Saturday, September 03, 2011

Imagine the Infinite

Science Fiction: The Art of 'What if...?'

Yesterday I attended a lecture, entitled "Science Fiction: The Art of 'What if...?'", by Keith Cleveland, Instructor in the the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. I was drawn to the lecture both by the topic and the lecturer whom I have known and studied with over the past two decades. And I was not disappointed in the presentation in which the themes of ideas and imagination seemed most prominent.

Science Fiction as outlined in Keith's lecture finds its origins in the western mythology where Prometheus steals fire from the gods. Referencing this myth and the related story of Epimethius and his difficulties with Pandora's jar the lecture moved to the literary origins of modern science fiction which can be traced to the work of a teenage British author named Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her novel, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. Noting the connection with earlier mythology in the title the lecturer brought forth the importance of developments in science by thinkers such as Bacon, Galileo, and above all Newton, as precursors if not catalysts for the development of modern science fiction.
This reminded me of the growth of scientific knowledge in the late 18th century as epitomized by the Lunar Society of Birmingham England. In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical. With a small band of allies they formed the Lunar Society of Birmingham (so called because it met at each full moon) and kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Blending science, art, and commerce, the Lunar Men built canals; launched balloons; named plants, gases, and minerals; changed the face of England and the china in its drawing rooms; and plotted to revolutionize its soul. Reaching beyond the scientists and artists the changes in science inspired writers and poets which leads us back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.

In his lecture Keith suggested Science Fiction demonstrated an awareness of scientific technology; provided entertainment; and, explored the imagination through the exercise of the mind. Growing throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Science Fiction expanded into a recognized genre of literature that led to Clarke's Three Laws -- three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke. They are:
1.When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.*

Thus Science Fiction is the literary arena in which limitless imagination reigns supreme. But it is imagination that depends on and is fueled by the existence of scientists and scientific ideas. Citing Francis Bacon's notion of "Parabolic" fiction and, importantly, Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, as influential developments, Keith also emphasized the appearance of "science" as a field of knowledge separate from philosophy in 1833 was a necessary condition for the development of "science fiction".
The lecture concluded with remarks on the growth of science fiction and its relationship to culture, with special emphasis on the affinity of science fiction for American culture; a culture whose unique qualities were described well by Alexis de Tocqueville when he commented that:
"As [Americans] see that they manage to resolve unaided all the little difficulties that practical life presents, they easily conclude that everything in the world is explicable and that nothing exceeds the bound of intelligence." (Democracy in America, II.1.1)
The growth of Science Fiction has continued apace, in every country in the world where science is valued, studied and applied (which is most of the world). The lecture was brilliant in its explications and entertainments and left the audience with a wonder that mirrors the "What if...?" of Science Fiction.

*Source: "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination", in Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke


parrish lantern said...

This sounds like it was a really fascinating lecture on a topic that appeals.

James said...

Yes, it was a very good exposition of the idea of science fiction and the importance of its connection with science. In addition to Frankenstein another fictional example, Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith, was referenced to demonstrate the almost infinite imagination that is possible with science fiction.
My own interest in Science Fiction has waned in recent years but has been part of my reading life for as long as I can remember.