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From: "Jim Henley" <jlhenley@erols.com>
Subject: RE: (urth) BaD sCienCe
Date: Thu, 2 Dec 1999 20:26:00 

> -----Original Message-----
> From: urth-errors@lists.best.com [mailto:urth-errors@lists.best.com]On
> Behalf Of Michael Andre-Driussi
> I keep thinking of poor old Larry Niven, who was about as close to the
> non-classified source of Big Science as a fiction writer could be; in one
> sense he seemed to be in the position of being a "bard of Big Science,"
> hearing the jargon from the white coats, then bringing it down to the
> common reader like Prometheus carrying fire from the gods to
> humankind . . . yet "Neutron Star"?  RINGWORLD?

There's a deep lesson in "Neutron Star" about "realism" in SF, particularly
so-called hard sf. Jerry Pournelle pointed out that the the science in
"Neutron Star" was so accurate that the story could never happen: if 20th
century writers and scientists understand tidal forces, you can bet that
30th century spaceship pilots and manufacturers understand them. So the
dead scientists never put themselves in that position in the first place,
the puppeteers never wonder what happen to them if they drop acid and do it
anyway (no moon? phooey! if you can calculate gravity you can derive the
existence of tidal forces), and no matter what, Beowulf Schaffer doesn't
put himself that deep in harm's way.

So even for its time, "Neutron Star" was one of the least realistic stories
in science fiction. Pournelle resisted drawing the larger lesson about
"hard science fiction" and realism, but I commend Norman Spinrad's essay,
"Rubber Science," as the text for the advanced course. IIRC (been 15 years
since last I read it), Spinrad argues that the disciplines of science
themselves change over time - there never used to be molecular biology or
psychopharmacology, frex, and there's no reason to believe that paradigms
and even fields of study won't keep changing into the future. Hence the
"realistic" thing for the sf writer to do is to invent entire new sciences
for his worlds and, realistically, these "rubber sciences" can owe only so
much to our contemporary understandings of the laws of the universe -
otherwise we play the future false. Spinrad had no illusions that the SF
writer's rubber sciences would turn out to be the real sciences of the
future, only a conviction that, say, an imagined 25th century where
scientists understood the universe in terms of "the best thinking of
scientists of today" was absurd.

>  (Although, as a sop for the topic: the
> mini-black holes that he used in some short stories are kissing
> cousins to the sort of black hole I envision at work in Old Sun.)

John Varley loved these things too - in at least one of his 70s stories,
the mini-black hole talked. Before too much longer Hawking announced that
the little critters would have to have half-lives measured in nanoseconds.

> (But with Wolfe I also sense that he is impishly playing with the fickle
> nature of science vogue.)

Hey, interesting idea!

> Has anything held up any better than FRANKENSTEIN, which was written
> vaguely in the science of its day by a non-scientific wisp of a girl?
> After being discredited in the early part of the 20th century, has Mary
> been validated because in the late 20th century it is an
> everyday occurance
> to ressurrect the (recently) dead with electrical discharge?

Held up scientifically? "Zero Gee," by Ben Bova, from AGAIN DANGEROUS
VISIONS II. About two shuttle passengers who do the nasty in orbit (joining
the "zero gee" club). It's basically a mimetic story now by Delany's
definition of mimetic fiction (the set of all stories that have not
happened but could). Even the celebrity culture sociology of this story
holds up pretty well, though it's not exactly a landmark of the literature,
and that may tell us something.

"Cold Equations" is vague enough about its underpinnings (how starships go,
e.g.) that it might still be "live." McCaffery and other PoMo types dismiss
it as essentialist and phallocentric and other bad things. What they don't
do is acknowledge that it's a fairly deliberate critique of their premises
that maybe they don't have an answer for.

But probably that very vagueness (how starships go) contributes to its
longevity - the less specific you are about the scientific underpinnings of
your story, the less vulnerable the underpinnings are to new issues of
_Nature_. Much of what drives "Rogue Moon" remains vital stuff in today's
culture; the least compelling parts are the details about tape drives and

Moral: in the long run, the scientific accuracy of an SF story means next
to nothing. It will survive on story value - like anything else - if it
survives on anything. I still recall Varley's little black holes with
fondness and I'll probably reread TBOTNS before the Librarians have their
next festival.

> I think it is a two way street between
> science and sf, yet it is constantly portrayed as a one way street, or
> worse, a high tower and a slimy ghetto.  Which is true, of course:
> charlatans and bonefides on both sides.

Does the "slimy ghetto" bit still have any currency? I mean, outside the
fainthearts on this list who were worrying a few weeks ago what (gasp) some
assistant lit professors might think about the covers of Wolfe's books? <g>
I think Disch is right: science fiction has pretty much taken over the
culture, and the culture is cool with that.


"It ain't the knife thru your heart that tears you apart
  it's just the thought of someone sticking it in"
              -- Graham Parker, "Protection"

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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