The many doors between two parallel worlds

Different Engines

December 21, 2007

Science, of course, "drives" fiction in several ways. There is a difference between fiction about science and science fiction, and there is a considerable body of scholarship on, for example, the relationship between literature and science in the 19th century, centred on the influence of Darwin upon his contemporaries. But little of this scholarship - Martin Willis's Mesmerists, Monsters and Machines (2006) is a recent exception - examines the speculative literature that engaged more directly with social change fuelled by science and which, by the end of the century, has recognisably become "science fiction" within which the potential of scientific theory and practice is examined in literary thought experiments. Brian Aldiss argues that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1819), with its roots in Erasmus Darwin's and Luigi Galvini's experiments, is the first novel we can call science fiction.

Here, Mark Brake and Neil Hook begin earlier, with Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1634), as "a conscious effort to understand the new (Copernican) physics" rather than the satirical fantasy of earlier moon voyages. If so, the tradition of "science driving fiction" is a long one.

There is also, as they point out, a dynamic relationship: "fiction drives science". It's difficult to argue this without descending into exaggeration. When we read that Cyrano de Bergerac "invented" the ramjet, or that Erasmus Darwin "invented" the rocket, we are entitled to feel sceptical. Nevertheless, while there may be a simplistic directness in suggesting that "H. G. Wells's novel The World Set Free (1914) led non-stop to the launch of the Manhattan Project", the Manhattan Project physicist Leo Szilard himself cites reading Wells as among the impulses that steered him to nuclear research.

The way "science fiction" feeds back into science is perhaps more complex than is suggested here but, as the authors note, in the heyday of the science fiction magazine Astounding, many writers and readers were scientists or science educated. The FBI's investigation of Astounding in 1944, after it published a story about a war ended by an atomic weapon, was not surprising. Many of the Manhattan Project workers were subscribers. As was, via a Swedish intermediary, Wernher von Braun.

Different Engines is not a work of primary scholarship but rather an introduction to how science fiction operated - and still operates - as a platform for speculation about, and commentary on, science and technology. Its lively tour from the genre's Enlightenment roots to cyberpunk and the return of the Frankenstein myth through anxieties about biotechnologies occasionally becomes rushed. The authors discuss the scientific elements of utopias such as Bacon's New Atlantis, and the tension between utopian and dystopian modes in modern writers without considering the work by Thomas More that gave us a model and a word for the idea.

Nevertheless, this work offers a fine rebuttal to novelists who, in extrapolating from contemporary science, claim that what they write "isn't science fiction" - a claim that is as absurd as the history of the literature known as science fiction is long.

Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection, Liverpool University Library, and director of the MA in science fiction studies at the School of English, Liverpool University.

Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science

Author - Mark L. Brake and Neil Hook
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 2
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 978023001980

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