Thursday, June 9, 2011

Science, Fiction & Truth

This is a special Thursday, everyone! I am having my first guest post and my first giveaway, all at once! Please welcome David Gaughran, author of If You Go Into the Woods and Transfection (I expect clapping, folks). On a normal weekday, you can find him on his super-helpful blog Let's Get Digital, Digital.

EDIT: Forgot to say, I'm on Wicked & Tricksy as usual. It's Villainy Week!

My science fiction tastes have always been very compartmentalized. Space operas must be TV shows. I’m not convinced they work as well as movies, let alone books. Anything to do with robots, I prefer as a movie. I want to see the robot, and only movies have the budget to make it look really cool.

I’m a little more democratic when it comes to books. A good story will trump all, but I do gravitate towards near-future dystopia. Spaceships and aliens and all that are okay, but I would rather have a story about a man who struggles to form relationships because he can read minds, or about a cloning experiment gone wrong. For me, the further the story is away from the real world, the less it says about it in a clever way.

This latter qualification is important to me. Sure, you can have a version of Romeo & Juliet set on an interplanetary cruiser, or have an alien encounter story that teaches us about racism, but I prefer my messages a little more subtly coded. I don’t like neon signs telling me what to think.

Philip K. Dick is a favourite. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was great, but I liked Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said even more. He was a master of creating this sense of unease in the reader, which perfectly mapped what the character was feeling.

In many of his stories, it takes a while to figure out if this is taking place on our world or not, or whether it is set in the future or not, or whether the main character is crazy or not. That sense of dislocation is a brave move for a writer. So many feel compelled to do their world-building right from the start, with unwieldy explanations of various technological advances or geographical quirks that signify to the reader, right from the off, that you are somewhere else.

Instead, Dick deliberately keeps that from you, and the overall effect is very disturbing. You really get under the characters skin, and start seeing this strange world through their eyes, and begin questioning yourself, just like the character does.

I call that old-school science fiction. We used to have a lot more of it before Star Trek, the comic-book movie explosion of the 80s, and the alien boom of the 90s. I’m talking about guys like Ray Bradbury, movies like Soylent Green, and shows like The Twilight Zone – where there was more of an emphasis on the science than the fiction.

I think the distinction comes from the genesis of the story and the priorities of the writer. In the space operas and alien splatter-fests, I think the idea of “world” comes first and story second, whereas in old-school science fiction, the story always comes first.

My favourite kind are “what if” stories – which Hollywood likes to call “high concept” stories – and science provides fertile ground here. What if no-one ever became pregnant again (Children of Men)? What if we lived in a society so controlled that even thought was a crime (1984)?

The first half of the 20th century was a period of such massive technological change – cars, airships, televisions, airplanes, tanks, nuclear bombs - that there was this feeling that science could accomplish anything.

But there was also an undercurrent of fear. Scientists were often depicted as weak, amoral people who could be easily co-opted by nefarious governments and corporations.

Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff, but I think we have lost some of that from science fiction today. It’s a pity, because science is providing is with just as much material as before: cloning, cryogenics, nanobots, in vitro meat – there is so much great stuff there.

I wanted to write a story with that old-school vibe. Like most of my short story ideas, it came from a conversation with a friend over a few beers. We were talking about genetically modified food, and some of the fears out there, and whether they had any basis.

Then, as the night went on, we started going in ridiculous tangents about tampering with organisms at the most fundamental level, and what potential side-effects there could be that we haven’t even considered.

I remembered the story of the Radium Girls.  They were a group of factory workers in New Jersey during World War I, whose job was to paint watches with glow-in-the-dark paint for the military.

They were told the paint was harmless and were instructed to lick the paintbrushes to keep them pointed. The girls often painted their nails and teeth for fun.

The paint, of course, was radium-based, and the girls’ continued exposure led to radiation poisoning. The company attempted to smear these women, and claim their symptoms were caused by syphilis, and medical records were withheld by doctors and dentists to aid in the cover up.

It is still unknown how many Radium Girls died.

The point is that science and truth don’t always go hand in hand, not when there is money involved. It’s in these cracks that stories are born, and I think science fiction is uniquely placed to share them with the world.

Transfection, an old-school science fiction short, is available from Amazon and Smashwords for 99c.
That story about the Radium Girls gave me shivers. It goes on the list of scary science things from Sommer's post this Monday.

Now, about the contest. I am giving away five copies of Transfection*, because it is awesome and creepy, and I think you should all read it.

All you have to do is to answer this question: "What area of science do you find creepy?"

You can do so here in the comments, or on twitter. If you use twitter, tag it with #creepyscience so I can see it (and feel free to link to this post if you have room)! I'm giving four copies to the comments, and one to the twitter participants. So, yes, you can technically enter twice!

The answer can be a whole area of study, an anecdote (such as the radium girls) or, well, pretty much anything science-related that creeps you out. Go wild!

You have until Wednesday June 15th, 11:59 PM EST to answer. I'll announce the winners next Thursday!

*If you don't own an e-reader, you can always read e-books from your smartphone, iPad or laptops with this free amazon app.


  1. Will I lose if I say Biochemistry? >:}

    I’m creeped out by the idea that there are scientists who are amoral, but not so weak since they are, by choice, partners with nefarious governments and corporations. Real life example: Most of what we know about hypothermia and how the body reacts to freezing conditions is based on the results of Nazi experiments performed on humans in places like Auschwitz and Dachau (this is a small example). Ethically that's hard enough to come to terms with, but what if we knew the antidote to a bio-engineered disease that's been released was developed by the enemy using human subjects?

  2. Count me among the PKD fans.

    And I can also recommend Transfection.

    I can't think of a creepy science example -- except for those bacteria that are coming to steal my coffee -- but I already have a copy and so don't need to meet contest guidelines :).

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  4. I'm writing a near-future dystopian sci-fi right now. I have no idea whether you would like it or not. I am only on chapter 14, but I don't expect it to be a very long novel. In fact, I am beginning to worry it will turn into more of a novella.

  5. I'm not much of a science person here, so I will really be showing my ignorance, I'm sure. I get freaked out by how diseases mutate and become resistant to antibiotics. In the future we might be exactly where we were in the past - defenceless.

    I saw something about the Radium Girls on QI the other night - freaky. It reminded me of the girls who used to work in the matchstick factories. Lots of them died horribly because they got phospherous necrosis of the jaw.

    Also, don't enter me in the contest either, because I also own Transfection...and it IS creepy!

  6. Deep sea exploration creeps me out. There's so much weirdness and unknown down there!! The deeper you go the weirder the forms of life get. And oh my God, if I didn't already have enough of a "thing" about the deep sea, I just read a manga series called "Children of the Sea" that traumatized me. It's about the mystery behind these pair of children who grew up feral in the ocean.

  7. First, your post is awesome David! And I really want to read Transfection. :-)

    And oh boy, science that really creeps me out? Too many answers. I am creeped out by the human subject research studies I posted about on monday on Wicked & Tricksy. I am creeped out that scientists have long experimented on the young, the old, the poor, and the mentally ill because they don't consider them real people. I am really creeped out by super strains that have become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. I am creeped out that my hospital has to have a biocontainment department because you never know. I am creeped out by people who cough and sneeze into their hands in elevators and then push buttons and I almost can't leave because I don't want to touch anything. I'm creeped out by petri dishes and also robotics. I once read a story about how a team of Japanese scientists were created micro pocket dimensions using a laser and Japanese magic I guess and I couldn't help but think "there is nothing good that can come out of creating other dimensions. That leads to things like Elder God invasions what are they thinking." So yeah. Japanese scientists creep me out too. And micro-dimensions.

    My level of anxiety and fear produced by science means I read a lot about science and discoveries and research projects. And it is why I write about science fiction too.

    OH OH AND I AM SCARED OF RUBBER GLOVES. I want more than a thin rubber membrane between me and a patient covered in boils or body fluids.

  8. Hmm, what creeps me out. I heard there were scientists that were trying to recreate a black hole. Why would you do that? More specifically, why would you do that so close to an abundantly populated planet? A part of me is fascinated that they are trying to recreate something so dangerous and mysterious, because lets face it, with my broadminded curiosity, I want to know how it works too. Just don't do it anywhere near me. I may not fear death, but I still have stuff to do before I go.

    Also, gene splicing kinda gives me the creeps.

  9. Thanks for having me here Claudie.

    As you can tell from the above, I'm a big PKD fan. Lots of his stories have been made into movies - Bladerunner, Minority Report, Total Recall, and many more.

    But I'm surprised no-one ever made a movie of "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said". If you haven't read it, check it out. I think a modern version of that story could have great resonance in today's celebrity obsessed world.

    Ok, back on track now. What creeps me out? When I was younger, it was radiation. I remember growing up in Ireland when Chernobyl had a meltdown and there was all these news stories of invisible radioactive clouds heading towards Ireland. I suppose the Cold War was at its peak then (Reagan calling USSR the "Evil Empire" and all that), and people in Ireland were always worried about an attack on the UK (right next door).

    Today, there is so much. Nanobots (what if someone could reprogram them remotely to tear apart your body). Hand transplants (what if you lost control of your new hand and it decided it wanted to kill you). In vitro meat (growing people is way creepier than cloning them). That's just for starters.

    Probably unfair to enter me in the competition though. Boo!

  10. I think "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" is one of the greatest titles of all time, bar none.

    This is also one of the best blogs I have ever read, bar none.

    What area of science creeps me out? DTC (direct-to-consumer) ads for prescription drugs, which I admit is not really an area of science. It is the most dangerous thing: people who do not understand science using it for profit. It is like getting on the back of a dragon, snapping the whip, and saying "Go!"


  11. @Cookie and black holes - the size of the black holes scientists are trying to create is sub-atomic and they're only expected to exist for a "Plank time" (the time it takes light to travel 10 to the -32 (I don't know how to superscript) centimeters. They already theorize that these tiny tiny black holes pop in and out of existence all the time (oh damn, one just passed through my head).

    Micro dimensions already exist as curled up nuggets called Calbi-Yau shapes and each nugget of six curled dimensions only occupy 10 to the -32 centimeters (Plank length). The current challenge for science is to observe one since we don't have an instrument that can detect anything that small.

    I'm not entering again, I just enjoy this type of discussion.

  12. Watcher55, phew, that makes me feel a whole lot better. I admit I did not know a whole lot about what they were trying to do. I heard it through an intermediary source, who also did not know much.
    That is a fascinating theory about micro black holes. Do they just pop up anywhere? And how do they affect their surroundings? I am intrigued.

    *Also not entering again.

  13. Well, I was using a bit of hyperbole, but that's the theory. If you're really interested, look into Brian Greene's books, ELEGANT UNIVERSE and FABRIC OF THE COSMOS. They're a bit dated, but they give a fair picture of the theories that attempt to unify Einstien's relativity and quantum mechanics (string theory and M-theory). The Calabi-Yau (that's how you really spell it) shapes supposedly exist on every point of three dimensional space.

  14. I'm one of those people creeped out by genetic modification of crops, especially with gene flow. I blame the Brits. I was living in the UK in the 90's when they had people breaking into Monsanto offices to steal files to turn over to government investigators and when thoroughly average people were swarming test fields at night, pulling up all the GM crops and leaving them on the steps of the local council hall in bags marked "biohazard".

  15. Thanks Watcher! I will definitely check those out.

  16. I'll jump in and say cloning humans creeps me out. Ok, cloning anything creeps me out. It just seems to me uniqueness should be of value and then it gets into the whole question of what makes you human.

    Also, and I apologize to the hard scientists in the area, I am fascinated and simultaneously repulsed by all those psych. experiments done in the early half of the 20th century before they instituted ethical standards. There was some wild stuff.

  17. David you cannot enter no fair!

  18. Great post, David. I stopped reading science fiction a couple decades ago but there was a time when I read it almost exclusively. I feel that I've learned to tell a story from Dick and Sturgeon. But when Star Trek and Star Wars were redefining movie sci-fi to be space opera, sci-fi authors seemed to distance themselves from that by filling their books with endless descriptions and, it seemed, were hell-bent on convincing us that they 'knew their stuff.' In my view, story suffered from this...whatever it was.

    One of my fav sci-fi authors is Robert Sawyer because he's definitely a story-first kind of guy.

    Cheers --- Larry

  19. GM crops creep me out too. I've been working on a WIP where the terminator genes jump to other plants and everything stops making viable seeds.

    Great post!

  20. Oh my gosh, there are so many great answers here! It's fascinating to see what kind of science makes your Creepy Alert tingle!

    Sommer, you made me laugh with the petri dish! It's just a bit of plastic. ;) (yes, I'm ignoring what grows on the agar on purpose)

    Cacy: I have this dual-way relationship with the deep sea. There are some beautiful life forms down there, but there's also some of the weirdest, ugliest creatures to ever see the light of day (except they don't see the light, because they're too far below)

    Some of the other answers are directly in my field, too (cloning, GMO, superstrains). There's some food for thought here. ^^

  21. David: Think of it this way - you get to win everyday!

    Claudie: OMG Petri dishes are monsterous. Literally! They are little plastic discs of monsters! Who wants that? No one wants that.

    Claudie and Cacy: I love deep see creatures! Especially the ugly ones. And I really love the ones that create their own light! The world is beautiful.

  22. Waah, I love petri dishes. You can lick them when there's nothing on the agar! (True story. I did that. For a class. They taste bitter.)

  23. Wow, awesome post David! I'm suddenly more interested in science fiction than I was a few minutes ago.

    And I didn't even know something like in vitro meat existed. That totally creeps me out. I mean, growing meat? That's just wrong. Actually, I don't even have words for how wrong I think that is. I mean what if after awhile we start eating meats that we wouldn't have before? What if they feed us humans and we don't even know it? *shiver* But of course that's probably just my imagination getting ahead of me.

    And cloning, that creeps me out.

    Watcher55 and Cookie, that thing about creating a black hole has got me curious! I'll have to go search around for that now. And that thing about tiny black holes popping in out of existence all the time? That sounds so interesting! I so have to find out more about that! It's got me thinking. . ..

  24. Taylee, in vitro meat is totally creepy!How do we know we won't be eating humans? How do we know we aren't eating them now?

  25. @cookie, I'm trying to avoid a Soylent Green reference here...

    As for me, the things that freak me out also intrigue me in that thrilling way that only fear can accomplish. If I had to pick two, they would be:

    The sciences of black holes and microdimensions. I don't know much about the facts in those areas (though Watcher's comments helped a bit), which just leads to more musing when you're me. The less I know the more curious I become, which leads to thoughts like 'hey, if a black hole crushes anything it consumes down to nothing in the singularity, and microdimensions are a thing, who's to say black holes aren't really one-way gates to these dimensions? Once we're that tiny, the microdimension would feel like a whole different universe!' Again, probably wrong, but still a weird and oddly exciting thought.

    Second is definitely cloning. As a Christian I've always been caught in the 'do clones have souls' argument (though I've always been drawn to the kami concept of Shintoism, but that's another story), and I wonder what it would be like to meet a soulless creature or person. Would they truly be any different from us, and if so, how could we know they didn't have a soul? Would it be proof that we lacked them as well? The implications reach as far as your mind is willing to let them, and that's another thing that scares and excites me at the same time.

    I've always liked sci-fi because it presents a fantastic universe that is nevertheless (theoretically) possible, whereas fantasy is--as far as we know--impossible. Granted, I'll never live to see the world reach that stage of advancement unless we learn to download our consciousness to computers or just straight-up become immortal, but it's still a neat thought.

  26. I will leave the petri dish licking to you, Claudie :-) I will just watch. From behind a protective barrier.

  27. I'll even give you gloves and ethanol and everything, Sommer. I promise you won't suffer the consequence of my Petri-dish licking.

    Will: Cloning whole human beings definitely raises a lot of questions concerning what makes us human and unique. Thankfully much of what is attempted in the way of "cloning" now is only individual bits, such as skin or a liver. They call it therapeutical cloning, and it in no way attempts to produce a full human from a petri dish.

    Everything that's related to different universe blows my mind, in more way than one. I almost can't wrap my thoughts around it. It's pure crazy! ^^

    As for in vitro meat... I really have to look into that. I heard of it, once, but it sounds both creepy and amazingly useful.

  28. How did I miss this thread and these fabulous comments?!

    And WHO LICKS PETRI DISHES?? *shudder* Claudie!

    Science that creeps me out... I'm okay with gene-based research. But when we start to get into the "perfect" genome and collecting people's DNA for "informational purposes," I get a bit itchy. I'm pretty sure no one needs my genetic information, though it's still murky on what exactly someone could do with it once they got it.

    Still, the world of personalized genomics is fascinating from a medication standpoint but terrifies me nonetheless.