Mark L. Brake and Neil Hook, Different Engines

Mark L. Brake and Neil Hook, Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science (Macmillan, 2008), 265pp. £16.99 hb. ISBN 978-0-230-01980-5.

When Mark Brake and Neil Hook claim, in Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science, that Johannes Kepler’s Somnium had “grasped the bond between life forms and habitat” two centuries before Darwin, it is hard not to be dubious. Whilst they are right to argue that imagination is a prerequisite in the scientist, the ideas outlined in fiction may not offer equivalently solid or powerful forms of knowledge to those mediated through rational thought and scientific discourse. This is the key problem with their book, if we take it as an academic enquiry. In relation to the first half of its subtitle, “how science drives fiction,” Different Engines offers a racy, if fairly predictable, synopsis of the ways in which science has influenced the literary imagination. All the important science fiction writers are covered, from Kepler to Bruce Sterling via Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells. These are grounded in chapters such as “The Age of Discovery”, “The Mechanical Age”, “The Astounding Age”. We might well be suspicious of such neat historical and generic divisions too, and, indeed, the effect of the book’s structure is to flatten out the different mechanisms and intensities with which science might reach across to literature. The authors do not attempt to hone a definition for science fiction; nor do they distinguish between science as a discipline, and technology as the application of that practice. By setting up two seemingly discrete systems of science and science fiction, and by implying in the periodic divisions that the scientific emphasis of each age was the prime determinant for the fictional response, Different Engines’ argument does not reflect the fact that both these disciplines are contained within a broader culture. Some literature may respond directly to scientific developments at the epistemological level, some may respond more to technological possibilities raised by a new paradigm, and some may pull together larger social issues through the coincidental device of science fiction. For example, whilst Gulliver’s Travels responds sharply to the Baconian project due to Swift’s engagement with the philosophy of the Royal Society, George Orwell was not comparably engaged with science per se. And whilst the technology of nuclear power is clearly influential on 1984, placing it under the rubric of the “Atomic Age” seems awkward, given that the bomb was not the prime target of Orwell’s geopolitical and social anxieties, even if it was a key figurative trope.

Such complaint should be substantially qualified, however, by the fact that this is a synopsis of science fiction, clearly intended to tap the same audience who read science fiction itself. Any cyberpunk aficionado will be comfortable with being told that, for the Victorian reader, “The science fiction of the age can be seen as an attempt to repair the [post-Darwinian] separation from nature, to reload the emptiness, to somehow jack-in to the void” (45). It would be churlish to want to bring such warp-speed writing down to the earth of detailed critical analysis, when the academic audience is not that for which it is intended.

On the other hand, that does leave the second, more intricate half of the subtitle – how “fiction drives science” – tugging against the leash of the book’s style. And if Different Engines flattens the subtle flows from science to fiction by its language and structure, its populist vehicle is too weak to support the more interesting idea that literature may also regulate empirical discoveries. Repeatedly, the authors hint towards direct influences, without being able to pursue these convincingly. Bacon’s new philosophy promised more than it could deliver, they argue, and deserved the hostile satire of Gulliver’s Travels. But how exactly was Swift’s work able to stifle later scientific endeavour, so that ideas and technologies that might otherwise have circulated were self-censored? A popular history is not able to engage in such counterfactual hypotheses. The authors suggest that “Not content with creating the benign alien of Lumen, [Camille] Flammarion establishes space-time. Thirty years before Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, Lumen was the earliest science fiction novel to suggest that space and time were not absolute” (65). The very obvious, but unanswered, question is whether Einstein therefore read Lumen and was influenced by it. The more subtle question is what culture of time and space allowed both Einstein and Flammarion to flourish from the late nineteenth century onwards. The way in which science and literature are set up as the only relevant co-conspirators in literary and scientific invention, rather than elements of a wider historical and cultural milieu, means tentative threads like these cannot be pursued.

It would be ideal if literary scholars could provide hard examples of imaginative fiction leading to new scientific knowledge, and it is not hard to understand why Brake and Hook – lecturers in science communication and science fiction respectively –  wanted to write this book. Just imagine the boasts of English Department heads to funding bodies: a Derridean deconstruction of Frankenstein discovers the genetic cure for cancer! Sadly, it is not that straightforward. A fan letter to H.G. Wells from the rocket pioneer Robert Goddard explained that War of the Worlds inspired him to go into “high altitude research.” Brake and Hook do not note that Wells’ spaceships only needed to fly in fiction, whereas had Goddard been unable to do trigonometry he would surely have taken an alternative career path – he might even have become a novelist. Although the mechanisms by which fiction “drives” science are undoubtedly present, they lie concealed. Uncovering them requires the different, if quieter, engine of the academic monograph.

Alistair Brown, Durham University.