Jalapeños and Science Fiction have a lot in common. Both have a kick to them and both are impossible to get enough of.
Sci Fi fans are fortunate to live in a great era, when science becomes so cutting edge and mind-boggling, that at times it is impossible to draw the line between fiction and reality. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil (on artificial intelligence, human-machine singularity and technology), Michio Kaku (on the present developments in physics, space exploration and other science areas) and others provide evidence for William Gibson’s saying, that the future is already here, but it is not evenly distributed. Things like mind reading (creating a dictionary of brain wave patterns), digital immortality (Google’s ambitious project on uploading human consciousness into the cloud), self-driving cars (for which patents are in place, and prototypes are being created), thinking and learning machines (like Google image recognition programs or Google AI that learns languages and maintains a high-level discussion) are more or less old news now.
Humanity itself is on the quest to genetic perfection. Not only did we decode the human genome, now we have the technology for genome editing, cloning various tissues and animals, but it was confirmed that China successfully modified genome of a human embryo, regardless of what the world community thinks about it.
2015 Science Rocks!
Science breakthroughs don’t just trickle into this world; they are a daily watershed. 2015 gifted us with amazing scientific breakthroughs in every sphere of human life. Some of them had to do with improving our health (getting closer to combatting cancer, AIDS, ebola; 3D printing, cloning, and growing in the lab multiple tissues, organs and body parts); others had to do with advancing our understanding of macroscopic, microscopic and quantum scale universe; many had to do with sustainable, alternative, and green energy solutions and better understanding of human species origin. Let’s remember some of these amazing discoveries:
- Four new elements are added to the Periodic Table.
- A discovery of an in-between phase (or Q-phase) of Carbon gives the ability to create diamonds at the room temperature and ambient atmospheric pressure. Two previously known Carbon phases are diamond and graphite.
- KIC 8462852 is a very special newly discovered star for those who wish giving E.T. a call someday. It is surrounded with a rim of large orderly structures that look like something built by an advanced civilization. Some even go as far as speculating that such a structure may be designed to harvest solar energy. As a speculative theory, it makes sense, because an advanced civilization would have enormous needs in clean sustainable energy, which is generously provided by the stars. Skeptics say the structures are likely to be just space derby, but others go by the rule: “Think like a proton, always positive.” After all, we never resolved the mystery of the WOW signal.
- The ‘discovery of the year’ was probably made by NASA – the evidence of liquid water on Mars. It is said that the water there is salty and runs on the surface during the Martian summertime. This is particularly exciting because scientists say that water is the essential building block of life (at least the life with similar chemistry to ours). Another practical significance of water on Mars has to do with various colonization needs: hydrogen-derived energy, restoration of atmosphere and raising the surface temperature by infusing it with oxygen and carbon dioxide, not to mentioning hot showers and fresh coffee.
- Scientists say that they came closer to cracking the electro-magnetic drive and hydrogen fusion energy sourcing – two handy things for deep space exploration.
- How can we forget the epic Pluto photoshoot, this tiny little wannabe planet with a big heart!
- NASA stargazers found Kepler-452b – the Earth’s older, larger sister. It orbits the similar class star at about the same distance and at the similar speed, with means the same year length. Being in a so called habitable zone from the star means possibility for liquid water and enough light for photosynthesis – all great news for indigenous life and gardening.
- Remember those lessons in high school, where they told you that the speed of light is a constant? Some daring Scottish scientists conducted an experiment of slowing down photons. “Impossible!”, would be Einstein’s response. However, the Scottish scientists claim, they have reduced the speed of individual photons shooting them through a special mesh. Interestingly, these photons upon continuing their voyage past the mesh, maintained their reduced speed. So maybe all those theories about ‘tired’ light, or red-shifted light have some validity after all.
- Of course, nobody beat Einstein to his game yet. In 2011, NASA conducted what they called a textbook epic experiment. As the result, they have obtained an empirical evidence to Einstein’s theory of relativity. There is a space-time vortex around Earth, and its shape precisely matches the predictions of Einstein’s theory of gravity. I can almost hear Einstein saying “I told you so!”, so this is probably bad news for the Scottish scientists, because Relativity breaks down at the speed of light different than the presently accepted constant parameters.
That’s some red-hot-chilly-pepper science right there making life exciting for the creators and fans of the Sci Fi genre, both in written form, and on screen.
As a long-time fan of the genre, I decided to celebrate the year 2015 in it’s contribution to the Sci Fi literature and filmography.
Welcome to the Jalapeño Fiction 2016 Award!
In short, this is the award for the best novel and movie published or aired in 2015 in the Science Fiction genre. At first, I thought that identifying Sci Fi among other genres should be a rather straightforward task. As it turned out, there is a lot of debate these days as to what actually belongs to the Sci Fi category, and where to draw the line between Sci Fi and fantasy, young adult fiction, and others.
What is Science Fiction?
Here is the Sci Fi definition offered in Wikipedia:
“Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction dealing with imaginative concepts such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life.”
The definition seems rather simple at a glance. The challenge presents itself when you try pointing out, what actually does not belong to the genre. When it comes down to it, the proverbial truth on the subject is often in the eye of the beholder.
What is not Science Fiction?
Here is how Margaret Atwood, a renown author in the genre, answers this question:
“Are these books “science ﬁction”? I am often asked. Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science ﬁction” as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.” – Atwood, M. (2011). If It Is Realistic or Plausible, then It Is Not Science Fiction. IO9. We Come From The Future.
I agree with Atwood’s distinction here, as well as with her further point in the same article, that the genre itself is in the state of constant evolution. Maybe the ‘1984‘ in it’s day could claim the title of Sci Fi, but today I would not categorize it as such. When it comes to the ‘Martian Chronicles‘, it is every bit of Sci Fi today as it was in the day of it’s conception. However, today we probably would categorize it as the ‘soft’ Sci Fi.
When it comes to specific plots and settings, that do not belong to the Sci Fi genre, it is my opinion, that vampires (even those who happen to be scientists!), dragons and fairies, hobbits and wizards, talking flowers, furniture, and pets cannot be even stretched to the ‘soft’ sub-genre. Slasher fear and mild (to hard) erotic content also should be excluded. Supernatural subjects (as if in the TV series ‘Supernatural‘) also do not belong to the genre. When in doubt, consult this highly scientific chart below:
Soft vs. Hard Sci Fi
As time passes, the standard for the ‘hard’ Sci Fi becomes higher, well, because we know more about science now then we used to. In order to write or read hard Sci Fi, one does not necessarily have to have a science degree, but must be willing to stretch herself to deeper understanding of sciences (let it be math, physics, chemistry, biology etc.). However, there is a problem with this approach. If I extend the list of sciences to, let’s say, history, my gut reaction tells me: wait, what history, the ‘Da Vinci Code‘ kind of history? No, this cannot be defined as Sci Fi (even less so ‘hard’ one). On the other hand, the ‘Stargate’ TV saga and all the fan literature often deals with fictional archeology, but it is mostly the other science (e.g., astrophysics) that makes Stargate qualify for the ‘hard’ (-ish) Sci Fi nomination. Now, math is a hard science, and the ‘Beautiful Mind‘ classic movie revolves around math. However, just like the ‘1984’, I wouldn’t put the ‘Beautiful Mind‘ in the Sci Fi pile. Why? My subjective appraisal tells me that the ‘Beautiful Mind’ plot draws heavier on subjects of human condition, emotions, character, vulnerability; in other words – the ‘mushy’ stuff, that allows excluding it from the Sci Fi genre all together.
Thus the general consensus on the Hard vs. Soft distinction lies somewhere in the amount of science, it’s roots in the realistic science background, and the role it plays in the story. Say, if you were to extract the ‘science’ part from the fiction story resulting in it’s complete breakdown, – it is the hard kind. If you perform the same surgery on the story, and it still has somewhat of a plot to hang your hat on, well, it is more likely the soft kind.
One of the bloggers and Sci Fi enthusiasts goes even further, presenting the most purist approach to measuring the Sci Fi ‘hardness’:
“A work shouldn’t count as ScF unless the science is necessary to it. This takes aim at the many stories where, if you replaced the spaceships with covered wagons, the green skins with red ones, and the lasers with six-shooters, nobody could distinguish the resulting epic from a (usually rather poorly-written) Western. Indeed, I like to call such stories “Mars Westerns”. They are just adventure stories (or romance novels, or …) with high-tech props, resembling science fiction the way Hamlet resembles a history of Denmark. Given their resemblance to the subset of “historical fiction” that is just present-day fiction in an exotic setting, perhaps they could be called “future fiction”; I’ve also heard “space fantasy” and “space opera” used to refer to something similar.” – Treitel, R. (2006). The Treitel Family.
In practical terms, it is not easy to clearly differentiate between the ‘true’
hard Sci Fi, and the ‘Mars Westerns’. What about the ‘Battlestar Galactica‘? I can see how the space setting can be replaced with the Earth setting dealing with the struggle between different human colonies. What about ‘Sliders‘? The whole premise of the story is built around science theories of parallel universe, although even this setting could be replaced with the Wild Wild West and four lost travelers trying to find their way home. Finally, what about ‘Star Trek‘? When Gene Roddenberry presented the very first pilot episode, it was turned down, and among other things, it was accused of being “too cerebral”. TV production company did not think that so much science could ever catch on. Although now we know that ‘Star Trek‘ predicted an impressive amount of gadgets that are part of our daily life (e.g., cell phone and tablet), in many ways the exploration premise could be also placed somewhere on Earth. Another Gene Roddenberry’s creation, “Earth: Final Conflict“, features advanced alien civilization invading Earth, which probably would be difficult to replace with he ‘normal’ Earth characters. The problem is that the show features nearly no science, and whatever science is there, for all intents and purposes looks like magic. So aliens do not automatically qualify a story as a Sci Fi. But defined broadly, “Earth: Final Conflict“could be stretched to the soft Sci Fi, because of, you know, the aliens. As you can see, the purist approach to the genre boundaries is rather problematic.
The emerging genre of AI Fiction presents a difficult challenge for categorization because it commonly combines in equal proportions issues of science and ‘human condition’. The classic ‘Star Trek’ character Data is a blueprint for the genre. AI Fiction often falls somewhere in the triangle of science, drama and thriller. For example, in recent successful movies on the subject (‘Blade Runner’ (1982), ‘I Robot’ (2004), ‘Her‘ (2013), ‘Transcendence‘ (2014), ‘Ex Machina‘ (2015)), the authors attempt resolving the central question: ‘Would the true AI want to explore and achieve humanity, or rather exploit our humanity as our weakness?’
Back to the question of what is and what is not Sci Fi, I propose for the time being to include most of the AI Fiction to the Sci Fi genre, the defining criterion being if the story delves into the science part of it (‘Wall-E‘ being excluded because it does not deal with the scientific details). Also, by emphasizing ‘for the time being’, I mean that all the AI discussion is cutting edge today, and nearly all of it is a pretty hard science for us at this point. Let’s face it, many of us found out about the Turing Test from these very movies.