As the 2007 Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture , the Institute of Ideas hosted a panel called ‘From Star Wars to the Battle of Ideas: Is science fiction good for public debate?’ The question seemed to be: is SF good enough at communicating science to be useful ?
The panel members included academics in charge of science education programmes, experts in science education, a curator of museum events, Dr. Geeta Nargund a consultant in Reproductive Medicine who was an advisor on the film Children of Men and Dr Lizzie Burns of Hollywood Maths and Science Consulting.
I got to know about the event when Oliver Morton, then an editor at Nature magazine, emailed a number of people, me included, to point out that there were no SF writers on the panel.The description of the event online said, ‘Writers and filmmakers often take their inspiration from science and ask ‘what if…?’, but when it comes down to it, they have few qualms about ditching scientific accuracy in favour of gripping narrative.’
Most of the science fiction writers I know would take issue with that statement.
As science fiction authors we spend our lives working through issues of scientific authenticity in fiction. In a lecture honouring a SF author, not one was present on the panel. Why might that be? Had we done anything wrong?
Two months before, in March 2007 Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine had been released. To sum up the story: our sun starts to die, and a second mission is sent out to reignite it. Publicity for the film described the director’s efforts to be scientifically authentic, so there were expectations that it would be an intelligent SF thriller.
But despite long consultations with the University of Manchester’s own Professor Brian Cox, the film dismayed some critics: the sun dies billions of years too soon because a Q ball hits it (when it would have passed through it), as usual in films the ship whooshes past in a vacuum, and there were inaccuracies in the depiction of weightlessness and temperatures in space.
Most of these compromises would have gone unnoticed by audiences. Nevertheless, a columnist for The Times, Anjuna Anhana wrote, ‘Danny Boyle could have achieved the same level of scientific fidelity in Sunshine by giving a calculator to a schoolboy.’ Anthony Lane in The New Yorker wrote, ‘The film is nonsense, and what counts is whether viewers will feel able to lay aside their logical complaints and bask in what remains: a trip in search of a tan.’