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Science Killed Science Fiction


originally posted: November 11, 2013
last updated: November 11, 2013

Science fiction ain't what it used to be. While fantasy novels proliferate, hard science fiction, which seriously tries to depict a plausible future world, has nearly disappeared. I think that this is partly because advances in real world science and technology have changed our plausible futures in ways that make them less amenable locales for entertaining storytelling.

Don't Kiss the Wookie

It's a big universe. There are probably other worlds out there where life has evolved. If we visit such a world we will likely find some similarities to the life forms we know. Most likely the first lifeforms that evolved there will be microorganisms. Mostly likely they will be constructed from carbon-based chemicals, because carbon is capable of forming such a mind-bogglingly vast array of different molecules from which to build the complex mechanisms needed to make a living creature.

But the specific organic chemicals used are likely to be quite different. They might have something like DNA, but it won't be DNA. There's no reason to assume that life there will be based on our familiar proteins chained together out of our familiar amino acids. It'll be organic chemistry, but probably a whole different organic chemistry.

So if you find an alien carrot growing on an alien planet, eating is likely to be as thoroughly bad an idea as quaffing down a cauldron of miscellaneous random organic chemicals would be. There is unlikely to be much in there that your body can actually digest and there is probably going to be quite a bit of stuff that is actively poisonous. So aliens and humans aren't going to be eating each other.

But what about the micro-organisms? Our planet has a really incredible range of micro-organisms that use a wide range of chemical processes to extract energy from all sorts of different sources. We find them living in every imaginable ecological niche, and they evolve fast so that they can exploit new niches that appear. Every human walks around with thousands of different kinds of micro-organisms living in their body, many of which are actually necessary to our health. It's reasonable to expect that the same will be true for alien creatures. If their micro-organisms didn't have the capacity to rapidly evolve, then they probably wouldn't have evolved into carrots or Klingons, and it's hard to imagine such energetic little creatures failing to fully colonize the larger creatures of their worlds.

So, when you kiss a Wookie, you are going to be exchanging lots of highly opportunistic little micro-organisms. Most of them will probably die quickly, but a few might well find a little niche somewhere in the alien ecology of your body where they can hang on long enough to evolve to exploit it. We've seen on Earth how invasive species can sometimes spread like wildfire. Your immune system is probably useless against alien micro-organisms. You and the Wookie are both likely to die.

And a kiss is not required. Just visiting an alien world is likely enough to trigger an ecological disaster.

So here are the rules. When visiting a world with alien life on it, you must wear a biological containment suit at all times, and you must go through a very, very thorough decontamination process when you come back. If fact, you'd really be wiser to stay in orbit, because the slightest screw-up could wreck havoc with the planet you are visiting, or your own planet when you get home.

If you want to colonize an alien planet, you'll want to choose one that is completely dead, with no life on it at all, and terraform it with lifeforms from Earth. This will be crazy hard, but it's better than the alternative. Colonizing actual living planets would be hopeless. You'd just have to sterilize the whole planet first, which would be impossibly difficult, immoral, and stupid when the universe is already full of plenty of sterile worlds.

The fact of the matter is that human beings, and probably all alien species, are not separable from their ecosystems. They can't go anywhere without taking at least a simplified copy of their ecosystem along with them. They can't be easily transplanted into alien ecosystems, and ecosystems don't mix without major disruptions.

So I think we've just ruined every science fiction story that ever contained aliens or alien worlds. Maybe we can postulate some really advanced medical technology that can control all the micro-organisms of two different planets enough to allow safe interactions with aliens, but practically speaking, we'd do better to limit all interactions with aliens to email, which makes for rather lame stories.

The Information Superhighway to Hell

In many of Heinlein's old books, people navigate their star ships by slide rule. It seemed plausible at the time, but not now. These days it's hard to visualize a future in which computers are not even more pervasive than they are now. That means that, even more so than in the world today, everyone will be in communication with everyone else, and everyone will have ready access to all information.

So when a monster appears in my bedroom, I'll probably instantly release the video recorded by my room's multiple cameras to local law enforcement and to my favorite super-facebook group, where it will be seen and commented on by every monster fan on the planet who will have it classified, criticized and debunked before it can make it halfway across the room. Someone in India who has previously encountered similar monsters will tell everyone about their surprising vulnerability to peanut butter, and police will send a drone, with a warhead full of peanut butter, through my bedroom window long before it can chomp on me.

In an adventure story, you typically want your hero to be thrown onto their own resources as much as possible. That's why literature is full of so many orphans and cabins in the woods. But in a future super-connected world, it becomes hard to isolate anyone. The science fiction writer needs to first portray a super-connected future that will seem plausible, and then needs to disconnect the characters so that they can have some adventures. It's an awkward business.

A super-connected future also causes problems for mystery plots. After all, mysteries are all about the discovery of hidden information, and it becomes a great deal harder make that interesting in a world where there is more and more information, better and better search engines, and less and less privacy.

Cyberpunk authors have a solution to this. They make the global information network unreliable, letting it be manipulated by corrupt governments, evil corporations, and the occasional heroic hacker. So the story becomes one of getting past the wall of lies that is cyberspace, and that works.

Except it doesn't.

Suppose a gadget that will link your brain into the internet becomes available today. So the whole of the internet will be just a thought away. Only downside is that every corporation that wants to sell soap will be hacking everything you see, feel and think to imbue you with an insatiable desire for soap. What? Not ready to sign up for that?

The basic fact is that society isn't going to whole-heartedly network itself unless and until its concerns about security and privacy of the networks are pretty well resolved. So the vision of a future society where computers pervade everything, but security is still so paper-thin that teenage hacker heroes can penetrate it at will, is just not plausible.

So the easiest solution to this is just to have a big war that destroys all technology, so we can go back to having lone, disconnected heroes. Hence the big post-apocalypse science fiction boom. That's a future far easier to imagine a story in than one in which technology continues to progress.

Conclusion

I'm not saying that it's impossible to write sensible science fiction any more, just that it's far harder than it used to be. I think the 2010 movie Monsters dealt with the problem of aliens somewhat sensibly. I can't think of anything that has dealt with the problem of information technology very well, but I'm sure it's possible. You can dodge the problems by retreating into fantasy-with-spaceships, or by blowing up the future to make it more like the past, but writing a classical hard science fiction novel with any of the old science fiction optimism in it is very challenging.

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