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Periodicals

The Guardian
Reprinted with permission from the
Friday, December 13, 1991 edition of The Guardian

Between the fax and the fiction
Doris Lessing


A wall divides the scientific and the artistic. Yet while most people do not know the difference between bacteria and a virus, we wait for the next discovery as once they did for the latest chapter of Dickens. Science fiction, writes Doris Lessing, has prepared us for our own future.

There are two cultures, scientific and artistic, and they are as cut off from each other as if by something like the Berlin Wall. This complaint is heard all the time.

The phrase originated in Communist Party circles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The subject of innumerable study groups, lectures and articles, it escaped into general use from what was a quarantined intellectual island, and now has become a cause in itself. Clearly, our minds are patterned into yes, not; either, or; this, that.

It is how we see things. But is it true? Scientific ideas permeate our thinking and our vocabulary. Everyone knows science has made our world. It is for the next scientific discover that we all wait, as once they did for the last chapter of a Dickens novel, with a cliff-hanger to keep us guessing until next time. What could have been more exhilarating than James Gleick's Chaos, which revealed how, in several continents and in universities in the same country -0 the United States - scientists had independently come upon the idea that a wilder order than we had suspected ruled the universe? And what idea that will overturn our ideas again is lurching towards being born, and in so many minds not know to each other?

It was the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that blew that Wall down first: thereafter no one in the world could be ignorant that the infinitely small is as powerful as the sun and the moon, which we can see at work. But the citizens do not know the difference between bacteria and viruses - so revealed a recent survey.

They do know there are gradations of smallness, just as they learn from our space travellers (even when they do not know the difference between planets and suns) that the starts are as various as plants. What has happened is an enlargement of the imagination, the human mind as a whole, to make room for the minute and the vast, and time stretching immeasurable into the past and the future.

Some Victorians could comfortably believe the worlds was created 5,000-odd years ago, and their dreams did not include space travel, until they read H G Wells - and that was only fiction. Now everyone knows our world has been shaped over millions of years, for we have seen it all on television, with skeletons of dinosaurs emerging from hillsides in America, and Landsat pictures that show the scars of ice ages.

Nor would anybody be surprised to be told our descendants may take off into space where our planet is only one of a family of small planets around a small star: every child has seen the world spinning like a soap bubble to introduce a thousand television programmes. And if much more than the immediately probable floats in and out of our minds it is because of science fiction.

It is a commonplace to those familiar with science fiction (this excludes the literary establishment - now there really is a Berlin Wall) that few scientific discoveries have not been forecast or at least adumbrated decades earlier, in that genre.

This means that readers of science fiction may be fascinated by some new discovery - but it is the details which enthrall, not the general fact, for we were long ago informed about lasers, or the possibility of some minute explorer (the size of a match head) travelling the blood vessels of the cardiovascular system, or anything else they come up with.

Sometimes one feels we are marking off items on a list written first in the 1930s and 1940s with the first sci-fi magazines. Look at that moon buggy Nasa has come up with - but we saw it long ago on the cover of Astounding!

Cloning - they have taken their time about hat one. Space colonies? - I must re-read ... Parallel universes? Holograms? - you don't say! There are even those who confidently wait for inter-galactic shifts, teletransportation, hyper-drivers, or even the infinite improbability factor, which last will turn out to be a spin-off from Chaos.

At least two generations of readers have been given a grounding if not in scientific ideas, for the best science fiction has always taken existing scientific possibilities and used them to create worlds.

At first, the readers of science fiction were few, and they were aficionados of the ideas and not the writing, which was crude. That time has gone. Yet, while large numbers of people everywhere read science fiction some are still furtively addicted because of the unrespectability of the genre.

When I visited the World Science Fiction Convention in 1987 I was surprised how many familiar faces I saw in those tumultuous corridors. Of course the science correspondents of newspapers and journals, some scientists, and the science fiction writers. But, as well, people not know to be scientifically oriented.

This convention was ignored in the media. For the several days of the convention, four seminars every hour were held, some addressed by eminent people. Despite the varied titles of these discussions, the theme could be summed up as The Influence And Effect Of Science On Our Society. Pretty urgent subject ... but if the establishment ignores all this, the ideas escape into the general population, the way they always do.

Ideas do not stay shut in neat boxes. They spread themselves about, leap walls, transfer themselves from mind to mind, sometimes one does not know how. We are all the creatures of science.

Let us imagine that the witty film, Back To The Future, had been shown (because of a time shift) to an audience of ordinary children in 1910. Bewilderment. Bafflement. Yet the audiences of children (and some adults) who take such films in their stride may never have had so much as half an hour in a science class.

A woman showing off her garden says, "it might be an F1 hybrid, but hybrids are as hybrids do. Out with it to the compost heap. I must remember to buy some activator." (The product of a laboratory to which she has written with comments on its performance.)

In the yearly love-feast of Valentine Day adverts: "Come fly supersonic with me!" "You can plug into my terminals any time you like."

A mother talking to a welfare worker: "Those must be his father's genes, we don't behave like that on our side of the family."

A country taxi-driver complains about the enthusiasts he has had to drive all summer to gawk at corn circles. (Is it possible that part of the reaction to corn circles is because of buried associations with fairy rings?) "Barmy," says he.

"If aliens know how to make corn circles then they must have the technology to use a fax to tell us whatever it is they have on their minds."

A fax machine? Pure science fiction.

Imagine a sci-fi novel written in 1850, set 150 years ahead (by the spinster sister of a progressive publisher who had advised her to write under a man's name): "Muriel was woken by the soft burr of her wake-up device, which also made her early morning cup of tea. Then it took a moment to cook her porridge in an over using heat like focused sunlight. She had an appointment with her doctor, one of the first qualified women doctors." (The brother queried this: a woman doctor? - but let it pass.)

"She took a travelling machine, powered by steam - a development of the cab and its driver, but the mess and nuisance of horse-drawn transport was long forgotten. At the hospital she surveyed her own womb on a screen which was a development of a lantern slide." (The brother said: "you have to learn not to be too fanciful. For instance, you wouldn't say that we were sending an expedition to the moon. Readers simply lose interest.")

"The doctor pronounced her fit to breed. Muriel had applied for a permit under the category Single Woman." (Brother: "you are going too far.") "Muriel then went to lunch at a restaurant, alone with a woman friend." (Brother crossed this out.) "There, all the meals were pre-cooked and heated in a trice at the customer's order.

"Then Muriel found a place that specialised in communications and sent a message (instantly, through a hollow cable) to her mother who was exploring the Ganges with a group of female geographers."
(Brother: "Oh well, I suppose it is a work of the imagination.") "While she waited for a reply she watched news of the week's events on the glass face of a machine called Instant Vision. The main news was of a descent by machine to the very depths of the sea.

"Her mother's reply - a facsimile of how she has hastily written it in some unhygenic riverside village - said: 'One of our team is ill. Our instant diagnostic kit confirms her blood and urine show cholera. Order a bed in travellers' hospital, am flying home with her tomorrow'.

"Muriel asked for the Instant Speak (a development of the speaking tube) and spoke to the hospital. She spent her afternoon reading a novel, Praxis, written by a famous female writer, Fay Weldon (the name just came into her head), recommended by her doctor as containing useful and accurate information on intra-uterine development."

(Brother said, "Better make it an information booklet in plain covers written by a well-known London doctor.")

"She did the weekly wash before dinner, by machine, and since all the materials were quick-dry the garments were back on the shelves by the time the meal was over. She took a bath in an artificially-contrived pool of water with waves and currents in it: the doctor said that immersion in water would be food for her prospects of conception.

'Before going to bed in a room pleasantly warmed by wall panels that radiated heat, alone in her apartment in the block of single females . . . (censored) . . . she spent a few moments gazing at the stars and wondering which had been sending messages of friendship and love to humankind. For the antennae of the receiving machine on the roof of Kensington Palace had recorded: prepare a landing place, we are arriving soon by flying machine.

"She lay awake a long time, listening to pre-recorded music which could be turned on and off at the touch of a finger, and to voices relayed through the ether from distant countries. She fell asleep wondering which of the men she knew would provide a good strong inheritance for her child."

At this the brother no longer bothered to use his blue pencil: he knew that not he, nor anyone else, could publish or print a novel which he was afraid showed the first signs of inflammation of the mind.


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