Thursday, August 02, 2007


Is a segment in Nature where they publish a short science fiction story each week. They select them for a wided variety of reasons, obviously, but I would hope that not least among these is realism or something like that. A nice balance between realistic science and creativity. These are scientists who are going to be reading it, after all.

In any case, I read it every week because it's a cool idea, and most weeks I really like what I read. I went through the archives a bit ago and found this amazing story. Creepy and awesome at once. I really love it. In the new issues of them, this and this are my favorites. Enough wacky to keep you wondering and for it not to seem too mundane, and enough normal for my scientist part not to rebel. (Of course the first is very Matrix, and the second very... There's a word for it but I can't place it).

In any case, this week's futures story is about genetic engineering -- sort of. And I don't like it. The idea that we could mistakenly turn a person into a fish rather than simply cause a miscarriage is, to put it bluntly, patently unbelievable from a biological standpoint. I do not believe that we will be able to turn people into fish until we really want to and really know what we are doing.

In other words, merpeople are still a long ways off for genetic engineering. And that's the problem -- the practical procedures that are cited in the story (replacing all the junk DNA with markers) haven't been developed in the slightest, while the key idea that the scientists came to too late (junk DNA isn't junk at all) has already been reached. It would perhaps work in an Alternate Universe where we are very slow to pick up on all the various signals and miRNAs and so forth that are in "junk" DNA, but since the segment is called "Futures", well, I always took it as "This is a potentially plausible future if we're really cool."

Which is something that has always frustrated me about science fiction in general. Science fiction writers are not, by and large, scientists really. (For example, the guy who wrote "Junk".) The writers who are scientists are, in my opinion, better writers because they actually take the time to research the science, even if they are writing outside of their area of expertise. There is little more frustrating to me than "serious" science fiction that disregards scientific discoveries that are easy to find online or in a text book.

If you want to write fiction, great, wonderful, awesome. If you want to write weird and wacky speculative fiction, great, wonderful, awesome. If you want to write science fiction, you have to remember that half of that name is science. So maybe you should take out a subscription to Nature or Science or at least regularly read the NY Times science section. If you aren't at least vaguely interested in science (not doing it, but reading about it and thinking about it and wondering about it), why are you interested in writing science fiction?


It's a little bit like grammar and poetry. Poets who break the rules of grammar are rampant and cool. But poets who don't know the rules of grammar are lame posers. You have to know the paradigm in order to break it in meaningful ways.


Abby said...

the last bit you said reminds me of a story neil gaiman tells, where an english teacher told him something along the lines of "neil, in order to be eccentric, you need to know where the center is."

ayn said...

Abby is my faves!

I know that when I reach a point where I want my writings to be more concrete (um, this should be any day now), I want to start reading these magazines more regularly.

Cory Doctorow talked about some things at Comic Con that were not quite like this but that I think you would appreciate. He's a member of the blog, and part of the reason he posts to that blog is so that when he finds a cools story/gadget/concept/etc, he has a place to write about it. Posting to the blog is a pneumonic device for him; that's the way he internalizes concepts. Oh, and the new books he has coming out was heavily researched, he says. (Doctorow is on the tech side of sci-fi versus the bio side, but I think the methods can still apply).

One of the reasons that I haven't written any really concrete sci-fi is that I haven't done my research yet, and I don't want to insult people like you.

ayn said...

I read the three stories you linked to. I liked them all, though the last one was a little punchline-y for me.

I did want to point out, though, reminded by the first linked story: the kind of sloppy science imagining that you so disliked in the merpeople story can happen in any area of science, and I imagine that often only the people who are really experts will realize that it is sloppy. I have no idea if there is anything really wrong with the story about the viruses, but I just wanted to point out the possibility. Tech, physics, biology, maybe even sociology. *shrug*