THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (2): the end of technological progress

Continuing his survey of arguments tending to establish that science fiction has come to an end, Nader Elhefnawy turns to a supposed deceleration of technological progress:

we are constantly told that we live in an age of unprecedented rapid technological change….However, a simple consideration of the technologies of daily life is enough to cast doubt on this “futurehype.” Electric lights, air conditioning, central heating, indoor plumbing, and most of the electrical appliances now standard in the modern home (like the vacuum cleaner, washing machine, and refrigerator) were in wide use before 1940. So were the skyscraper, the movie, the phone, the car, the radio, and the airplane (while the first jet engines were demonstrated in the late 1930s). Television was invented in 1928, and the first broadcasts occurred just a few years later.

It seems safe to say that the 60 years that followed did not see nearly as much change, at least where daily life is concerned.

I think that this approach to technology in terms of lists may make us lose the wood for the trees, individual inventions are details springing up within more general trends and paradigms. History is scanded by technological revolutions, from the Stone Age through the Bronze and Iron ages on to the industrial revolution and now the digital revolution. All of these have had profound and far-reaching effects not just on our social organisation but also on our very psyche.

We still cannot teleport macroscopic objects, or build faster than light spaceships, or even construct viable cities under the sea. But we are living through a technological revolution, whether it leads to AI or to the Singularity or not. The ultimate consequences of the digital revolution are still far in the future but the inventivity here is certainly not drying up. This is a technological phylum that was foreseen by some earlier science fiction, but its impact on our lives and on our manners of thinking has yet to be fully explored.

More generally, there is no reason to insist that the only possible inspiration for science fiction must come from the extrapolation of a limited set of canonical technological themes and tendencies.

We still have not seen what sort of technological changes the ongoing development of the life sciences can produce. Octavia Butler in her XENOGENESIS TRILOGY describes an alien species whose technology is based on genetics rather than machines. I think this is a good anticipation for what is in store for us in the future, and that the sequencing of the human genome heralds a new beginning rather than an end.

Cyberpunk was a preliminary attempt inside science fiction to extrapolate from the digital and biological technologies, but it is by no means the last word in these domains. Kim Stanley Robinson’s AURORA unites these two sources of inspiration in a very different way than cyberpunk did, allying them to another rising field of applied sciences derived from climatology.

I think that the two aspects of the end of science noted by Horgan and by Elhefnawy, of the existence of inherent limits to scientific progress and of the qualitative deceleration of technological progress are not totally wrong, something is ending. However, they do not adequately diagnose and describe the change. What is coming to an end is an overarching “meta-paradigm”, or episteme (in Foucault’s sense), regulating the various scientific and technological paradigms to which we have been habituated. We are seeing a move from an episteme based on unity to one based on disunity and plurality, and a corresponding move from transcendence to immanence. This is where Elhefnawy’s concern for a third aspect of the end of science, the menace of relativism and of irrationalism, finds its source.

In science fiction we can see this move in various guises in the work of Peter Hamilton (the Void Trilogy), Kim Stanley Robinson (AURORA), and Neal Stephenson (ANATHEM). These works of science fiction contain an explicit repudiation of transcendence and of its limiting, and sometimes devastating, consequences.

For those who cling to the old episteme based on the existence of transcendent truth this movement can seem to spell the end of science, of philosophy, or of science fiction. But if we can get used to seeing in terms of a more diffuse and more modest perspective, we may discover that it is not a death but a transformation and a diversification.

History (and thus also society) is coming to be seen as much less homogeneous and much more complex than previously imagined. This complexification of our vision of history includes technological and scientific history. It involves also a complexification of our philosophical vision, as we move even further from Platonic transcendence in theory and practice, without giving in to relativist hyper-tolerance.

I have cited AURORA and ANATHEM as examples of a more general tendency towards immanence and pluralism that traverses philosophy, physics, and science fiction. This tendency produces its own dangers, in particular the risk of irrationalism.

Given that our overarching paradigm or image of thought is no longer monism (Platonism) how can we avoid falling into the multiplication and uncritical celebration of meaningless language games (relativism)?

The multiplication of scientific and philosophical worlds at the level of the content of our theories and of our imaginative models mirrors the multiplication of formalisms and of language games at the meta-level. How can we accomodate both the plasticity of the real, which allows for multiple interpretations and ways of life, with its resistance, that selects out only a few possibilities as valid and viable?

Elhefnawy poses the problem very clearly:

A world in which science is diminished in standing and interest for the general public is necessarily one in which a fiction with roots in science suffers. No less importantly, it makes for a very different attitude to the future, and especially the “capital F Future,” than the one that has enabled science fiction to flourish.

The campaign and the results of the recent US Presidential elections have highlighted the actuality and relevance of this aspect of Elhefnawy’s argument.



Nader Elhefnawy has now replied to my preceding post both in the comments section and on his own blog RARITANIA. I find his book AFTER THE NEW WAVE (first published in 2011, new edition 2015) very interesting, and so I was inspired to search for his earlier article on “The End of Science Fiction”, that is not included in the recent re-edition of this book.It’s a pity that Elhefnawy decided to leave this article out of the new edition of AFTER THE NEW WAVE as it is a very well-written concise synthetic presentation of themes and arguments that can be found in less developped form elsewhere.

So before reviewing his book (which I hope to review eventually along with its companion volume “CYBERPUNK, STEAMPUNK AND WIZARDRY Science Fiction Since 1980”) I wanted to discuss this article on a hypothetical end of science fiction in association with my reading of ANATHEM (which he does not discuss anywhere, as far as I know).

The time may be ripe for such a discussion as John Horgan’s book THE END OF SCIENCE has just been re-edited with a new preface. In his article “The End of Science Fiction” Elhefnawy gives us a nuanced discussion of Horgan’s theses on the state of science today, and relates them to the current state of science fiction.

Elhefnawy seems to endorse my critique of Horgan, but to worry that I may not believe in objective reality. I wish to reassure him that I do believe in reality, so I am not a “postmodernist” in the sense of “all opinions are equally valid” relativism, a view that I have combated on many occasions (for details see my page). I am very influenced by my reading of post-structuralist thinkers, and if I had to choose a title for my views it would be “pluralist realism” (or “realist pluralism”).

I think Imre Lakatos’s approach in terms of multiple research programmes provides a good answer to Horgan’s arguments. The premises of Lakatos’s views can be found in Popper’s ideas on “metaphysical research programmes”. Horgan remains positivist in that he seems to think that the turn to metaphysical speculation in science is a recent phenomenon and that it constitutes a sign of exhaustion. Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend show that the metaphysical component has always been present in science, and that it is not a bad thing but essential to its functioning. They argue on both abstract grounds and in terms of concrete examples from the history of science that sometimes increased accuracy in our knowledge about the world can only be obtained by a speculative leap or paradigm change.

THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (1): the end of science

In this post and the succeeding ones I wish to discuss Nader Elhefnawy’s new book THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION?, based on a very interesting article originally published online on TTA Press’ science fiction review web site, The Fix, in 2007. In this article, reproduced with only minor corrections and modifications in the book, Elhefnawy argues that

“the (highly qualified) end of science fiction… as a genre (at least the Anglophone branch of it) may not necessarily be upon us, but at the very least in sight”.

He considers five arguments in support of the “bleak” thesis of the end of science fiction. The first three concern the cultural conditions in which science fiction writers work:

1) the end of science
2) our changing expectations about the future
3) the internal dynamics of the genre of science fiction itself

These are all discussed in part one. He further adduces, in part two, two other arguments which deal with the business environment in which science fiction writers work.


Citing John Horgan’s book THE END OF SCIENCE Nader Elhefnawy admits to having mixed feelings about the book, not just about its central thesis and arguments, but also about its style and general attitude towards its subjects. Notwithstanding, he considers that

“there might be something to his core idea, namely that the foreseeable future of science includes little possibility of a scientific revolution as radical as the ones we’ve seen in the last century and a half: the theory of evolution, and the development of genetics as we have known it since the discovery of DNA; relativistic and quantum physics; the “Big Bang” theory”.

Elhefnawy advances the hypothesis of a relation between the epistemic stabilisation of science and the increasing lack of originality in science fiction:

“It seems only reasonable that an “end to science” like the one Horgan writes about would impact the speculative fiction written about it, especially the hard, extrapolative kind, by diminishing an important supply of fresh inspiration”.

This epistemic stability and diminishing originality can be seen in the stereotypy of much science fiction:

“Where tropes like time travel and multiple universes are concerned, science fiction is playing with a cosmology that’s now decades old, and looking it”.

Elhefnawy’s emphasis on “cosmology”, or even ontology, is very interesting, in that this perceptible cosmological deficit in much of recent science fiction may be indicating a sensitive point to be scrutinised for signs of continuing invention. For example, the cosmology of Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM is one of its most innovative features.

ANATHEM’s polar opposite, Andy Weir’s novel THE MARTIAN, is a very good illustration of the end of science fiction. THE MARTIAN both tells an enjoyable story and manages to be aesthetically pleasing, but the speculative cosmological dimension is absent.

THE MARTIAN provides us with a positive version of Tom Godwin’s classic short story THE COLD EQUATIONS, in that within the parameters of the problem situation we can become active subjects instead of remaining mere passive victims. Yet we remain passive bearers of capitalist neo-liberal subjectivity. We see much “solidarity” for Mark Watney, but none for the starving masses that reap no reward from the space missions, and none for the planet Earth’s climatic catastrophe.

I think that Elhefnawy’s analysis here is only partially true, and that insofar as it relies on Horgan’s thesis of the”end of science” it is based on a dubious vision of scientific truth as monistic, the ultimate convergence on a single, definitive theory of everything. Yet he is also onto something important.

Elhefnawy’s first argument for the end of science fiction is tied to John Horgan’s thesis of the “end of science”. Horgan’s thesis is itself rather complicated and finally incoherent. It is based on a monist model of science as involving the progressive convergence on a single true account of the World. Despite Horgan’s talk about Kuhnian paradigms, his argument is premised on basically a cumulative vision of discoveries and problem-solving that does not sufficiently take into account radical conceptual change (the speculative dimension of science). Horgan can only validate his thesis by dismissing bold speculative conjectures (such as multiverse theory) as un-empirical, or untestable in principle, when their testing is merely very difficult to implement.

Horgan’s vision of science as problem-solving is very much like that implicit in THE MARTIAN, in that he envisions a finite list of pre-existent problems that only have to be checked off as they are progressively solved. He ignores or depreciates the speculative playing with concepts and equations that can generate new perspectives. For Horgan, the more speculative the physics is the less it is scientific.

Yet Einstein’s Relativity began as just such speculative tinkering, and took many years before receiving empirical confirmation (the Eddington expedition was a bit of a fudge). Galileo was an experimentalist, whereas Einstein was not (he even ironised over those who were preoccupied with the verification “little effects”, instead of being influenced by the beauty of theory). Galileo’s approach was much more speculative than is commonly realised, but he did a lot to hide this speculative component.

Horgan’s argument seems to engage much more with a common ideology of science, promulgated also by scientists themselves, than with the practice of science in its full range from experimental to speculative. He combines an inductivist cumulative vision of progressive discovery of the truths about the world with a Kuhnian vision of overarching paradigms. Both of these views are erroneous, and combining them together does not make them any better.

The inductive vision ignores the speculative creation of problems and the conceptual reorganisations involved in scientific progress. The Kuhnian view of unitary paradigm followed by revolution followed by a new paradigm, etc, ignores the fact that there are multiple rival paradigms competing for favour at any one moment. Both visions fall foul of the actually existing “disunity of science” by projecting and reasoning in terms of an idealisation, treating science and its progress as far more homogeneous than it actually is.

Imre Lakatos’s approach in terms of science as always involving the competition between multiple research programmes provides a good way to see the limitations of Horgan’s arguments. (Note: the premises of Lakatos’s views can be found in Popper’s ideas on “metaphysical research programmes”). Horgan remains a positivist in that he seems to think that the turn to metaphysical speculation in science is a recent phenomenon and that it constitutes a sign of exhaustion.

Popper, Lakatos, and Feyerabend show that the speculative metaphysical component has always been present in science, and that it is not a bad thing but rather is essential to its functioning. They argue on both abstract grounds and in terms of concrete examples from the history of science that sometimes increased accuracy in our knowledge about the world can only be obtained by a speculative leap or paradigm change.

This idea of the end of science figures in Stephenson’s ANATHEM as the doctrine of Saint Lori:

Lorite: A member of an Order founded by Saunt Lora, who believed that all of the ideas that the human mind was capable of coming up with, had already been come up with.

In the novel this idea is regarded as just one hypothesis amongst many, having heuristic value for the efforts it encourages to verify or to refute it. Strictly, it also implies the end of mathematics and the end of philosophy.

Cosmologically, Horgan’s thesis of the end of science could be realised in a finite cosmos, but whether our cosmos is in fact finite or not is an empirical question, not to be answered by naive inductive argument extrapolating from a very limited sample over a short span of time. Horgan gives us no reason to believe that we are living in a finite cosmos, and seems unaware that he is making an empirical, scientific claim.

The discovery that the cosmos has only a finite number of explanatory levels and that we have exhausted them in principle, leaving only details to be discovered, would itself be a major scientific finding (and a very hotly disputed one).

Further, even in an ontologically finite cosmos, Horgan would have to show that it is both epistemically and hermeneutically constrained. That is to say, he would have to show that there exists not only a vertical limit to explanatory depth, a final causal level, but also a horizontal limit to hermeneutic diversity of interpretation.

Horgan’s argument is historicist in the worst sense, that of predictive historicism. It consists in extrapolating the future from a narrowly selected and one-sidedly interpreted scientific past. This strand of Elhefnawy’s argument, concerning the evolution and the possible end of pure science, is thus very weak, and he seems not to accord it much importance.

A counter-example would be the proposed reorganisation of the sciences and humanities around, “geo-history” advocated by Bruno Latour. This would amount to a major revolution in the very categorisation of scientific thought, inducing a major conceptual change without following the scientistic model of modern physics and its pursuit of ever deeper explanatory levels.

This reorganisation would give primacy to an immanent planetary perspective rather than one based on the search for ever more fundamental consttituents and laws. It would lead to the creation of a different sort of science fiction, making the genre less preoccupied by physics and transcendence. An interesting recent example of this perspective can be seen in Kim Stanley Robinson’s AURORA, which contains an explicit critique of such dreams of transcendence.

ANATHEM AS IMMANENT PLATONISM: literature, mathematics, and ontology

In my previous posts I have been trying to see ANATHEM in terms of a more general tendency that includes philosophy, physics, and science fiction. Given that our global paradigm or image of thought is no longer monism (Platonism) how can we avoid falling into the multiplication of meaningless language games (relativism)? The multiplication of worlds at the object-level mirrors the multiplication of formalisms and of language games at the meta-level. How can we accomodate both the plasticity of the real, which allows for multiple interpretations and ways of life, with its resistance, that selects out only a few possibilities as valid and viable? In the novel, the disputes between syntactics and semantics, between theors and rhetors, and also between Protans and Procians, reflect this dilemma.
Stephenson makes use of the collapse of the wave packet in quantum physics to explain how the brain as a quantum computer can choose between different Narratives and select the best outcome. This is both a physical phenomenon and an allegory in physical terms of this more general problem. I am trying to take a step back from the physical speculations that that Stephenson himself has indicated are the source of the cosmology in the book. Many critics think that fundamental physics and cosmology have become too speculative, almost abandoning any empirical confrontation with experiment. I think this is a mistaken criticism, as very often in science the speculation comes first.
It was a stroke of genius for Stephenson to make the Platonic world of ideas into one of a plurality of worlds. The idea is all at once strange, brilliant, and hilarious. Yet there is a second idea associated with this, namely that there is not just one Platonic world, but many, each with their own asssociated sub-worlds and sub-sub-worlds, and so on. This second idea, called “Complex Protism” in the novel, is developped in the third Calca, at the end of the book. Here, the simple line between two points: the world of Forms and our world is replaced by a network with multiple nodes, and the mode of existence of abstract ideas is given a quasi-materialist basis.
I would use the term “science fantasy” to describe the genre of the novel. This does not mean that the cognitive scaffolding is less scientific than in classical science fiction. I want to indicate the world-making ambition of the book, and its resemblance to the genre of Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN and its sequels. The fantasy element is the impressive world-building, including the different but parallel history of mathematics and philosophy, and the invention of different languages. The story not only does not take place on Earth, but not even in our cosmos.
If we are climbing a Hylaeatic ladder of genericity and sublimation, I would put the science of multiple worlds first, then their philosophical exploration, and then their literary (science fictional) deployment. The allegory of a pluralist-but-not-relativist image of thought resonates back and forth between these three levels.