Kathleen made the following comments about:

"The Biological Century and the Future of Science Fiction"

Thursday December 13, 2001
at the
The Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave., S.E.
Washington, DC

Hello. My name is Kathleen Ann Goonan. I'm honored to have been invited to speak here and I'm very glad to see all of you. Although I now live in Florida, I consider myself a Washingtonian. My family moved to the Washington area in 1961--in fact, we arrived on the evening of January first, 1961, after a long, icy drive from Ohio. I vividly recall seeing an orange People's Drug sign shimmering across a dark, wet, busy downtown intersection, and requesting that we stop there and stock up on comic books. My parents, having just driven five hundred miles with three young children, did not respond favorably to my request. One of my first real jobs was with the department of the treasury in 1975, when I learned that I had to turn in my old pencil in order to get a new one. It seemed to me that money was wasted in many ways there, but it was certainly not thrown away on new pencils.

My novels include Queen City Jazz, a New York Times Notable book and British Science Fiction Association Award finalist, the Bones of Time, which was a Clarke Award finalist, Mississippi Blues, which was a Darrell Award finalist, and Crescent City Rhapsody, which was a Nebula award finalist. My forthcoming novel is Light Music, and it will be out in June from HarperCollins. Maybe I'll get lucky and actually win something with this one.

I decided to talk about the biological century and the future of science fiction because I think that the direction of science and the direction of science fiction are at a shared, unique juncture--which has not always been true. It is a juncture which mainstream literature, for the most part, ignores.

Since I thought of the title for this talk, we have entered the biological century with a vengeance. Science fiction and biological reality have converged in a particularly terrifying way in the recent anthrax scare, which has awakened us to our own vulnerabilities--vulnerabilities which we cannot avoid, because they lie at the root of our biological being. But these same vulnerabilities have the potential to expand our lives in ways which we can now only imagine. We are entering the century in which we will explore not just matter, as we did in the twentieth century, but life itself.

Science Fiction is no more predictive of the future than reading tea leaves. Instead, it is a lottery of possibilities, a crystal garden which begins with reality and then goes on, like all literatures, to build on the submerged texts upon which it stands. Science fiction in America started in the pulps, and its target audience, it is often said, was twelve-year-old boys. It has gone through many stages of growth since then, and perhaps is on the verge of another one.

Instead of being predictive or prescriptive, I think that science fiction's greatest strength is that it is a revelatory literature, a way of thinking which takes into account the real world, and its real possibilities. It focuses on technological developments--which are the offspring of science--that have given us the wonders of the present day, negative and positive, that really do make a difference in our lives. It is an intellectually adventurous and, at its best, edgy literature which foregrounds the astonishing, powerful actions of the human mind and the human imagination.

Science itself is neutral. It is just information. It has no moral content. In a manner analogous to the way we slant and manipulate events in the real world for fictional use, we use the information we discover to develop technologies. Our whole way of life is based on those relatively few people who were interested enough in nature to expand the knowledge that feeds technology. We humans are the only creatures who can actually and use what we know in order to radically change our environment--and ourselves. That is where sociological concerns arise.

I think that we are on the verge of a lot of very good things regarding our own quality of life and health, if we play our cards right. A few days ago I heard an interview with Dr. West, the man who was on the Sunday talk shows a few weeks ago with news of cloning a human embryo. He said that he first embarked on this work with this particular focus, which is life extension, when he was in his hometown of Niles, Michigan, near the cemetery, and realized in a quite personal way that he and all his loved ones would eventually die--particularly relevant to me because my own grandfather grew up in Niles Michigan. Dr. West wants to find the key to human aging. When he finds that key, he hopes to be able to change human life as we know it. He's a dreamer. But he's a dreamer with information.

And what is the state of science fiction right now? There has been a lot of talk about the disappearance of science fiction; alarm, in certain quarters, that the basic themes of science fiction are being subsumed into and appropriated by society at large and by mainstream literature in particular.

I view this as a positive development.

In Great Britain, at least in the bookstores I have visited, SF is shelved with all other fiction. Pratchett with Proust; Dick with Dickens. To a large extent, the ghettoizing of science fiction in the U.S. is an artifact of its pulp history. Its continued separation from the rest of "literature" in our bookstores and in our review organs is a self-perpetuating situation--a quite limiting situation. We have editors in the field who rigorously defend the boundaries, whose jobs and identities are synonymous with the field. Science fiction editors edit SF, for the most part. Mainstream editors edit mainstream books. End of story. And there is a certain amount of disdain in each camp for the other.

But in science fiction, there has been a slump, a certain ennui, in the past few years. Sales, for the field in general, are not growing. The most popular writers--perhaps the top ten of sf--sell about a hundred thousand copies per book. Compare this to the sixties, when a routine printing for any SF writer was one hundred thousand copies.

One of the usual suspects is science fiction's success in film and on television. Most of these productions are created to appeal to children or teenagers. They are pulp-adventure or fairy tale creations such as Star Wars or E.T. Therefore, this is what defines science fiction for most people. This is why, when I tell people that I write science fiction, the most polite response is "Oh, I used to read that when I was a kid." The least polite response is a look of distaste, as if they have suddenly smelled something bad, and then they usually blurt out, "I NEVER read science fiction." Then they look uncomfortable and hurry away.

It doesn't have to be that way. I believe that science fiction can be deeply literate, thoughtful, exciting, and interesting to a large spectrum of adult readers, while maintaining that science fictional frisson. It is what I strive for in my own work, and it is what a number of science fiction writers being published today have achieved. I think that we can do more; that we can bridge the gap between the reviewing and shelving ghetto and the rest of the world of books to make science fiction the most respected literature being written.

Science fiction is based on science, and in my opinion, this is the golden age of science. Yet there have been several well-received books in the past few years proclaiming that we will soon know all that we possibly can know, and that science will then be dead. If science is dead, can science fiction be far behind? In fact, there are probably limits to what we, as humans, can possibly know. But maybe--just maybe--we might be able to use what we learn in a scientific setting to bootstrap ourselves to greater cognitive abilities. Just as the pulps prepared the minds of children growing up in the thirties and forties to at least think about the possibilities of space travel and perhaps laid the groundwork for the space program, it may be that the science fiction of today could lay the groundwork for serious thought about the possibilities and potential of the human mind.

Here are some article titles pulled completely at random from a single issue of Science News, the weekly science newsletter to which I have subscribed for the past thirteen years:

Altered Antibody Boosts Transplants

Prehistoric Bacteria Revived From Buried Salt

Streambed bugs eat gasoline pollutants

Besieged tadpoles send chemical alert

If I were teaching a science fiction writing class, I might ask the students to each take a single article from science news and write a short story based on it. The idea that science fiction is dead would immediately be dispelled, at least in their own minds.

I even found a most important quote in this brief perusal. Richard B. Hoover, of NASA's Marshall space flight center said, "A lot of paradigms about what life can and cannot do are coming apart now."

Indeed.

Maybe the paradigms of what literature can and cannot do will come apart too.

Science fiction has done well with the concept that far away on other worlds, things are different. Writers have extrapolated multitudinous life-forms, vast civilizations, wondrous and strange stories using this particular conceit. We had to violate known physical laws by using faster-than-light travel to get way out there, far away, where things are different, but once we were there, there were no limits.

Now, it seems to me, science fiction has come of age. All those wondrous places and ideas are actually here. While we are still exploring the issues of time and space, we are now able to also explore life itself; perhaps even consciousness.

Until now, we have been the same old humans with a lot of new toys. Our physical bodies have remained relatively unaltered while we converse with people on the other side of the world, or hurtle through the atmosphere at hundreds of miles an hour. We have had much success in dealing with infectious diseases. Lifesaving procedures such as bypass surgery are almost commonplace.

But the means of cure are still gross and external.

Presently, the focus on matter and the focus on biology have become joined in what I call, in my books, bionan. Eric Drexler, in THE ENGINES OF CREATION, created a cult following in the Extropians, but he also started people thinking about nanotechnology. Drexler, in the 1980's at MIT, created his own doctoral focus; the result of this, the Engines of Creation, was published in 1987. Back then, the word nanotechnology was shiny and new, and Drexler's ideas were scoffed at by a lot of people. Synonyms such as molecular engineering were coined. These did not sound quite as flaky, when used in the mainstream, as nanotechnology. Drexler, in the Engines of Creation, postulates all kinds of fascinating possibilities. For instance, internal drug delivering mechanisms. In last month's Discover Magazine, I read a precise description of such a device, now under development, which is filled with various molecules and implanted into one's body, then released according to certain preprogrammed protocols. I would say that Drexler's almost science fictional thoughts have been met with great success on the other side of the invisible wall which separates what we imagine from what we can make real. But first, it had to be imagined.

Perhaps that is the job, if literature could be said to have a job, of science fiction.


During the nineteen nineties, nanotechnology went mainstream. The word has shaken itself free of Drexlerian connections and is now, too, mainstream. It is a solid engineering term. The science and the engineering of the very small received its own endowment and governmental seal of reality from the Clinton administration a few years ago. QUEEN CITY JAZZ, my first novel, was published in 1994. and I believe that it was the first novel to postulate a functioning nanotech, which are Gibson's words, from the quote he provided for my book. It predated the publication of Stephenson's THE DIAMOND AGE by almost a year. And although there have been a lot of nanotech novels since, to the extent that it is taken for granted, I think that this exploration of the very small will continue to be one of the most interesting developments both of science and of science fiction. Last September's Scientific American was devoted to nanotechnology. It featured an article about science fictional approaches, and it was a great pleasure to see Queen City Jazz and Crescent City Rhapsody cited, along with Greg Bear's Queen of Angels and Slant, and Neal Stevenson's The Diamond age, as being both seminal and representational of the field today.

We still remain the biggest mystery in the world. We are comprised of millions of programs, systems of evolutionary successes intimately linked to one another in a network which we are just beginning to understand.

And understanding will bring manipulation, and manipulation will bring improvement. Or at least, change. That is, whose idea of improvement will we use?

Our emotional malleability at a young age allows us to mimic the cultural milieu into which we are born perfectly. We absorb language, which is a social program in and of itself, effortlessly. Newborn infants react to tone of voice and eye contact. We are programmed to be a part of the community. We are exquisitely imprintable. We absorb our own culture much as we absorb food, and make it a part of our physical substance, our neural wiring, our filtering process.

This human malleability is the source of much joy, and a lot of sorrow as well.

There has been discourse for thousands of years about what the nature of a perfect human society might be. One society's criminal is another society's hero.

But the marvel of it all is that all of this, every last ravelling, is biological.

We are entering a period of time when we will be able to cure cancers, heart disease, diabetes, inherited disorders. The present debate over stem cell research is just the tip of the iceberg. We will soon have the opportunity to consider, as a society, just who we want ourselves to be. Presently, altering one's appearance through plastic surgery or even hair colorings or piercing falls into the category of vain frivolity. But when such alterations are deeper, more finely controlled, and more easily accomplished, how will we feel then? Millions of Americans are taking mood-altering drugs to keep them from the blackness of depression. Well, first it was the blackness of depression. Now, if you feel "socially challenged"--what we might have called shy, in past times--there is a drug you can take to remedy this condition. A friend of mine, one of the most ebullient, outgoing, and socially adept women you could possibly imagine, was prescribed this particular drug for other reasons. She said that she slept for a week. I suppose this would keep you from worrying about whether you're wearing the right thing if you're going out. You can't go out. You can't even get out of bed.

Certainly, though, such drugs have saved the lives of many depressive people.

But let's say that it is possible to choose one's mood, one's very personality, with more precision. Who is doing the choosing? What is identity?

Problems that used to be philosophical and religious are now in the realm of science. In fact, I think that a lot of our greatest religious and philosophical thinkers, if they were born now, would be scientists, because these people were all obsessed with finding out what is going on. But the only tools they had were their own observations. We now have tools that expand and enhance all of our senses. We can see the small--even the very small, now, or the traces of the very small or the very rare--with electron tunneling microscopes and supercolliders. We can see very far, with powerful telescopes. We can break down substances such as pheromones. We understand the structure of DNA.

We can even map our genes.

The development of our brains is directly related to the input from our senses. A sensory deficit during developmental stages can have very adverse effects. I was a Montessori teacher for thirteen years, and one of the first things we were taught at the M. Institute over on S street was that children go through what Montessori, around 1915, described as "sensitive periods," where they seem to easily learn certain characteristics of their environment, such as language. Oliver Sacks has written about a number of people who, when furnished with a sense which they did not learn how to use at the appropriate developmental stage, are greatly disoriented by, say, suddenly acquiring vision. Many times, they simply cannot ever learn to use that sense. It is an intrusion on their reality, one which they cannot assimilate.

In LIGHT MUSIC, I postulate the opposite. I envision people whose senses are enhanced, so that they can "hear," or perhaps a better word would be "sense," from an early age, wavelengths which we cannot now hear. All of what we sense, all of the physical phenomenon which we organize into the world that we navigate, is light, which we break down into various categories. How would such an enhancement change what we think about life; how would that change what we know? How would our deep understanding of matter and of life be changed?

In 1995, while I was working on THE BONES OF TIME, which is based on Penrose's ideas about consciousness--I subscribed to the fledgling Journal of Consciousness Studies. It was actually kind of amusing, since a lot of space was taken up with discussions of Penrose's theories, and mainly because he often responded to questions by using the third person to speak about himself and his work. The book was also about the nature of time and space, and about Hawaiian history and politics. I was quite pleased to have been asked to contribute an article a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies on Consciousness and Literature. It made me feel as if someone was listening. It made me feel as if I was making sense.

When I began work on LIGHT MUSIC, I was pleased to find a number of very good recent books written by physicists which investigate the nature of consciousness from a physicist's point of view. Julian Barbour's THE END OF TIME and Evan Walker's THE PHYSICS OF CONSCIOUSNESS are two such books.

Consciousness must, of course, at its root, be a biological function or process. But biology is, at its root, chemistry and physics. All of the material of which we are comprised is physical. If reality can be adequately described by superstring theory, then ourselves and that which we rather take for granted, like water or air, our consciousness, must also be describable using superstring theory.

In CRESCENT CITY RHAPSODY, I postulate that some children, born at a particular time, have been physically changed en utero by a virus from space, and then further modified in their ability to sense certain electromagnetic information. Some of the chapters in CCR, by the way, are set in Washington, D.C. The connection between the two sides of their brain, the corpus colossum, is much larger, as a consequence, than ours. And they are also electromagnetically oriented, as are birds and fish. This idea came about from some research I read about in Science News. The piece talked about studies of New Zealand trout which proved that these fish accumulate biogenic magnetite in their brains which allows them to orient and migrate using the magnetic fields of the earth. To them, and to birds, and migrating mammals, this is a very strong sense. To directionally challenged humans, such as myself, this seems like a good thing--but it is a sense that we may have left behind long ago, because we don't need it as these other creatures do. They find their way on vast journeys by understanding the magnetic fields generated by the earth.

I emailed Joseph Kershvink of Cal Tech, whose research was highlighted in this piece, so that I could have a larger picture of what was going on before I used it in my book. He emailed back rather suspiciously, are you one of those people who are worried about living under power lines? Because, he continued, his research did in no way prove that this causes cancer, and he was very upset when people used the information to support this supposition. I replied no, quite that contrary. I was using it in a science fiction novel. Oh, that was quite all right! He promptly sent me the NATURE article which detailed his research.

These are some of the ways in which I use science in my books, which, despite their strong science content, I think of as literature, and not just science fiction.

I believe that science fiction, as a literature, will come of age in the coming century. After all, novels have not been around for long; they are a fairly recent literary development. As the things which science can do affects our own lives, so readers will find what fiction writers can do with what humans have learned about the natural world-- which includes all of us.

Perhaps in this century, with new medical interventions, some of us will live long enough to truly understand what is going on--or at least, long enough to see a new horizon regarding that issue. Perhaps more of us, those who previously were not mathematically or scientifically inclined for one reason or another, will acquire the ability to understand more of the world around us. Maybe this will make us all better people. If we are lucky, altruism will be one of the characteristics which we will cultivate, and a lot of people will want to pass this information along, rather than destroy or suppress it. If we are very lucky, our civilization will continue to flourish, the fledgling scientific information and infrastructure we have so far discovered or developed will become more steady and deep-rooted, education itself will become much more scientifically approached, and knowledge of science will be much more widespread.

And if we are very lucky, science fiction, as a literature, will be reviewed and shelved with all the rest of the books.


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Last Update 12/13/01
Copyright 2001 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.