Science Fiction and Science Fact

John Sutherland is an emeritus professor at University College, London, and visiting professor of literature at Caltech.

Cowboys are, I suspect, astute critics of Westerns. And young scientists, I have discovered, having taught them at Caltech, are perceptive readers of science fiction.

Caltech is not thought of as a bookish place. You don’t gain entrance by being well read. Near-genius proficiency in mathematics helps, as does a willingness to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

But Caltech undergraduates -- a.k.a. Techers -- do consume science fiction, lots of it. And what is the Techers’ favorite text? Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game.” In a pre-course questionnaire last year, more than half of the students in my English class came up with that title as best ever. Google “Caltech + Ender’s” and you’ll get nearly 400 hits from student blogs and the mind-bending games that Techers relax with.


One doesn’t need Freud to work out why Card’s novel is popular. “Ender’s Game” tells the story of an infant prodigy, Andrew Wiggin (nicknamed Ender), who is torn from the bosom of his family at 6 to be trained in “Battle School.” Earth is under threat from aliens -- the Buggers. Future war is waged as a computer game. And who are the virtuosos of the game console? Kids. Who are the best de-Buggers? Not Donald Rumsfeld’s generation.

To gain entrance to Caltech, two things are necessary. You must be gifted. And you must sacrifice much of what makes childhood fun in the service of that gift. Moreover, you must compete -- ferociously -- to get to the top. Excellence is a harsh mistress.

On the admissions website is a revealing statement by Robin Deis (class of 2004), describing the school for prospective entrants: “Have you read/seen Harry Potter? Have you seen X-Men? That’s what Caltech is -- a school of (mentally) superpowered mutants.” This, believe it or not, is posted to attract, not repel, would-be Techers.

Harry Potter, the bespectacled nerd with Merlin powers, and the supernaturally endowed X-Men (who should really be called X-Kids) can never quite join the human race out of which they evolved. Why? Because they are too different. With great power, to paraphrase another sad super-mutant, comes great loneliness.

Would Harry, for all the wonderful abracadabra of Hogwarts, not yearn to be a normal child? Would the X-Kids, for all their ability to hurl thunderbolts, not rather throw baseballs, watch bad TV and hang out at the Galleria? Card’s novel is to Caltech students what “Catcher in the Rye” and “Huckleberry Finn” are in other establishments. It articulates the stress of coming of age in a world where you don’t fit -- not because you are lacking in something but because God gave you too much of it.

Runner-up to Card in the current science fiction favorites list is Caltech alumnus David Brin. An astrophysicist, Brin takes an Olympian view of the human condition. His fiction is permeated with an H.G. Wellsian optimism: If only mankind (as deaf as it is dumb) would open its ears and listen to the scientist (Brin, that is). If it does, a future as glorious as that prophesied in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” tetralogy beckons. Brin, as it happens, has written a finale to Asimov’s sequence, “Foundation’s Triumph.” For which read, “triumphant, if only.”

Caltech students, as I observe them, dislike what they call “scientophobic” science fiction. Dystopian works like John Wyndham’s “Day of the Triffids,” in which Earth is ravaged by the inventions of irresponsible scientists, go down badly. Class discussions of science fiction invariably elicit the opinion that science can -- if sufficiently funded by nonscientists -- solve anything. Literally anything. AIDS, global warming, a meteor strike, bird flu, Third World poverty can all be dealt with if enough resources (i.e. Caltech brainpower + limitless tax dollars) are invested.

It’s a big if. Society, on the whole, doesn’t listen to scientists -- unless they are bearing good news at minimal cost to the citizen and no risk to the politicians’ reelection. This is the theme of Caltech professor David Goodstein’s jeremiad, “Out of Gas,” published last year. Goodstein argues that “civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels.” Science, as Goodstein explains, has a way. Several in fact. But “unfortunately, our present national and international leadership is reluctant to acknowledge that there is a problem.” The crisis, Goodstein prophesies, “will occur, and it will be painful.” Painful, like what happened to the dinosaurs.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s science fact. As in the Card and Brin fantasies beloved by the students, Goodstein conceives a scientific heroism that can save the planet. The difference is that Goodstein seems, in his adult wisdom, to have outgrown the idealism of youth. Salvation, he thinks, is improbable. Interestingly, when he offered a public debate at Caltech on his “Out of Gas” thesis, Goodstein encountered student opposition. Not because his science is bad (it isn’t, his peers testify) nor because he makes his case badly (he is a brilliant lecturer) but because the students are -- there is no other word for it -- more hopeful than he is.

Goodstein’s is another and quite different kind of loneliness that one encounters at Caltech -- the loneliness of the (adult) voice in the wilderness. And, unless we learn to listen to what the lonely scientists, young and old, are saying, the wilderness is where we may all be sometime in this century.