The "dark side" of futuristic science fiction stories

What happens when sci-fi storytelling gets taken over by superstitious materialists

The "dark side" of futuristic science fiction stories
Photo by Drew Graham / Unsplash

Is science fiction is supposed to be scientific?

A lot of fans seem to think so.

But what does it mean for a story to be scientific?

Facts are boring. If you want scientific facts, go read research papers (and try to stay awake).

There's a reason you're reading a story instead of a factual report.

Stories have characters. Stories are about something happening to characters, and how those characters respond.

Stories entertain you with dramatic conflicts.

Somebody has a problem and goes searching for a solution. But something else stops that progress.

Will our hero figure it out?

That's the magic of stories. Stories draw you in to a created reality using the power of unanswered questions.

Science fiction stories use themes and ideas and situations drawn from science and technology to create these characters and their problems.

That's how you get aliens, spaceships, ray-guns, and Big Dumb Objects. That's how you get Galactic Empires and pink mind-control lasers sending you messages from orbit.

But are science fiction stories really scientific just because their authors and fans fancy them to be more true-to-life? Does the presence of problems and situations drawn from the cutting edges of lab research make a story more scientific?

There's two ways to look at this question.

There's the part which we can call scientific. This has to do with the fundamental intelligibility of nature to the human mind.

There is an order to being, which scientific study can reveal to us. We can rationally determine the laws that describe repeatable phenomena.

Science fiction stories take place in futuristic settings with imaginary technologies. The author begins from the conviction that the intellect can comprehend and resolve the story's problems.

But there's another angle to think about.

Science has a "dark side".

Every new truth discovered by the scientists raises 100 or 1000 new questions.

Instead of moving towards complete knowledge, science leads us off into a growing field of darkness.

An explosion of ignorance.

If nature is fundamentally understandable to the human mind, there's a deep mystery about how this fact can square with the infinite horizons of uncertainty that open up before us after each new finding.

Good science-fiction, properly done, concerns human responses to problems created by technology and science. They express the conviction that human ingenuity can explain the events of the story and restore order.

That's unlike the weird tale and the horror story, where man has a glimpse of the unknown and runs away screaming in terror. These are two fundamentally different worldviews.

What's worth seeing here is how both of these have some claim to a scientific attitude.

Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke all took their own "handwaving" liberties with the science in order to tell a story.

The rule says that the SF writer gets ONE rule violation.

A moment's thought on that should tell you two things.

One, physics doesn't hand out free passes. Breaking one law of nature for the sake of speculation is as good as breaking many or most of them.

Two, authors don't earn good-boy points for being more realistic or true to scientific theories.

The only good-boy points you get as a writer are more book sales and more raving fans.

All speculative stories are imaginary. They are stories of the fantastic that take place in imagined worlds.

This is not a way for Your Host to degrade a certain kind of "hard SF" story. Quite the opposite.

The more interesting kind of storytelling understands itself as a modern-day form of mythmaking.

The mythmaker doesn't limit himself to boring rules set out by boring nerds who appoint themselves gatekeepers.

We can ask more interesting questions.

Where do the supernatural monsters, the inscrutable aliens, and the fantastic new sciences and machines collide in this conflict between the intellect and the unknown?

How can we tell fun, exciting, wicked-cool stories when all of these possibilities are on the table?

The materialist wants to get rid of all myths, legends, and religions as "silly superstitions".

The good teller-of-tales knows that science doesn't conflict with myth.

When you take the two together, you walk through fertile fields of imaginary treasures.

Even the tension between mythic and materialist world-views can be the engine of fantastic SF stories.

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