sábado, 17 de novembro de 2012

The Pale Shadow of Science: Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science by Brian W. Aldiss

A venerable Oxford story tells of the college which received a large private bequest. In the senior common room, the Fellows were discussing how the money should best be invested. The Bursar finally said, 'Let's invest in property. After all, property's served us well for the last thousand years'. And the old Senior Fellow in the corner chirped up and said, 'Yes, but you know the last thousand years have been exceptional.'

We would probably all agree with the Senior Fellow. And we would probably agree that the years since the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima have been exceptional. We feel that civilization is going somewhere fast; therefore we ought to know where it is going. There seems to be no pilot on our speeding craft. So we turn to prediction.

Like ESP, to which it bears some relationship, prophecy has never become legit. Despite the commendable efforts of Nigel Calder in this country, Herman Kahn in the States, and so on, prophecy and prediction remain a happy hunting ground for astrologers and science fiction writers.

There is a kind of prediction called extrapolation, a nice scientific sounding word. How does it differ in fact from prediction? Well, you take all the known facts on a subject and simply double the number you first thought of. At least, that is how it seemed when 'futurology' became one of the in-words of the 1960s.

Extrapolation always sounds disarmingly sensible—a cool look ahead. Nigel Calder's experts in his 1964 symposium, The World in 1984 (2 volumes, Pelican), were perfectly reasonable to extrapolate from that date that we would have a Moon base In operation by 1984. Had he got his experts together in 1944, none of them would have dared speak about a Moon base.

No Moon base yet exists.

Should we therefore consider the hypothetical 1944 panel more correct than their successors, twenty years later? That would be silly. Extrapolation is really a way of thinking about the present, not the future; part of the world-picture in 1964, much more so than of our present present, included a reasonable expectation of a Moon base within twenty years. The energy crisis and the recession had not then struck.

SF is another way of thinking about the future, and of the present masked as future. It is part of the function of some science fiction writers to keep on dreaming of Moon bases.

But not all science fiction writers. It is also the function of science fiction writers to be diverse.

The only way that science fiction can be justified is if it is good science fiction, not if its predictions turn out correctly. That is a literary matter.Of course, some writers employ scientific ideas.

Suppose that I write a novel or a screenplay for a movie in which we have a hi-tech future world, where atomic-scale machinery is the norm. The application of technology and biotechnology has trans­formed human life. There are nanocomputers where switching times take a mere femtosecond (a femtosecond means a million times faster than a nanosecond, which is the billionth part of a second). Copies of oneself, clones, can easily be made, perhaps under a global health service, each clone enjoying its own life, but all separate lives able to merge their memories into one. These super­people would be almost immortal, with infinitesimal protein robots inhabiting their bodies, cleansing away poisons, making rapid repairs to any challenged organ. And when one super-person dies, resurrection is possible.

Dissatisfied still with the inadequacies of the planet itself, these super-people can transfer themselves into an immense simulator, into electronic impulses, where 'life' can proceed at many times the speed of our prosaic biological life. And to each other they are as 'real' as you and I. More real, perhaps, since their perceptions will have been greatly enhanced then: now, we see as through a glass darkly. [Note: in the future, such terms as 'life' and 'reality' will more frequently be used in the plural case.]

It is an imaginative scenario, the probability factor of which I have no means of estimating. Nor am I predicting. I have taken almost every item in this scenario from a work by a scientist, the well- known 1988 volume by Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Most SF writers must rely on similar sources. It would be ridiculous to claim anything in the above outline as 'my prediction', even were I to dress its elements up in a work of fiction a million words long.

Moravec's speculations are inspiring and exciting. They tickle the intellectual curiosity, which is a large part of the game, even when one is not enamoured of their basic assumptions. This is not to say that any foolproof scientific method has been devised which will make predictions more accurate than those of an informed writer's guesses.

In the nineteen-sixties, Herman Kahn's was a famous name. Kahn became director of the Hudson Institute in New York State. The Institute was dedicated to frameworking speculations about possible developments towards the end of the century, and was much consulted by government and industry. Herman Kahn and his associate, Anthony J. Wiener, produced a large book entitled The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Five Years (1967). Twenty-eight of those years have now passed into history, and we are able to check the reliability of the Institute's speculations.

Kahn clearly states that his institute does not set out to 'predict'— the word is set in double quotes in the Preface—any particular aspect of the future. Nevertheless, his Table XVIII lists 'One hundred Technical Innovations Very Likely in the Last Third of the Twentieth Century'.

We would agree that #97 sounds convincing: New biological and chemical methods to identify, trace, incapacitate, or annoy people for police and military uses. (Though we'd argue that the more traditional clubs and electric shocks to the body remain in use over much of the planet.) Some items hit the target. #70, for instance: Simple inexpensive home video recording and playing. More reliable weather-forecasting—another hit. Widespread use of power-generating nuclear reactors: okay. More extensive organ transplanting: okay. And so on. But even I could have guessed that such items, incipient in the sixties, would be more fully realized by the nineties.

Some of the items on the list are very 'sci-fi'. Relatively effective appetite and weight control? Human 'hibernation' for long periods? Three-dimensional TV and movies? Direct electronic communi­cations with the brain? Physically non-harmful methods of over­indulging? Interplanetary travel? Undersea colonies? Individual flying platforms? No way, baby!

#75 lists computers being generally available to home and busi­ness on a metered basis. Yet nothing about water being metered.

You may pay professional men very highly; they cannot operate a predictive sense which is not there. If God had wanted us to see the future he'd have given us a third eye.

This does not stop us wanting and trying to predict. It's part of an SF writer's stock-in-trade. But I understand the building which housed the Hudson Institute stands empty at present.

There's another aspect to the prediction business: we may not like what we find. Milton had a warning in Paradise Lost, which stands as the motto on the title page of Mary Shelley's The Last Man:

Let no man henceforth Be foretold what shall befall him Or his children . . .

So science fiction writers and scientists have something in common. We would all go even further than the Senior Oxford Fellow and say that we expect the next thousand years to be exceptional. The build-up of population, the build-up of technology, of communication, of information, and the creation of complex social infrastructures cannot but bring immense changes in life and thought, in diet and behaviour, in birth and death, in knowledge and intuition, in speech and silence, in our whole perception of exis­tence.   

We know that. . . and yet the fine detail . . . Who will bet me a hundred pounds that there will be a Moon base in twenty years, in 2005? Who will tell me which way the pendulum of sexual morality will have swung by the time the Moon base is built? Who can tell me where London's fourth airport will be in 2005?

The relationship between SF and science is complex. It became more complex when the space age began and SF writers were invited out of their obscurity to explain trajectories and escape velocity and docking procedures to laymen. We were experts all of sudden: alchemists whose lead of fantasy had turned into the gold of knowledge. Ever since then, science fiction has had on the whole a better reception from scientists than from literary pundits.

This is very gratifying, but to my mind the thing should be the other way round. I don't mean that scientists should not take SF seriously as a form of literature in which the current developments and obsessions of the age are given in a dramatic airing, but rather that the literati should take it seriously for those same reasons instead of ignoring it, as they do, because it doesn't conform to the conventions of the major nineteenth-century novels they have studied in the English schools of Oxbridge and Ivy League. Imagination is in short supply: a precious commodity that many fear.

A remarkable example of literary blindness could be observed in 1948, when Aldous Huxley published Ape and Essence, which deals with a nuclear catastrophe followed by the degeneration of humanity back to a stage where females undergo anoestrus. The novel also talks about despoliation of natural resources, long before conservation became a popular slogan.

In every respect, Ape and Essence is all that SF should be: it boldly elucidates a current dilemma in imaginative terms. Huxley's novel went to literary critics for review. None of them was capable of appreciating what Huxley was doing; they did not know how to read or process his book. Huxley got a bad, ill-informed press—and l hat in spite of his stature as a futuristic novelist, author of Brave New World.

Such illiteracy by the literates has led to a situation where science fiction writers court the scientists; they turn towards that audiem e as flowers—all except the difficult daffodil—turn towards the sun It also leads them occasionally to address bodies before whom they feel themselves scarcely qualified to speak . . .

Frederik Pohl has been an assiduous speaker and lecturer between novels. At one time, he would accept invitations to address learned bodies on the population problem, which he regarded as the gravest issue of the 1960s. In the 1960s (if you remember) the nuclear issue had gone off the boil. Pohl told me he gave up at the point when he realized that he was beginning to enjoy painting a picture of doom. He relinquished the admired role of expert and returned to writing novels with a strong scientific content.

What is more dangerous is when writers start to regard then novels as if SF were in some way a branch of science. To do this, they may stress the predictive factor in their writing. For example, after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, there were numerous stories warning against the dangers of fallout in future wars. Many of them predicted that radioactivity would cause mutations in the human race. Henry Kuttner forecast a sub-race of mutants, hairless and with telepathic powers against which the rest of humanity waged war. The idea sounds ridiculous now but given the date of origin, like the Moon base prediction of 1964, it wore an air of alarming scientific plausibility.

But science fiction novels are not scientific experiments which move towards a desired end to clinch a hypothesis. A science fiction novel should contain within it what Darko Suvin calls a 'posited novum', a new thing—whether object or concept—held up for our consideration. The novum may be, for example, an anti-gravity machine. The writer is under no obligation to tell us how it works. If he can tell us how it works, then he is wasting his time writing novels and his talent should be employed elsewhere. What he should do, though, is to give us some form of description, some bit of theory, so that we can almost persuade ourselves that we comprehend how the anti-gravity machine works. Then he can show us what effect his machine has on the world.

Ursula Le Guin's ansible is an instantaneous communication device as well as an anagram. It features in her novel The Dispossessed. We readily understand the need for such a device in a widespread galactic culture. Although we are not told how the ansible works, we know that it is one tangible result of Shevek's work on a unified field theory. Le Guin is not predicting the ansible; the important point about this posited novum is that it makes sense within Le Guin's own taoist thought, in a novel much concerned with utopian thinking and the difficulties of communication.

There can hardly be a less scientific concept, I imagine, than a time machine. H. G. Wells, who invented that blessed contraption, describes only its physical appearance, and that vaguely; the theory behind the machine's working is left even more vague. We know it works only because the prototype worked and disappeared into the future. Yet the novel, The Time Machine, is one of the most scientific of scientific romances, in that it dramatizes for the ordinary reader two of the nineteenth century's most profound discoveries: the great age of the Earth, and the principles of evolution. The Eloi and the Morlocks are not there merely to titillate and shock; they are there as examples of what we as a race might become, given time.
And of course The Time Machine is a m
orality, based in part on Kelvin's reformulation of the second law of thermodynamics. Let me remind you of the end of all things on Earth:

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to grow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of slurp, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. . . At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of tin* distant hills vanished into blackness.

Here, imagination, scientific training, and a good prose style merge The posited novum, the time machine, is a vital part of the story, bill not the story itself. The story is not there to prove the machine exists Literature and science work by opposite processes. The scientific method is to take particular instances and extract from them .1 general application which can then be demonstrated to apply to further instances. The method of literature, on the contrary, is to take a number of general applications, and embody them in .1 particular instance, which can then be felt to apply to other instances. Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's The Space Merchants points to various ways in which advertising agencies lie to the public to fob off on them an indifferent product; the authors then show us the Fowler Schocken corporation selling the ghastly planet Venus in would-be colonists. We believe it. We know they'd sell real estate on Neptune as well, given the chance. But the literary method proves nothing, unlike a scientific experiment.

There is another way of looking at the two opposed modes of thinking represented by literature and science. Wells himself pointed to the distinction. He called the modes 'directed thought' and 'undirected thought'. We are all aware of the difference. In terms of human evolution we may suppose that undirected thought came first; undirected thought could be represented spatially .is .1 ramble round and round a familiar object, perhaps seeing it .mew Whereas directed thought could be represented as walking towards .1 distant unfamiliar object for purposes of identification.

In The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1913), Wells boldly entitles Chapter Two 'How Man Has Learnt to Think Systematic .illy and Gain a Mastery over Force and Matter'. He speaks of undirected thought as imaginative play: close really to what we might now call a hypnoid state. He praises directed thought as leading to 'new and better knowledge, planned and directed effort'. Directed thought, according to Wells, enters philosophy with Plato and defines the scientific aspect of modern civilization.

It is doubtful if scientists today would endorse Wells's view of science as being purely the product of directed thought. His view too rigorously excludes the Eureka factor; it also excludes the character of the scientist. What is interesting about Wells's two contrasted modes of thought is that he employs them both, serially, in his fiction. The early SF novels—Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, up to The First Men in the Moon (1901)—are by common consent regarded as among his best and most enduring fictions. Their power lies in Wells's wandering around familiar objects and seeing them anew; he is trying to prove nothing; he investigates ambiguities and contrasts in the universe which he need not resolve. It is necessary that young Selenites be adapted to society; that process causes pain to the individual. That's the way things are, and there is no remedy. In those words of Samuel Johnson:

How small, of all that human hearts endure,

That part which law or kings can cause or cure.

In his later fictions, Wells attempts to produce cures. He switches to directed thought. The difference is marked. Gone are the ambiguities and balances we met on Moreau's island, the puzzle of the bound­aries between human and non-human, between intelligence and reflex. In place of conundrums, instructions. We must submit to a world state for our own good. We must be governed by enlightened samurai. We must not have pets in our homes for health reasons. The mazes of human life are to be swept clean in exchange for a unitary answer. Mr Polly, Mr Kipps, Mr Lewisham, give way to Mr Britling, Mr Blettsworthy and William Clissold.

In short, Wells forecasts. 'The great general of Dreamland', as he once called himself, becomes a demagogue, the great spin doctor of humanity. As directed thought replaces undirected, we are addressed, but no longer enchanted. Wells gave up literature in an heroic attempt to save the world from itself.

The Shape of Things to Come was published in 1933. It is hardly fiction; it forecasts. For instance, the Modern State emerges after the 1965 Conference called at Basra by—yes, you guessed it—the Transport Union.

The Shape of Things to Come has been much admired for forecasting World War II. Writing in 1933, Wells almost gets the year of the outbreak of war right: 1940 instead of -1939. But his is not the war that was fought. The real war of Normandy, Anzio, Stalingrad, Iwojima, and Hiroshima was more savage than anything Wells describes; yet he has civilization breaking down as a result of war, because that suits his didactic purpose. Only on the rubble of yesterday can the Modern State of tomorrow be built.

It is impossible today to read The Shape of Things to Come with any patience, whereas the earlier fictions remain fresh. We value Wells as both imaginative novelist and prophet, but never as both together, for what is imaginative is not truly prophetic, and what is prophetic not truly imaginative. Wells taught whole generations that things were going to be different. It is a lesson we have thoroughly learned—though the War Office appears not to have done—but it was originally Wells's lesson.

In short, Wells's great early novels are examples of undirected thinking; his later propagandistic novels are examples of directed thinking. To go into the prediction business is to give up the best way of making an imaginative novel. The imagination always haunts ambiguity. Science, child of imagination, is dedicated to abolishing ambiguity.

Prophecies can, then, be ludicrously wrong. Of course they i.m also be ludicrously right. When an early telephone was installed in the office of the mayor of an American city, he w.is moved in prophecy. 'The day will dawn', he said, 'when every city In the United States will have a telephone.'

That's a story Arthur Clarke tells. One of the best-known prophecies of recent times is Clarke's famous projection of communication satellites in geosynchronous orbits, made in 1945. II Clarke could have formulated a means of delivering the satellites into their orbits—a means non-existent in 1945—he could have patented the idea. That would have made him, presumably, one of the richest men on the globe. This stunning piece of forecasting appeared .is an article in Wireless World. Wisely so. Had Clarke written the idea into a story, a fiction, and published it in a science fiction magazine, his prediction would have had less force.

After all, predictions of a sort are two-a-penny in SF magazines. We SF writers have predictions the way dogs have fleas. They are t lie furniture of our future.
In any case, if you throw off a hundred predictions and two of them happen to be fulfilled, that does not make you a prophet, any more than a man shooting at a barn door a hundred times and hittiilg it twice can be called a marksman.

In sum, a novel of science fiction must succeed on its own terms as a novel, and not on some extra-literary terms. We still read First Men in the Moon with pleasure, not caring that the reality is otherwise. Prediction is a bad first priority for novelists.

If prediction is bad, can we turn the equation round and state that negative prediction is good? That holds true in at least one case—the case of Orwell's 1984.

Orwell was warning us; his forecast was apotropaic. Our real 1984 is probably less like the one Orwell imagined simply because he uttered his famous warning. But Orwell was a special case. We needed his warning because we believe the dangers of totalitarianism to be real; whereas we have not heeded John Wyndham's warning, and we remain totally unprepared for the triffid invasion. Prediction to be effective must deal with what is already in existence. Whereas most SF deals with something non­existent: from one of Italo Calvino's invisible cities the size of a pinhead to the vast intergalactic battles of Paul J. McAuley's Four Hundred Billion Stars.

And yet. Science fiction does have a relation to science, just as it does to literature. I only wish that the two cultures did not remain so far apart; then our bridges would be less difficult to build. Science fiction plays in that wonderful speculative world of possibilities which has been hard won since the days of the renaissance—a world of speculation always under threat. Science fiction is of immense importance when it is being its imaginative self, when it offers us a metaphor for the varieties of experience life offers. It should be about the future. And of course about human beings. When it gets involved with telepathic dragons, I'm lost.

A contemporary SF writer like Gregory Benford, a scientist work­ing in astrophysics and plasma physics, writes highly imaginative SF which attempts not to bend the rules of science while treating of the unknown. In such novels as Against Infinity and Across the Sea of Suns, Benford presents a holistic view of science which is fructifying. Both novels point beyond our present problems to the numberless possi­bilities of the future.

In: The Detached Retina. Liverpool University Press, 1995, pp. 177-186.

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