One of the interesting things about science fiction is the way it straddles the division in between art and science. Fiction is an art. Science is, of course, science. So what do you get if you make art about science?
(I strongly object to the idea that science fiction has to be about science. In that regard it is the worst named genre ever. But undoubtedly some of it IS about science…)
In his documentary about beautiful equations, art critic Matthew Collings explores the ways in which scientists are guided by beauty, and artists search for truth. If there is any such thing as truth (I believe there is) then there should be no doubt that both science and art, as two of humanities greatest traditions of knowledge, have ways of reaching it. But nonetheless, too often when both are raised together the conversation turns to which is the greater. Which seems to me a little like debating whether a candle or a lantern are better ways of illuminating a dark room.
In science fiction that argument sometimes arises as a belief that SF does not need to function as art. It does not need to be beautiful, as other kinds of fiction might. Its characters do not require depth. Its prose can lack precision or clarity. It can tell hackneyed stories in the service of new scientific ideas perhaps. Its an argument that fewer people accept today than might have a decade ago, and yet much interesting SF still falls short as fiction.
The physicist Paul Dirac suggested that for an equation to be true, it must be beautiful. In Dirac's thinking beauty was a way of discerning the truth, as much a part of the scientific process as observation. If science fiction is a way of reaching for the truth, then shouldn't it also be beautiful? Can a work of science fiction really have anything true to say, if it fails by the standards of fiction?
But what makes fiction beautiful? For me, the great strength of prose fiction is its ability to step inside the human experience. To explore the internal world that exists inside us all. When science fiction is beautiful it is most often because, however strange the external world it explores, its first concern is with the internal experience of that world.
Top image: Dark City by Audic on Deviant Art.
This post by Damien G. Walter originally appeared on his blog.