miércoles, octubre 25, 2006

The science of fiction

Philip Pullman escribió un gran artículo sobre ese género literario que utiliza a la ciencia o se ubica en el futuro sin ser necesariamente ciencia ficción, en donde ubicaría a 1984 de Orwell o La invención de Morel de Bioy. Suscribo el artículo y por ahí clasificaría, guardadas las distancias, a Sus ojos son fuego.

The science of fiction
Thursday August 26, 2004
The Guardian

I don't do science, though I love to read about it. What I do is fiction. They are such different activities that I sometimes wonder whether the same type of mind can do both. I'm not talking about science fiction; it's a respectable genre, with conventions (and Conventions, too), and a canon, and giants and minnows, and classics and trash, but I don't write it and don't much read it. I'm talking about all the rest, about the basic thing that's known as story.

Because stories are fundamentally about individual human beings in human situations. They are the answers to questions such as What will happen when Oedipus meets Jocasta? What is Dorothea going to do when she realises she's made a terrible mistake in marrying that old stick Casaubon? What will Mr Bumble do when Oliver Twist asks for more?

The tensions, expectations and satisfactions we get from fiction are of that sort, and it isn't science, because those aren't scientific questions. A scientific question, I take it, is one like What will happen if I drop two weights at the same moment?

The difference is that once a scientific question is answered, it stays answered - at least, until someone changes the question. What is true for two objects of different weights will also be true, and in the same way, for another two objects of the same weights. There's an abstraction involved: we ignore the fact that this one's painted green, and the other's a bit rusty, and look only at the quality they have in common. Scientific statements are about similar entities behaving in similar ways; what is true for this elementary particle will be true for every other particle of the same kind. In fact, particles such as electrons are so similar that not even their mothers could tell them apart, and as I understand it, there's even a theory that there is only one electron in the universe, but it gets about a lot.

There's no abstract human who will always behave in the same way - except in economics, where every human being is assumed to be rational and selfish to exactly the same degree as every other. No wonder it was called the Dismal Science.

In real life, and in fiction, human beings are much more variable. There's only one Dorothea. However, the variability of fictional human beings involves an odd paradox: the more vividly particular and individual, the more distinct from every other invented character, the more recognisably truthful we think them.

So doing science is not the same as doing fiction. But science as a background to fiction is different. It has to do what all backgrounds do - stand firm and solid. It must not sway alarmingly when someone walks into it or sound hollow when struck, it must conform to the rules of perspective and be vivid enough to convince but not so hectic as to distract.

There's one further thing to say about backgrounds, and it's this: in a story, we are not on oath. We're not taking an exam. The function of research is not to provide me with lots of facts to put into a story unaltered, but to enable me to make up new "facts" that look convincing. The test can only be If I read this, in a book by someone else, would I be taken in? I can't hope to deceive a real expert, but I might deceive the moderately intelligent reader. And if a real expert did read it, I'd hope they might say This man's done a bit of homework.

When it comes to science, it's not hard, these days, to find enough superb writers and fascinating material to satisfy your most demanding interior set-designer. In biology and evolution, there are Richard Dawkins, Steven Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, Jonathan Kingdon, EO Wilson; if it's physics that tickles your fancy, there are David Deutsch, Michio Kaku, Bryan Greene; to find out about cosmology, there are John Gribbin, Martin Rees, Paul Davies. And if you're intrigued by the deepest mystery of the lot, consciousness, you can read Antonio Damasio, and Adam Zeman, and Max Velmans, and VS Ramachandran ... I have read books by all these people, and I haven't even mentioned Roger Penrose.

It isn't hard to find things out. But the best reason to read about science is not to check facts, but to revel in wonder. Part of the impulse behind my longest story lay in the extraordinary poetry of the phrase "dark matter", and my discovery that Milton had anticipated it in Paradise Lost:

Unless the Almighty Maker them ordained
His dark materials to create new worlds

When you come to write the story, you mustn't lose that first impulse of wonder. Science and fiction deal with different entities, and ask different questions; but each can intoxicate, inspire, console, and feed that appetite for mystery and revelation that makes human beings at least as interesting as electrons.

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