Space

It’s the ‘final frontier’ in Star Trek. It’s where ‘no-one can hear you scream’ in Alien. And it’s from where Wells’ Martians in The War of the Worlds ‘regarded this Earth with envious eyes’.

As we can see from these three famous examples, the science fiction of space represents some facet of the natural world.

The outward urge that is associated with the mastery and conquest of vast interstellar space, sought by Captain Kirk and the legions of fleet and nimble spaceships in pulp fiction.

The vast, cold and unsympathetic theatre of space featured in Alien invokes the immense vacancy that we may never come to terms with.  The unfathomable darkness of space in much fiction reminds us that life is precious and frail in a Universe that is largely inhuman and deserted.

And Wells’ Martians are agents of the void.  They were the first ‘menace from space’.  A timely reminder that we may not be at the top of the Universe’s evolutionary ladder!

Indeed, the alien is one of science fiction’s greatest inventions.  And we include it in the space theme since science fiction portrays the alien, such as the Martian, as an animated version of nature.

Much of the science fiction of space can be understood as a longing to escape our sense of being merely human.  Earth is our prison.  That’s why we get tales in which, often through the marvels of space travel, the wonders and potential terrors of the Universe are explored, bringing tales of contact with extraterrestrial beings.

The space theme shows us that there are great similarities between science fiction and science.  Science fiction is an imaginative device for doing a kind of theoretical science: the exploration of imagined worlds.

Scientists build models of hypothetical worlds, and then test their theories.  Albert Einstein was famous for this.  His thought experiments, Gedankenexperiment, led to his Special Relativity theory.  The science fiction writer also explores hypothetical worlds.  But with more scope.  Scientists are meant to stay within bounded laws.  Science fiction has no such boundaries.  But we can see that a spirit of ‘What if?’ is common to both endeavours.

There are many examples where science fiction has proposed theories far too speculative for the science of the day, but which have later proved to be prophetic.   The theme of space contains some great examples, as we shall see.  But it’s crucial to remember that the correctness of the science is not as important as its poetry.  The sense of wonder and adventure experienced in pursuit of the science itself.

This leads us to the question, what kind of science is found in science fiction?

The answer is imaginary science.  This is not at all the same thing as pseudoscience.  After all, the advocates of the pseudosciences believe them to be true.  But the science fiction writer, in using imaginary science, knows very well that it is untrue.  Remember, science fiction is a form of the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic!  And it often does this through the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief on some aspect of science.

Science fiction is sometimes condemned for its scientific slip-ups.  But this condemnation arises from a misunderstanding.  Imaginary science is used for very good reasons.  Firstly, it may be crucial for plot purposes.  Purists sometimes forget that fiction is meant to be entertainment!

Secondly, what is impossible in science today, may not be impossible tomorrow.  In fact, some scientists and philosophers, most notably Karl Popper, have asserted that a theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable!

So, the trick – and it is indeed a trick – is to create as credible a case for the impossible as the writer’s ability will allow.  Some authors do this very well, Michael Crichton for example.  So well, that their undoubted skill greatly troubles the purist.  However, if we were to concede to a puritanical demand for complete scientific accountability, many great works of fiction would be instantly banned!

Finally, it is worth remembering that there are some aspects of real science that are, so far, imaginary.  Take astrobiology, for example.

Through most of its history, science fiction has held a positive view of the possibility of alien life.  Since Copernicus came before Darwin, and physics before biology, fictional accounts of alien life have been firmly in favour of ET.

The mere physics of the matter has been fiction’s main concern.  Biology didn’t come into it.  The fact of the sheer number of stars and orbiting planets was enough to suggest that life on other Earths lay waiting in the vastness of deep space.  Science followed suit. By the twentieth century, an entire generation of scientists were cast under the same spell, and a huge investment was made in the serious search for the alien.

But there remains no available subject matter for astrobiology.   It is an imaginary science.  We may, after all, be alone in the Universe …

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