Science is learning and knowing. Technology is doing. Together they give humanity immense abilities to meet its needs and shape its world. They enable us in a myriad ways.
Some of those ways surprise us, for new abilities may make it possible to ask questions that it never before made sense to ask (think of the way medical technology makes it possible to keep people "alive" on machines long after the brain has quit working; are such people really alive?). New abilities may therefore change old values. As values change, so may lifeways, customs, traditions, and dogmas; to some, science and technology rock the foundations of the world.
Perhaps unfortunately, most scientists and technologists do not spend much time considering such impacts of their work. They leave it to others--to philosophers, ethicists, politicians, evangelists, activists, journalists, and science fiction writers. To my mind, that last group is the most useful; its best members are more forward-looking, more creative, more insightful, and much better at bringing dry, abstract issues to life.
One of the main threads of science fiction has long been the dramatization of scientific and technological ideas, especially those of physics and astronomy, and their effects on human lives. This thread, often referred to as "hard science fiction," has yielded the central images of garish magazine and paperback covers, films, and TV shows--spaceships and alien worlds, time machines and futuristic gizmoes. In recent years, biology--genetic engineering--has intruded on this physical science core of the field, but "hard" still means a certain faithfulness to what we know about reality, along with a willingness to speculate about what we don't know and about what we might someday be able to do with the fruits of scientific research. There is a powerful sense of awe and wonder at the complexity and vastness of the universe, and indeed one of the basic criteria for satisfying science fiction is that it evoke a "sense of wonder."
Those who would like to know more about this kind of science fiction could do far worse than pick up a copy of The Ascent of Wonder, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (TOR, 1994). In this massive survey of hard science fiction, Hartwell notes that "...not only is the science in science fiction the foundation of science-fictional delights, it is in fact chief among those delights.... Hard sf is about the beauty of truth... the emotional experience of describing and confronting what is scientifically true.... [It] is the core of all science fiction...." It is also the only form of literature that deals with the important questions raised by new scientific knowledge and technological abilities. Often, it is written by practicing scientists, or by people such as Isaac Asimov who were trained as scientists but found writing more rewarding; some of these people find science fiction the only way they can express certain thoughts--for instance, fanciful speculations and dire predictions--that are not appropriate for academic journals.
The purpose of this book is not to survey all of science fiction, nor all of hard science fiction, but to present a few stories that illuminate some of the issues discussed in courses on science, technology, and society, which are currently served by nonfiction books and anthologies such as my own Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Science, Technology, and Society (Dushkin, 2nd ed., 1997) and Albert H. Teich's Technology and the Future (St. Martin's, 7th ed., 1997).
The fit of this anthology with such textbooks cannot be precise, for some of the issues that appear in the texts have not yet spawned suitable stories and some stories seem worth including here even though they do not match any real-world issue well. However, in many cases the fit could not be better, and then a story must add depth and a sense of personal, human relevance to what might otherwise strike some students as abstract and bloodless.
This book's title, Gedanken Fictions, refers to a basic tool of science, the gedanken or thought experiment that must be used when laboratory experiments are not practical or possible. In today's scientific research, such experiments often take the form of computer simulations, calculating what, for instance, a massive cometary impact would do to the world's atmosphere and array of living things.
Science fiction turns "simulation" into a kind of "role playing" to do very similar things. Mike Resnick's subtle "Kirinyaga" supposes that someday we will be able to give every culture that wishes independence its own small world, and then plays out how that must work when values clash. Greg Egan's "Learning to Be Me" considers some of the consequences of serious proposals to copy a human mind into a computer. Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days" posits an impossible technology--glass through which light takes days and months and years to pass--and considers its impact on human life.
In each case, the starting point is "What if...?", a thought much like a hypothesis. The story is the equivalent of an experiment, but because it isn't real, because it takes place only in the imagination, it is a thought experiment, a gedanken (thought, in German) experiment. The story also offers a new way of looking at the underlying issue, whether it is the population problem, genetic engineering, using humans, or animal rights.
Perhaps most valuable of all, the fictional view of an issue can, when combined with nonfictional essays, provoke illuminating discussions in and out of class.