Thursday, August 20, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am

For anyone old enough to recognize the subject line: it's part of the Webb of truth. (I'll pause for you to groan.)

ANYway, I refer to the November 2009 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, which has already found its way to my mailbox. I've not yet ready any of the stories, but I did read all the nonfiction -- and what I read was thought-provoking.

One of my lengthier -- and most commented upon -- post series deals with tropes in SF ("Trope-ing the light fantastic"). In brief, a trope in SF is a science-centric author/reader agreement to willingly suspend disbelief. As in: what if faster-than-light travel were possible?

Some folks find such tropes unacceptable in *science* fiction. For them, there's a movement called "mundane SF." No FTL (for the lack of a basis in current science). Perhaps no interstellar travel of any kind (too hard). No time travel. Etc. Mundane SF stories tend to be Earth-centric and near-future.

In "Aiming High -- Or Low?", the editorial in the November issue, editor Stan Schmidt takes exception to the premise that what exceeds present-day science is beyond science (and beyond legitimate SF). Stan's challenge, in my brief paraphrase, is: we don't know what we don't know. A hundred years ago we didn't know -- to name only a few items -- about quantum mechanics or general relativity or plate tectonics. If a story's "science" premise can't be disproven, and if the imagined new science/technology is used consistently within the story, then, Stan would have it, it is legitimate SF.

New topic.

The adjoining graph, typical of many in the global-change conversation, shows a dramatic change. Note that that is somewhat a matter of representation. By showing only changes around a recent-year mean, the changes are emphasized. And by showing only a short period of time, long-term climate trends are left out. A graph of temperatures referenced to absolute zero and covering all the years since the Little Ice Age would look much different. I say this not by way of stating a position on the extent of global change but to emphasize we're dealing with measuring small (in relative terms) changes.

Which brings me to physicist (and SF author) Jeff Kooistra's "Lessons from the Lab" (an instance of the monthly Alternate View feature). I've long been aware of the measurement problem caused by heat islands: the effect of (for example) the expansion of paved areas on temperatures measured in cities. Jeff adds the complication of perhaps improperly calibrated weather measurement stations around the country. The article cites meteorologist Anthony Watts and his "surface stations" project, which surveys measurement stations of the National Weather Service. The project reports:
  • different paints used in the instrument enclosures (paints differ in how they reflect or let through energy),
  • extraneous equipment (that generates heat!) within enclosures,
  • measurement stations sited too near external heat sources (such as parking lots and air-conditioner vents).
Climate-change science deals with prospective changes of a few degrees over centuries -- the details really matter.

Finally, we come to the main science article. "Rock! Bye-Bye, Baby" deals, as you might expect, with possible asteroid/comet strikes on Earth and what might be done to prevent them. Current thinking has it an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. And astronomers very recently saw something smack Jupiter. It made an Earth-sized black mark.

Said Analog science article was written by Your Humble Blogger, a followup to attending last year's Asteroid Deflection Research Symposium. Writing SF is one of the cooler jobs in the world.

So there you have it ... much to think about.


Catreona said...

November!!! I haven't even gotten September yet! Time travel is clearly possible, and happening in our very midst.

I agree with Stan's conclusion as you summerize it. I often think, in fact, of how many impossible things we take for granted today that weren't even drempt of by SF writers when I was a kid: Cable television, cell phones, CD's to name but three. The very same people who dismiss SF and Fantasy as useless and worthless accept their microwave ovens and remote car lock thingies without a second, or first, thought. Where do they think these wonder toys came from? At the same time, the concept of mundane SF sort of blows my mind. If you're going to ban anything we don't have right now, you might as well simply write mainstream fiction. But then, I've always liked a touch of Fantasy and romance* in my SF.

*Romance. By this I do not necessarily mean kissy lovie stuff, though that's good too. I mean romance as in the romance of space. "The Green Hills of Earth" comes to mind as an example. No boy meets girl etc. in this story, but lots of romance. I hope you understand what I mean...

BTW congrats on the fact article. I'll look forward to reading it. Hmmm... Your fact article on RFID's led to a story in Analog and I think another published elsewhere. Might the rock smash article lead to a story?

Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Catreona,

Broadly speaking, you're correct about a connection between my fact articles and my fiction. The cause-and-effect relationships are more complicated than you suggest.

The RFID article grew out of a story, not the other way around. "The Day of the RFIDs" appeared in 2005, in the antho Future Washington. But Stan discussed the story's premise in a 2006 editorial, which generated lots of reader letters -- and that discussion led to the Analog fact article that ran in 2007. (Admittedly, I later wrote "The Night of the RFIDs," which appeared in Analog in 2008.)

My 2008 Analog fact article, about nanotech, leveraged research I was doing for a book. I'll blog about Small Miracles, which deals with medical nanotech, closer to the book's release (not a long wait -- the book comes out in October).

And this year's asteroid article? That began in an asteroid-deflection conference I attended as a member of SIGMA (a group of SF authors consulting pro bono to the government), but elements of what I learned may make it into a book whose research is just beginning.

- Ed

AReichl said...

I like "mundane SF". The first Science-Fiction story i ever read was about strange signals from Jupiter and an expedition to explore them (no - it was not "2001"). Flying around in our Solar System is the minimum i would expect from SF. Being confined only to earth would be - hmm - boring. Thats like practicing yoga - trying to look into yourself, finding nothing and finally getting crazy (if you weren't from the beginning).

The other extreme are the stories from Stephen Baxter - he has reached the limits of technology, space and time. These stories are a nice read from time to time.

The "best" is something inbetween (like the Mote stories from Niven/Pournelle). Faster-than-light yes, but it still takes time to reach another star. Laser weapons yes, but they get hot. Superior medicine yes, but dead is still dead.

Edward M. Lerner said...

My reservation about mundane SF (especially the more restrictive versions) is its inherent pessimism: that there's nothing more we can learn.

Can a story use perpetual motion and still be hard SF? my first reaction is no, because perpetual motion completely contradicts what physicists think they know.

What about FTL? I think FTL *can* be used in the hardest SF. Serious scientists look at variable light speed, extra dimensions beyond the four we experience, and multiverses. Why must SF restrict itself to an unproven orthodoxy that ignores possible routes to FTL?

And back to perpetual motion ... If a story taps those hidden dimensions or a parallel universe, what would otherwise be perpetual motion using only local resources might become doable.

In my mind it comes down to attitude and mindset. To me, hard SF involves embracing the possible (but not the fantastical).

- Ed