Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Dilettantism

A couple days ago I finally finished reading The Night's Dawn trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton. All told, those three books add up to around 4,000 pages. Of course, those are science fiction pages, which go significantly quicker than, say, philosophy or classic literature. I picked up the series a couple months ago at the behest of my brothers and read it with pauses between the volumes. What a ride it was, though. I've got some friends who look down on sci-fi as an inferior genre, but reading this series reminded me why it's not only a worthy literary form, but a genuinely important one.

First of all, science fiction has an inherent ability to pose unique moral dilemmas, especially those of a social nature. Questions about genetic engineering, the integration of biotechnology into everyday life, and (obviously) the role of religion in our lives. If, like in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, you had a drug that was non-addictive, non-harmful, free, widespread, and legal, would there really be a reason to object? If society were divided into classes of people who had drastically different capabilities and no opportunity for social mobility, but all were happy and satisfied with their role in society, where would that leave us? It's not that other genres cannot raise similar questions, but with sci-fi you have a unique ability to explore issues caused by technological development, because you can work from the assumption that we've reached that technological level. And, with enough time, it's almost guaranteed that we are going to face those difficult moral questions (think about the queasiness you feel when you see the human 'enhancement' in the film Gattaca).

But rather than leaving us to regard the future with fear and apprehension, as many individuals are prone to do, sci-fi can help excite us about the future and the changes we're going to see. In the last fifteen years, the Internet has changed society. What do the next fifteen years hold? And if the rate of technological progress is increasing, how much headway can we expect to make three or four decades down the line? Sci-fi can be instrumental in preparing us and exciting us to see this future.

Which leads me to my next point: sci-fi is important because it inspires people to embrace that future, and even to work towards it. When you think about all that is possible, all that we can achieve as a species, it can be dizzying. It just takes some imagination. Think how far we came between 1500 and 1900. Now between 1900 and 1970. Now between 1970 and 2010. Now think of where we'll be in a thousand years. Two thousand years? Five thousand? If you don't assume that we're going to kill ourselves off, which I do not, the possibilities are truly mind-boggling. What about intelligent species out in the universe that have been developing for hundreds of thousands of years? What might they be capable of? I don't know about you, but it just makes me giddy to think of. And the excitement that comes from this thought makes me very, very interested in science. For young people who can choose to go that route, it can inspire them to be part of that effort to realize our scientific potential as a species.

One objection I hear sometimes to argument for increased funding on space exploration and/or basic research: How can we justify spending all that money on _____ when there are tens of millions of people going hungry in the world? How can we be dreaming about the stars when things are so wretched on the ground? This irks me. By the same token, you could ask: Why should anyone become a veterinarian when plenty of humans lack for medical care? Why should any problem be addressed when there is a more dire problem as yet unfixed? Come ON, we should not hold ourselves back because of a selective employment of moral hierarchies. It's important to feed our imaginations, to invest in our future as well as our present.

[As an aside, I think much of the literary merit of sci-fi comes from the imagination involved. Where there may be a lack of character development and the use of clich├ęd plot/dialogue elements, there can be a bounty of mind-tickling visions of the future and creative projections of current scientific/political/social trends. Where authors of great "literature" may pour their energy into examining the human condition, authors of great sci-fi pour their energy into fantastic imaginings and creating their own worlds.]

So, in a clumsy segue from the general topic of science fiction and how it stimulates me, I ran into this page on Wikipedia, which I think might be the coolest thing ever:

A list of unsolved problems in physics!

I know I'm not the only one who finds physics almost as fascinating as it is mystifying. We've all eagerly picked up one of Stephen Hawking's books, only to stare at the page and re-read the text a bajillion times in an attempt to comprehend just what the hell he's saying. Just trying to wrap your head around these problems is a fun exercise; I can get lost for hours trying to educate myself about particle physics and all that jazz. A naked singularity? I HOPE WE FIND ONE.

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