The 20th century brought about food items that does not contain nutrients. I know, this article is about science fiction and not food. But please bear with me for a minute, I’ll explain why is it important just a little later. So we have foods like jams or sodas that are sweet, but contain no sugar, fruity, yet there are no traces of fruit in them. We have chips that tastes greasy, yet contain zero digestible fat. Even our food-looking foods like hamburgers are engineered to taste wonderful, yet are seriously lacking in actual nutrients.
What happened in the second half of the 1900’s, is food companies found out what makes something flavorful, and acquired the technology to engineer food down to molecular level. The equation is pretty simple: you have a mathematical function to optimize, the variables of which are chemical components, and the value coming out is the market value, or financial revenue. Science allowed a huge improvement in solving this optimization problem.
The reason why it is an issue is the way our brain evaluates food. The brain is not an oracle or an all sensing detector of nutritional value. Rather, the brain watches some, very few and basic, select parameters. For example our tongue has a sugar detector that fires off when we eat simple sugars, but not for other natural substances we used to find in nature. Sugar molecules suggest ripe fruits, rich in cheap energy and some other valuable substances. The brain has no real clue about the food we are eating. It just observes a handful of such rude measures.
These measures are similar to clinical surrogates, and are seen everywhere. Even we, humans, use it very often. Sometimes measuring the real quantity we are interested in is difficult or problematic. But we might find that by measuring a few other parameters, we can estimate the quantity in question with enough precision. Nature of course figured that out many billions of years ago, and uses extensively. The problem with surrogates, as one might suspect, is their limited scope. If the circumstances change, the surrogates might cease to be good surrogates anymore, and fool us.
Sweet or greasy tastes are surrogates for nutritional value. They served us well for many millions of years. Until science developed the technology that gives us direct control over them. At this point, we were able the tune up the surrogates, creating wonderful sensations, but without actually including anything of real value. We managed to fool ourselves.
It is time to establish the connection of all this babbling to science fiction. Human beings have an innate affection toward mystery, the unknown, the inner workings of the cosmos. Give a human being a tool, he will try to find out what it can be used for. Give him a box, he will try to open it. Human beings want to learn and want to solve problems all the time. If there are no problems, humans develop problems for themselves, and name them games and puzzles. Or sometimes they just imagine situations, and try to solve the emerging problems in theory.
This high we feel when we learn something new or unlock a puzzle is a surrogate. Problem solving and modeling the world is what made us so successful. This is the human way. This is our weapon and tool. We feel good when we unravel a mystery, when we take a step toward understanding the surrounding reality, because that ensures our survival and triumph. Games and fantasy prepare us to real problems in a risk-free way.
And finally I’m arriving to my point. The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century brought about the knowledge to tackle these surrogates directly. We can create the illusion of being part of a grand scheme of progress, scientific endeavor, space adventure, an unprecedented expansion of human capabilities. We can test which illusions, games, fantasies sell well, and which don’t. And we can churn out popular ones as fast as the market can take up.
But we do that without actually including any substance. In fact we are avoiding substance, because realistic things can be scary, confusing or just too complex to be reliably introduced to a typical audience. Realism also comes at a cost for multiple reasons. It needs research on part of the creators, or paying for actual experts, and it also limits what can be put in the final product. Anything that limits what can go into the story is unwanted, because necessarily reduces the market value of the product simply by taking out well marketable elements. Realism and market value are contradictory goals.
As of today, the west is in a state of confusion when it comes to the social status of science. We live in a society deeply plunged into anti-scientific and anti-intellectual sentiments. It is all too common that someone literally brags about not understanding physics or mathematics. It also common to blame science and technology for our miseries, and all the trouble, true or imagined, we cause to the planet. This trend can not be attributed to any actual failure of technology. After all, technology is an enabler, but not a doer. We can decide whether we want to use some tool or technique, and if so, what for. Science can not be blamed for any actual event or action. There must be another source of this hatred.
I claim the source is shame. These sentiments are pretty much just excuses for not having a grasp of the world that surrounds us. We feel we should, but since we don’t, cognitive dissonance kicks in. As a result, we depreciate science and the fruits of civilization to save our egos. Whose fault is our lack of scientific understanding is outside the scope of this inquiry.
As I said, our society is of two minds about science. During all this scolding and blaming, science keeps delivering the most wonderful results in a rapid rate. It needs a huge amount of self deception and chosen ignorance to overlook this fact. Why do we need growth? This question is so often asked, but the obvious answer rarely follows: because our parents died of diseases that might cease to exist in our lifetime. Who wants to stop that progress? If you are told that your children will be protected from the disease you are going to die in, you are not enthusiastic about that? Or to pick a less important issue, don’t you think that it is useful to be able to travel faster and cheaper? Today getting from US to Europe costs you quite some money. You are not going to take that journey unless you need to, or really want to, every once in a while. But what if in a fifty years, such a trip will take one hour, and will cost not more than a bus trip today? You really don’t see any benefit of it? Is it only greed that drives us?
Science is exciting, and there is just no way to deny that. Public sentiments aside, we secretly know that. We hope that those little advancements will never stop coming. We say it is white man’s mental disease, but we don’t want it to stop.
And this pretty much explains the recent upsurge of science fiction. Or, rather, quasi science fiction. The recipe is easy: take a story that involves at least some anti-scientific sentiments, or sentiments about greed or corporate recklessness. Create some actual scientific background for your world and story. Then bastardize it down to be as available as you can. There can be gaping plot holes, blatant violations of science or common sense, self contradictions, transparent pop psychology and open propaganda. It does not matter, because the majority of the audience will not notice, and any criticisms will be largely ignored. What matters is that you never go against the prejudices and misconceptions of your typical viewer. Do that, and you get your big bucks, the audience gets its dose of green babbling and some guilty pleasure of shiny spaceships. This is the recipe behind Avatar, Interstellar, The Martian and many other titles.
Science fiction used to be created by scientists. Today, science fiction is created by artists, professional writers and businessmen. When scientists created science fiction, it was the time when they were the heroes. They created the future. It was all about noble things, hope, will, effort. Today, it is just a business, like Coca Cola and Lay’s. It is not meant to inspire anybody. It does not come from passion. They are just after your money. And you swallow their medicine by the spoonful.
We need to stop this. Emphasis on we, as opposed to them. The cola industry of the mind will not stop while they can make money. It is you that can initiate the change. Start by placing science back on the pedestal it belongs. If you don’t have a clue about basic physics, it is not cool. You are allowed to blame the school system, your parents or the television. It really does not matter, as long as you admit that it is bad, and you wish you understood more. Continue by demanding hard science in stories. Embrace not understanding! If you understand everything in a story on the first read, and you don’t doubt any of its statements, the story doesn’t worth your time. Embrace effort! You have to go online, and google the damn thing. Follow it up! A good science fiction must give you homework for days if not weeks. It must show you a road to knowledge. Be finicky! If you find anything false in it, it has failed its task. It has betrayed you.
We need another golden age of science fiction. It is all on you.