Thursday, December 20, 2007

About Carl Sagan and science fiction as mythmaking

Yet another chapter in the saga of Åka discovering things that probably are obvious to most people (at least most people with the same kind of interests).

Very recently I discovered Isaac Asimov as a popular science writer. Previously I have always thought about him as the very dull science fiction author -- I never really enjoyed his stories. When I picked up one of his collections of essays about science I was surprised to find it very fun to read (although I think he puts too much emphasis on how clever and special he is himself).

Now I'm beginning to discover Carl Sagan. I think he has been very important for making people interested in science, and I think it might be fun to read more by him.

Yesterday was the (second) Carl Sagan blog-a-thon. This caused me to take up Broca's Brain, which I intended to read soon, and read the essay "Science fiction -- a personal view".

The greatest human significance of science fiction may be as experiments on the future, as explorations of alternative destinies, as attempts to minimize future shock. This is part of the reason that science fiction has so wide appeal among young people: it is they who will live in the future.

When I started reading science fiction about the age of 12, i divided sf in before and after Sputnik -- it seemed significant if it was written in the space age or before it. Since so much of what I read was old, I had a very strong feeling of already living in the future (and I still often think of it this way). Carl Sagan also talks about this in the essay Wonder and Skepticism, although he experienced these things when they happened instead of reading about it later:

It's been my enormous good luck -- I was born at just the right time -- to have had, to some extent, those childhood ambitions satisfied. I've been involved in the exploration of the solar system, in the most amazing parallel to the science fiction of my childhood. We actually send spacecraft to other worlds. We fly by them; we orbit them; we land on them. We design and control the robots: Tell it to dig, and it digs. Tell it to determine the chemistry of a soil sample, and it determines the chemistry. For me the continuum from childhood wonder and early science fiction to professional reality has been almost seamless. It's never been, "Oh, gee, this is nothing like what I had imagined." just the opposite: It's exactly like what I imagined. And so I feel enormously fortunate.

Sometimes I think about science fiction as a collective work of building a myth of life in the new, technological world. It's the stories we use to make sense of life in a high-tech environment. How do we cope with this rapid change, and what does it mean for how we thing about who we are? Science fiction gives us new archetypes and reshapes old ones to fit with the world we experience.

I once met a young man who told me that William Gibson gave him an identity. It's not so strange. Cyberpunk gave the computer nerds something to identify with, a way of thinking of themselves as cool in their own way without giving up what they like to do.

And somewhere deep inside I think I owe Robert Heinlein for getting me on the way to want to be a scientist. I certainly wanted to be like his heroes, like Kip in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel who could repair a spacesuit, and who knew the distances of all the planets from the sun and could use it to calculate where he was.

Carl Sagan also notes (again from the essay "Science fiction", in Broca's Brain):

Many scientists deeply involved in the exploration of the solar system (myself among them) were first turned in that direction by science fiction.


Elliot said...

Very interesting! Your definition of the significance science fiction certainly makes sense to me. Sf gave me tools to understand the future and my place in it.

I think one side-effect that has sometimes caused problems is that these new myths can be as much a mixture of fact and fiction as old ones. In their popular writing Sagan and Asimov seem to have uncritically (and unskeptically!) repeated some historical mistakes and half-truths about history, usually involving supposed incidents in the 'war' between science and religion, or the stupidity of the Middle Ages, etc. I suppose it's a bit like when Christians first came on the scene and started bad-talking the pagans, claiming that they worshipped devils and so forth. When we see ourselves as pushing for the Progress of the Next Big Thing we can wind up being unfair to The Old Thing.

Elliot said...

PS: I like your point about 'reshaping' the old archetypes to fit with the world we experience. That reshaping and re-visioning fascinates me.