As I began to prepare for my Florida-based adventure in July, I was reminded of an adventure earlier this year that led to an outdoor bookstore called Bart’s Books in Ojai, California. If you ever have the chance to visit, you must. There was a citrus tree we couldn’t identify growing right in the center of the store, and a cat that never moved, all surrounded by shelves and shelves of used books of every genre.
What I’m saying is, space is great, but Earth can be pretty nice, too. Anyway, at Bart’s Books, I bought this pretty thing:
I am an unabashed fan of mid-twentieth-century science fiction. To be fair, my grandpa lent me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series when I was about eight, so I never really had a choice. I also have a wonderful used copy of a Ray Bradbury anthology in which someone else’s grandmother wrote “7/1/93 Have fun at Camp Love, Ga.” I like to imagine the recipient was going to space camp.
For the record, I am glad that modern science fiction has evolved from the days of Forbidden Planet (Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in space) and bug-eyed Moon monsters. Still, there is something about early science fiction that is different. It isn’t simply “hope” or “optimism,” because that still permeates a large portion of the genre (Hello, Doctor Who).
It also isn’t just the sense of the unknown, although that can be charmingly anachronistic: what was unknown to the writers of the 1940s is now well-known to modern scientists and even laypeople. There was, for instance, an alarming trend of early fictional astronauts exiting spaceships on unknown planets sans helmets. But this new knowledge has in turn opened up new questions, new unknowns that can be explored in speculative fiction (mostly, if I do say so myself, in the world of neuroscience–I recently read Ted Chiang’s wonderful Understand, available online).
I think what I appreciate most about the genre fiction of the past is its real-life history and applications. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that the 20th century was, from start to finish, full of terrible things. That is not to say wonderful things didn’t happen, amazing technological and social advances that made it better than any previous century. Most of history, for most people, has been a terrible place to live.
Through the Great Depression, through both World Wars, through Vietnam and the Cold War, through the spooky 1950s, a small subset of the ever-growing population of this spinning rock has looked to science fiction for visions of the future. What really stands out about The Twilight Zone, about The Martian Chronicles, about Star Trek and about Asimov’s Foundation is that they have all served as warning and inspiration, as promised land and parable for modern writers and scientists.
We can cringe at the one-step-forward-two-steps-back sexism, or the doctors smoking in the hospital corridors of The Twilight Zone–but at the same time, like the 20th century itself, these stories were better (although, to be fair, not always “better” in terms of Great Literature or even good writing) than anything that had come before them.
Ultimately, what I love about science fiction is the understanding that progress, both technological and social, can be both good and bad (but, I would argue, more good than bad).
Science fiction and science fact had approximately equal roles in my decision to study neuroscience, and I believe both have the same appeal. Both value learning and progress, knowledge and understanding. Both speak to the human condition in unusual and indirect ways. And both make for absorbing reading (although science fiction usually has better titles than scientific papers).
In Atlantis news, I’ve just found out via @NASASpaceflight that we’re having some fuel valve issues. Fingers unscientifically crossed that the launch won’t be delayed, and hopefully our modern NASA team has learned a thing or two about the laws of physics from past experts.