Yesterday’s Science Becomes Tomorrow’s Fiction

Science fiction and the impermanence of scientific theories.

Science is not a static discipline; by its very nature, it invites change. A story based on today's science may not survive tomorrow's discoveries. Golden age science fiction is now over fifty years old, so even the hard-core writers of the period may have written stories that are now outdated. Science fiction can also be considered to mean fictional science. Today we know by direct observation that planetary systems accompany most suns. This fact is a relatively recent discovery. For most of the 20th century, it was believed that the near-collisions of stars formed planetary systems. Such collisions were considered a rare event; hence it was expected that planets would be a rarity in the universe. Science fiction writers wishing to base their tales on scientific facts made use of this "fact" to lend veracity to their stories.

Clifford Simak, born in 1904, spent most of his life as a professional journalist and editor. He also became one of the top science fiction writers of his time, ranking with Heinlein and Asimov. In 1939, at the beginning of his career as a writer, he published his novel, Cosmic Engineers, as a serial in Astounding Science Fiction. This was also the period that John W. Campbell Jr. became the magazine's editor. Campbell wanted the writers to pay more attention to the scientific and logical foundations behind their stories. Simak's story fulfilled this desire being based on the existing ideas about planetary formation and the popular science expositions of Einstein's theory of general relativity. In 1951, Gnome Press, a small publishing company specializing in science fiction, republished Cosmic Engineers in hardcover form. It was in that form that I first read the story. The publishers, probably with Simak's cooperation, had brought the tale somewhat up to date by introducing terms for atomic weapons unknown in 1939. In an earlier newsletter, I discussed  Simak's 1950 novel, Time Quarry. First serialized in the new magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, it was later published as Time and Time Again. In my discussion, I pointed out that Simak paid a lot of attention to character development. When the critic and writer of science fiction, Damon Knight, reviewed Cosmic Engineers, he pointed out that while the story took place in the far future, the characters acted like the people of the 1930s. I entirely agree with this; the story's characters were not the main point. Cosmic Engineers was speculation about the future of the human race and the nature of the universe. Because of more recent developments in physics and astronomy, the aforementioned problem of how recent discoveries influence the story's premise confronts the modern reader.

I did not have a problem with this; instead, it added somewhat to the story's charm. Despite the lack of characterization, there were hints of the way Simak's later work contains a lot of humanity. Strangely enough, some of Simak's speculations were predictive of current ideas of multiple universes and relativistic phenomena. A notable feature of the story, considering that it was written in 1939, is that the most crucial character, Caroline Martin, is a female scientist. The story smacked of the 1930s by featuring two news reporters on a tour of the solar system to promote the circulation of their newspaper. There was lots of action and many interesting speculations that I had either forgotten about or missed in my long-ago first reading. With suitable modification, I believe it would make a great TV series. A moderately-priced e-book form of the book is available from the usual sources.

In addition to the entertainment value of Cosmic Engineers, it did get me thinking about science itself, how today's certainties can vanish in the light of new facts. A lack of understanding by the general public of what science accomplishes relates to this problem. We, unfortunately, see this in the current disputes about vaccines and climate change. I recall reading a book by the respected physicist Fred Hoyle written in the late 1980s, in which he pointed out the possible problem of a coming ice age. Hoyle was somewhat of a controversial figure, but he was also respected for essential discoveries. We are not now worrying about a coming age of ice as we are seeing the development of global warming. The problem of knowing which facts are important and probably true is not easy to solve!

Thanks for reading this, and as usual, I would enjoy hearing from you regarding the content of these newsletters.