Thursday, May 25, 2006

Do you read science fiction?

If I were a senator grilling a cabinet nominee, or a reporter interviewing public officials about the mistakes made with Hurricane Katrina, or an administration official vetting candidates for a new FEMA director, the first question I'd ask is "Do you read science fiction?"

Of course, I already know what answers I'd get: a big laugh, "I only read nonfiction," "I only read reports required for my work," and perhaps a couple of red-faced admissions that, yes, the person does indulge occasionally in science fiction novels, followed by an embarrassed laugh. And I'd get mocked or lectured by my colleagues for asking such a ridiculous question.

But it's not a ridiculous question at all: It's a very good one. If you'd given science fiction readers the following set of facts a few years ago, I guarantee you they'd have come up with a scenario that looks very much like what happened in New Orleans and the surrounding area:
  • Take a large metropolitan area particularly vulnerable to natural disasters (even small children knew a major hurricane would hit New Orleans at some point),
  • an unusually active hurricane season (Katrina was the eleventh storm of the season and it hit before Labor Day),
  • years of bad land use planning (like most US cities, New Orleans has allowed development in fragile areas),
  • a questionable protection system that is also significantly underfunded (the levees, which may not have been a good idea in the first place, but which needed major attention since they were the only defense available),
  • lingering racism issues and a major gap between rich and poor (check your statistics),
  • a history of political corruption (Louisiana is notorious for it),
  • a federal government that has systematically removed resources from the areas that need them and put them elsewhere (30 percent of the Louisiana National Guard was in Iraq when Katrina hit), and
  • you have a science fiction plot that would probably be slammed by the critics for being way too predictable.
As any science fiction fan will tell you, it's blatantly obvious that chaos will erupt in a situation like that.

So why didn't anyone make an effort to fix a few of these problems in advance? Why didn't we have a better protection plan in place than for officials (and residents) to cross their fingers and say "Maybe it won't happen this time"?

Partly because the people making decisions are short term thinkers. They don't read science fiction.

Most people have a pretty limited view of science fiction, generated by the movies. They think alien invasion and special effects. But that's just the stuff that's easy to film. The literature of science fiction deals with everything from the effect of scientific advances to what true gender equality might look like.

Take Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain series as an example. She starts with a scientific advance -- the ability to alter human genes so that humans don't need to sleep. While Kress suggests that this advance may, over time, turn out to have been a good thing, she also shows that it immediately adds new dimensions to class warfare and completely changes everyone's way of life. Human society breaks down in a number of ways when it becomes obvious that some people have advantages that others will never, ever be able to obtain.

And what about those aliens? What if they're much smarter than we are? Or what if -- as in many novels by Sheri S. Tepper -- they are so different from us that we don't recognize them as intelligent life at all? Reading about how to communicate with what looks to be a crystal mountain can open our eyes to new ways to communicate with our fellow human beings. We seem to be having some trouble with that these days, both here at home and in the larger world.

Good science fiction isn't just about the engineering feat of using new ideas in physics and chemistry to put a rocket into space. Science fiction writers take what are usually called the hard sciences (biology, physics, chemistry, geology and all their offspring), add in the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology and the like), bring in history, look at religion and current social issues, and then do one more thing: They ask "What if?"

That is, they add imagination to the facts.

Now I'm not suggesting that science fiction is good at predicting actual future events. Actually, it has a pretty bad track record in prediction. Only a couple of authors even hinted at the advent of the personal computer, for example. A few of the technological marvels suggested by Sir Arthur C. Clarke have actually been developed, but his accurate predictions are noteworthy because they are so rare.

What science fiction does do well is effectively analyze possible futures based on available facts. And reading it develops the kind of imagination needed for doing real planning. Science fiction gives us new ways to look at old situations and makes us look at the world in terms of centuries and millennia, not just the next six months or five years. It changes our way of thinking.

And that's what we need right now: more creative thinking. Hurricane Katrina showed us just how bad our current methods really are. We had an absolutely predictable problem facing the richest country in the world and we ended up with a nightmare because we didn't do a good job of planning for it. It seems we lack imagination.

So let's start a campaign. Lobby your school system for science fiction courses; petition your library to expand the science fiction collection; give science fiction books to your friends and coworkers. And when you meet politicians, ask them if they read science fiction. If they laugh, don't vote for them.

If we start paying attention to science fiction, maybe we can stop living in a horror story.

1 comment:

opit said...

One problem with your premise is the shortage of work conforming to John Campbell's editorial policy : Sci-fi had to be reasonably justifiable by known sciencs, preferably by extrapolation of known trends. That doesn't seem to have been a general policy since about 1960. I'm not preaching ; just observing.
David Brin has his own self named blog commenting on science and politics if you didn't know.