Thursday, 27 October 2016

Pseudoscience and Science Fiction - Andrew May ****

There are a number of books covering the links between science and science fiction, such as Ten Billion Tomorrows, but the is the first that I have come across considering the relationship between pseudoscience and science fiction - and as Andrew May points out, this is important, because the relationship between the two is strong.
Pseudoscience uses the language of science, but rather than testing a hypothesis, only accepting it if the tests hold up and seeing how the concept fits with the current understanding of science, pseudoscience simply comes up with hypotheses which are clung onto despite evidence to the contrary, and largely ignores current scientific thinking. Although science fiction is often based on the science of the day, it almost always stretches it, adding in some 'What if?' that can't be tested because it has no basis in reality. That's fine for fiction, but worrying when treated as fact. As May makes clear, pseudoscience is often, effectively, science fiction portrayed (and sometimes believed by its originator) as fact.

Covering a wide range of fields, May shows us how pseudoscience like Charles Fort's collections of stories of odd happenings alongside his bizarre explanations have provided many plot ideas for science fiction writers, while the burgeoning science fiction market from the early pulp magazines onward started to shape new concepts in pseudoscience. Some of those magazines even carried pseudoscience 'factual' stories, including the 'Shaver' concept where the Earth is in the control of unknown external forces and the development of Dianetics by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, which soon became Scientology.

In chapters focussing on Fort, anomalous phenomena (including the infamous Philadelphia Experiment), hi-tech paranoia (they're out to get us using super-technology), flying saucers, mind power, space drives, antigravity, technology of the ancients and conspiracy theories, May takes us on a tour of the main themes of pseudoscience, always tying back to the links with science fiction. You'll find familiar science fiction films, such as Close Encounters (ripe with pseudoscience concepts), blockbuster books from fiction (the works of Dan Brown) and supposed non-fiction (Chariots of the Gods, for example) alongside obscure but fascinating early pulp works, near-forgotten authors like E. F. Russell and pseudoscience concepts that will only be familiar to the cognoscenti. As much as anything else, it's an exploration of the human imagination and psyche.

Something that comes up a good number of times, inevitably is The X-Files. This frequently makes use of pseudoscience, and is particularly interesting as it is one of the strongest influencers for a fascinating aspect of this incestuous relationship: quite a few pseudoscience ideas have emerged from science fiction rather than the other way round. The X-Files is, for instance, one of the major influences in spreading the idea to a wider audience of large eyed grey aliens - or for that matter huge triangular spaceships, which interestingly May points out only became common in the UFO community after the huge triangular spaceships were seen in Star Wars. My only regret on The X-Files is that May does not mention my absolute favourite episode, 'José Chung's From Outer Space' from Season 3, which is both hilarious and explores beautifully the nature of unreliable narrators in pseudoscience, as well as bringing in some pseudoscience concepts like Men in Black that don't usually crop up in the show.

Sometimes May leans over backwards to not be judgemental, and while clearly not agreeing with the pseudoscience, makes it sound like it hasn't been entirely dismissed. He's also quite kind to science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who gets quite a few mentions as Dick's fiction often featured conspiracies and paranoia, which extended from his fiction into his life. May packs plenty in - the only slight issue I have is with the format of the book. Each chapter has an odd 'abstract' summary at the start as if it were a scientific paper, and the structure could do with a bit more connective narrative covering the overall thesis. This is particularly obvious at the end of the final chapter which simply stops without any attempt to pull the topic together.

This book is part of the large and interesting Springer series 'Science and Fiction' - most of these titles have been overpriced for a paperback, but this is at the affordable end of the range and the good production values mean we can have a number of full colour reproductions of gorgeous old pulp covers. Overall, May does an excellent job in presenting to us this strange two-way relationship, providing a real service both in understanding some of the roots of science fiction and the nature of pseudoscience. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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