The Aesthetic Effects of Science: Three Voices

Three voices in today’s post: Bertrand Russell on the aesthetic effects of science, Stanislaw Lem on the possibilities of science fiction, and, as the last word, Ursula LeGuin on science fiction as a “thought experiment”. All three describe, in different ways, the impact of science on the literary imagination, and thus raise awareness about science fiction world-building.

“Science as knowledge advanced very rapidly throughout the whole of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it was not until near the end of the eighteenth century that it began to affect the technique of production. There was less change in methods of work from Ancient Egypt to 1750 than there has been from 1750 to the present day. Certain fundamental advances had been slowly acquired : speech, fire, writing, agriculture, the domestication of animals, the working of metals, gunpowder, printing, and the art of governing a large empire from a centre, though this last could not attain anything like its present perfection before the invention of the telegraph and steam locomotion. Each of these advances, because it came slowly, was fitted in, without too much difficulty, to the framework of traditional life, and men were at no point conscious of a revolution in their daily habits. Almost all the things that an adult man wished to speak about had been familiar to him as a child, and to his father and grandfather before him. This had, undoubtedly, certain good effects which have become lost through the rapid technical progress of modern times. The poet could speak of contemporary life in words that had become rich through long usage, and full of colour through the embedded emotions of past ages. Nowadays he must either ignore contemporary life or fill his poems with words that are stark and harsh. It is possible, in poetry, to write a letter, but difficult to speak over the telephone ; it is possible to listen to Lydian airs, but not to the radio; it is possible to ride like the wind upon a fiery steed, but difficult, in any known metre, to go much faster than the wind in an automobile. The poet may wish for wings to fly to his love, but feels rather foolish in doing so when he remembers that he could order an aeroplane at Croydon.

The aesthetic effects of science have thus been on the whole unfortunate, not, I think, owing to any essential quality of science, but owing to the rapidly changing environment in which modern man lives.”

-Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook (1931)


“As in life we can solve real problems with the help of images of non-existent beings, so in literature we can signal the existence of real problems with the help of prima facie impossible occurrences or objects. Even when the happenings it describes are totally impossible, a science fiction work may still point out meaningful, indeed rational, problems. For example, the social, psychological, political , and economic problems of space travel may be depicted quite realistically in science fiction even though the technological parameters of the spaceships described are quite fantastic in the sense that it will for all eternity be impossible to build a spaceship with such parameters.”

– Stanislaw Lem, “On The Structural Analysis of Science Fiction”(1970) (Trans. Franz Rottensteiner and Bruce R. Gillespie) in Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (Mandarin, 1991) (Read the complete essay online in SFS)


“Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.’ A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why people who do not read science fiction describe it as ‘escapist,’ but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because ‘it is so depressing.’

Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in this laboratory; let’ say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens . . . . In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger’s and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”

– Ursula K. LeGuin, “Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969), reprinted in The Language of the Night, ed. Susan Wood (Berkley Books, 1985)


One thought on “The Aesthetic Effects of Science: Three Voices

  1. Pingback: What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? | Write on the World

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