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:
- Le Guin doesn’t say it is.
- It’s actually Le Guin saying that’s what some fictional astronomers thought.
- 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.