My friend Alex Lamb has written an excellent essay on why scientists – and science fiction writers – should play with things considered impossible, like faster than light travel. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the more everyone plays with fantastic ideas, the more awesome things we’ll discover. They might not be the things we think we’ll discover, but that’s okay. The point is to open our minds and see possibilities.
Alex’s forthcoming novel from Gollancz, Roboteer, uses a warp drive to get around the lightspeed problem. He helped me work out the space travel in my new book, The Weave. Both build on the ideas physicist Miguel Alcubierre came up with when he was playing around with how warp drives might work.
And as Alex notes, some folks at NASA are playing with these ideas, too – albeit in an underfunded way. These systems probably won’t work in real life, but that’s not the point. As Alex says:
The lesson of this story, for me, is that when we bother to suspend disbelief, and to use our imagination to stretch science, we begin to see exciting possibilities that we otherwise miss. Most of those possibilities don’t pan out, but unless we stretch, we never look, and consequently, never learn.
He also has some things to say about how we are doing science these days that are very much to the point and are relevant to academic work of all kinds. I’d like to take a step in another direction, though, and point out that one of the reasons to use science that doesn’t exist yet – and may never exist – in science fiction novels is to tell stories that are about things other than the technology.
For example, in The Weave, I wanted humans to meet aliens, but I also wanted my humans to be in reasonably close contact with Earth and the Solar System. My primary interest was in the human/alien interaction, but I also wanted the pressure of politics back home on my humans. I couldn’t do that without speculating on the ways in which the physics of space travel and communications might change, because it seems pretty clear to me that there aren’t any aliens of the type I had in mind – intelligent, but not technologically advanced – close by.
While I can think of a couple of works that posit alien intelligence in our Solar System – Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dreams and a story by Michael Swanwick set on Titan that appeared in Asimov’s about fifteen years ago (I’ve forgotten the title, but not the story) – those are very different aliens.
Someone else, of course, might want to tell a story about long range space travel that could be done with what we know right now. We need stories like that, too, just as we need the ones that address what we’re learning about, say, our microbiome (Joan Slonczewski has done that beautifully), or our brains.
Anyone writing truly speculative science fiction is going to venture into things that are not possible in our current knowledge. For that matter, as Alex points out, anyone doing the kind of science humanity needs right now is going to need to go out on a limb, too.
This isn’t an argument in favor of crackpots – and there are crackpots. Nor is it an argument to take what Judith Tarr calls “handwavium” seriously when it’s clearly a plot device to get us to another story.
It is an argument in favor of assuming the human imagination is capable of finding solutions — and not just scientific and technological ones — to many of the things we see as barriers to our future, whether we’re talking space travel, climate change, or human conflict.
It doesn’t matter whether the ones we speculate about in fiction work as we describe them. What matters is that someone else builds on the idea. Ursula K. Le Guin’s ideas about utopia in The Dispossessed provide seeds for other people to think about what a fair and just society would look like. Writers, scholars, and utopian dreamers can start there and go somewhere else with it.
We need creative ideas in the world, and they need to come from people who know enough to build on possibilities that have a hair of a chance of success. That’s why Alex is arguing for changes in how we do science these days. It’s why I want to see lots more speculation in my science fiction.