Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hard Science Fiction, Cultural Blinders and Laban's Sheep

Reading an anthology of hard sf - science fiction which the author and readers perceive as involving known science and rational extrapolations of what's known - I've come to the tentative conclusion that hard sf is written by and for city folks.

Beware Cultural Blinders

The collection is "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF", edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (1994). I'm up to page 166 of 990, so what I've read can't reasonably be taken as representative of the entire volume - let alone the entire 'hard sf' sub-genre.

On the other hand, what I've read contains two examples of 'hard sf' writers who may not be aware of one of the most important practical applications of science to date. "Science," at any rate, as defined as a conscious, deliberate effort to observe phenomena and draw conclusions from the observations.

The two examples come from the 19th and 20th centuries:
The first seems like a foretaste of today's ruckus over genetically engineered food products:
" appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God's making, but the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty...."


"...'My father created it,' answered she, with simplicity.

" 'Created it! created it!' repeated Giovanni. 'What mean you, Beatrice?'

" 'He is a man fearfully acquainted with the secrets of nature,'..."
(Rappicini's Daughter, Hawthorne, page 83 in "Ascent of Wonder")
Hawthorne raises worthwhile ideas in this short story, like whether or not an altered human being is a person. The story is also written in the 19th century style: giant economy-size paragraphs; rococo linguistic ornamentation; and all.

What I'm concerned with in this post is the idea that Rappaccini "created" a plant and "...that the production was no longer of God's making, but the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy...."

In the case of Rappaccini's shrub, "depraved" is a pretty good term. Some of the implications, though, of the author's description of the plant aren't, I think, quite so good a match with reality.

I Think Humanity's Pretty Hot Stuff - But Not That Hot

Take "create" for example. For several decades now, I've read articles about scientists "creating" life in the laboratory. "Mars jars" are still around - and being fine-tuned, as we discover more about what early Mars (probably) was like.

I'm impressed - and very interested - in research into how life, and the cosmos, got started. I'm not so impressed by scientists "creating" life, though. It's like the fellow in a story who had a talk with God, about humanity getting close to being as powerful as God. They were walking next to a stream. God pointed out that He'd created the first man from clay, and asked the man if he could do that.1 The man said, "sure," leaned over and scooped up some clay. "Oh, no," God said: "You have to make your own clay."

The point is that people work with what we find. We're creative, certainly,2 but we have to start with something. Everything we "create" is made by re-arranging existing parts. We've come a long way, since someone got the idea of setting fire to wood, or weaving string out of plant fibers: but we're still using stuff we find already in existence, made of atoms, subatomic particles, photons, or whatever - all sitting on that spacetime turbulence we call quantum foam.3

Incredible! Colossal! Controlled Evolution!

About 74 years ago Raymond Z. Gallun wrote a story about an explorer who encountered a sophisticated undersea civilization on the floor of the Atlantic. This was no "Atlantis:" the people who lived there were at home under two and a half miles of water, and regarded what they'd learned about the near-vacuum and radiation above them with something between horror and repugnance.

The sea-floor people had technology, but didn't use metal. Their 'robots' were animals they'd bred for specific purposes. As described, the seafloor civilization was impressive. And, of course, portrayed as a triumph of science.
"...Handicapped by the impossibility of fire in their normal environment, the sea folk's advancement had followed another path. Controlled evolution was what it amounted to...."
(Davy Jone's Ambassador, Gallun, page 155 in "Ascent of Wonder")
Remember, that was written in 1935. "The Abyss" wouldn't be written for another 54 years. My hat's off to the author, for imagining a plausible - and quite alien - civilization only a few miles below the shipping lanes.

On the other hand, I got the idea that "controlled evolution" was supposed to be exotic, alien, unfamiliar.

Artificial Life Forms - Like Macaroni Wheat

8,000 - or maybe 10,000 - years ago, someone 'doomed' humanity by planting seeds, protecting the plants that grew, harvesting the next-generation seeds, planting seeds from the best-yielding plants, and eating the rest.

From one point of view, it took us thousands of years to recover.4

My guess is that most people don't think of domesticated plants and animals as "artificial." Wheat, domestic chickens, and big, juicy apples have been around for so long that it's easy to assume that they've 'always been there.'

Besides, "technology" is something new and cool, right? Not the sort of thing that those serfs and peasants do. Or, these days, those farmers.

I think I see this sort of mindset, even among people involved in agribusiness. "Subconscious plant selection" is what a short history of wheat's (controlled) evolution called the process of selective breeding about ten thousand years back.

Jacob, Laban, and Applied Genetics

Me? I don't think we're all that much more stupid than people were a dozen millennia back. But I'm not convinced that we're that much smarter, either. Better informed, in some ways: particularly since writing has made it easier for us to preserve large volumes of precise information.

And I don't entirely buy the idea that Jacob's deal with Laban (Genesis 30:31) was based on "simple" people's ideas about animal husbandry. Whatever century Jacob was born in, it was thousands of years after people had started breeding animals. Jacob and Laban (who doesn't come across as the brightest bulb in the bin) lived in a society that had been breeding sheep for a very long time.

When Jacob suggested that he be given sheep with an unusual coat - and the birth rate of that rare breed goes up right after Jacob takes over management of the flock - I have to consider the possibility that Jacob knew more about applied genetics than a 'simple' person might.

Something to Beware of, Something to Use

This may be easier for me, than for many city folks, but I think it's a good idea for a science fiction writer to be aware of the last ten thousand or so years of technological development - including the artificial species we've developed. Make that 'over ten thousand years.' Someone apparently decided that wolves would make good hunting companions around the last time glaciers started retreating.

Remember: just because we've been using it since time out of mind, technology is technology.

The flip side is that there's an enormous pool of tech innovations - and the problems they caused - to draw story ideas from. Or interesting settings.

Related posts:

1 Or mud. And, yes: I know that Genesis has two creation narratives. (Starting at Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 2:4)

2 It's written that we were made " the likeness of God...." (Genesis 5:1-2) I think it'd be a bit surprising, taking that as a starting assumption, if we didn't share - however imperfectly - some of God's attributes, including creativity. That creative nature is expressed physically. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2366) I don't think it's such a stretch to think that our reflection of "creativity" can't include economic and artistic pursuits, too. ("Economic Justice for All:" Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (November 13, 1986) (From, particularly paragraph 15 - on page 3)

3 Humanity may have unlocked the last secret of the cosmos in the mid-20th century: but I doubt it. "Quantum foam" still seems to be a pretty good way of describing what happens at the smallest scale we can observe - currently - but I wouldn't be very surprised if someone fine-tuned that model, just as Einstein and company described phenomena that get observable under conditions that Newton didn't know about.

4See "Inventions: Strange; Feared; and Yet-to-Come " (August 25, 2009), footnote 1.

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