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Thinking about Science fiction – Part 1

October 23, 2010

In the past year, I have been watching science fiction TV and film, initially because of my job as a TA for a science fiction class. That got me back in the habit of my teenaged and early adult years of watching SF TV series and films, and thanks to Netflix, I was able to relive that moment in my past, but as a more savvy (and much older) adult.

My choice of science fiction novels do not fall under the conventional rubric of SF and fantasy, as I’ve always been more fascinated by mundane science fiction with its thrilling yet realistically believable plots than stories of magical projections and sorcery (even though this is slowly changing because of my own interest in the intellectual history of witchcraft and the paranormal). I also had a love for horror and supernatural stories, but I always saw them as separate from my interest in scientific issues and such issues impact on our everyday. However, in recent years, I have become more interested in things that are epiphenomenal or ‘extra-natural,’ and am revising my own image of what ‘science’ means; this coming in the heels of my own involvement in science studies. This is because that there are so many areas of physical ‘wonders’ and ‘blackboxes’ in our ability to explain why certain things happen the way they do, that nothing can be ‘logically’ discounted.

This will be the first in my series of posts on all things Science Fiction. I have begun writing about this for a class seminar paper over the summer, and would like to continue the conversation on my blog as a way of preparing for the writing of more rigorously researched and argumentatively refined articles. In my quest to really understand what science fiction means and how it can be meaningful for my own intellectual enterprise, I have decided to also start writing science fiction myself. I don’t fancy myself an SF author, but I see SF as a creative tool for interrogating my own research goals. Nor am I studying SF the way a literary critic and cultural theorist would. Instead, my interest in SF has to do with its ontology and its phenomenological probabilities. To kick-start my post, I will like to talk briefly about the epistemic culture through an introductory post of SF culture on television.

Science fiction, especially good science fiction, whether transmitted through the moving image or texts, contain for us a rich source of our intellectual history and intellectual pre-occupations. Some authors and show creators use science-fiction as a way of stimulating discussions on scientific issues among the masses. Obviously, science-fiction TV, for instance, is not your usual soap-opera, since quite a bit of cerebral concentration is required to consider the power issues they like to lay on us on the table. However, science fiction TV, even the most intelligent ones, plays more upon the public’s perception of science and scientists (with some wacky plot twists and humor thrown in, such as in Eureka and The Sanctuary, rather than on how scientists see the way in which their institutions function. I am sure many scientists would give a few of their limbs to be able to invent some of the fantastical instruments, cures and techniques that regularly pop-up in these shows. Moreover, the fact that many of the characters in this show (probably not in the more staid X-files) are portrayed as having super-human intelligence, especially in Eureka where having merely one PhD, or being just an ‘ordinary’ doctor as opposed to a ‘medical researcher’ would put you in the category of intellectual ‘losers,’ feeds into the public’s perception and ‘ignorance’ over the entire process of scientific work and the sort of people who are ‘fortunate’ enough to participate in the process. Moreover, scriptwriters delight in using semi-gibberish scientific terms to flummox the watching public because it makes everything sound so much more ‘science-sy’ and smart. This is true of course of many scientific papers written in this day and age compared to what people such as Einstein, Bohr, Curie or Pauling would have produced, would glaze the non-specialist eyes over before we reach the end of the abstract (when I say specialist, I mean specialists in the subfields).

At the same time, however, these shows are true to life in dealing with the sociology of scientific institutions, such as the pressure of producing results in order to ensure continuous funding to the extent that results drive research rather than inventivity and curiosity. Some scientists may compromise their ethics and even take risks with the lives of others (think drug-research and chemical weapon testings) in order to find the perfect ‘solution’ that would ‘make the world better,’ These are issues that TV scientists and real-life scientists grapple with.

I always think of the The X-Files as having given birth to latter day science fiction TV. I am glad to see some level of improvements in the way the narratives are constructed. On the outset, X-Files and the current crop of SF TV bear little resemblance to each other. However, X-Files have a role to play in inspiring the way in which story-arcs are developed in The Sanctuary and Eureka, such as the larger issues of mortality, genetic manipulation, time manipulation, unknown and possibly horrifying biological/chemical abnormalities (which include killer and smart parasites), and intellectual cover-ups. However, there are also subthemes relating to our every-day lives such as our dreams, unconscious thoughts, epidemics, unexplained deaths, climate change, apocalypse, spirituality, food biology, and our ambivalent relationship to the cyberworld. More than in X-files which was made at a time when public access to Internet was still not as pervasive, the later generation SF TV invent silicon micro-organisms with evolving personalities, artificial intelligence existing in every possible eerie form and bent on taking over us and our world, a society of high-surveillance, smart technology that hold us hostage and the porous difference between living organisms and inorganic creatures. Religion and sentience, as always, have always been part of the SF landscape, though probably not in a to-your-face way. But the notions of beliefs, the field of knowledge inexplicable through science (at least the science as we know it) and uncontrollable (and unknown forces) that create that chain of reactions that could lead to explosive consequences. If one wants to criticize the lack of humanists and the humanities, and even much of social science, other than the occasional cameo appearances, humanists ideas are not far from the minds of the ‘important’ scientist-characters in SF TV. In fact, the scientists on TV seem to display a more ‘Renaissance’-like aptitude and abilities than your every-day normal scientist would, even though there are real all-rounders in real-life. I could talk about institutional conditions that may have precluded the creation of such all-rounders in the ‘real-world’ but I will not do so right now.

SF TV is very interested in the materiality of our being, and all the fancy gadgets, terms and people they parade are merely a part of that drive to push the boundaries of that materiality. In a logical leap of thought, I somewhat see a relationship between the new and not so new intellectual fashion in speculative realism and the desire for excavating ontological ideals through science via SF. My next post may probably be about that. There is still much to be said about SF TV and the potentialities of that medium. I will probably revisit the theme in my future postings.

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