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Science fiction on science journalism

He loves a good metaphor

By James Dacey

Science reporting should make more use of metaphors in order to explain difficult technical concepts. That is the opinion of Geoff Ryman, an award-winning science fiction writer, voiced at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London yesterday.

Ryman, who is also a lecturer at the University of Manchester, subscribes to the “mundane” school of sci-fi – rejecting “sexy” ideas like flying saucers and tentacled aliens in favour of more down-to-Earth, preferably “human” concepts. In 2006 he won the Arthur C. Clarke award for Air, a novel based on the idea of a successor to the internet which connects people’s brains via an invisible substance… known as Air.

Ryman’s line of argument – and it’s a well-trodden one – is that the general public only tend to engage in science and technology writing when it is presented to them in everyday concepts. “The best science writing tells a human story,” he said and, as a science fiction writer, he places himself amongst the “lay readers” drawing inspiration from ideas that touch him on an emotional rather than an abstract level.

According to the author, science journalism need not be any different from his approach, other than the fact that it’s obviously “limited” by scientific truths.

Sitting there yesterday, I thought Ryman did make some good points and he certainly delivered them in an eloquent way. But it also seems to me that he holds a very narrow view of science and scientists, painting them as abstract entities, disconnected from the rest of everyday life. This is simply not true.

I reckon that the distinction between good science and good fiction is a lot muddier than this because clear communication is absolutely integral to both. Many of the great scientific ideas have been presented with a devastating clarity through striking metaphors. Take Darwin’s Tree of Life, take String Theory, take the Big Bang… and I’m sure there’s plenty more. Anyway, the survival of these ideas has – in my opinion – been aided by their ability to reduce the complexity of nature into simpler, everyday concepts… just like a work of great fiction.

Let me know what you think…

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  1. This is a great argument and it’s one that hits close to home. While I’m the science fiction author in my family, my brother is the “rocket scientist” (aerospace engineer). I learned the lesson of asking him questions long ago; it’s not always an answer that I can understand. However, it’s always and interesting exercise and an oportunity to learn more about rocket science. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.

  2. Everything’s wrong there, James, with the current state of things. Science has become ultimately dull, futile and fraudulent, and you poor guys science journalists are trying artificially to pull it out of that swamp of lies and decorate with something “attractive” to “stupid” (but paying!) public. Vanity and misery, in the middle of luxury and paradise lost. What one should have is an intrinsically creative knowledge, which is so fantastically fascinating quite naturally, by its permanent qualitative progress, that you wouldn’t need any of those artificial efforts to “present” it to the public. In that case science journalists – as well as science and sci-fi writers by the way – would evolve towards rather co-creators of that naturally exciting new knowledge, being the first and most advanced – but also creative – listeners to its fascinating music. Today there is simply no more interesting music in the ultimately corrupt official science establishment, after which all your talents and efforts become useless (while public becomes massively duped, instead of educated, with your intentional or unintentional participation).
    That another kind and way of knowledge is quite real and possible today, but one should find a possibility to direct at least a small portion of science funding in that direction asking for explicit proof of creativity and existing problem solution. Interested science journalists could play a role there, even though the Wall of the rotten establishment is always against any such efforts. But we are already in a state where public interest in science is only artificially maintained, while the loss of real knowledge power is infinitely catastrophic (on the background of equally spectacular progress of empirically driven technologies – but that won’t last forever in that way!). In its new state that qualitatively new knowledge should even rule the world, really, and that it becomes vitally important right now is so evident that I won’t waste space here for listing the burning arguments. See yourself the difference between what is and what we should and really could have. If this is not motivating enough, then it’s difficult to see what can be.
    By a strange coincidence, the general state of sci-fi genre is also catastrophic, especially with respect to its former glory in the middle of the last century. It’s not a coincidence, of course: such science, such fiction. What science fiction is if not a special “application” of fundamental science discoveries, often unpredictably crossing with real applications? But one should have those discoveries first, rather than lying fantasies of today’s post-modern “research” lasting for decades without any real progress but with ever growing, luxurious support (it’s but a perverted, fruitless replacement of professional sci-fi activity with a guaranteed income, the true sci-fi being reduced to banalities).

  3. Ender

    Good science fiction is that in which scientific ideas are streched beyond the technology which is presently available, but remaining within a feasible framework. Otherwise it’s simply fantasy. If the writer is creative enough, he/she will be able to lay down good surmises stretching science itself. What would it be like if, for instance, quantum computing was already available, and the consequences of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox could be fully exploited? What if nanotechnology had reached a stage at which we could visualise the “nanoworld” of the cells? What if we had already been able to engineer the environment by genetic manipulation?
    But then, science fiction is also a branch of literature, and as such it has the privilege of exploring the possible scenarios of the new technologies under the humanistic point of view. This means that it is able to explore the ethical and social consequences of developing new technologies in the context of real life characters. As such, I believe that science fiction has a very important role to play if properly written.
    As you may surmise from my nickname, I’m a fan of Orson Scott Card myself.

  4. Tim Simpson

    A lot of people believe most of what rational beings and some scientists dismiss a fiction. Dinasaurs and aliens are real as the lady on the soap opera to them. We have failed. Instead of watching 1/2 hour infomercials people should be putting dafodills in colored water to examine the color change and ask why. The should be making water solar panels for their house instead of watching “Married with Children” on TiVo. Our science is in need of a WOW injection. Another moon project is underway and no one is interested. The 40th anniversary of the moon landing is cooming up. It was great to see it happen on a small T.V. in a friends apartment.
    As a kid Mr. Science was a god to me. Magic when you could see the how and why of baking soda and Vinegar. See 1,000,000 volts go around a guy.
    Watch paper float on sound waves in the intro to “Science Fiction Theatre”. They would show a scientific principal to lead you into the story. Way cool.
    What will it take? Kids have got to take a hold and start taking math and science seriously.

  5. I agree with everyone!
    With me it was Mr Wizard, and eventually Doctor Who. Throw in a lot of Star Trek, plus the actual space race and the current activities.

  6. Rijendra thapa

    I would love to write science fictional stories. And now, I am pursuing MS in Physics. But still, I am finding difficult to write fictional story. So what mustbe my preliminery steps.


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