Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Science? Pfft.

I'm currently reading The Highest Frontier [2011], by Joan Slonczewski, and I've run into something that I don't recall reading before. The Highest Frontier is a science fiction novel, set in America (well, an American orbital habitat) something like a hundred years in the future. The book features a powerful political faction, the Centrists, who don't believe in outer space. Rather, they believe that the Earth is surrounded by a vault on which the stars are painted (the Firmament).

This wouldn't be particularly surprising if Slonczewski were writing a post-apocalyptic novel, but she isn't. She's writing plausible (although, I hasten to add, not predictive), moderate-future hard SF. No knowledge has been lost to cataclysm, at least as far as I can tell. The Centrists -- and this is the bit I find really interesting -- don't believe in the core conceits of the genre they're in.

There's no question that the Centrists are wrong; the novel isn't set in a universe where the Firmament literally exists*. But their wrongness is sort of beside the point. Their belief in the Firmament is irrational, but they are people, and they are powerful (the president is a Centrist), and so they cannot just be dismissed.

It's worth noting that although there is a connection between Centrism and religion in The Highest Frontier, it isn't a one-to-one relationship. There is, for example, a prominent religious character who doesn't believe in the Firmament. The Centrists aren't caricatures, and it's not just code for 'science good, religion bad'. 

I think this is an interesting subject for hard science fiction to confront, and I don't thing I've seen it done before**. How do you deal with people (not simply bad guys) who cannot be persuaded by science? That is, after all, exactly the problem we're facing now.

I'm only about half way through the book, and very interested to see how it plays out. This is just one of a great many issues and ideas that Slonczewski has raised so far; I'm yet to work out if it is a prominent one, or just an intriguing part of the background.

* Although that sort of thing has been done, and well. You might consider reading Mainspring [2007] by Jay Lake, or a number of Ted Chiang's short stories -- "Tower of Babylon" and "Exhalation" in particular.

** Anyone got any suggestions for things I've missed?


  1. An article on folk not believing science...

    The idea that more education is the key may not really be correct. Various studies suggest that the higher a level of education the more fixed someone's view becomes as they have become better at constructing counter-arguments, even if these rely on selective evidence. It would be an interesting irony if greater education affords us greater powers of self delusion.