December 24, 2010

Miracles and wonder


Last Sunday I went to The Museum of Flight in south Seattle.

I stood inside an International Space Station modular lab (full-scale replica) wondering what it would be like if there were no gravity to tell me what was up or down.

I nearly reached out and touched a model of the moon buggy, which folds up to one-third its working size for transport, and is built of aluminum and unbleached canvas. One of these was driven on the moon in 1971.

1971. Unbleached canvas.

I remembered the wonder of reading Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton for the first time, when I was about 9 years old.

The same Sunday that I visited The Museum of Flight, The New York Times Magazine published both its “10th Annual Year in Ideas” and an article titled “A Physicist Solves the City.”

Here is one of the stories I read in “A Physicist Solves the City”:
  • “West [the physicist] sees … this constant tension between expansion and scarcity, between the relentless growth made possible by cities and the limited resources that hold our growth back.”
  • “West cites a long list of breakthroughs to illustrate this historical pattern, from the discovery of the steam engine to the invention of the Internet. ‘These major innovations completely changed the way society operates,’ West says.”
  • But, “the cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough providing a shorter reprieve.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, quoted on Electric Spec, has suggested that “science fiction is getting more and more difficult to write because science develops so fast.” That the speed of technological change has overtaken the writer.

Has science fiction become more difficult to write? I don’t know -- I’m not a writer. But as a reader, I know that speculative fiction still pursues the consequences of our innovations -- in science and technology, but also in social relations and cultural mythologies -- with seriousness and wonder.

May your holidays celebrate the miracles of light and dark in the universe. And may you renew your sense of wonder at the things we can think, say, and do with a blank canvas in front of us.

1 comment:

  1. I've had a question rolling around in my head a few weeks now about when science got so self-aware---self-aware enough to accurately predict a non-linear future ("If we can do Apples and Oranges then it's just a matter of time before we can do Zebras and Umbrellas."). Mostly this was in relation to computer technology (I think the evolution of touch screens was the specific item), but things as grandiose as the LHC are implicated, too. Mathematical theories and proofs can now predict unknown reality with great accuracy, dwindling the available horizon of science "fiction."

    I've been reading a bunch of Ted Chiang lately and, while he falls within the SF genre, his ideas and writing are very formal and deal with the human response to technology (can I underline that: the human response to technology). This is where I think science fiction might (need to?) go for a while, unless it is gobbled up by fantasy in a glorious, baroque mess of aliens and elves and computers and magic :-)

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