Sunday, September 03, 2006

Unbelievable fiction

In telling us “how to read a novel”, John Sutherland in the Guardian Review (2 September 2006) shows an admirable willingness to avoid the usual literary snobbery about science fiction, suggesting that among other things it can have a pedagogical value. That’s certainly true of the brand of sci-fi pioneered by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, which took pride in the accuracy of its science. Often, however, sci-fi writers might appropriate just enough real science to make that aspect of the plot vaguely plausible – which is entirely proper for a work of fiction, but not always the most reliable way to learn about science. Even that, however, can encourage the reader to find out more, as Sutherland says.

Sadly, however, he chooses to use the books of Michael Crichton to illustrate his point. Now, Crichton likes to let it be known that he does his homework, and certainly his use of genetic engineering in Jurassic Park is perfectly reasonable for a sci-fi thriller: that’s to say, he stretches the facts, but not unduly, and one has to be a bit of a pedant to object to his reconstituted T. rexes. But Crichton has now seemingly succumbed to the malaise that threatens many pretty smart and successful people, in that they forget the limitations of that smartness. In Prey, Crichton made entertaining use of the eccentric vision of nanotechnology presented by Eric Drexler (self-replicating rogue nanobots), supplemented with some ideas from swarm intelligence, but one’s heart sank when it became clear at the end of the book that in fact Crichton believed this was what nanotech was really all about. (I admit that I’m being generous about the definition of ‘entertaining’ here – I read the book for professional purposes, you understand, and was naively shocked by what passes for characterisation and dialogue in this airport genre. But that’s just a bit of literary snobbishness of my own.)

The situation is far worse, however, in Crichton’s climate-change thriller State of Fear, which portrays anthropogenic climate change as a massive scam. Crichton wants us to buy into this as a serious point of view – one, you understand, that he has come to himself after examining the scientific literature on the subject.

I’ve written about this elsewhere. But Sutherland’s comments present a new perspective. He seems to accept a worrying degree of ignorance on the part of the reader, such that we are assumed to be totally in the dark about whether Crichton or his ‘critics’ (the entire scientific community, aside from the predictable likes of Bjorn Lomborg, Patrick Michaels, Richard Lindzen and, er, about two or three others) are correct. “No one knows the accuracy of what Crichton knows, or thinks he knows”, says Sutherland. Well, we could do worse than consult the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, composed of the world’s top climate scientists, which flatly contradicts Crichton’s claims. Perhaps in the literary world one person’s opinion is as good as another’s, but thankfully science doesn’t work that way. Sutherland’s suggestion that readers of State of Fear will end up knowing more about the subject is wishful thinking: misinformation is the precise opposite of information.

It isn’t clear whether or not he thinks we should be impressed by the fact that Crichton testified in 2005 before a US senate committee on climate change, but in fact this showed in truly chilling fashion how hard some US politicians find it to distinguish fact from fiction. (That State of Fear was given an award for ‘journalism’ by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists earlier this year was more nakedly cynical.)

Yes, fiction can teach us facts, but not when it is written by authors who have forgotten they are telling a story and have started to believe this makes them experts on their subject. That’s the point at which fiction starts to become dangerous.


tideliar said...

Dear Mr. Ball, a brilliant and well constructed precis of a serious and disturbing problem. I don't really have the patience to explain this issue to some of my non-scientist friends (I hate to admit it, but I get exasperated too quickly). I shall refer them here, so you can do it!

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