aSOC: Speculative Fiction

coffee

SF vs. SF: what’s the best way out of the werewolves and wizards section and onto the serious shelves?

Friendship and mentorship doesn’t need to be limited to those one has the chance to meet in a given lifetime. Thoughts recorded in the written word and other forms make it possible to take on teachers, fellows, and adversaries across vast swathes of space and time. A friend in a book, they don’t even have to listen, only speak. These can provide a welcome refuge when alone despite the crowd, adrift in a sea of humanity with an unrelenting feeling of solitude. A special case of being surrounded by an intellectual version of water, water everywhere, but not a drop of it to drink.

The back sections of bookstores have long been a strong attractor for the lonely imaginative ones, the awkward and detached (not quite that far back, you don’t need to know a password or ask the clerk to be let in). For those bookstores still standing, this section will be tucked away in a corner somewhere, maybe hidden on the top floor next to the owner’s apartment or sandwiched between the WC and the fire escape. This is the science fiction section.

Typically sci-fi is, ironically in some ways, lumped in with fantasy. One genre describes what might be possible while the other describes what is definitely impossible. It’s true that much of the so called SF genre (particularly the “indistinguishable from magic” variety) carries little to differentiate itself from your run-of-the-mill swords and sorcery. Despite this, the gold standard hallmark of the genre is an¬† element of science that, if removed, would diminish the story. That doesn’t mean the plot won’t be character driven or relatable, but it does give the writer the chance to experiment with people in an enhanced diversity of contexts. Within a single genre,¬† science fiction is tops for the sheer breadth of different stories, societal structures, and characters that are possible.

The stereotypical sci-fi enthusiast I describe above are perhaps a bit lonely and awkward, distracted from the normal world as it is and even a bit antisocial. The negative connotation of the sci-fi nerd as a misanthropic outcast is a convenient stereotype and oversimpification. The mindset and nuance that cause one to seek a realm apart is not so much a type of person but an aspect of human experience that we all dip into from time to time, with often creative and fulfilling results.

So unlike the societal myth of the unwashed legions of basement dwelling fandom, we probably all contain some antisocial nerd deep down inside. It’s a part of life with some valuable rewards in terms of introspection and preparing for an uncertain future. So why do some authors, typically literary types with degrees \geq Masters, try so hard to distance themselves from the genre by insisting their work is “speculative fiction,” mutually exclusive to science fiction. Even not considering the continued migration of sci-fi fandom to the mainstream, claiming the spec-fic label distances your work from its obvious target audience while denigrating a useful and enjoyable mindset. It’s a bit pompous, a bit pretentious, and ultimately meaningless? The books may not qualify as hard sci-fi, but I promise not to be offended that they end up in the same section, with or without the accompanying speculative fiction¬†proselytizing. Remember that speculation comes from the Latin specere, to observe, and is based on coming to conclusions about the world through thought. Science, beginning with observation, continues to rending untruth from plausibility based on experiment and exploration. Both begin with observation, where do your dreams stop?

aSOC: Plant physiology (on Mars?)

Mars_23_aug_2003_hubble

Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars

Several months ago Andy Weir’s The Martian showed up on the feed of personalised advertisements for Kindle books on my account. No surprise, I read tons of sci-fi. Preferably no magic or dragons, as I can only tolerate so much “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So-called “hard” sci-fi tends to be the what I like most, and I gravitate to authors that have a propensity for characters on “the spectrum” or that are artificial intelligences (::ahem::). In any case, I read the sample from Amazon for the ebook, and I didn’t get into it.

Then last Wednesday Randall Munroe mentioned it was a cool story on xkcd. So I read it, and it was awesome. It’s a story about a guy fixing things in space. The flippant personality of the protoganist (Mark Watney, aka Matt Damon) is actually a tried-and-true literary device used to explain technical concepts to readers without being patronising. There’s a specific name for it that my exocortex is failing to bring me right now, but in any case, Andy Weir goes a long way to make sure his story is technically legit.

But this is aSOC, and I have to mention at least one thing I think was a mistake. And that thing is: space potatoes. Watney’s official job description entailed two roles on the mission to Mars: botanist and mechanical engineer. These are bascially the two skill sets most likely to enable someone to survive after being abandoned on another planet, which is a convenient coincidence for our buddy Mr. Damon. He grows potatoes and (oh sorry, spoiler alert starting a few sentences ago) at one point he worries about “suffocating” the potatoes by leaving the space house for a few days, thus not providing the plants with the CO2 they need to “breathe.” One problem: plants don’t breath CO2.

Don’t get me wrong, plants definitely need CO2 to make triose phosphates, sugars, starches and cellulose, etc., but this isn’t what they “breathe” on a cellular level. Plants need to respire just like we do to power aerobic metabolism. Plants need CO2 for photosynthesis, not respiration. A metabolically active plant doesn’t photosynthesize at night, but in general it will still need a low level of oxygen to survive. And I sure would have liked to see an energy balance for his indoor Mars farm. Photosynthetically active radiation on old Terra is about 300 Watts per square meter, and I’d be surprised if the reading lights in his space house are up to the task of meeting that level of output.

In any case, I can recommend that you go ahead and read the book, maybe watch the movie later, and think about space some more.