July 3rd, 2008
There are a number of writers of SF — I’ll briefly consider “speculative fiction” in general before turning to science fiction specifically — who have never written genre fiction. That is, at least as far as the publishers and bookstores are concerned. Some of these fall into the nebulous area of “literature” in which snooty professors in college creative writing classes automatically flunk a story that is about robots. Some fall into the less nebulous but poorly defined category of “best seller.”
Some of the literary writers who have dodged the sf label include Salman Rushdie and Margret Atwood, either through their own means or their own publishers’ insistence as described by Bryan Appleyard. Similarly, although for very different reasons, some writers like Stephen King and Michael Crichton have never been marketed as genre writers. Stephen King’s first novel Carrie was about a girl with telekinesis, but was not marketed like a genre novel.
I’ve been thinking about this topic as I’d like to reach wider audiences, and the new example of Final Theory: A Novel by Mark Alpert hangs in my head. Non-fiction science manages to reach out effectively, with books like Cosmos and The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory regularly hitting bestseller lists without having to disguise them as non-science. Not so for fiction.
The science fiction that escapes from the ghetto seems to have a few things in common, the primary one being accessibility. It’s usually set in the present, or the very near future. The genre elements can be significant, but fewer seems to be better, so the readers have less to assimilate. True fans of science fiction, on the other hand, are happy to see “FTL” unexplained, and would be bored to read a page of explanation, no matter how well written, about the concept. I recall reading the first few chapters of Encounter With Tiber by Buzz Aldrin and Stephen Barnes and having difficulty continuing because every term and concept was laboriously explained. The SF fan will even happily grok made-up words and technologies without immediate explanation as long as their role is clear in context.
For the last several decades the king of bestselling science fiction, not called science fiction of course, has been Michael Crichton. He knows how to write a page turner. His characters, while not very deep, are sympathetic. His work survives the translation to film and has been very popular, reaching billions of viewers worldwide. I’ve read a number of his books and have seen many of the movies, mostly enjoying them.
In my opinion, however, he has three fatal flaws and my intellectual integrity prevents me from using him as a model for how to get science fiction to the wider public. His themes are consistently anti-science, he makes large and consistent errors in getting the science right, and he consistently insists he’s not just a writer but that his M.D. and his research gives him expertise on the science he gets wrong. Oh, and he’s a dick, too, writing one critic into a book of his as a child rapist.
The theme of much of Crichton’s work is that of Frankenstein: playing god brings destruction. This is the message of Jurassic Park and Prey, for starters. There are related themes in books like Sphere, which indicates that there are things that humankind is better off not knowing. Now, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything wrong with a cautionary tale. They have their place and their strengths. When a writer devotes so much time to pointing out the great arrogance and hubris of scientists and how it always brings doom, well, I think that sucks. We don’t have enough positive examples of scientists in books and movies. What we get is that they may be smart, but that they’re rarely wise. Part of me fears that this message resonates with the public in much the same way that people vote for president based not on a candidate’s intellectual ability and judgment, but upon some idea about who would be more fun to have a beer with.
Now, for a writer who seems to take great joy in how scientists make mistakes so often and are not to be trusted, Crichton is guilty of making fundamental errors in many of his books. I don’t mean something small like “photon” being replaced by “proton” in one sentence accidentally. I mean, just plain not having a clue what the hell he’s talking about.
While I’m not going to criticize the idea of getting dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes in amber, which is neat if not quite possible, it is clear that he has no idea about chaos theory which he uses as a theme in Jurassic Park. Chaos theory does not mean, without “Chaotician” Malcolm even writing down a single equation, that every complex system will fail. Zoos routinely operate without immediate widespread disaster. A similar analysis of the space shuttle, including the math, indicates it’s too complicated to fly, but it does. Why? Because complicated things can be understood, individual parts can be tested for quality, and feedback control systems don’t let just anything happen. And moreover, chaos theory is about understanding predictable aspects of non-linear systems, not just throwing up your hands and saying “it’s unpredictable!”
Luckily, the book is about dinosaurs, not chaos theory. However, his books on global warming, State of Fear, and on the dangers of nanotechnology, Prey, are riddled with outright errors and misunderstandings that undermine the premise of each. Realclimate.org deconstructs State of Fear, while Chris Phoenix at Nanotechnology Now explains how the science in Prey “isn’t real.” Please do take a look at both of these links if you have any doubts about the case I’m making here. They’re both very clear and compelling.
While Crichton paints scientists full of hubris causing death and destruction, threatening our entire way of life, he himself is setting back the public perception of not only individual branches of science but of science itself. And he has the gall to think he understands the science better than the scientists doing the work, at least in the case of global warming; he lectured to packed crowds and advised politicians about his skewed and incorrect views all the while claiming the working climatologists doing the work had the skewed and incorrect views. Well, luckily for us there’s a way of determining if he got his facts right or wrong, and he got a great number of them wrong. The problem is that he’s full of hubris himself and apparently hasn’t acknowledged his numerous mistakes and misunderstandings. He’s just like the stereotypical hypocritical neocon, who intentionally labels their enemies with their own shortcomings and uses antonyms interchangeably with synonyms. Hence the scientists possess the sin of hubris and Crichton fancies that he himself is writing scientifically accurate work even while it’s full of anti-science.
If the anti-science itself isn’t the key to Crichton’s popularity, I can’t help but wonder at how positive an influence he could have been if he’d been promoting science instead of attacking it.
Finally, if you’re like me, both fascinated and repulsed by the popularity of a writer like Crichton, enjoying his work even while being revolted by its flaws, check out The Science of Michael Crichton: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science behind the Fictional Worlds of Michael Crichton (Science of Pop Culture series), edited by a friend of mine, Keven R. Grazier. The book contains essays by several experts (including Ray Kurzweil) concerning the accuracy or lack thereof of the science in Crichton’s work. If I’d finished reading the book, I’d probably have written a longer post!