Science vs Culture

Julia Malle Science Fest 2015 Art
Julia Malle – Rhizome, Science Festival 2015, Summerhall

I don’t like sci-fi at all. I only deal with reality.

This was in response to a question at the ‘Technology of the Future, Today’ event at this year’s Science Festival. The first sentence I’m fine with – not everyone is going to be interested in science fiction, and if your career is in robotics, science fiction could be the last thing you want to read if you need to get away from anything even remotely work-related. But, wow – that second sentence; so much is bound up in that statement it’s hard to know where to start.

At the very root of it is a complete misunderstanding of what fiction is, what it is for, what is does.

“Fiction, for the reader and the writer, is an exercise in sustained empathy and curiosity, and we could do with more of that.” – Martin MacInnes

And is this man living in some sort of science vacuum where he’s cut off from all culture?

Does he not read fiction at all? Does he not watch films, or fall in love with a painting?

I’ll start by saying I used to hate science. Ridiculous I know, but I was young and it was a defensive measure. I struggled in high school and I found the science subjects very difficult (a later diagnosis of dyscalculia went a long way in explaining that). It felt kind of ironic that I came away with a first class science degree – but it was psychology and sociology and those subjects aren’t real, hard science, right? (And nor should they be. Psychology has a particular complex about this and tries too hard… but I’m not going into that debate right now…)

“Reading fiction, reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.” – Neil Gaiman

But I didn’t always hate science – when I was a kid I loved science and science fiction – one of my favourite writers was Nicholas Fisk, and I was mad about SPAAAAAACE (to be said in a hammy grandiloquent voice) and dinosaurs and I had a chemistry set and it was all exciting and fun. High school killed that in me. High school killed pretty much everything in me. But eventually I made it back – I’d moved away from science fiction completely (favouring more ‘literary’ works because that was the mature thing to do, right?) but as I finished my degree where I’d learned to question everything, particularly binaries like science/art, then moved into my MA in Creative Writing where genre writing (crime, horror, science fiction, fantasy) was respected and encouraged, I started to come back to both science and science fiction. The first story I wrote for the MA was sci-fi (and it was runner-up in the University of Edinburgh’s science fiction short story competition in 2010) and I felt suddenly liberated and like I was coming home all at once. I’m now writing HellSans, a sci-fi thriller, and I’m loving every minute.

“You’re finding out something, as you read, vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different… Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” – Neil Gaiman

As I’ve embarked on writing HellSans I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction alongside non-fiction books and articles, mostly on robotics and AI. The past two years I’ve been attending Science Festival events on the topic, and what I’ve loved about the events is that they don’t follow the old line of Science vs Culture; I particularly love that part of the Science Festival involves an art exhibition (see Julia Malle’s stunning Rhizome above).

But then I came across MrIOnlyDealWithReality.

During the Q&A I asked the same question I asked at a similar Science Fest event last year – “I’m a writer and some of what I write is sci-fi. I was wondering if any of you read or watch sci-fi, if so, what’s your favourite author/book/film? And did sci-fi have any influence on your career choice?”
This year’s response was very different. Most of the panel looked at me blankly. The first response was from the chair, who said he doesn’t like sci-fi but he reads fantasy. Another panel member said he loves Iain Banks, especially the Culture series, and another was very enthusiastic about Reynolds’ Revelation Space. Two people didn’t answer and then I was hit with, “No, I don’t like sci-fi at all. I only deal with reality.” Ouch.

Not being a sci-fi fan is all hunky-dory, but that last comment makes me assume he doesn’t like any kind of fiction at all. Leaving aside the fact he completely dismissed my career in-front of everyone at the event, that’s a pretty constricted view on life; it’s not Science vs Culture. It’s Science and Culture – they feed into each other.

For a start, MrIOnlyDealWithReality completely misunderstands what fiction is. My favourite quote to counter such daft statements is this gem from Camus: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” And from Picasso: “Art is the lie that helps us understand the truth.

If you’ll excuse me for quoting myself, my interview with the Queen’s Head pretty much sums it up:

Writing provides narrative(s) through which to understand rapid technological change. There are no material limits on the imagination, so it can inspire and encourage scientists to reach for the impossible. Fiction can also act as a warning and provide an excoriating antidote to the comforting lies we tell ourselves – as JG Ballard said about his controversial novel, Crash: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.’
Technological advances don’t happen in a vacuum – by framing scientific progress in a larger narrative, fiction writers explore the social and ethical implications, speculating on the effect it could have on our lives and our future.

Now, “I only deal with reality” – what’s wrong with that sentence? So much. So, so much. I could go into a big long analysis of what reality is, but I’ll keep it simple.

Our ‘reality’ is a story. Our life is a story we tell ourselves and other people. Different people can tell different stories about the same thing. There’s a constant negotiation about what narrative is the ‘truth’. I’m telling a story now about my encounter at the Science Festival. It’s from my standpoint. MrIOnlyDealWithReality stood up and gave a presentation – he told us a story. Everything is a narrative from a standpoint – to call that reality, as if it’s objective truth, is dangerous.

“The last time I looked, art, science, technology and engineering were completely enmeshed. From the music industry, to medicine, to media, to the design of buildings, fabrics and cereal packets. The arts don’t just prettify technology, they drive and embody innovation. It’s unhelpful and confusing to deem one more important than the other when they are inextricably connected with profoundly important interactions… Science and Art don’t live in neat little boxes… The more renowned a scientist, the more likely they were to be actively engaged in the arts. Einstein was on the money when he said ‘The greatest scientists are artists as well.’” – Maggie Philbin, Technology reporter and CEO TeenTech

Science cannot and does not exist in a vacuum. Science needs the arts and humanities. The arts and humanities need science. We all need both to survive – some might say we need science more, as it deals with the practicalities involved with being embodied creatures, but as a friend said to me “What’s the point of life without reading? Without fiction? Without the arts?”

It’s not Science vs Culture. That narrative is dull and damaging. Let’s change the story. Let’s embrace the Möbius strip of Science and Culture.

“To me, art and science are two faces of the same thing. Both are the manifestation of creativity.” – Dino Distefano, Queen Mary, University of London

I’ll leave you with Neil Gaiman, who I’m going to quote at length on escapism (it’s very much worth reading his whole piece in defence of libraries. The fact that libraries need defended at all is very sad).

“…I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if ‘escapist’ fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real. As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”

Amen to that – escapism is how my protagonist, Goblin, survived the war and beyond. As she would say, “Praise the lizards!”

– Picasso, from Kevin Cummins’ Assassinated Beauty


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