Thought Experiment: An experiment carried out only in the imagination.
The scientific method, in most instances, proves or disproves hypotheses by physical experimentation. Most scientific research proceeds in this way, but there have also been many instances where physical experimentation has not been available due to the nature of the problem. In these cases, thought experiments, experiments done not by physical means but rather by imaginative speculation and deduction, have led to significant discoveries. It is now the principal means of advancing theoretical physics. Albert Einstein’s thought experiments gave rise to his theory of relativity.
In literary endeavors, science fiction can be understood as thought experimentation though with different goals than those found in conventional science. What's common to both endeavors is the speculation element. Albert Einstein, in his theory of relativity, speculated about what would happen to the passage of time as we approach the speed of light. Arthur C Clarke, in his novel 2001 a Space Odyssey, speculated about what might happen if we gave sapience to a computer. However, Albert Einstein was seeking to advance scientific knowledge whereas Arthur C Clarke was constructing a compelling narrative. One was doing science; the other telling a story. The element of scientific speculation is crucial to both disciplines.
Another difference between science and science fiction is the nature of the speculation. Scientific experiments are carried out to advance knowledge. What is sometimes missing are the implications of that knowledge. If we can build a thermal nuclear bomb, should we? If we have the tools to change the human genome, should we? These questions are frequently asked after-the-fact and often by others outside of the discipline. In the interests of a compelling and meaningful narrative, science-fiction authors can and frequently do ask these questions. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clark addresses the issue of whether or not giving sapience to a machine is desirable. That question is implied in the story line. It's part of the thematic construction of the novel.
In recent years, however, much science fiction has veered away from asking such questions. It has become fashionable even desirable to create entertainments where thematic elements are low priority. I'll use a cinematic example here because most people still experience science-fiction primarily through movies. In 2015 Guardians of the Galaxy won the Hugo award for the best science fiction movie of the year. Guardians of The Galaxy is full of cool tropes, engaging characters and amazing visuals. It’s a lot of fun. It also has nothing to say. It is science-fiction devoid of thematic content.
2015 was also the year that saw the release of Ex Machina, an independent science fiction film that takes Arthur C Clark's machine sapience theme to another level. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (film version), Hal is a super intelligent red orb, sapient but also clearly a machine. But Ex Machina makes the machine sexually alluring and sympathetic. It's seductive. How the film ends is a brilliant piece of plotting that also drives home the thematic point.
A few years back, when Margaret Atwood released her novel Oryx and Crake, her refusal to call it science fiction raised the ire of the genre’s authors and fans. Atwood’s preferred genre designation for the novel was “speculative fiction.” She didn’t like the term science fiction because Oryx and Crake does not deal with things "we can't yet do or begin to do”. She saw the subject matter of Oryx and Crake as plausible given the current state of technology and therefore outside of that narrow definition of science fiction. It is worth noting, however, that Atwood’s status as a serious literary writer may have inclined her to avoid the science-fiction label. By then, within the literary community, science fiction had gained the reputation of being insubstantial. Whatever the reason, Atwood’s decision to favor the “speculative fiction” label and the success of Oryx and Crake, has led many writers to refer to more serious theme-driven science fiction as “speculative fiction”. This use is far from universal, but it is a trend.
Regardless of whether you choose to call this genre science fiction or speculative fiction, it's easy to see where the concept of thought experiment fits in. Those writing in this genre are choosing a scientifically plausible subject matter and using their imaginations to speculate about its implications. In some case, those speculations lead to little more that plot devices and cool tropes, but others are creating thematically rich works.
T.K. Boomer lives in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada with his wife. He has a degree in theatre and has had several stage plays produced. In 2014 he published a mainstream fiction novel, A Walk in the Thai Sun, written under the name G.J.C. McKitrick. Over the years he has been a professional musician, a song writer, a puppeteer, and a mailman. His workspace includes a home recording studio. He has used this to record songs and, more recently, a podcast serialization of Planet Song.
Learn more about Boomer at http://tkboomer.com and connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
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