Friday, 30 March 2007

Rowling, Arthur C. Clarke and the demise of science fiction

The literary high point this week, at least in terms of mention on the web, etc., has to be the publication of the covers of final Harry Potter book. Unless, dear reader, you are a writer yourself, you cannot appreciate how utterly depressing it is that a mere cover (which by general agreement has told us nothing) has attracted so much attention. (BTW an interesting experiment is to ask any ordinary writer about J K Rowling. You will see the lips move into a facsimile of a smile but there will be a strange coldness, if not malice, in the eyes.)

This thought brings me to magic and science. You will no doubt remember Arthur C. Clarke’s celebrated statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is, of course, one of the many barbs at religion that Clarke makes: a fact that is not however my concern here. A key part of the definition, which is not adequately expanded, is what constitutes ‘sufficiently advanced’. Perhaps a better expression would be any “insufficiently understood technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This highlights the fact that it is a relative effect: there are probably still some remote cultures where a working cuckoo clock would be seen as magic. In order to aid our understanding here I would suggest the creation of a new unit, the Clarke Value. Clarke values measure how little we understand any given piece of technology. The details need to be worked out, but I suggest that one Clarke is the gap where someone says “I'm not sure of the details, but I'm pretty sure I know how it works” and I suggest that 10 Clarkes expresses that point where someone says it “has to be supernatural”.

Now the interesting fact is that Clarke Values of technology are actually increasing. There are two factors: the first is that the technology itself is getting more and more inscrutable. So, for instance, you can go into your local mobile phone shop and find a tiny little pocketable object that will allow you to phone, used a GPS and listen to FM radio as well as play games. That that side of things is inevitable, unsurprising and probably to be approved. But, less happily, rising Clarke Values are also due to the fact that the understanding of science is declining. All the evidence suggests that kids, at least in Britain, find science tedious, and that most damnable of things, “hard work”. Science numbers, in schools are, in most places, declining. They are slightly boosted (hurrah!) because immigrant communities tend to encourage their sons and daughters to become engineers and doctors, both of which for the moment (thankfully) require science.

The impact of these effects is simple: high Clarke Values now abound. Who, for instance, among us can adequately explain how GPS works? Who can reliably inform us how broadband video works? Who can explain how I merely have to type in the words ‘Science’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Clarke’ into Google and, in barely a second, have the quote I need?

Now there is any writing corollary of this. It is that in a world of inadequately understood technology it is easier to write about magic than science. You may as well invoke magic, because most of your readers can't tell the difference between that and science. And magic, as I have said, elsewhere, is much easier. So frankly, the attempts of Britain's fantasy flagship ‘Doctor Who’ to make things scientific are now paper-thin. It might as well be a series about a magician and his apprentice.

It is a source of some irony - but very little satisfaction - that Clarke's rule has worked very at prophesying the demise of the very science fiction that he loves so well. As I said at Wheaton chapel two years ago (there’s name dropping), as a Christian I find no grounds for burning Harry Potter books but as a scientist, well, it’s awfully tempting.