Saturday, November 8, 2008

Science fiction and the space program

Not long ago, at least by this blog’s glacial standards, SF Signal and its weekly mind meld feature featured the question of whether or not science fiction has held back the real-life exploration of space, as recently claimed by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The idea is that science fiction and unrealistic portrayals of space travel make the real thing seem boring and disappointing by comparison, diminishing the public’s interest in real space travel.

I find this implausible for a few reasons. The biggest is that I don’t think science fiction has enough influence on the public consciousness to be a serious factor in the way Aldrin suggests. Everyone has heard of Star Trek and Star Wars, but I don’t think the average person compares what they hear about real space travel to science fiction, even subconsciously. The people who are sufficiently immersed in science fiction to seriously make that sort of comparison seem if anything to be more likely than average to be in favor of space travel, in my experience, so if science fiction has any effect it seems more likely to be the opposite of what Aldrin suggests.

Another problem is that unrealistic or fanciful portrayals of other forms of technology don’t seem to have retarded their development or diminished public interest. The portrayal of computers and the Internet in movies is frequently ridiculous, but that doesn’t seem to have harmed the development of computers or the public’s interest in them; people don’t turn their noses up to real PCs because they don’t act like the ones in movies. The same could be said of weapons, surveillance technology, or forensic science, to name a few.

More generally, exaggerated or idealized depictions of a thing usually make people more interested in that thing, not less. I’d be shocked, for instance, if the movie Top Gun made viewers less interested in military aviation, or if movies about idealistic political crusaders and reformers made viewers less interested in real politics, or if Kill Bill made people less interested in katanas. In my experience, seeing an idealized fantasy version of something is what strengthens interest, both because it initially draws attention and because it makes people want to make the fantasy reality.

A personal example: I know plenty of long-time students at the martial arts school I go to who first became interested because of martial arts movies. Martial arts movies are seldom very realistic; even the relatively down-to-earth ones are often a lot smoother and prettier than the real thing. The movies also usually fail to convey what being on the receiving end of a punch to the gut or a triangle choke feels like, and leave out things like watching someone vomit because they got kicked in the groin on the day they forgot to wear their cup. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that martial arts movies have increased public interest in the martial arts and the number of practitioners. To give another personal example, I cover local government for a small newspaper. I see the nuts-and-bolts of real politics on a regular basis, and I can assure you that seeing it up close is a lot less likely to inspire enthusiasm about politics than watching The West Wing.

If anything, I think more realistic science fiction is less likely to inspire interest in real space travel than more fanciful SF. I love hard science fiction, but I think that most people- and especially impressionable kids- are more likely to say, "Wow, space is really cool!" from watching Star Trek then from watching a realistic portrayal of space flight, with all its limitations. This is by no means a criticism of hard SF; it’s not science fiction’s job as a genre to push any particular viewpoint.

If SF does hurt public appreciation for science, it would be not by presenting unrealistic science and technology that leads to disappointment with the real thing, but through the heavy reliance of media SF on "science gone wrong/tampering in God’s domain" type stories. This sort of plot and theme is far more common in movies and television then in science fiction books, I think due to a combination of who produces written SF vs. media SF and the constraints imposed by the different forms. However, this trope never involves space flight, as far as I’m aware. (I suppose the movie Event Horizon could be considered an exception, but I doubt anyone watched that movie and thought, "We should abandon all research into spacecraft propulsion to make sure nobody accidentally opens a gateway into Hell.") It’s almost always applied to biological science and technology, or to robots and computers.

There are several factors leading to lack of public enthusiasm for space travel, I think, but science fiction is not among them. I have my own ideas on that front, but this post is long enough already.

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