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Borderlands of Science

Copyright 1999

by Charles Sheffield

THANKS. This book grew partly from a one-week series of seminars given at Dixie College, Utah, in the spring of 1998, on the subject of science and science fiction. I would like to thank all the participants in those seminars, particularly Ace Pilkington who organized and master-minded the event, for their useful analysis and comment. Before I went to Utah, I sent my material to Jim Baen asking him to look at what I had, and suggest places where the arguments seemed weak or insufficient. Much of the material had originally appeared in magazines that he published, and he offered considerable feedback. Several sections of the book owe much to our e-mail discussions. He also suggested that the material might make a useful and informative book.

Finally I would like to thank my wife, Nancy Kress, who read everything that I wrote and told me when I was unintelligible because of brevity, or in danger of going overboard on technical detail. I usually took her advice, but not always, so any residual incomprehensibility is due to me alone.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. Parts of this book are drawn from articles in NEW DESTINIES, ANALOG, and THE SAMSUNG QUARTERLY magazines.

INTRODUCTION. You are reading an out-of-date book. Since the frontiers of science constantly advance, today's discussion of the borderlands of science will be obsolete tomorrow.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you which parts of the book that you are holding need an immediate update. With luck, the short-term changes will be mostly in the details, and the roots of each subject covered will survive intact. The biggest changes in science usually turn out to be the most surprising, the least predicted, and the slowest to be accepted.

Around the year 1900 there were plenty of forecasts as to what the coming century might bring. They were all wrong, not because of what they included, but because of what they left out. On the abstract side, no one expected relativity, quantum theory, the expansion of the universe, holography, subatomic structure, the conversion of matter to energy, solid state physics devices (such as transistors), information theory, black holes, the molecular structure of DNA, retroviruses, genome mapping, and the theory of finite state automata. Still less did anyone expect the torrent of practical applications, with their massive social fallout, that would follow from the new theories: televisions and telephones in almost every home, personal computers, supersonic aircraft, humans to the Moon and observing equipment to the planets, lasers, genetic engineering, video recorders, antibiotics, CAT scans, nuclear energy plants and nuclear bombs, and artificial satellites in regular use for communications, weather, and monitoring of the Earth's surface. No one in 1900 imagined that by 2000 the automobile would be absolutely central to many people's lives, as the principal means of transportation, recreation, and even courtship. Even in 1950, not a person on the planet would have predicted the existence of hundreds of millions of computers, used daily to conduct business, play games, send and receive mail, and wander at will through a world-wide information network.

Given our track record, and the fact that changes seem to be ever faster and more confusing, a pessimist could conclude that it is now impossible to write science fiction. Prediction of future conditions is impossible; even if we get the science right, surely the consequent social changes will be nothing like we suppose or can suppose. When reality is so surprising, what place is there for imagined worlds?

I prefer to argue as an optimist. In science fiction, new science and new applications mean an endless supply of new story ideas. So long as science and technology continue to advance, we can never run out of subject matter.

This book should be regarded as a beginning, not an end. It defines the frontiers - "borderlands" - of today's science. Those frontiers are not fixed, but constantly expanding. As they expand, the territory just beyond them comes into view. In that territory, waiting to be picked up and used, lie hundreds and thousands of gorgeous story ideas. They are pristine ideas, never used before, because they sit on ground never before explored.

I invite you to join me in wandering the new territories, picking up the best ideas, and using them. My idea is to offer a starting place for the exploration, but certainly not an end point. For one thing this book, like any book ever written, reflects the author's personal interests and obsessions. It's not reasonable that your own favorite scenery will exactly match mine.

One more caveat. This book makes another assumption. As a friend of mine, Roger Allen, said to me, "You call it science fiction, whereas most people pronounce it as science fiction." I plead guilty. That is indeed the way I view the science fiction field, or at least the part of the field that interests me. I assume that you, the reader, are interested in reading (and possibly writing) science fiction stories with some reasonable emphasis on science. If not, then this is not the book for you.

Copyright 1999 by Charles Sheffield
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