Writers absorb latest science into creations

By ZHANG QINGLI and WU NAN / 02-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The space elevator scene in Remembrance of Earth’s Past, also known as the Three Body trilogy, displayed at a sci-fi themed exhibition in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, on Feb. 9 Photo: CFP

The development of science and technology has always been projected by humanism, while constantly extending the frontier of the humanities in fields such as philosophy, literature, and art. Authors tend to inject scientific concepts like relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and others into their creative works, reviewing science and its humanistic implications in a literary way. 

Interactive relationship 

Science, which itself contains the trajectory of people’s thoughts and actions, is bound to be an object of literature. Meanwhile, the integration of literature and science can further spawn interdisciplinary studies of literature, such as reflections on medical humanities, as well as research on science fiction and climate fiction, said Yang Jincai, editor-in-chief of Contemporary Foreign Literature and a professor from Nanjing University. 

“The interactive relationship between literature and science shows staged characteristics in different historical periods,” said Zhang Longhai, vice president of Minnan Normal University. Their relationship has undergone three stages throughout human history, respectively “fusion and symbiosis in classical times,” “separation and development in modern times,” and “complementarity and integration in the present stage.” The influence of science on literature is primarily manifested in the content of works, creative concepts, and literary schools. 

“Tracing the cultural origin of the relationship between Western literature and science, science and philosophy has occupied an important position since the ancient Greek period,” said Gao Xudong, a professor from the School of Liberal Arts at Renmin University of China. Hegelianism has given rise to semanticism and historical culturalism in modern Western philosophy, which respectively represent scientific and humanistic culture. Although Western literary works from romanticism to contemporary literature tend to appear as anti-technology, they have virtually all been deeply influenced and penetrated by science and technology. 

Scientists have always strived to grasp the universal laws that determine the relationships between all things, while writers create with scientific thinking. Yang exemplified that the scientific and philosophical thoughts brimming with rationalism between the 16th and 18th centuries nurtured the linear literary thinking based on rationalist scientific approaches. Writers eagerly responded to and actively participated in scientific hypotheses as the emergence and development of relativity theory and quantum mechanics led to changes in the overall concept of culture. Such concepts as field theory and relativity theory innovated with the traditional narrative methods of fiction, empowering modernist novelists to leisurely express pluralism, relativism, and uncertainty. 


Literary foresight 

Literature is not only a direct manifestation of new phenomena, but also gives an insight into the prospect of scientific development with its imaginative creativity. Edward N. Lorenz, a dynamic meteorologist from MIT, accidentally discovered the “nonlinear” nature of chaos phenomena in research and calculation, namely the “butterfly effect,” which offers a scientific basis for explaining the perceived randomness and uncertainty of the surface of things. Not long before the butterfly effect was articulated and named, American novelist Ray Bradbury used a butterfly to describe a similar story in his short story “A Sound of Thunder.” Literature capably catches sight of the future of science in its own way of expression. 

“Literature also has a counterforce to the development of science,” Zhang added. It has the function of innovating the social ethos and liberating the mind, thereby fueling the development of science. In addition, its unique imagination can advance the development of science, and science fiction in particular can ignite people’s interest in scientific explorations. Furthermore, writers devote themselves to encouraging scientific, healthy, sustainable, and high-quality development with their humanistic care and critical, reflective spirit. 

The “Cyborg,” an integration of human and machine, represents some of the most cutting-edge technologies of the 21st century. In fact, “body repair” and even the “reproduction” technology that we speak of today were outlined in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in 1818 and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Man That Was Used Up” first published in 1839. Current representations of cyborgs, after being shaped by movies, literature, science and technology, consider the tension between human and machine primarily from the aspect of machine, embodying the literary contemplation and representation of human survival in the era of artificial intelligence. In Yang’s view, cyborgs in literature have become a kind of “simulacra” pattern without entity to some extent, conceiving possible prospects of technological development with imagination and transcendence. 

Science fiction has always been a hot topic in multidisciplinary studies of science and literature. In recent years, science fiction research has demonstrated a frontier trend without theoretical “jet lag” while demonstrating rich country and area characteristics. The scientific fantasies in Chinese fiction have received particular attention from academic circles. Huo Shengya, an associate professor from the School of Foreign Studies at Central University of Finance and Economics, suggested the necessity of further widening the topic selection of sci-fi research and enriching country and area characteristics, objectively showcasing the panoramas and scenarios of the creation value and research of science fiction in the world. 

With a keen vision, writers can pierce through historical truth and deeply convey ethical concerns, calling on people to guard against the possible catastrophic consequences brought about by the blind worship of technology. As such, scientific observation in contemporary foreign literature is worth digging into. Both the interpretation of specific texts and the interdisciplinary study of literature and science are fertile soil in the field, Yang concluded.