What is Science Fiction?

Science fiction isn’t just about aliens and rocket ships (although those are a lot of fun), rather it’s a lens we use to tell stories about who we are, what’s wrong with the world, and what will happen to us if we do or do not take steps to address our behaviour. It’s a literature of ideas, but it’s also one woven into being using analogy and parable. It’s about OUR relationship to technology, nature, society, and the cosmos. And through it, we can address these things in ways with which mainstream fiction might struggle.

Look back at Mary Shelley, HG Wells or George Orwell. Look at the SF of the postwar years, the 1960s and 1970s. The flowering of cyberpunk in the 1980s… Our science fiction reflects who we are when we write it.

Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes then shows them to us in rough disguise.

W.H. Auden

As a writer, science fiction gives you one of the widest possible canvases: the whole of time and space, from the beginning of the universe to its end. You can go anywhere, imagine anything, set up any social experiment or emotional “what if?” you desire. It’s a blank canvas wide enough for your imagination. It encapulates that “anything-is-possible” punk rock attitude. And in that freedom, that willingness to extrapolate what we see around us into tales that examine out relationship with the universe, it is possibly the oldest and purest of our storytelling traditions.

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”

Octavia E. Butler

Science fiction is subversive

The act of imagining the future has always been a quietly subversive activity. Portraying a different or changed society cannot help but be a deeply political exercise. By doing it, you’re implicitly passing comment on our present world and the way it will be altered by coming events or technologies. From HG Wells onwards, SF writers have imagined what will happen if we continue down our current path. If things go badly, we get a dystopia to warn us of the consequences of inaction; if things go well, we get a utopia to which we can aspire and work towards.

One of the core messages of the genre is that, “this too shall pass.” The world we know today – it’s political, economic and social systems – cannot endure forever. Change will come. Some people don’t want to hear that, but come it will. As SF writers, we get to model a vast array of possible futures. To remake the world according to our personal fears and desires.

The forces of conservatism seek stasis and security. They fear change, but SF writers revel in it. We dream of better worlds. We are literally paid to imagine that things are different to the way they are today, and that can be a hell of a subversive act.

Standing on the edge of the world

In my fiction, I’ve been fascinated by the liminality of ports. They are where the everyday intersects with the extraordinary, the start and end point for thousands of journeys, and portals connecting this place with every other place.

Being a SF writer, I have a particular fondness for space ports. The idea that you can run away from life as a colonist, get to the port, and then have the whole universe open up before you…

In this sense, as in Star Wars, the space port is a bridge between the main character’s old life and the adventure awaiting them. Between who they were and who they are going to be.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the port city of Bristol, which historically served as a jumping-off point for merchants, pirates, explorers and (despicably) slavers. Standing on the quay in the late afternoon, you can imagine the ships slipping their moorings and heading for the gorge, and beyond it the Severn Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean, and it feels as if you’re standing on the edge of the world.

In Conversation with Peter F. Hamilton

Peter Hamilton will be doing a number of online events in order to promote his new book, The Saints of Salvation (which I am currently reading), and I will be interviewing him when his virtual tour bus pulls into Bristol.

As you can see from the schedule, this event is already sold out (in fact it has a wait list), but if you’d like to catch Peter on his other stops, the links are below:

Titans of Sci-Fi with Waterstones Swansea, Thu 29 Oct, 6.30pm (Peter with Stephen Baxter, Temi Oh and Alastair Reynolds): https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/125490522531 

Remaking the Future with SFX and Toppings, Wed 4 Nov, 6.30pm (Peter with Stephen Baxter, Laura Lam, Jonathan Wright): https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/125511443105 

The Fermi Paradox

So, I’ve been thinking about the Fermi Paradox. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the paradox was suggested in 1950 by physicist Enrico Fermi, when he asked, “Where is everybody?”

His argument was that it tool 4 million years for potentially space-travelling life to evolve on Earth, but the universe is a thousand times older, so there should have been plenty of time for other star-faring races to evolve and overrun the galaxy–and yet, we don’t see them.

Many (mostly depressing) solutions have been put forward, postulating some kind of Great Filter that prevents civilisations reaching the level of technology necessary for us to detect them. Candidates for the Great Filter include nuclear war, pollution, the impossiblity of interstellar travel, and killer robots that destroy life wherever they detect it.

On Earth, life evolved in response to a series of great extinctions and a variable climate. When the dinosaurs died out, mammals just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And when climate change started to make life on the savannah difficult for our ape ancestors, they had to get smart or die. They had to diversify their diet, learn to hunt, and ultimately harness fire and travel north, into Europe and beyond. We wouldn’t have survived without our intelligence and desire to explore. But an alien species in a more stable environment (a sub-surface ocean beneath the ice of a frozen moon, for example) might never have the need to develop those characteristics. They may have curiosity, but their options for exploration or technology would be limited by their environment. Their world would be covered by kilometres of ice, beyond which only vacuum lies; and they probably wouldn’t discover fire and smelting on a seabed. The desire to look outwards and seek new frontiers may be an extremely rare trait.

My own personal thoughts on the matter are that given the size and age of the universe, intelligent alien life almost certainly exists, but given those vast gulfs of time and space, we are extremely unlikely to ever meet them.

Look at the picture of the Andromeda galaxy accompanying this post. Look how many stars there are there. Roughly a trillion. If one of those stars housed an alien race at the same technological level as us, how would we ever detect it? You could drop a fair-sized galactic empire in there and unless they were using spectacularly noisy star drives to power their ships, we’d still never know they were there.

But it isn’t just the distance. Every light year we peer into the cosmos is a year back in time. Andromeda is 2.537 million light years away, so we’re seeing it as it was when the first Homo habilis on Earth were just beginning to experiment with stone tools. Given that some estimate it would take humanity only 100,000 years to colonise our galaxy using self-replicating, slower-than-light craft, that’s plenty of time for a species to have done the same to Andromeda. There might be whole reefs of Dyson spheres, and a galaxy-wide civilisation existing there right now, but we won’t know anything about it for another 2.5 million years.

Or perhaps we simply missed them. Perhaps that vast empire collapsed a billion years ago, and we simply can’t see their ruins.

Perhaps vast waves of colonisation have already swept through our own galaxy and we simply don’t recognise their traces.

In our own solar system, there are anomalies. Mercury appears to be the solid iron core of a larger planet, stripped of most of its crust. Venus spins in the opposite direction to the rest of the planets, and has the slowest rotation of any of the planets. Did something smack into it, or could its rotational energy have been tapped by a supercivilisation in order to power an interstellar wormhole, slowing (and reversing) its rotation? Or perhaps, given that it was once apparently habitable, could it and Earth have been targetted by planet-killing robots that wrecked Venus’s climate and dealt us the blow that birthed our moon?

We exist in deep time and deep space. I live in hope that one day, we’ll find evidence that we’re not alone, but realise that given the distances involved, any species we detect will most likely have gone extinct by the time we detect them. And alas, the same holds true in reverse. By the time we’re spotted, we may be long gone.

“Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.”