“The fantastic that denies it’s fantastic”: Science & Science-Fiction talk at The Royal Institution

Science & Science Fiction at the Royal Institution

A funny, interesting but sometimes scatter-gun talk at the Royal Institution by two engaging academics in the field of science communication.

My favourite quote is above in the title of this post, which they take from Prof Mark Rose: “Science Fiction is the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic”.

Rough notes follow.

Science & science-ficiton / RI
7.4.09
——
Introduced: Jenny rowan , lablit magazine
Prof Mark Brake / Rev Neil Hook (uni of glamorgan)
Their book: “Difference engines: how science drives fiction and fiction drives science”

“I like to think of the earth as an alien planet” (this reminds me of BLDGBLOG/Geoff Manuagh’s contention that “the earth is becoming unearthly“)

copernican revolution made it that way

infinite, inhuman universe as opposed to earth-centric Aristotelean cosmos (earth myths populated heaven)

“if copernicus wasn’t enough, then came Darwinism”

“a series of demotions”

“SF is a response to the cultural shock of discovering our marginal place in an alien universe”

“an attempt put the stamp of humanity back on the universe”

we can identify 4 themes (based on prof mark rose)

1. space
2. time
3. machine
4. monster

SPACE

something to be conquered, part of dominion over nature

TIME

flux, change, process, revealed over time
contradiction, paradoxes

MACHINE
computers atom bombs, robots, but also 1984, Brave New World: social machines

MONSTER
about us, the monster within.
remaking of human.
super heroes = upbeat monsters

SPACE

copernican rev:
if the earth is a planet, then the planets can be earths
Galileo gave this evidence: mountains, craters, features on moons
sudden decentralisation, diversity, possibility
Kepler: 1st book of sci-fi 1630s “Somnium”
Bishop Godwin: 1st alien contact story

new discoveries, mediated by SF: the play between: alienation / sensawunda

kepler to gallileo: “there will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered flight…” look up

Bishop Godwin of Llandaff: “man in the moon” – kept it secret, published posthumously
shipwrecked Spanish buccaneer trains flock of 40 geese in an apparatus, geese fly to the moon in winter, moon white because covered in geese, so travels to the moon.
meets king of moon
moon = utopia, earth is the dumping ground for the moon’s rejects.

robert goddard wrote to h.g. wells to tell him how he was inspired by ‘wotw’

rocket launch countdown was invented by fritz lang as a cinematic shortcut, and then adopted by science.

TIME

industrial revolution, earth working, fossil record: the long now evident, species that walked the earth

time was something to be mastered (baconian/enlightment science: nature to be mastered)

mechanised time travel = industrialised britain

kronos/ charios – Greek words for time

kronos – more concerned with measurement and mastery of time
industrialised time

HGWells: 4th dimension, to be measured, managed and mastered

1894 The Time Machine / 1905 special relativity

space-time is born. a revolution in time.

the time machine – double meaning to the title.
time traveller sets out to master time, but finds time is the master.
we are all trapped in the time machine.

Ballard, Drowned World: (not mentioning his fixation race-memory, mitochondrial time?)

MACHINE

Carel Kapek Rossums Universal Robots
Asimov’s 3 laws (+ zeroth law) – based on Hippocratic oath
now enshrined in s. Korean laws!
machine takes human form (stamping humanity on the unknown)
martin rees – industrialisation might be a mass-extinction event (a 400 year ELE)

atom bomb imagined by hg wells in ;the world set free 1914 (cf. de groot)
influenced leo szilard, initiated/lobbied roosevelt to create manhattan project

red alert peter george 1956, adapted by kubrick to strangelove

MONSTERS & ALIENS

Godzilla: a proxy for dealing with the consequences of the WW2 atomic warfare
took a machine and turned it into a monster (with two legs and two arms – again the stamp of the human on the new)

Most monsters and aliens are proxies or cyphers for ourselves
(only unknowable alien in SF is Lem’s Solaris)

Giger’s Alien and Hannibal Lecter are the same? Monsters and aliens – we are in the middle, examining ourselves through these characters.

closing remarks from prof. brake.
we’re the first generation living in a science-ficitonal world, sf is hardcore reality, not escapism…

——
q&a:

aldiss: SF is ‘hubris clobbered by nemesis’
prof mark rose: SF is: ‘the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic’

questioner mentions: greg egan short story (wang’s carpets? may have misheard) sea of carbohydrates performing computation.

question (from a biologist): the attitude to progress and evolution in much of SF
is not very sophisticated in it’s understanding of biology. eg. 2001.

Brake: much of SF is very physically determinist, hierarchical in its view and many of the 20th’s spokespersons about biology thought there was not life other than on earth. interesting to see what astrobiology brings to it.

4 comments
  1. The present is the future that denies it’s the future?

  2. max said:

    interesting to see ballard there under ‘time’, but not under ‘space’ too …

    obviously time is a fixation of his (the drowned world, time-slippage in the crystal world, chronopolis (in which clock time is banned) etc etc). but in his memoirs ballard makes a big play of pursuing ‘inner space’, as opposed to conventional SF’s obsession with rockets, aliens, space travel, distant galaxies and so on.

    i guess the link is in your note that ‘most monsters and aliens are proxies or cyphers for ourselves’ – in other words, in most SF what looks like outer space is actually inner.

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