The Fictionalization of Science

February 25, 2013 | 07:18
The Fictionalization of Science
The Fictionalization of Science
‘Science fiction has a pretty poor track record of absorbing scientific truths’, says science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds. ‘The most interesting things science has been revealing to us seem to be ideas almost too big to engage with in fiction.’

Reynolds held a keynote at Sonic Acts, a four-day festival exploring the boundaries of art, music and science. Under the header Futures of Science and Science Fiction Reynolds and three other speakers reflected on the relation between science and fiction. The event took place on February 24, in Amsterdam.

One of the major revolutionary scientific ideas science fiction fails to incorporate is Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Writers love to have their characters zip through the universe contacting a new planet each week. But that simply isn’t possible. ‘Einstein said: ‘Sorry guys, there is this universal speed limit, the speed of light’. Nothing can go faster than the speed of light. It is a fundamental constraint wired into the universe’, Reynolds said.

Science fiction often focuses on societal questions like will there be killer robots or will we create an artificial intelligence so superior to us it will inevitably become our future overlord. And those are valid themes to explore, according to Reynolds. But it is also interesting start with the science and build a narrative around it. This could make science more interesting to a larger audience and get them acquainted with scientific truths.

But taking complex theories and turning them into engaging fictional stories is a difficult task, Reynolds knows from experience. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as an astronomer at the European Space Agency. He incorporates his knowledge of astronomy and physics in his stories but covering complicated ideas is a challenge.

His most successful story in that sense is the short story For the Ages, published in the book Solaris Rising. Here Reynolds was able to fictionalize the Big Bang theory and its implications.

Relatively recent observations have led astronomers to conclude that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Over a time span of six to ten billion years our galaxy will merge with galaxies near us into a supergalaxy. All the other galaxies will travel away from us until they’re eventually beyond the horizon of observability. If our civilization survives the galactic merger, our distant descendants will look up to a dark night sky.

Those people will no be longer able to observe they are part of a larger universe, let alone an expanding universe. At that point in time people will not be able to arrive at the Big Bang theory which is both inspired and underpinned by such observations. Reynolds: ‘So the idea is that at some point in the future there is no longer the possibility to determine the universe had an origin. You are literally in the dark. You have no way of determining the cosmological origin or fate of the universe in which you live’.

This idea fascinated Reynolds and led to the storyline of For the Ages. Set in a civilization in the near-future, the people realize they have to preserve the knowledge of the origin of the universe and its fate. They decide to encode their wisdom on the surface of a planet completely made up of diamond so that it can be found by future generations. Two people set out to perform this altruistic task but something goes wrong and they have to choose between saving their skin or finishing their project.

Aided by the storyline Reynolds addresses difficult concepts like dark energy and the ultimate destiny of the universe. ‘For me it was a break through’, said Reynolds, ‘because I found a way to get heavy cosmological ideas into a piece of science fiction. But I still find it really difficult and lightning doesn’t strike twice. I’m still trying to get my head around other big cosmological ideas and find a way to dramatize it in fictional terms with real flesh and blood human concerns.

‘The central challenge of writing science fiction is to cover these ideas and find a way to fictionalize them and make them interesting.’

Image: Futures of Science and Science Fiction: Alastair Reynolds at the far right

Edit added 24 March 2013: In this video cosmologist and nobel prize winner Brian Schmidt explains the expansion of the universe.
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