observed here and there many in the habit of servants, with a blown bladder fastened like a flail to the end of a short stick, which they carried in their hands. In each bladder was a small quantity of dried pease or little pebbles (as I was afterwards informed). With these bladders they now and then flapped the mouths and ears of those who stood near them… it seems, the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing… And the business of this officer is, when two or more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresseth himself.
Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
Jonathan Swift

‘And luck. And serendipity. A breeze blowing Galvani’s frog legs against a railing and closing a circuit, a hand getting in the way of cathode rays, an apple falling. Fleming. Penzias and Wilson. Kekulé. Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomise the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order… And if a chaotic situation could be induced instead of us having to just wait for it to happen … It’s just an idea, but it accounts for why dozens of scientists could experiment with electrically discharged gases and never discover X rays.
Bellwether (1996)
Connie Willis

Despite the name, science fiction is not, in general, about science. It is about our confrontation with the other, with change and the effects of change. Such change may be triggered by scientific advance, but it is more likely to be the result of war, alien encounter, distance in space or time, technological innovation or any of a dozen other causes.

If we trace science fiction back to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and the fabulous voyages that followed, up to and including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, it was a time of disconcerting change in the familiar world order. The Reformation and the subsequent religious persecutions rendered the old beliefs and certainties not only unreliable but positively dangerous. Explorers were discovering entire new lands, first the Americas later Australasia, which held the promise of strange beings, fabulous wealth (El Dorado) and a potential home for the utopian communities that had sprung up in a time of political uncertainty. Such political uncertainty was brought to a head by a series of wars throughout Europe, including the English Civil War, which overthrew the old order and ensured that even when, for instance, Charles II was restored to the throne, the monarchy would never again have the same divine right. These were primarily social and political changes, and they found literary reflection in social and political satires. Science was part of the change, of course, but however much the paradigm shifts initiated by Copernicus or Galileo might overthrow our settled view of our place in the universe, this was primarily of political or religious significance and was of less immediate effect for most people than the religious wars of the time. Although the importance of science was beginning to be recognised — in Charles II’s foundation of the Royal Society, for example — when scientists did appear in the literature of change it was not as instigators or even instruments of this change, but merely as another social body to be satirised. Swift’s reduction of the Royal Society to the (literally) unworldly Laputans in Gulliver’s Travels, who are so bound-up in their indiosyncratic speculations that they cannot even engage in normal human intercourse, is typical.

As the Industrial Revolution and the impact of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution gathered pace, however, the ability of scientific discoveries and technological developments to affect everyone’s lives became obvious. This is when science became such a potent force for change that the literature of change became truly science fiction. Books began to appear that examined the power now in the hands of scientists such as Dr Frankenstein or Dr Jekyll, although the main focus was still on the social effects of the technological revolution as presented in novels such as Hard Times (1854) by Charles Dickens.

Science fiction is, above all, the literature of the 20th Century, because it is in this century that the pace of change has accelerated beyond the ability of most of us to keep up with it. Even so, the scientist, when he has appeared, has tended to conform to one of two patterns established by popular fiction from at least the middle years of the 19th Century onwards. In one avatar he is the lone hero — the solitary inventory who conjures up the actual backyard spaceship, the downhome eccentric whose front porch is a gateway for interstellar trade in ‘The Big Front Yard’ (1958) by Clifford D. Simak, the crackpot inventor in Back to the Future (1985). In the other he is the megalomaniac villain — in science fictional terms, the mad scientist plaguing the world with death rays, deadly viruses (The White Plague (1982) by Frank Herbert) or dinosaurs (Jurassic Park (1990) by Michael Crichton). Although generally driven more by obsession than intentional evil, the mad scientist is still the most popular image of the scientist as villain that sf has given the world.

The villainy of science is, perhaps surprisingly, a commonplace in science fiction. In ‘The Rose’ (1953), a stylised but beautifully choreographed version of the conflict between Art and Science (C.P. Snow’s two cultures), Charles Harness has his representative of Science proclaim: ‘In the final analysis Science means force — the ability to control the minds and bodies of men.’ This is a not uncommon assessment in science fiction, and in any battle between Art and Science the majority of science fiction writers are likely to come down on the side of Art.

In Harness’s tale the scientist is perpetually surrounded by brutal security guards, and is clearly thus linked with an unfeeling authority. Occasionally, therefore, the scientist will take on a different but still sinister role, not a mad scientist but a hidden presence. In Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) or Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976), for instance, they occupy remote bunkers, the scientists subject to a near-military regime as secretive organs of government. Bunkers such as these are, of course, survival capsules and the scientists in them may survive the apocalypse to become a manipulative presence after the fall, as in Piers Anthony’s Battle Circle trilogy (1968-75). They are also a version of the ivory tower which, as in Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains (1969), demonstrates the isolation or, indeed, alienation of the scientists detached from human issues and concerns. In some stories, such as ‘Human History’ (1996) by Lucius Shepard or Beggars and Choosers (1994) by Nancy Kress, the bunker may be transposed into a space station, but the scientists are no less chthonically isolated and may end up literally playing god, as they do in Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (1967).

Few of these, of course, are scientists in the way science is normally practiced. But science as a communal endeavour, as a matter of theorising and testing and refinement, does not lend itself to the hero-figure, or the dramatic and often violent action demanded by romantic, popular fiction — which is what science fiction is. Sometimes a more realistic portrayal of the scientist, the laboratory, the scientific process can meet the needs of the story, as it did, most famously, in Gregory Benford’s Timescape (1980), and also in Ian Watson’s ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ [date], in ‘Radiance’ by Carter Scholz (1995) or in Rafael Carter’s subtle presentation of a story as if it were a scientific paper in ‘Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by K.N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin’ (1998). In the main, though, as a basic scientific literacy has become more widespread, it has been writers from outwith science fiction who have made most use of the scientist. The scientist can be a historical figure, as in John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus (1976) or Kepler (1981), Russell McCormmach’s Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist (1982), or the curious mix of scientist and theologian in the 17th century Oxford of Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997) although more often it will be a contemporary figure, as in Banville’s Mefisto (1986), William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach (1990) or Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997). What these and other contemporary authors have seen is the way science works as metaphor. The study of ape behaviour in Brazzaville Beach provides a reflection of human behaviour; the researches of the science journalist who narrates Enduring Love, his little knowledge of a lot of things, acts as a model for his cold and prescribed actions.

But a literature whose effects are so often achieved by concretising metaphor naturally shies away from the purely metaphorical. We, as readers of science fiction, need to trust the newness that sets off the story, so we have to assume the science is not only real but actually means no more than it says. Which isn’t to say there is no metaphor in sf, only that in the main science itself does not provide that metaphor. Only Connie Willis, working in the pattern of Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat-Death of the Universe’ (1967), has consistently used science as a way of reflecting the behaviour of her characters, cleverly redoubling the image by using the behaviour of her characters to model the scientific theory. It is a device she has used variously in stories such as ‘At the Rialto’ (1989), ‘The Schwartzchild Radius’ (1987) and Bellwether. In this last, the research of the two central characters into fads and chaos don’t just feed into each other, they also provide a satirical metaphor for the way their research establishment is run. It is one of the few instances where a scientist doing science has a place in science fiction.