Science at the Root of Science Fiction

The standout story in the September 2008 issue of Analog is “Invasion of the Pattern Snatchers,” by David W. Goldman. The science drives the story and produces the feeling of “liftoff” that is common to good science fiction. Goldman takes an intriguing core idea that I recognize from science news stories from a few years ago and spins it out into a determining factor in the confrontation between two civilizations.

I think Goldman gives a nod to the source of his premise in this paragraph:

“Are you familiar,” she began, “with the lancet fluke?” At his blank expression, she continued. “A parasite of cattle, back on Earth — it’s described in one of the library data crystals we discovered 10 years ago. The fluke larvae take over the nervous system of their carrier, a particular species of ant. Every evening they force the ant to leave its colony and climb to the top of a blade of grass; it hangs on until dawn, then returns home and leads a normal day. This cycle continues until eventually a cow happens along and eats the blade of grass, thus delivering the fluke to its definitive host.”

In the nonfiction versions I’ve read, the life of the lancet fluke is even more complicated than Goldman describes. I remember wondering how such a complex life cycle could have come about. I don’t want to say too much about how Goldman uses this concept, since I thought he did a great job revealing the details of his world bit by bit, and I wouldn’t want to steal that experience from you. I do want to comment on his use of a bit of science news.

I recently noticed that the guidelines to a prominent speculative fiction publication warned against a few “hard sells,” including “stories about the stuff we all read in Scientific American three months ago.” I’ve been wondering about this. Hard science fiction is tricky to write, particularly if you’re not a scientist. I wondered if there’s something inherently wrong with a writer being inspired by what he reads in Scientific American.

Thanks to Goldman’s story, I think I’ve found a way of looking at this. The news about the strange life of the lancet fluke was all over the place a little while back, and I’m pretty sure that most people who follow science news heard about it. Goldman’s story uses this concept in a fresh and successful way. I think the key is that, while the lancet fluke is essential to the story, and the scientific ideas it suggests relate to the story’s key themes, Goldman has done a great deal of creative extrapolation to build up the world of the story. It is by no means a story about a lancet fluke, and hence uses what everyone was familiar with from news articles as a starting point rather than an endpoint. What I get from this is that hard science fiction should not slavishly follow the details of an actual piece of science. It should not allow the story to be about that science. Instead, it should use that science as a launchpad.

Another story that deserves a mention from this issue of Analog is David Grace’s “Forever Mommy.” The story owes a debt to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a pessimistic piece about a hero brave enough to battle against the worship of the average. Grace’s story played with similar ideas of a population under control. I thought about the Vonnegut story constantly as I read it, but enjoyed Grace’s take on mass control.


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