September 2007

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

We Are All Science Fictionists Now

I’m going to tell you a secret. If you haven’t yet read Tomorrow by Graham Swift, and you want to do so unsullied by any prior knowledge of the revelation that comes no more than two-thirds of the way through the book, look away now. Click through to another page, and don’t come back until you’ve read the novel.

Have they gone? Okay, just between you and me, it’s artificial insemination.

Tomorrow is told by Paula who is sitting up through the night contemplating the thing she and her husband have to tell their sixteen-year-old twins in the morning. And the dreadful secret, which every review I’ve come across has carefully skirted around, is that the children were conceived by artificial insemination. Oh there is a little mild infidelity to confess as well -- this is a mainstream novel, there always has to be a little infidelity -- but we are in no doubt how the twins were conceived, and that that is the big dark secret at the heart of the novel.

In other words, the novel turns upon a bit of medical science, and it is about the human effects of science. And that -- a story examining the way our lives, our very beings, are shaped by technology -- used to be one of the defining characteristics we laid at the door of science fiction. Of course, Tomorrow is not science fiction. But it is clearly written with an awareness of science.

Swift has shown such an awareness of science in his fiction before now -- just think of Waterland for a start. And I am sure it is far from coincidence that our nuclear family reflects C.P. Snow’s two cultures -- the infertile, cuckolded husband is a scientist who once studied snails and now edits a successful science journal, The Living World; the agonised, insomniac wife is an artist, or at least she works for an auction house specialising in art.

And Swift is far from being alone in this. There’s the science journalist in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and the scenes in the operating theatre in Saturday, for a start, and William Boyd’s novels like Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon are stuffed with bits of science, not to mention the fact that Kepler and Doctor Copernicus are as good as anything John Banville has written since. And lest you think I am talking about something peculiar to English fiction, I point you to President Bartlett’s research-chemist daughter in The West Wing, or Thomas Mallon’s Aurora 7 or Two Moons, or to Thomas McMahon’s Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry: A Novel. (And, incidentally, if Mallon is virtually unknown in the UK, McMahon seems to be sadly unknown everywhere. Remind me sometime and I’ll devote one of these columns to his three novels.)

Let me repeat, I am not saying that any of these works are science fiction. Quite the contrary, it is the fact that they are not science fiction that is interesting. Nor am I saying that the science they include is generally interesting, cutting edge, or even well done. Let’s face it, Swift never tells us exactly what Mike is doing with his snails, it doesn’t really matter to the novel and it doesn’t really interest the author. To be fair, apart from dropping the odd name, he doesn’t tell us much about Paula’s involvement with art either, and since she is the narrator that is a lot closer to the heart of the book. All Swift is really interested in here is that she is art and he is science.

The science is dull, everyday, ordinary.

Science didn’t used to intrude on mainstream fiction. If a scientist did appear he (always a he, of course) was an administrator patrolling C.P. Snow’s corridors of power, or, just possibly, a boffin in Nevil Shute’s Small Back Room. The scientist was a white-coated messenger from a world neither the characters nor the readers were meant to understand. Science was never dull because it was never ordinary; science was mystery and often threat. If you wanted to see a scientist in fiction, if you wanted to encounter the workings of science or its effects and artifacts, you had to turn to science fiction. But there, as often as not, the scientist was mad, the workings were sleight of hand, the artifacts were immense and the effects distant. None of which did anything to make science seem part of everyday life for most readers, while we science fiction fans were hugging ourselves with glee at our insights into a secret world that, in truth, we probably understood no better than anybody else.

In other words, science per se was one of the things that cut science fiction off from the rest of literature, just as science seemed to be cut off from the rest of society. Snow wasn’t all wrong in his two cultures lecture, even if he did overstate the case and despite of the howls of protest he attracted. Science was meant to be unknowable; its practitioners were meant to be austere, remote and incomprehensible. And anyone who wanted to read about all this stuff was meant to be a freak, a nerd, or an overgrown adolescent. (Okay, a lot of science fiction fans were, probably still are, freaks, nerds and overgrown adolescents -- what’s that got to do with anything?)

But sometime in the last decade or two, things changed. Science became domesticated, a job like any other. Or not quite like any other: a job that does things that might affect us. One of the themes that runs all the way through Tomorrow is the way The Living World goes from being a shoestring operation perennially on the point of folding to a major success with an eager audience. Nobody understands this, nobody knows why it has happened or can even point to when it happened; but always there is the sense that The Living World is about something, and that in itself is important. By extension, exactly the same thing holds for my point about science in literature. Heaven knows what tipped the balance -- Frankenstein foods, global warming, the debate about Darwin vs. Creation in schools -- but at some point we decided that science wasn’t simply austere and unknowable, but was ordinary and about something. And where the best protagonists in fiction are those who do things (which is why so many of them are spies or soldiers or journalists or politicians), all of a sudden the scientist could join that hallowed band, because the scientist does things.

At the same time we seem to be seeing fewer and fewer scientists in science fiction. M. Rickert’s Map of Dreams (which I’ll be talking about more next time) has ideas about time developed by a physicist, but the follow up, the resultant travel in time, is achieved through a mixture of amateurism and mysticism. And that seems to be a pattern we see elsewhere. It’s as if the transcendence, the wonder that were handy terms when talking about big concept sf have been taken seriously and science fiction has become almost an ecstatic experience. In such circumstances science cannot be a job like any other. So if we are to bring the ghetto walls crashing down, if we are to end the divide between the two cultures, perhaps it’s a good thing that the mainstream has discovered the scientist -- because science fiction seems to have lost him.

Okay, you can come back now. I’ve finished.