Favorite science fiction classics (I)

Below I briefly describe some of my favorite science fiction novels, in no particular order, together with some of the reasons why I love these books.

Soon to come: how the experience of science fiction writers can help us write better scientific articles, so stay tuned.

This is the story of Lazarus Long, who by chance of genetics (and selection for longevity)  basically is immortal and at the start of the story is about 2000 years old (and the ancestor of a large part of the human population of the inhabited galaxy). The book can be read on different levels and if read as just an adventure story, provides ample diversion and amusement. On a deeper level, the book has more to offer. Once the more liberal mores of the Sixties allowed it, Heinlein started exploring the bases and boundaries of our traditional morals. Where Stranger in a Strange Land addressed religion and even cannibalism, this book is about love, not skirting touchy issues like incest. The book contains many challenging ideas. Let me give just one example from the many that fill this book to the brim. At one point the main character gets cloned, but with an original twist: his clones are female because they got two copies of his X chromosome. When his clones fall in love with Lazarus, we are faced with serious moral questions. As always, Heinlein doesn’t fail to challenge the reader. As a hard-core libertarian, it should be no surprise that Heinlein’s ideas of what is permissible between consenting adults diverge rather drastically from those of most people. But agree with him or not, he does make one think, which is what a good book should do. It made me reflect a lot about the concept of sin and what is right or wrong. My personal conclusion was that sin is when you harm somebody else and this harm could have been avoided by your (in)action. Time Enough for Love provides food for thought, much thought, almost enough for a lifetime.

Although Schmitz is perhaps best known for his short stories, I personally love his writing most because of two novels. The Demon Breed (1968) is a true space adventure and, although skillfully written, not a high flyer. The earlier The Witches of Karres, however, is a completely different caliber. I remember reading it for the first time and I still wish that it would be possible to read it for the first time again! It’s unadulterated space opera, but not an ordinary one. It’s a crazy book, but fun crazy. From the main character’s home planet (“Nikkeldepain”) to the invaders from another universe (“Worm Weather”), to the magic beings (” vatches”) governed by mysterious klatha energy, this book is big fun from beginning to the end. Sure, it’s not grounded in any real science, which usually for me is a big no-no, but if you are having as much fun as this book provides, who cares?

I read this book shortly after it came out and it was one of the first LeGuin novels that I read (the first one having been City of Illusions). It is part of the Hainish Cycle, a number of novels that are set in the same universe. The novel plays on a cold world, named Gethen. In a poetic way and a style that was completely new and fresh, Le Guin describes the world and its climate and, more importantly, its inhabitants. Although never confirmed with certainty, it appears that the Gethenians are the result of a genetic experiment to create a human race adapted to the severe climatic conditions of Gethen. Besides some obvious metabolic modifications, the most important difference between Gethenians and the rest of humanity is that they are sequential hermaphrodites: most of the time they are neuter and not interested in sex, but once every month they become sexually receptive and in a complex interaction with their sexual partner differentiate into either a male or a female form. They have no predisposition to being male or female and the same individual can be the father of one child and the mother of another. Being androgynous most of the time obviously has implications for a society that is much less focused on sex than ours. Le Guin was not the first to describe a society made up of human hermaphrodites (Theodore Sturgeon‘s 1960 Venus Plus X may have been the first), but this novel is deeper and more poetic than anything that came before. Again a novel that makes you think: by describing an alien, albeit human, society, Le Guin stimulates us to reflect on our own society, and its morals, conventions, and idiosyncrasies.


Postscript: All of the above works were written in the sixties and seventies of the last century. That does not mean that I don’t like contemporary science fiction. On the contrary, I think that some of the stuff produced nowadays far surpasses anything written before, even in the Golden Age. But the above books I read in my formative years and they have stayed with me my whole life. Several of them have influenced my life in a very real ways. Not because I wanted to emulate anything in these books, but because they made me think and showed me that many things that I took for granted were, perhaps, not as self-evident as I thought. In a future post, or more likely several posts, I’ll discuss some contemporary novels and writers that I particularly like.

The science in fiction: From gravity to microbiota

When talking about the science in science fiction, we often concentrate on technology or cultural developments that were correctly predicted in a novel. Of course, we all know that science fiction is not written to come up with correct predictions about the future, but comparing older novels with current developments is fun, nonetheless. At least as much fun is the opposite: where did novels get it completely wrong and why. One of the earliest examples is of course Jules Verne‘s De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon; 1865) in which three explorers are sent on a voyage to the moon aboard a “spaceship” that basically is a huge hollow bullet, fired from a gigantic cannon. Apart from the possibility (or, rather, impossibility) of such a launch mechanism, the novel contains a big mistake that nowadays even a kid in high school will immediately spot: the travelers are subjected to gravity all the way to the point where the gravitational fields of Earth and Moon cancel each other out and then experience a short period of weightlessness. After this their capsule turns around and they are henceforth subjected to the gravity of the moon. However, while the physics of the late 19th century certainly would have been able to predict accurately the weightlessness that the travelers would have experienced throughout the trip (apart from a brief moment at launch), it is easy to see how Verne could have made this mistake. Even much later, in the 1960s, even educated writers got much wrong about acceleration and the effects of its presence or absence. Hugh Walters (and not just him, either) had his astronauts lose consciousness at every launch because of the g-forces they were subjected to, for example.

Another mistake that probably only few people have noticed (mainly because the book is much less popular than Verne’s) is Robert A. Heinlein‘s Sixth Column (1941). It’s far from Heinlein’s best, but, then, even Heinlein’s weaker books are always worth a read. It was published almost a year before Pearl Harbor and portrays a future in which Japan and China are unified under a common emperor as “Pan Asia” and on a conquering spree. After annexing India, they take on the United States and after an apparently rather brief war occupy the country. The story follows a group of researchers hidden in a secret base in the Rocky Mountains who, just at the moment of surrender, discover a new powerful weapon. It is based on a kind of hitherto unknown radiation (not from the common electromagnetic spectrum, but from spectra resulting from different combinations of electrical, magnetic, and/or gravitational forces). These new types of radiations can have several effects, ranging from inducing severe fear to killing specifically some groups of organisms, while leaving others unharmed. Indeed, the researchers get on the trail of this weapon at the start of the novel when a mishap kills almost all people in the base, but not their laboratory mice and rats.

Later on as the story unfolds, one of the scientists realizes that the weapon can also be used for good, namely to cure infectious diseases. To put this to the test, he infects himself with anthrax and then heals himself by using the appropriate radiation to kill the anthrax bacteria. In fact, he also notices that a heavy head cold also disappears and realizes that by killing all microorganisms in his body, he has significantly improved his overall health. When I read this in the middle 70s or so, I already knew that this was incorrect: killing all his gut bacteria would at least have caused some digestive problems for this brave self-experimenting researcher… By now, of course, we know that such a treatment would have much more profound effects.

Recent research has revealed that the composition of our microbiota can influence almost anything you can think of. Having the right gut microorganisms may provide children with a more adaptive response to malnutrition (see also here). And your gut microflora may influence your susceptibility to psychiatric disorders such as depression. Of course, there is no way that Heinlein could have foreseen any of this, as microbiology was just in its infancy at that time: the first antibiotic, penicillin, had been discovered only a decade earlier and did not come into general use until more than a year after Sixth Column was published.

The discovery that our gut bacteria influence our brain and affect things like mood and such was probably a surprise for many people, even neuroscientists who have rightly described this finding as a paradigm shift. In retrospect, as with so many things, it’s much less surprising of course. We habitually try to influence our psychological state by using chemicals, be they recreational drugs or psychopharmaca like antidepressants. That different gut microorganisms, by producing different chemicals (or different quantities of the same chemicals) eventually entering our bloodstream, influence our psychological state is therefore perhaps unexpected, but not really too surprising. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, this has made the view that our behavior is molded by our genes in interaction with environmental influences even more simplistic than it already was. After epigenetics, now our microflora adds additional complexity. And just like genotype and environment complicate things by displaying complex interactions and covariations, it is to be expected that effects of our microbiota will depend on our genes and our environment (and any combination thereof), making things even more complicated. It really makes one wonder, given the current state of our knowledge, about the chances for success for the hugely expensive Human Brain Project.

Given the state of science in 1941, we should probably also credit Heinlein with some insights that were ahead of his time. In the same staff meeting where the above-mentioned scientist confesses to having infected himself with anthrax, the commander next directs the discussion to how best to use their discoveries for propaganda. The head scientist leaves the meeting disgustedly: he’s only interested in science, clearly implying that social science is not real science. In response, the commander reflects on why mass psychology, and psychology in general, would not be a valid field of scientific inquiry. One of the biologists knows the answer to that one: psychology is not a science, because it is too difficult. In a time when experimental psychology was still in its infancy, that’s quite a remarkable insight. In fact, given the above remarks about genes, microbiota, interactions, and what not, things are quite more complex than even Heinlein could have thought. Despite all the advances that we have made since the 1940s and the concomitant improvements in, for example, mental health, we are not at risk to be out of a job anytime soon, as we are still far from understanding how our brains work.

As I have said before: good science fiction makes you think