Greater Minds: David Grinspoon on Visions of Life

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    Kabsik Park (CC / Flickr)

    Tension in science fiction derives from the problems the technology can’t solve.

  • Predictive science fiction is unlikely to be accurate because technological progress is not linear.
  • What science can tell us about other planets offers plenty of scope for tension.
  • If the science becomes dated, it need not date the story.

‘The secret of good science fiction is that the author should be free to invent anything he or she can think of, providing no one can prove that it’s wrong’ Ben Bova

Last year, astrobiologist David Grinspoon addressed the American Association for the Advancement of Science on ‘The Fruitful Feedback Between Science Fiction and Astrobiology’. He described how planetary science has informed science fiction in the past, and how it may continue to do so in the future.

As ever, please pay more attention to his talk than my commentary:

Tension comes from constraints


Greg Nelson (CC / Flickr)

Science fiction stories often revolve around two words which never appear in the stories themselves. Those words are handwavium and unobtanium. Handwavium is the technology that does something impossible in the real world. Unobtanium is what the technology can’t do. Unless you are James Cameron, in which case you have the budget to redefine at will.

For example, let’s consider the ‘ansible’ in Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game and its sequels. The ansible allows instant communication across any distance, violating the physical constraint that information cannot travel faster than light. How does it work? We don’t need to know. It’s handwavium.

The ansible can only transmit information, not matter. Therefore the characters can talk to each other over vast distances, but they can’t send each other anything. Why not? If you can violate the laws of physics for a chat, why can’t you violate it for a birthday present? We don’t need to know. It’s unobtanium.

At least, we don’t need to know the technical reasons. The real reason is that the plot requires that it is difficult to travel over distances of light years but that it is necessary for the characters to be able to communicate once the journey has been made. The parameters of the handwavium and unobtanium are defined by the needs of the story.


Bruce Irving (CC / Flickr)

While technology more advanced than our own is central to much science fiction, it would rob a story of tension if that technology could solve all the characters’ problems. Hence the handwavium is nearly always outweighed by the unobtanium, and the line between the two must be clearly defined. Ender’s Game wouldn’t have been much fun if I’d understood the characters had a technology that violated the lightspeed limit but not why they were bothering with spaceships when they could just beam themselves where they wanted to go. As soon as I understood what the ansible could do, I needed to understand what it couldn’t.

Another way of looking at it is that science fiction technology is often advanced enough to drop the characters into an exotic form of trouble but not advanced enough to get them out of it.

The science Grinspoon describes, which describes what it might actually be like on the surface of a planet, can provide a substantial amount of unobtanium.

Won’t it end up dated?

Grinspoon makes the point that ‘Our extrapolations of the future are always linear extrapolations of what’s happening now’. That is, we look at current trends in technology and assume they will develop steadily, but progress does not work like that. The history of manned spaceflight shows the fits and starts that characterise progress.


Chris Devers (CC / Flickr)

The first suborbital spaceflight was by an A4 rocket in 1943, launched by Werner von Braun’s team in Nazi Germany. It took von Braun eighteen years and a change of allegiance to the USA before he launched a manned suborbital flight. By then, Yuri Gagarin had achieved the much more challenging feat of orbiting the earth in Vostok 1. Yet it only took NASA eight years to go from Alan Sheperd’s suborbital flight in 1961 to the ‘giant leap for mankind’ of sending two men to the moon. Three years later in 1972, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt bid humanity’s last farewell to the moon and over 40 years later, they remain the last people to go beyond low earth orbit.

As Grinspoon points out, futurologists in the 1950s were predicting that it would take until the 1990s to reach the moon while futurologists of the late 1960s expected to see manned exploration of the solar system in the near future. They were all wrong.

Should the fact that predictions are almost always wrong stop us from making them through the medium of science fiction?


Ray Bradbury said, ‘people ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it’. Fictional visions of the future may intended as cautionary tales, like Brave New World or 1984, or to inspire the future we could have such as Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. No sensible author expects their predictions to become literally true.

When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was inspired Luigi Galvani’s reanimation of dead muscles. That doesn’t mean she expected someone to resurrect a corpse into a monster that would destroy them. Rather, Frankenstein makes the point that as technology progresses, it is necessary to consider unintended consequences. She created a metaphor so powerful that it endures two centuries later, even though the idea of reanimating corpses has long been banished not only from science but also from science fiction and into the realms of fantasy.

Frankenstein illustrates the further point that if the fictional science in a work of science fiction is proved impossible, the fiction itself is not consigned to the dustbin. Before I was born, it was established that there is no civilisation on Mars, but knowing Martian war machines are not going to turn up on Horsham Common did not stop me enjoying War of the Worlds.

Where fact beats imagination


NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (CC / Flickr)

None of this is to suggest that scientific fact should displace imagination in the mind of a writer of science fiction, but sometimes the facts are so breathtaking that they beg to have stories built around them. For example, Jupiter has a hurricane four times the size of the earth that has been raging for at least 400 years. Titan, a moon orbiting Saturn, has lakes of liquid methane.

The recent explosion in exoplanet research has shown us even more exotic locations, such as planet OGLE-TR-56b orbits its star every 29 hours and is so hot that its surface is pelted with molten iron rain.

I can’t write that without imagining Captain Kirk materialising out of the transporter beam and wondering why there are no bikini-clad alien wenches this week. Knowing what other planets might actually be like should enable us to consider them with more imagination than Kirk might have done.


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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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