30 June 2009

Biology In Science Fiction

So it is taking a bit longer than I had hoped to get what I needed out of that last poll. Make sure to supply your own opinion, and bring your friends here too!

Today: a mashup of stuff related to one of the most current sciences in science fiction: Biology. This stuff is everywhere - from the heated evolution vs. creationism debate to the moral quandaries we face concerning abortion, cloning, stem cell research and genetic manipulation, to the world-arresting problem of global warming and the fantastic possibilities in exobiology that are emerging as we discover more about the planets of other stars and even our own planets and moons.

But I'm not actually going to talk about any of that. If you want to keep up with that battery of essential information (and so much more!) you can head over to Biology in Science Fiction, an excellent blog that is dedicated to just that topic. It even has a bookstore. From now on, it will have a link aside this blog, amid a (hopefully) ever-growing collection of like-minded observers.

In the information age, perhaps the most important/interesting Big Idea to come out of Biology is the theory of evolution through natural selection. Not only does it provide much of the supporting framework for the work being done with the above topics, but it actually has proven to be a surprisingly well-adapted metaphor for explaining the propagation of certain patterns in networks of information. For the theoretical background, I refer the reader to Wikipedia's article on Memetics and the Heath brother's Made to Stick. This second source serves as a "how-to" application of the theory set down in the Wiki article for business/viral marketing. In the brief (but incredibly fruitful) time I was able to e-collaborate with the Heath brothers during college, they assured me that their work rested upon the model of culture built by Hawkins, Dennet, Blackwell, and others. Hell, you can even read my own application to the study of literature if you like - it has a great bibliography on the topic at least, and is the method of analyzing literature you are most likely to see used by me later on here.

I'll wait here while you read up.

Now that you are familiar with the concept of Memetics, let's take a look at one biology-related meme as it propagates through the culture(s) of the internet. This video:

Chernobyl Fish

As you might surmise, this meme is counting on the sensational presupposition that it is the radioactive nature of the fishes' locale (which has enabled them to grow so unusually large) in order to replicate - an old SF plot device so common it has implanted itself into the collective unconscious of our culture as "true" even though evidence is scarce; these fish are well within the normally recorded ranges of length and weight, as it turns out (Well's Catfish).

Nonetheless, veracity is only one reproductive strategy in the ecology of ideas, and so we find this video making its rounds on the internet (even here!), evolving, and so on. A rather short video from the same bridge appears 10 months ago, then about 6-9 months later a flurry of new videos (1, 2, 3) from the same bridge but with better quality and longer times supercede it. The original idea was good, like exoskeletons, and it hit its own little cambrian explosion which both diversified and further propagated its ilk across the internet.

The interesting point for us as we witness how SF produces and is produced by the cultures it exists in is that the (in this case bad) fiction lent an air of believability to this urban legend.

Not only does SF use science to predict the present and the future, but we use SF to enhance our understanding of what is scientifically plausible. Knowing this, it would seem to place an onus upon SF artists to represent the facts as we know them accurately - or perhaps readers should be more skeptical?

Hey, now that I think of it, does SF with bad (false so far as we know) science behind it even qualify as SF, or is it a form of fantasy that takes itself seriously?


Geoffrey Wykes said...

SF adopts a shotgun approach to truth--so many ideas are generated that some of them are bound to hit. I see this as part of the problem of predicting anything from SF writing. However, as you say, this is part of what makes science fiction so interesting. The author looks at something, like these "giant" fish, and thinks, well, what about REALLY giant fish?, and then goes on to write about Moby Dick on the seas of a planet orbiting Fomalhaut.

Why not? Overly serious authors are no fun, probably because writing overly serious tomes isn't much fun either.

Adam Wykes said...

I will say that there's nothing I love more than delving into a world that someone obviously took the time to deeply research before writing about, though. If you read the actual Moby Dick, you quickly realize that Melville absolutely devoured everything pertaining to whales for a while before writing the book. The passion for the subject exuded by the author becomes the reader's passion as well, if the universe provides sufficient motivation. Otherwise it just ends up feeling like a (dry) textbook.