Science fiction authors used to push the envelope of knowledge. Rocket ships dropped out of space to land on their tails. GORT, the robot, walked among us in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Arthur C. Clarke submitted a manuscript to Wireless World magazine proposing global communication through geostationary satellites in 1945. These concepts are major industries, today, of course. In fact, today’s science seems to have sprinted ahead of fiction.
I stumbled upon an article about “working memory.” That’s cognitive scientists’ speak for how many potentially conflicting bits of information we can hold in out head. If a point requires more working memory than I have, I just won’t “get it.” Take the example of face masks during a pandemic. There is conflicting information in the media about the usefulness of face masks. The article correlated working memory with face mask use and found that people with less working memory tended to not wear masks. When it comes to complex situations, not everyone “gets it.”
The working memory article gave me a simple idea for a story, that the world is becoming more complex and as it does so, more and more people just won’t “get it.” What happens, I wondered, when the world reaches a point where not enough people understand the complexity of it to keep it running? Does it all break down? Chaos? Lost in my own thoughts, I Googled “complexity and chaos.” And, whoops! I stepped in it.
Turns out, there is a body of scientific study called “complexity science.” Most of it is baffling mathematics. I’m a writer, not a mathematician. But I write hard science fiction, so I have to get the science right and present it in a way to make the fiction entertaining. Luckily, I found A simple guide to chaos and complexity. It’s a scholarly paper written in (mostly) plain English for the health services and I have (some) background in medical care. I now have an inkling of how little I know.
Maybe we should stick to writing stories about things we know? A simple idea is turning into a year or more of research and writing. I used to approach science through fiction and now, I have to approach fiction through science? But enough complaining. Curiosity is addictive. What if people really are limited in how complex a life they can handle? What if our civilization does continue becoming more complex? Will chaos result? What-if is how sci-fi pushes the envelope of knowledge.