Science and Le Guin Part 1

Patrolling, as I do, the accursed realms of Science Fiction interwebbery, I happened across a post at Castalia House Blog entitled “You Don’t Need to Know Science to Write Science Fiction…But it Helps!” Given that they are a blog of a far-right publisher and also one that regards the 1920s as the peak of science fiction it is reasonable to assume that the “science” bit is going to go awry.

The piece starts boldly enough:

“Contrary to the genre’s title, most authors writing science fiction know less about science than a curious twelve year-old. Even more surprisingly, one can still write good, even great SF with this impediment! And I note this as a professional scientist who loves “hard science” works. While this might seem like great news for the hoard of hacks out there, including those with philosophy degrees from the University of Chicago, this is indeed a severe handicap, and makes the writer’s task tougher, not easier.”

And then goes on to patronisingly praise Harry Harrison on the grounds that his humour managed to cover up his apparent failings in science (and just one more reminder – this is from a blog that thinks SF has been going downhill since Edgar Rice Burroughs stopped writing).  The writer doesn’t provide examples of SF writers whose scientific credentials they find admirable, so it isn’t clear what they regard as sufficiently good uses of science but each to their own. It isn’t unreasonable to want more overt (and correct) science in one’s fiction.

The next step is where things go very wonky:

‘Another example, albeit not as successful, is that of Ursula Le Guin.  She knew even less about science than Harrison did, as her education was limited to Rennaissance French and Italian literature.  In fact, her profile on Infogalactic humorously notes that “She was interested in biology and poetry, but found math difficult.”’

Snideness aside, it is not uncommon to find people for whom maths is difficult – even people who are good at maths find maths difficult. Also, the proprietor of Castalia House does not regard maths as their strong point. Now, I don’t think Le Guin’s works are impeccably scientific but I’ve never noted them being especially UNscientific compared to other science fiction. If anything, I’ve found her portrayal of scientists quite convincing.

However, we are given examples:

“In The Lathe of Heaven, written in 1970, she predicts that large cities will be ravaged by scurvy, typhus, and hepatitis in the year 2000.  The first two diseases had virtually been eradicated, with no signs of resurgence, when she wrote the work.  She also claims that it would take the atmosphere “several hundred years to get rid of the CO2”.  While I understand Le Guin found math difficult, if humans completely stopped producing CO2, it would take 9-12 days for the atmosphere to rid itself of the amount presently there.  Or, if you believe global warm…err “climate change” hysterics, it will take…several years.  A few hundred years is baseless ignorance.

Her famous The Left Hand of Darkness contains one of the dumbest scientific claims I have read in the genre. Le Guin tells us that the night sky in Gethen is dark because of an expanding universe. Firstly, their night sky wouldn’t be completely dark considering they’re less than 100 light-years from Earth, which means most the stars we can see from here would show up in their night sky. (We can presently see stars some 3,200 light years away with the naked eye) Secondly, the concepts are largely unrelated unless this story takes place billions of years from the present day, which it does not.”

This is a delightful ball of error: errors in reading, science and basic understanding.

I will save one of the errors (on CO2) for part 2 because the science is worth discussing in more detail. The other two I’ll address now.

The Lathe of Heaven: “She predicts that large cities will be ravaged by scurvy, typhus, and hepatitis in the year 2000” 

The Lathe of Heaven is an unusual novel for Le Guin, one which resembles the work of her former schoolmate Philip K Dick. The novel starts in a dystopian Portland in the Year 2000 and indeed mentions a variety of diseases running rampant in the cities. Firstly in Chapter 1 a medic treating the main character for radiation sickness says:

“You know there’s two hundred sixty kids in that one complex suffering from kwashiorkor? All low-income or Basic Support families, and they aren’t getting protein…

…I go give ‘em Vitamin C shots and try to pretend that starvation is just scurvy…”

And later in Chapter 3 the state of the cities in North America are described as:

“Undernourishment, overcrowding, and pervading foulness of the environment were the norm. There was more scurvy, typhus and hepatitis in the Old Cities, more gang violence, crime, and murder in the New Cities.”

So yes, the novel does feature these diseases in the Year 2000. However, these are not ‘eliminated’ diseases but ones related to malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions. Le Guin didn’t ‘predict’ these diseases just popping back up in an affluent society but instead was using them in a dystopian setting. The Lathe of Heaven doesn’t claim to be a piece of futurological prediction. How do we know that? Because the novel is ABOUT alternative futures and its central conceit is a man whose dreams cause changes in reality.

When the novel starts, the protagonist has already been inadvertently causing changes to reality since he was at least 16. So, no, not a novel meant to be a definite prediction about the year 2000. Even so, was it grossly unscientific to think in 1970 that maybe things would get shittier? If so then it is a crime many other SF writers would have committed. Weirdly, having already discussed Harry Harrison, the post doesn’t mention Harrison’s book Make Room, Make Room which imagines a not dissimilar crap-sack world for 1999.

Nor is it the case that scurvy has actually been eradicated. While still uncommon, diseases linked to poverty and malnutrition continue to exist in the US (for scurvy see here http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/90/5/1252.long ) and diseases more associated with countries without modern healthcare pose serious risks to many poorer Americans including Chagas disease, cysticercosis, toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis, and trichomoniasis (see here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4154650/ ) Typhus is rare but has not been eradicated in the US (see https://www.cdc.gov/typhus/epidemic/index.html ) and in the conditions Le Guin describes in her imagined world could easily spread.

Oddly there are weaker aspects of The Lathe of Heaven the writer could have picked on. He does go onto to target one reference to global warming (which I’ll discuss in part 2) but doesn’t mention that the book assumes the warming would occur much more quickly leaving even Mount Erebus in Antarctica without an icy peak.

Left Hand of Darkness and Olber’s Paradox

I didn’t have a copy of the Left Hand of Darkness to hand but it isn’t hard to spot a weird strawman:

“Firstly, their night sky wouldn’t be completely dark…”

The claim is about the night sky being “dark” – well the night sky IS dark. It’s dark on Earth – that’s sort of a defining feature of nighttime. So the blog writer does a little shift to “completely dark’ and then goes off on how that would be impossible.

So did Le Guin really say that the night sky on Gethen is completely dark without stars? No. Here’s Genly Ai recalling waking from a bad dream on Gethen:

“I ended up in an open field, standing in dry stubble by a black hedge. The dull-red half-moon and some stars showed through clouds overhead. The wind was bitter cold.”

And here discussing near-by and far away systems to Gethen:

“We are seventeen light-years here from the nearest Ekumenical World, Ollul, a planet of the star you call Asyomse; the farthest is two hundred and fifty light-years away and you cannot even see its star.”

And later in the book:

“We seemed to get strength from going, and we went fast and easy. We went that day till the stars came out.”

So what the flip is he going on about?

Chapter 12 of the book starts with a lengthy excerpt from a fictional text “The Sayings of Tuhulme the High Priest, a book of the Yomesh Canon, composed in North Orgoreyn about 900 years ago.” That fictional text from an alien culture includes this section:

“In the answering of the Question of the Lord of Shorth, in the moment of the Seeing, Meshe saw all the sky as if it were all one sun. Above the earth and under the earth all the sphere of sky was bright as the sun’s surface, and there was no darkness. For he saw not what was, nor what will be, but what is. The stars that flee and take away their light all were present in his Eye, and all their light shone presently.” LeGuin, Ursula K.. The Left Hand of Darkness (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (pp. 163-164). Orion. Kindle Edition.

That section, in turn, is followed by a note, which says:

This is a mystical expression of one of the theories used to support the expanding-universe hypothesis, first proposed by the Mathematical School of Sith over four thousand years ago and generally accepted by later cosmologists, even though meteorological conditions on Gethen prevent their gathering much observational support from astronomy. The rate of expansion (Hubble’s constant; Rerherek’s constant) can, in fact, be estimated from the observed amount of light in the night sky; the point here involved is that, if the universe were not expanding, the night sky would not appear to be dark.

So no, not a claim that the night sky of Gethen is completely devoid of stars but a reference to Olbers’ Paradox which is exactly about why the night sky is dark. Note “dark” does not mean “devoid of stars” because it obviously DOES NOT MEAN THAT fer goodness sake.

Now is the redshift from an expanding universe the full solution to Olber’s paradox? No, but:

  1. Le Guin doesn’t say it is.
  2. It’s actually Le Guin saying that’s what some fictional astronomers thought.
  3. And actually, it’s Le Guin saying that in reference to an equally fictional mystic poet’s analogy.

Is it completely accurate? No, but it’s not bad and requires a willful misreading to think it says something “pseudoscientific”.

Part 2 tomorrow.

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50 comments

  1. delagar

    I love the claim about Le Guin’s education being “limited to Rennaissance French and Italian literature.” There speaks someone who has no idea how education actually works.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Mark

    So, yeah, scurvy isn’t caused by a pathogen and therefore isn’t eliminatable. Hepatitis can have non-pathogen causes and so couldn’t be completely eliminated either. Typhus has various animal vectors so I doubt it’ll be close to eradication anytime soon.

    Ignoring the CH dumbness, how many diseases have actually been eradicated? Wiki tells me smallpox and something called rinderpest. Basically anything could make a comeback, including smallpox if you wrote a decent explanation why – there’s some paranoia about whether strains of it could have survived somewhere hence why we’re keeping the last samples locked up, so I’d even accept a SFnal explanation for it being back.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Ken J.

    LeGuin is the daughter of two prominent anthropologists, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber. I suspect she was marinated in anthropology when she was growing up. Social sciences probably don’t count as science over at Castalia House.

    I’m surprised that Castalia House does not respect LeGuin’s Hainish books for their respect of the speed of light as a traveling speed limit. Castalia doesn’t publish any books involving FTL drives, do they? 🙂

    Spoiler warning for a book from 1970: My recollection of “The Lathe of Heaven” is that George’s first reality-changing dream (told in flashback) was to escape the horror of imminent extinction after to a nuclear war. All the alternative realities after that were the product of the dreams.

    (My usual spiel about “Lathe”: it’s different from LeGuin’s other work in that the setting(s) is near-future. It’s also a blazingly fast story. I’m surprised adventure story fans can’t pick up on the duel between George and his psychiatrist, leading to the final showdown in a crumbling reality.)

    Liked by 3 people

      • Andrew

        The aunt one is the earliest one that he describes to the psychiatrist, but I think the nuclear war one was actually earlier in his life, but too horrible (and too vague, since he was a very young child at the time) (I could be wrong – it’s been decades since I’ve read it).

        Like

  4. greghullender

    Yale has a good article explaining how CO2 gets reabsorbed. If we stopped all human CO2 emissions (well, not counting breathing), about 50% of the total excess in the atmosphere would be absorbed in 50 years, and 70% in 100 years. 80% in 300 years, and the last 20% needs maybe 35,000 to 100,000 years.

    A number like 9-12 days is purely dishonest. There’s no way to get a number like that other than just making it up. The usual pseudo-scientific arguments still end up with three or four years.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. KR

    Well, it would seem that in the CH universe one doesn’t have to know to function with proper spelling and grammar to be a publisher-blogger either. Ouch.

    With all this Gab lawsuit business, the “free speech” sleight of hand, the utter failure to comprehend that a dilettante playing at controversy is going to be devoured by much nastier and bigger forces sooner rather than later, and now reading these sorts of lame assertions .. it really does seem ironic that they mock the idea of safe spaces. CH-world is very clearly a safe space. I guess it would be unscientific to call it hermetically-sealed safe space though. So. Much. Science! Science tells us…! According to the science! Can’t argue with science! Ciencia para todos!

    By the way, I saw last week that hookworm has made a resurgence in the US South, yet another utter condemnation of what we’ve let ourselves become. A disease of extreme poverty and insanitation.
    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/05/hookworm-lowndes-county-alabama-water-waste-treatment-poverty

    PS — To add some levity so I’m not a total buzzkill nowadays, if you haven’t seen former Mexican Pres Vicente Fox’s videos to Domald Tromp, do google and watch on YouTube. They are hilariously snarky with talk of the border wall and the dark web and all sorts of vicious jokes (“President of the Electoral College of America”, “Thank you, goat”). It’s a measure of our topsy-turvy, fun-house mirror world that a neo-liberal NAFTA Coca Cola corporate magnate ex-president is now a voice of humour and harsh critic of the void crabs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • camestrosfelapton

      Yes, the hookworm example was I meant to put in there. While the situation described in Lathe of Heaven hasn’t come to pass, the declining health and return of diseases due to poverty is a definite thing. Le Guin had clearly done some homework there (unlike the blogger) and had highlighted diseases that would become more prevalent with overcrowding and malnutrition.

      Like

    • KR

      BTW: about the typos — i like blog typos! Lots of them! I just think that if one has a blog associated with a business enterprise devoted to the printed and pixelated word, one should take more care with the language, that’s all. Especially if one is going to take a jab at one of the “hoard” of hacks with philosophy degrees from Chicago (who could that possibly be?)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The Mighty Routemaster

    Delurking (I feel there ought to be some sort shimmery special effect typeface for this sort of thing)…

    As someone with a maths degree which ended up including a large chunk of the philosophy and history of science, I’ve generally found SF stories that care too much about science fail as fiction, which is a worse crime in a literary genre. Which is not to say that poorly-written stories are always ineffective but there does have to be something there: I’ve always enjoyed H.P. Lovecraft’s stories (even if they’re not quite Science Fiction but belong to a cyclopean, non-Euclidean sister clade, of disturbing, almost batrachian, aspect) and I’d argue that they’d be less effective if Lovecraft had been a better writer. And, frankly, if I want to read accurate science I’ll read actual science, if only because the prose is better than attempting-to-be-accurate SF.

    Liked by 5 people

    • camestrosfelapton

      I like stories with lots of actual science in them or stories about scientists being scientists e.g. dramas based on actual events. Of course without a fictional element to the science (which necessarily means the book contains a scientific un-truth) it is unclear whether the story IS science fiction. Now I’m generous in my categorization and say such stories are if they contain other SF elements but others, quite reasonably disagree. [Indeed there was some slightly heated discussion over whether the film Hidden Figures counted as SF earlier here – I said it did but I was on shaky ground! 🙂 ]

      Liked by 2 people

      • delagar

        camestrosfelapton, you should read Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl if you can get ahold of it — not SF, but about scientists being scientists, and wonderful.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Mark

      I think that’s a Scooby Doo effect for the delurk.

      Although some of the scientist-writers are my genre heroes (Asimov for a start) we really need the writer-scientists first. As you say, if the story and/or writing is dire, what’s the point of the rest? Asimov was fairly ordinary at certain elements of his craft, and his excellence in other areas pulled him through, but if he’d been genuinely terrible at dialogue or plotting or something then he wouldn’t have been a great.

      I’m sure others will argue for a minimum standard in science as well, but for me the difference is that a writer can research and enlist experts to get the science right (or the history, or geography, or whatever) but you can’t fix terrible writing that way.

      Liked by 3 people

      • camestrosfelapton

        Yes, I don’t need The Broken Earth trilogy to get every geology detail right or have major info-dumps on plate tectonics but rather Jemisin get’s it right by making the geology feel right and grounded (sorry) in a real physical planet.

        Liked by 3 people

      • The Mighty Routemaster

        There’s a limit to the amount of science bending that I’ll accept before my disbelief ceases to be suspended and the quality of the writing is part of that process but poor writing can stop me reading even before that kicks in. I’ve always felt that the short story was the natural format for early science fiction simply because Asimov and co didn’t have the technique to build novels but had enough to keep me engaged while the central idea is worked out. I don’t know if I can read Asimov now, actually, simply because my standards have been shifted by my reading over the last thirty-five or so years. The crucial point was reading La Peste by Camus in A level French and twigging (or being that there might be more than just a story going on. I don’t get the impression that the various Puppies* have read much outside SF, even if at least one of the associated authors appears to desperately want to be Chesterton.

        *My knowledge of the various Puppy groupuscules is hazy and second- or third-hand. I do know enough, though, to know that they shouldn’t try to write Latin.

        Liked by 6 people

      • JJ

        Mark-kitteh: I’m sure others will argue for a minimum standard in science as well, but for me the difference is that a writer can research and enlist experts to get the science right (or the history, or geography, or whatever) but you can’t fix terrible writing that way.

        I’m the same. I prefer a story to have good science in it — but I’m quite willing to overlook a bit of dodgy or handwavy science, if the story is engrossing and the characters seem real to me. But it won’t matter how good the science is, if the plot and characterization aren’t well done, I’m not going to enjoy the book.

        Two recent examples:
        At the Speed of Light by Simon Morden: A novella about how a near-light-speed vehicle might work, with an uploaded mind as an AI and adaptable drones, and the technical aspects of relativity and maneuvering at such a speed. Interesting, but the plot, such as it is, is just set dressing for the technical aspects. I’m not sorry I read it, but I can’t enthuse about it either. I gave it 3.5 stars.

        The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi: A novel positing a pretty-much-unbelievable phenomenon of interstellar “jetstreams” which permit FTL travel among distant star systems. But the story and characters are such rollicking great fun that I enjoyed it massively and didn’t mind the handwavery. I gave it 4+ stars and will happily pick up any sequels.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Lurkertype

      @Mighty Routemaster (hello!): Most Puppies haven’t even read widely *inside* SF. Back when they were eulogizing Heinlein as the One True SF Dude, they hadn’t read either his early or late work. Not even “Starship Troopers”, FFS.

      But apparently good ol’ RAH is far too newfangled now, having started writing after WWI.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ken J.

    “I don’t get the impression that the various Puppies have read much outside SF…” This is one of the dramatic changes in SF fandom from the old days. It used to be (1930s-1960s maybe) that most fans could read ALL the SF published — the magazines and a handful of novels — and have plenty of time left for reading outside the genre.

    Now it’s entirely possible to lose oneself entirely in Military SF, or dragon stories, or epic fantasy, or some other part of the genre

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cora

    Psst, it’s Olbers’ paradox, named after German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers who hails from my hometown BTW. There is a statue dedicated to him in the city park and the planetarium is named after him.

    Regarding the CH post, I find it telling that the author gives Harry Harrison a pass for his alleged lack of scientific knowledge (and also manages to completely ignore Harrison novels such as “Make Room, Make Room” that don’t support his point), but attacks Ursula K. Le Guin and Mary Robinette Kowal (specifically “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”) and several unnamed writers of “space romance” for the same alleged lack of scientific knowledge. Gee, I wonder what else all those writers have in common aside from having dared to study subjects CH bloggers do not approve of.

    Liked by 6 people

  9. lampwick

    Typhus and hepatitis both appeared in the concentration camps, due to poor hygiene and malnutrition.

    And yes, it’s obvious that they’re being extra-picky about Le Guin because she’s a woman. Women can’t do science, everybody knows that, so the science in their novels is gone over with a fine-toothed comb while male authors get a pass.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Space Oddity

      A woman who’s written books about women, and gayness, and all sorts of “not in my science fiction” issues for Castalia House’s resident mansplainers.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Pingback: Science and Le Guin Part 2 | Camestros Felapton
  11. StefanB

    Only about hepatitis because that one is a bit personal.
    My mother had to have a vaccination against it because she was in a high risk job. If I did understand her right that continued after 1970.
    Okay Germany could be cautious but that points to Le-Guin beeing right. (Among a lot of other thinks)

    About the pass: While a would easier give that to older works, today getting the right infos should be easy. So no one for Castalia House. (if you would give them one anyway)

    About the other topic: Yes bad science can hurt a story, there are cases were that is pretty obvious. (I don’t know which writer stated that pi=3 in his book) Like bad history, bad logic…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cora

      Hepatitis vaccinations are still given in Germany (and elsewhere, I asume) for people who have a heightened risk of infection, e.g. medical personnel, some people working in the food industry and people travelling to certain countries. I was vaccinated against hepatitis as a child due to travelling.

      There is also an information campaign with TV spots, etc… currently running in Germany about hepatitis C, against which there is no vaccine yet. So yes, hepatitis is definitely still an issue in current times.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lurkertype

        I think medical personnel get vaccinated against Hep A and B in most places.
        There’s a cure for C, but it’s ruinously expensive, which wouldn’t happen in a crapsack world either. And it only works 90-98% of the time.

        Like

      • Cora

        Well, we have universal healthcare (the horror), hence an information campaign about Hepatitis C, including an appeal to talk to your doctor and get tested, if you think you might have it.

        Like

    • KasaObake

      From the UK, and I had my hep A/B shot recently because I travel quite a bit for fun/work, usually to SE Asia. I was led to believe, at the time of getting the shot, that hepatitis of varying sorts was a worldwide issue and it’s generally better to get the shot than not. Especially if you do stupid things like regularly haul yourself up cliff faces or something.

      And yes, there’s no vaccine for Hep C which is the one you’re likeliest to get if you get a tattoo somewhere like Indonesia (apparently).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Techgrrl1972

        If there is no vaccine for Hep C, what is this ‘Harvoni’ I see advertised every day on my tv machine? Also, my doctor tells me it is suggested that people of my age (boomers) get vaccinated against Hepatitis for some reason. I’ve been tested and am negative, but still …

        Liked by 1 person

      • KasaObake

        A quick glance at their website indicates that it’s a treatment for if you’ve contracted hep C, whereas a vaccine would be more a preventative measure.

        Like

  12. katster

    A few comments without me having read through all of them.

    1) Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C. Hence why British sailors were called ‘limeys’, for the amount of limes sent with them to conbat scurvy. And as for it not happening in modern times, I had a test come back where 10-25 is low, and 26 is normal for Vit C? I pulled a 9.

    2) They’re seriously worried about a typhus epidemic in Houston right now.

    3) Someone did mention this above, but LeGuin’s father (and where the K in her name comes from), is Alfred Krober, the guy that studied Ishi, the last of the Yama tribe. (There’s all sorts of arguments we could make on the ethicality of that, but CH wouldn’t care, they’re sure to think of the whole argument as PC bullshit.) Anyway, Kroeber is a big enough figure on the UC Berkeley campus, that the anthropology building is named for him.

    -kat

    Liked by 3 people

    • Lurkertype

      I came across a copy of one of his books in a giveaway and snapped that up. Dated, but still cogent.

      Rickets is another thing which has come back. With kids staying indoors all the time, plus not drinking fortified milk, they aren’t getting enough vitamin D (Human breast milk doesn’t have enough vit. D for baby humans, which is a mild evolutionary fail or a major goddidit fail).

      And of course bacteria get more and more resistant to antibiotics every day.

      Like

      • Jenora Feuer

        Heck, scurvy is a mild evolutionary fail. Most mammals can produce their own vitamin C (or at least their own ascorbate) and don’t require outside sources. Lots of primates (including humans), most bats, and guinea pigs and capybaras of all things can’t produce it themselves, and so need to eat it to get what they need. (Yes, guinea pigs can get scurvy.)

        So we have at least three different points at which the ability to self-produce ascorbate failed with the results that three different evolutionary families must eat a particular compound to keep their metabolisms running correctly.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. JohnBPuzzle

    I can’t come up with the reference, but I remember finding an essay on the importance of getting your science facts correct in SF, and I’m pretty sure it was written by Le Guin. This was in the late 1990s, in ANALOG or FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. My copy is boxed up and buried in storage.

    Also saw her at a reading where she hilariously shot down a fawning New Ager who was mistaken in thinking that her fantasy novels indicated that she advocated New Age woo-woo.

    Liked by 3 people