Speculative writing

There is a long and involved section of René Descartes’ A Discourse on the Method (self-published (as we would label the process now) in 1637) in which he discusses the workings of the heart (as in the organ, not an allusion to emotions; it is found in Part Five). Dense pages-long paragraphs describe in minute detail what valves are to be found where, their purpose, how much blood enters each chamber and what happens to it while there, where the blood is then sent after leaving the heart, how the whole process works and what the purpose of it all is. Needless to say he was wrong about quite a lot of it but we can admire his attempt. (Incidentally, William Harvey, whose account Descartes praises but differs with, is considered to have rightly set the stage for the picture provided by modern medicine.)

In working my way through all this, for little reason other than pure stubbornness, I started to think tangentially about speculative writing. Such is of course most common, but not limited to, the main strains of science fiction. Writers such as Frank Herbert and Hamish Spiers project a world vastly different from our own and give us stories about how the inhabitants of that world interact and pursue their goals within the confines of their situations. Often these stories will include imaginative technologies that are in some ways extensions of current technological developments and/or trends. (On some other types of science fiction than the very rough sketch of one type here see this post on Hamish’s site.) Like Descartes’ notions about the heart many of these descriptions will likely prove to be wrong, and perhaps fantastically so. Still, they provide the necessary setting for the events contained in the books, so does being wrong really matter?

Ours is an age obsessed with science and being empirically correct. We are reluctant to make claims that we can’t prove with observation and data and are prone to thinking that we “know” more from such methods than might actually be the case, a point I tried to raise when discussing recent research into the science of creativity here. This could well be to our detriment. By thinking only in terms of what is “known” and “provable” we significantly limit our field of view and, for this reason and others, can come to rely on technology as the answer for every one of our social ills. Human society is a creation that we are all continually contributing to and we do ourselves a disservice by allowing how we might choose to live to be hemmed in by contemporary circumstances or expectations. As for life, for writing.

Personally I applaud adventurous novels like those Hamish has written. As mentioned above, however the real world might come to look what is most important for the imagined futures (or pasts, or presents as occurring far, far away) in these works is the manner in which they contribute to the stories being told and the lives of the characters therein. The more imaginative, the more speculative we allow ourselves to be, and the more freely we cause our characters to act, the more we are able to explore what it is to be human – that is, to explore the workings of the heart.

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  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted February 26, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Interesting stuff, especially about Descartes. To address your question of whether or not it matters if a sci-fi writer ‘gets it right’ and predicts the future accurately, I’d say absolutely not. Most sci-fi writers are not trying to make a prophecy. Instead, they seek to explore a set of ideas and themes that happen to be set in a future world (often to make them possible). That’s not to say that most writers wouldn’t rather get the details that comprise their story-world correct, but it’s a secondary concern (and one they’ll probably never live to see one way or the other, depending on when the book is set).

    It can be interesting to look back, though. Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which became the movie Bladerunner) was set in 2021 and first published in 1968. He was pretty close with his central idea of AI and advanced humanoid robotics, but I doubt the hovercars will happen in the next five years (we can but hope). Furthermore, I’m pretty certain that Dick never believed in his wildest dreams that humans would’ve actually colonised Mars by then. Regarding smaller story details, after accurately foreseeing videocalls, Dick has Rick Deckard walking around with a much-thumbed paper catalogue – Sidney’s Animal & Fowl – stuffed inside his coat pocket. It seems that the smart phone took everyone by surprise. To bring things full circle, Phillip K Dick chose the name Rick Deckard as a play on the name René Descartes.

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted February 26, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Very cool! For my part I’d agree that being wrong absolutely does not matter, what does matter is how the characters react to their setting and each other given the world they inhabit. It’s a platform for the ideas, as you say and as the above has it. And what wonderful things have been done through such explorations.

    On the topic of being right, by the way, how about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Designer babies seem just around the corner, and from there it’s a small step to engineered generations if corporations are allowed to claim intellectual property rights over all their genetic tinkering. Only of course robots will be doing the labor and not legions of made-to-fit dimwits… Which dystopia would be worse? (Admitting that there are those who argue Huxley’s book is in fact a utopian vision, whatever the author himself thought (his answer to Brave New World being Island).)

    It’s always fun to discuss this stuff; thanks much for the detailed comment.

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