Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cosmology in Science Fiction

Almost everyone loves to hear about cosmology. Public lectures on the subject pack in large and enthusiastic audiences.  And what's not to like?  Cosmology deals with the deepest questions in science: the beginning of the universe, the end of the universe, and everything in between. Recent years have seen numerous breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe, and yet the remaining mysteries, like dark matter and dark energy, provide tantalizing clues that much remains to be discovered.

So cosmology ought to figure prominently in science fiction, right? Actually, not so much. And I think there's a very good reason for this.

Probably the first story science fiction story to give a prominent place to cosmology was Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, which sweeps across the entire history of the universe. What's that? You've never heard of Star Maker? Maybe that's because for all its majestic scale, it's dry as dirt.

A more famous story with a cosmological theme is Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" (often confused with Fredric Brown's "Answer," since both stories deal with computers that achieve "extreme" powers). I won't spoil Asimov's story for you - if you haven't read it, go track down a copy. But it does a good job of conveying the awesome sweep of the future history of the universe.

So why haven't we seen more stories with cosmological themes? I think the answer is that good science fiction, at its core, is always about people and their problems. And cosmology is very much not about people. It's extraordinarily difficult to combine the enormous length scales and time scales of cosmology with the lives of ordinary human beings.  An excellent example of how to do this is Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact." In Baxter's story, a scientist has helped to discover that the entire universe will be destroyed shortly in a "big rip", and the story chronicles the remaining few months of her life through conversations with her mother in their garden. Baxter succeeds in putting a human face on cosmology by zooming in on intimate personal relationships in the midst of this cosmological catastrophe.  I tried to do something similar in my story "Extra Innings", which was consciously patterned after Asimov's short story.  Whether I succeeded or not you can decide for yourself.


Kathy said...

While not a sweep to the ultimate future fate of the Universe, Fred Pohl's first novel in the Star Child series, I think (it's been a while), makes use of a grand cosmological theory in the plot. Alas, he uses the steady state theory, but given the time of writing it is understandable.

Also Futurama did an episode where Prof. Farnsworth invents a time machine which only travels forwards in time (but faster). It poses a cyclical universe, so the plot can hit the reset button and have another episode the following week.

Robert Scherrer said...

Poul Anderson has his spaceship survive through the collapse and re-expansion of the universe in Tau Zero. Unfortunately, these days we don't believe that the universe oscillates, which kills that line of plots.

robk said...

i think that was something cosmological in E.E.Smith works, also was a some short story with cosmological plot one of them is S.Lem ijon tichy star log adventure where he recreate universe :)

Kathy said...

Robert, I take it that for you the story does not trump the science?

Granted some things are hard to take, and require a stout crane to suspend one's disbelief with. Like the many stories of atoms as mini solar systems with tiny, tiny planets and tinier people on them. But some of those stories were pretty good.

Asimov collected at least two such in, I believe, "Before the Golden Age" anthology.

There were some amazing stories of Venus as a hyperactive tropical hell/paradise, too. Not least by Robert Heinlein.

Phillip Helbig said...

"You've never heard of Star Maker? Maybe that's because for all its majestic scale, it's dry as dirt."

I've read it. It is good, but, as you say, dry. He does anticipate some things, though, such as the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and even Tegmark's mathematical universe.

More entertaining is his Last and First Men.