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How Hard Science Fiction Impacts the Lives of Others

It was August and I was in the middle of a cross country trip. After a full day at the wheel, I would tuck into my sleeping bag with a lantern at night and read Greg Egan’s Diaspora, a kind of travel novel about the quest for interstellar life. 

The diaspora was my first foray into the science fiction subgenre. 

This renewed my awareness that our life, as earthlings, obeys physical and chemical laws, over which we have no control – the feeling that literature evokes in me rarely evokes. 

Ultimately, realism subdues the physical in favour of the psychological, creating an illusory, human-centred world. As I watched Earth slowly change from behind a beetle-splattered windshield, I began to wonder what realism is at risk when it reduces the planet we live on to background noise?

According to its most basic definition, hard science fiction organizes the conventions of science fiction so that they can occur in the real world. 

Readers encounter monsters, but only if they live up to solid biological precepts. They are confronted with futuristic technologies, but only if they operate in accordance with the observable laws of nature. 

To characterize this subgenre as realistic or anti-realistic is to miss the point: rather, its relationship to the real is fraught.

The Diaspora tells the story of Yakima, a sexless artificial intelligence and “citizen” of the virtual city-state of Konishi. It started in 2975, the year that Atima was born. Unlike other residents of Konishi, Yakima does not look like the offspring of “parent” citizens. Instead, Yakima is a random combination of archived human genetic traits, an ontological experiment designed to test a unique set of genomic data. In other words, Yatima is an orphan.

As I watched Earth slowly change from behind a beetle-splattered windshield, I began to wonder what realism is at risk when it reduces the planet we live on to background noise?

The diaspora is surprisingly reminiscent of literary stories about orphanhood. 

In novels such as Bleak House and Jane Eyre, the plot unfolds when an orphan hero, once a foundling who does not understand the world and its rules, assimilates into the matrix of bourgeois values ​​that underlie society. 

  • To establish these value systems, literary texts often use legal discourse to discuss anything from inheritance to romantic relationships. 
  • After all, Bleak House is a book about a lawsuit. 
  • This is just an imitation technique that makes the real world easier to understand in a fictitious text. 

Few things are as “true” as contract law and private property.

Similarly, the deep space of the diaspora reveals Atima’s self-image and his relationship with society. But science fiction puts mimesis in different directions. The discourses he uses to establish authority are not familiar in the usual sense, but the specialized vocabularies are understandable to a relatively small number of readers. If science fiction has a reputation for being difficult, it is largely for this reason. 

He asks readers to learn in order to understand. Thus, we can view the genre as an expandable, even interdisciplinary way of literary writing that uses expert discourse not to substantiate its narratives in reality, but to push the boundaries of the possible.

For his part, Egan uses a heady mix of biology, computer science, mathematics and physics to make Yatima’s world understandable to the reader. The first chapter, which deals with the formation of Yakima’s consciousness, is a dizzying example of this language. The existence of Yakima, like all the inhabitants of Konishi, is forged in “conceptual”, “unreasonable software, as old as the city of Konishi itself.” 

Conceptology creates new citizens from the “seed of reason”, a genomic sequence of “instruction codes” cobbled together from human DNA nine hundred years ago. Konishi Mind Seed consists of a billion lines of code, divided into subroutines. 

When the mind seed is initiated, fifteen million of these routines interact to populate data fields to create a unique identity. 

“Orphanogenesis” – the process by which orphans are born, is a birth according to an algorithm.

Although they do not “exist” in the proper sense of the word, the inhabitants of Konishi live a certain way of life. They argue with each other, enter into romantic relationships and quarrel. They even struggle to negotiate their closeness to incarnation and to the humans known as “flashers” who still dwell on the surface of the Earth. This struggle is exacerbated when an accidental explosion of cosmic energy causes the flesh to disappear and permanently severs Konishi’s fragile bond with humanity.

After this tragedy, many of Yakima’s fellow citizens completely abandoned biological life, reprogramming their software to value only pleasure and solipsistic pursuits. 

Yakima, alarmed by their solipsism, rejects Konishi and joins a group of citizens aboard the Diaspora interstellar spacecraft sent to discover life in other star systems. Their mission is to warn distant creatures of the likelihood of extinction. 

What they find in deep space is even more alien than they thought.

According to its most basic definition, hard science fiction organizes the conventions of science fiction so that they can occur in the real world.

In one of the novel’s most impressive chapters, astronauts from the diaspora observe a new form of life on a distant planet they call Orpheus. At first, it resembles a massive carpet of interwoven cells. But they soon discovered its true complexity: carpets are not a group of single-celled organisms. 

It is not a multicellular organism. It is a single organism, a two-dimensional polymer, weighing 25,000 [tons]. A giant leaf of folded polysaccharide, an intricate web of interconnected sugars pentose and hexose hung like alkyl and amide side chains. A bit like a plant cell wall, except that this polymer was much stronger than cellulose, and the surface area was twenty orders of magnitude larger.

Undoubtedly a figment of the imagination, Egan sets out his description of this organism in the technical and very “real” language of plant biology. 

But to say that diaspora events really could have happened is an exaggeration that opens cracks in the definition of the genre.

This genre is distinguished not so much by plot, characters or concepts, but by its special relation to the information. In a sense, an effective piece of science fiction is one world-sized dump of information. Expert discourse is simply the most efficient delivery mechanism for this amount of information.

The information dump, which is almost universally criticized in art workshops, is a device that provides a significant amount of background information or other narrative material to make the story clear to the reader. 

Egan is a master of the stunt. 

The birth of Yatima is an extremely complex process taking place in the first three pages of the Diaspora – perhaps the most magnificent information dump I have ever read.

In another memorable passage, a citizen named Orlando changes his perception to accommodate five visual dimensions. 

Looking into space from the diaspora observation deck, Orlando sees stars “under the horizon – not through the earth, but around it, as if he were standing on a narrow protruding rock or a sharp pillar.” His eyes behave like “two eyes, one on top of the other, suddenly spherical, their axes still bounded by a hinge in their flat world, but their lenses, their pupils, their field of vision go beyond it.” His vision is superior to “his usual field in two orthogonal directions”, both laterally and vertically at the same time. 

When he tries to connect additional planes, he finds that they meet at the same point. “The planes had to cross along the lines,” Egan writes, “but these refused to obey.”

This genre is distinguished not so much by plot, characters or concepts, but by its special relation to the information.

Such information dumpsters violate the main rule of literary fiction: they don’t really “show” anything about the character to us. But that’s not the point at all. If we can imagine what it would be like to see in five dimensions in accordance with the actual laws of our universe, then in the most real sense, Egan expanded the mechanics of subjectivity. It’s hard for me to imagine a more impressive literary feat.

Back on Earth, I found myself on the side of the road overlooking the Sandhills of Nebraska. 

The wind-blown dunes rolled for miles in all directions, their valleys full of water and the slopes covered with blue-green steppe grasses. Like many writers, I have acquired an incessant habit of cataloguing places that I may one day write about. 

But it was absurd to look for material here: these dunes had nothing to do with me or anything other than the simple fact that they were left behind thousands of years ago, like slug paths after receding glaciers, and now I happened to be here to witness this. 

The sandy hills started long before we arrived and will continue long after we leave.

And yet it was impossible not to wonder what was going on here? What do you need to know to learn Sandhills? How can we turn reality into fiction?

When writers turn away from the rules of society – “soft” parameters of reality – and move to physical, biological, geological – “hard” parameters of reality – they invite a whole new dimension into reality. 

Long, slow processes such as plate displacement and natural selection are perhaps as relevant to realism as the virtual psychology that dominates the literature. If we want to create fiction that faces renewed awareness of major challenges such as declining biodiversity, climate change, and even the spectre of social collapse, then I suspect that literary writers have a lot to learn from their fellow genres.

I hope you like this hard science fiction and my thoughts on it.

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Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Adventure, Contemporary Fiction, Culture and Current Events, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Humor, Non-Fiction, Sci Fi, True Story

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  1. Very insightful. Often SFG is looked down upon for “failing” to achieve the goals of literary fiction; sometimes the failure is real, but oftentimes it’s simply that the goals are different.