Sean Williams

Reach for the Skies

posted on 18 Oct 2013 at 11:47 am

Tonight I spoke at an Adelaide Festival of Ideas event called “Looking to the Stars: In Search of Our Place in the Universe” as one of fives guests, the  others being planetary scientist Phil Bland, polymath Paul Davies, consumer trend forecaster Kristin Dryza, and filmmaker Ben Pederick, chaired by Professor Robert Phiddian. It was a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation, made all the richer by indigenous elders who shared their perspectives on knowledge and the night sky.

For anyone who’s interested and couldn’t be there, here is my speech. (No way was I was winging it in such an awesome crew. It doesn’t mean I still didn’t say anything dumb, but at least if I did I did it on purpose.)

There’s often talk of a “Two Cultures” divide between science and the humanities, and this is something that comes up occasionally for science fiction writers, too. Someone once asked me how I do what I do, because maths is right brain and writing is left brain, or whichever way around it is. I don’t pay attention to that guff. To me, it’s all part of the human experience, just different facets of a wonderful, spinning jewel.

I love science. I also love writing. There’s no contradiction.

On my 11th birthday, I stepped out into my grandmother’s front garden, in rural South Australia (Cowell), where the stars on a clear night are just amazing, and looked up at the sky. It was dusk at the time so I wasn’t expecting to see much. At exactly that moment a shooting star raced across the sky and suddenly split into three before vanishing into the deepening blue. What I learned at that moment was this: the sky will always surprise; it always pays to look up, just in case.

Let me describe me in those days. I was an avid reader, not just of science fiction, mainly in the form of Doctor Who novels, but also of Agatha Christie. I didn’t know it then, but I’d been hooked on the drug that lies at the heart of both genres, which is mystery. In both SF and crime novels there’s often something to be solved. In crime it’s stereotypically a whodunit, whereas in SF it’s a how or why something works, but the question is the same. Something has happened in the world around us, and we as detectives, scientists, people, want to understand it.

In the thirty years following my 11th birthday, I saw sundogs over the Hudson River on my first trip to New York. I watched a comet rise over West Beach in Adelaide with my new family. I teared up while staring through the old telescope in Sydney Observatory at the Galilean moons. I enjoyed the rings of Saturn with a friend from his balcony in Surry Hills. I stood in the Woomera restricted zone and gaped in amazement at a total eclipse. Two minutes later, I proposed to the woman I was seeing at the time, who responded, “I don’t answer trick questions.” That was a bad sign.

I say all this not to boast about the things I’ve seen. I’m no more remarkable than anyone else. And that’s my point, really. We all look to the skies for inspiration, wonder, and beauty. We are touched. And we share these moments with other people. Astronomy is a communal experience, pursued by everyone, enjoyed by everyone, for everyone. We admire, we ask questions, we confront mysteries–sometimes we find answers.

You can say the same thing about literature and storytelling, the other great human pursuit.

This is where science fiction comes in.

There are many mysteries in the universe that we haven’t solved yet. That doesn’t stop us thinking about what it might be like to solve them, how the world might look when we have solved them, what it would feel like to be the one who solved them, what further mysteries might lie beyond those solutions. Science creates hypotheses and tests them; science fiction creates hypotheses based on those hypotheses, creating narratives not intended to represent the real world, but to place the world against a mirror of our current understanding and see what image it reflects. Science fiction’s focus on science as an important human endeavour ignores neither good nor bad consequences of that endeavour; it is neither consistently triumphal nor damning. It is no different from historical fiction or fiction set in alternate version of the present day–different countries, different social mores, seen through different eyes–because at heart its aims are the same as science and literature: to put humanity and the environment we inhabit in context with each other.

This may be hard to accept if you view SF solely through the lens of Doctor Who and Star Wars, ignoring a century or more of evolving literary traditions. But even the basest sci-fi potboiler (and I’ve written some of those) asks the valuable question, “What if?” You may not like the answers, but by paying attention to the question we can see that we’re all staring up and outward in exactly the same way, whether 11 or 46 or 68 or 92. You don’t even need eyes to do it. You just need to use your mind.

There are plenty of imaginative and unlikely antecedents for theories currently being explored by science. Creation and the Big Bang. Ancient Astronauts and panspermia. I would argue that science fiction is busily creating antecedents for new science waiting to unfold once the current theories are established or discarded. Just like science, some of the science fiction written today will also be discarded. That’s not a fault of either science fiction or science. We can only see so far. We barely glimpse the shapes behind the wondrous veils before our eyes. If don’t accept our mistakes, we might as well close our eyes and stop looking altogether–which is where, I would argue, religions are losing the race for the future of the human race. We wonder, we pick at mysteries until they unravel, we move forward. There’s some benefit in sitting still, but when everything else is moving and changing around us, in chaotic and unpredictable ways, that’s a dangerous evolutionary strategy.

My 39th novel comes out next week, my 83rd short story with it. It’s set in a world where matter transmitters have rendered planes, trains and automobiles irrelevant–and at the same time opened up the stars to all humanity, because why send a rocket when you can beam yourself right up to orbit?

I’ve imagined all manner of outcomes for humanity, ranging from the hopeful to the catastrophic, none of which I anticipate actually occurring. I’ve put humanity in cosmic contexts that I fully expect to bear more or less no relation to actual scientific discoveries (although a couple of times I’ve been right, such as certain types of extreme exoplanets, which my collaborator Shane Dix and I were writing about almost fifteen years ago). Sometimes I’ve laboured for months over research; sometimes I’ve hand-waved with vigour to distract from the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Sometimes no one knows, because the journey that both literature and science are taking, jointly or separately, can’t be answered with 100% certainty. What is our place in the universe? It’s the biggest question of all. Part of me is still 11 years old, staring up at the sky in amazement, wondering if we’ll ever answer it, determinedly ignoring the adult I am now, who knows that if ever we do I’ll be out of a job.

Image credit: Tania Debono (@the_cakeface)