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Imaginary Science

Entry updated 23 April 2016. Tagged: Theme.

Imaginary science is extremely common in sf; it is not at all the same thing as Pseudoscience. The difference is that the adherents of the pseudosciences believe them to be true, whereas the sf writer who uses imaginary science knows perfectly well that it is untrue.

Sf has often been criticized for scientific illiteracy, sometimes unfairly, for, while it does produce many simple Scientific Errors, it commonly uses presently impossible science for two good reasons, neither of them ignorant: (a) what is impossible now may one day become possible; (b) imaginary science may be essential for plot purposes. An example of the first category is the common sf device of Matter Transmission. All matter can be described in terms of information and, since all information can be transmitted, then one may legitimately theorize that matter transmission (or at least matter reconstruction) does not transgress the laws of Nature as we know them, even though the practical problems are so vast as to seem, at present, insuperable. (Instantaneous matter transmission, the most common form portrayed in sf, is another kettle of fish: it violates Relativity in the same way as any other mode of Faster-than-Light travel, such as via Hyperspace.) Similarly, Suspended Animation is not possible now but, with advances in Cryonics, one day it may be.

We are primarily concerned here with the second category: the imaginary scientific device which does indeed contradict what we know of the sciences, usually Physics, but which allows the writer a kind of imaginative freedom extremely difficult to obtain otherwise. The five best-known examples are: Parallel Worlds; Antigravity; Faster-than-Light (or FTL) travel and Communication; Invisibility; and Time Travel. A separate entry is devoted to each of these.

The game – it is indeed a game – is to produce as plausible a rationalization for the impossible as the author's artistry will allow, and it is precisely this skill that worries the scientific purist. Thus James Blish, in his Cities in Flight series (1955-1962; omni 1970), explains his Spindizzy by referring to work by real theoretical physicists with an air of such bland conviction that a generation of sf readers may have grown up believing that antigravity is possible. Similarly, H G Wells in The Invisible Man (1897) rattles on about refraction with a perfectly straight face. Blish did not believe in antigravity, nor Wells in invisibility: their aim was simply to rationalize the surrealistic central images of their story – US cities flying through space in Blish's book, and a suit and a mask being removed to reveal nothing behind them in Wells's. The imaginary science was there to clear the way, and, of course, to lend conviction to the tale.

Time Travel is perhaps the clearest example. The ingenuity of sf writers is constantly aimed at subverting the prohibitions which Physics appears to place on time travel – some to do with causality – because, critically, time travel gives narrative access to the past and the future, and opens up exactly that perspective that is central to sf's finest achievements. Through its (almost certainly impossible) use, sf writers have achieved the freedom to consider things both possible and real, as in the fields of History, Evolution and even Metaphysics – all three in the case of the great original, H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895). A puritanical demand for universal scientific responsibility (the genre is called science fiction after all) would instantly destroy this and many others of sf's most intellectually rigorous works.

Far-out scientific speculations have always tempted sf authors, an example being the seeming free energy offered by the respectable (from 1948 to the late 1960s) notion of Continuous Creation. The publication of many books of scientific popularization in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly those about the relationship of quantum physics to Cosmology, gave new credence to some of the imaginary sciences. If some real scientists were prepared to contemplate quantum-mechanical explanations for Parallel Worlds, or time-travelling particles like Tachyons, or the possibility that Black Holes may provide portals to other, distant areas of time or space (or even to "different universes"), then why should not sf authors be allowed the same imaginative warrant? The imaginary sciences took on a new lease of life, and the Schrödinger's cat Thought Experiment became, belatedly, an overnight success. The cynic, of course, might argue that this is simply a case of sf feeding back into science.

A controversial example of imaginary science is the employment of ESP or Psi Powers – which might more properly be seen as within the province of the Pseudosciences – as central to the story. Some sf writers, such as Alfred Bester and Blish, have used psi powers exactly as they might use other imaginary sciences, as an evocative and useful plot device; other sf writers appear to be propagandizing on behalf of parapsychology, or at least succumbing to the lure of wish-fulfilment. In Superman tales especially, the science involved tends to be pseudo rather than imaginary, and perhaps open to criticism on that account.

Writers of Hard SF often like to develop a realistic extrapolation from one imaginary change in scientific laws, or even in the fundamental constants of the Universe. Thus Bob Shaw, in The Ragged Astronauts (1986), invents a Alternate Cosmos where pi equals exactly three (and where – perhaps as a remote consequence? – interplanetary travel between two planets closely orbiting one another is possible by balloon); Stephen Baxter's Raft (September/October 1989 Interzone; exp 1991) takes place in a universe where the force of Gravity is very much stronger than in ours; John E Stith's Redshift Rendezvous (1990) proposes that in Hyperspace the velocity of light is 22 mph (35kph).

Sf writers have been inventive in creating imaginary scientific devices – such as the Slow Glass of Shaw's poignant "Light of Other Days" (August 1966 Analog) and others, which allows us to view the past because light takes so long to penetrate a sheet of the material – and occasionally even new sciences. An early example of the latter, and still one of the best, is Alfred Jarry's 'pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions. Isaac Asimov was especially prolific in creating new sciences, such as Positronics and Psychohistory, though in these cases he was somewhat evasive about the details of how they worked; he also used such old imaginary-science favourites as Miniaturization, in Fantastic Voyage (1966), and in The Gods Themselves (March/April-May-June 1972 Galaxy; 1972) he came up with an "electron pump" that provides us with a limitless supply of electricity (electrons) in return for positrons supplied to an alternate universe (see Parallel Worlds). His most absurd coup in the imaginary-science line was "thiotimoline", described in "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" (March 1948 Astounding), which parodies the dusty style of a scientific report, and in its several sequels. Thiotimoline is, in effect, a time-travelling chemical which effortlessly reverses cause and effect. Ursula K Le Guin likewise came up with a new science in a spoof-scientific paper, "The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics" (in Fellowship of the Stars, anth 1974, ed Terry Carr); therolinguistics is the study of animal language and literature.

One real science is thus far imaginary, in the sense that it has no available subject matter: Xenobiology. [PN]

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