Quick hit: the indifference engine

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science fiction museumMcLeod, Ken. “The indifference engine: how science fiction contributes to the public understanding of science, and how it doesn’t.” Extrapolation 51.1 (Spring 2010): 170.

In this article, McLeod examines why written science fiction (sf) is expected to contribute to public understanding of science. After all, he argues, “[w]e don't ask of westerns that they contribute to the public understanding of American history.” His answer, drawn partly from the work of Gary Westfahl and Hugo Gernsback, is that sf as a genre contains, by definition, scientific fact—it's one of three elements: charming romance/thrilling adventure, scientific fact, and prophetic vision.

Another important aspect that “makes written sf distinctive as a genre is its relationship to its subject matter and to its core readership.” Fans of written sf expect real science and are able to identify scientific errors. McLeod believes this does not hold true for fans of “media sf”: films, TV, and games. These fans tend to be much less bothered by, and indeed less knowledgeable about, scientific errors.

McLeod concludes thus:

“the very minimum that written sf does is to popularize the rhetoric of science, and make the language of science familiar to the reader. It valorizes and validates interest in science, and stimulates thought about the consequences of discoveries and of new applications of science. But I would go further than that, and claim that science fiction is the only form of literature that takes seriously, and communicates in a popular form, the greatest scientific discovery of all: that the universe we inhabit is vast, ancient, and indifferent.”

A noble distinction, to be sure.



Photo of the Science Fiction Museum via Flickr user adactio, creative commons.



1 Comment

This might make good material for an epigraph for your final project, or good introductory material.

There is something quite specific about the symbiotic relationship between science and science fiction, however, that seems related to its origin; Enlightenment reason, the preference for "objectivity" as a perspective. It specifically posits a "materialist" universe, coldly indifferent.

The two "ur-texts" of science fiction might be Wells' The Time Machine (which has that image of the end of the universe/time, in it). I wonder how Mary Shelley's text might relate to that cold indifference, born as it is out of the anxieties around death, generation, monstrosity. That life is cold and indifferent, cyclic and eternal? That human lives are largely insignificant against this backdrop of eternal nature? (The romantic sublime is part of this).

"science fiction is the only form of literature that takes seriously, and communicates in a popular form, the greatest scientific discovery of all: that the universe we inhabit is vast, ancient, and indifferent.”

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