[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Stranger Than Truth

by Robert J. Sawyer

First published as an op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation newspaper in Canada's capital city, Monday, January 15, 2007.

Copyright © 2007 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Michael Crichton — the world's top-selling science-fiction writer, by far — has taken a lot of flak in recent years for bending the truth in his novels. But shouldn't a science-fiction writer be allowed to do just that?

It's a debate that goes right back to the genre's two founding fathers — guys you might have thought would have been fast friends. But in fact Jules Verne didn't much care for that snot-nosed Brit H.G. Wells.

Verne, you see, prided himself on his scientific rigor. Parts of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea read like an oceanography textbook, and Captain Nemo's Nautilus was a fully worked-out submarine decades before such things were actually built.

But as Verne liked to sneer, with Gallic disdain, "Wells invents things!," meaning he made them up out of whole cloth. Martian invaders! Time machines! How could any self-respecting futurist pollute his work with such nonsense?

But now the future is here, and it's Wells, not Verne, who is still widely read and taught. Why? Because while Verne was an Übergeek in his day, nothing is less interesting than old technology; Wired magazine's three-part barometer of "wired," "tired," and "expired" gives the new-and-exciting a half-life of about six months.

But while Verne was playing with his slide rule, Wells was talking about issues. True, they were the issues of his time — and you might think that would make his stories even more irrelevant to today's readers than Verne's 19th-century tales of steam-driven machines.

But perhaps not. War of the Worlds really has nothing at all to do with Martians invading Earth; rather, it was Wells's attempt, using the unique tools of science fiction, to get his countrymen to see what it's like to have one's culture crushed underfoot by an uncaring, expansionist, technologically advanced foreign power. He'd hoped they'd realize the cruelty of what Britain was doing in India and other places.

And The Time Machine isn't really about the year 802,701 A.D. Rather, it's a pointed attack on the British class system, with Wells's cattle-like Eloi standing in for the feckless leisure class, and the subterranean Morlocks representing the working class, denied even the simple joy of being out in the sunshine.

And although Verne probably said plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose with a more convincing accent than Wells, it is old H.G.'s literary legacy that has benefited from that truism. A huge, uncaring power striding in, deposing the local government, and crushing everything in sight? The widening gap between the world's haves and have-nots? Issues that are as relevant today as they were over a century ago, more's the pity.

Which brings us back to Michael Crichton. Many reviewers have indeed dismissed his latest novel, the genetics-research-run-amuck thriller Next, with a Verne-like, "He invents things!"

And, true enough, the book, set in the present day, is full of lab-created marvels Crichton presents as though they already exist, or are just around the corner. For instance, Next features apes and even parrots that can read and converse in English — and several other languages, in the case of one scatological orangutan who swears like a truck driver in a variety of tongues.

In fact, such advanced transgenic chimeras — animals uplifted by infusions of human DNA — are a long way off, as are herds of glow-in-the-dark turtles, nasal sprays to cure addiction, and the other miracles peppered throughout Next.

No, despite Crichton's title, none of this stuff is imminent. If we've learned anything from the Human Genome Project, it's that the chemistry of life is far more complex and subtle than we thought.

Of course, most of Crichton's audience won't know that the things he's describing aren't real. He takes glee in mixing fact and fiction, with no way for the innocent reader to easily sort out which is which.

I prefer to play fair with my own readers. In my science-fiction novels, if a character says something was discovered in a year prior to the publication date of the book, it's the truth; anything that's my extrapolation, I take pains to identify as being discovered at a date in the future.

But that's a choice on my part. Should Crichton be obligated to do the same? (His sole concession to disclosure is this smug disclaimer on page one: "This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren't.")

After all, Crichton has the ear of President Bush (not literally, of course — although much of Next does deal with the theft of human tissue). And he's testified to the US congress that global warming is a hoax, his status as expert conferred solely because he'd written a novel on that theme, 2004's State of Fear.

But Crichton is more Wells than Verne. He's wrong that human-chimp hybrids will be enrolling in our public schools next year, but he's right that such things will eventually be possible (although his thinking about them is shallow — only the last scene of his novel hints that he has any sense of the real issues that will arise from their creation).

And we humans are notoriously shortsighted: if it's not going to affect this quarter's bottom line, we don't think about it. So maybe Michael Crichton is trying a little penance here. The damage done by State of Fear has been incalculable: he told the world not to worry about a real and imminent catastrophe, one that requires immediate action to forestall.

But by getting us to grapple now, while there's still time to change things, with the legitimate issues he brings up in Next, such as the folly of granting patents on human genes, he may help us create a better future. Perhaps no orangutan will swing into view to curse us in Dutch and French, but if Michael Crichton gets people to think, his latest book will have accomplished what good science fiction should. I'm sure H.G. Wells would approve.

[2007 bionote] Toronto science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer's seventeenth novel, Rollback, will be published in April 2007.

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