The Real Fiction of Science Fiction

By Teresa Heffernan

In “The Real Science of Science Fiction,” Susan Stepney, Professor of Computer Science at the University of York, inspired by her contribution to a collection of stories called Beta-Life that puts science fiction writers and scientists in dialogue each with the other, discusses her experience of this fruitful relationship:

“It is important to get science ideas out to the public for many reasons. But one important reason, for me at least, is so that SF authors have a range of new material to use to write great SF stories. I’ve found that working directly with an author kills two birds with one stone: it produces a new story for me to read, and provides some science background that might help inspire other authors, too.”

While there is no question that fiction writers are inspired by science and technology and that scientists are inspired by fiction, this article is one of many that popularizes the notion that it is the scientific idea that educates people while the fictional apparatus serves as the entertaining vehicle that disseminates and markets the science. It is not surprising then that discussions of the genre are so often reduced to questions about whether or not the fiction gets the science “right” or whether it is probable. For instance, when Duncan Jones was invited by NASA to discuss his film Moon (2009), the questions from the audience were largely technical. They asked about the possibilities and mechanics of lunar helium-3 mining (the energy source being harvested in the film) and about the possibility of using local materials to build a lunar base; they also asked questions about the construction of the set and the use of special effects. Jones’s film, however, is interested in the potential of the genre more than it is in the viability of mining energy on the moon. Looking back to 70s and 80s films, the retro-aesthetic of the film rejects the expensive technological flash and special effects that have become so prevalent in the industry in order put in stark relief not “entertainment,” but the question of how humans are shaping and being shaped by a faith in technological progress and corporate capital. The beauty of the sci-fi genre, Jones (who studied philosophy and the ethics of sentient machines at grad school) argues, is that it offers a place where values can be investigated as it “takes the audience’s guard down.”

In Moon we first meet Sam, an employee of Lunar Industries, running on a treadmill and wearing a t-shirt that says: “wake me when it’s quitting time.” The slogan is of course an ironic reference to his expiry date as a clone, a fact he only “wakes” to near the end of his mission–for most of the film he believes he is the “one and only.” The slogan also suggests workers on a conveyor belt unwittingly serving corporate interests to their own detriment; and it raises larger questions (as does the film) about whether the species is running on autopilot, oblivious to its own expiry, lulled to sleep by technology and its promise of a better future.

While the NASA audience asked interesting questions, the ethical concerns the film raises about science in the service of industry were never broached: in other words “science” was separated from the “fiction” in order to sidestep the uncomfortable questions about how science is already implicated in twenty-first century narratives about progress, individualism, capitalism, freedom, and industry. A training in literary analysis does not treat science as an autonomous field: if Stepney argues that “we need scientific input to sustain a rich science fictional imagination,” I would suggest we need fiction to situate science in politics, history, culture. At the end of Moon, after Sam has woken up to the fact of his exploitation and is ready to make his escape back to earth, Gerty (the Hal-inspired computer) says to Sam: “the new Sam and I will be back to our programming as soon as I finish rebooting.” Sam reponds to: Gerty: “we are not programmed, we are people, you understand.” Sam, in the end, wants to jump off the treadmill of corporate technological determinism.

(Image source: Moon poster, fair use)

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