Ben Bova: Maybe leaders should read more science fiction

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As I wrote in this space a few weeks ago, I get a fair amount of criticism but I seldom read it.

However, my lynx-eyed wife does. And when she spots a letter to the editor about one of my columns that particularly irks her, she reads it to me out loud.

Often, when a letter writer can’t think of any other way to whack at me, he will fall back on the fact that I write fiction. Science fiction, at that. It’s an old ploy and I’m used to it.

Although I do write fiction, my columns in this newspaper are based strictly on facts. I may speculate about future developments, but even those gazes into the future are based solidly on the realities of today and the lessons of history.

For example, a recent letter took me to task for criticizing the federal government’s leap into ethanol as a step in solving our intertwined energy and environmental problems. The writer made some valid points, but one is definitely off base.

He wrote: “Few, if any, dispute the facts that (ethanol) emits far less carbon dioxide … than gas.” By “gas,” he meant gasoline.

Alas, 10 days earlier, the California Air Resources Board reported that ethanol manufactured from corn produces more greenhouse-heating carbon dioxide than gasoline, if you factor in the additional carbon dioxide released by the deforestation and clearing of grasslands associated with expanding the acreage devoted to growing corn for ethanol production.

This may seem like a nit-pick, but the molecules of carbon dioxide that contribute to greenhouse warming behave exactly the same way no matter where they came from, no matter whether it’s from the exhaust pipe of your auto or the chopping down of trees in Wisconsin. Put those molecules into the atmosphere and they absorb heat, thereby raising the global temperature.

Corn-based ethanol produces more CO2 than gasoline. Sugar-cane ethanol, which is what they use in Brazil, yields much less carbon dioxide, and cellulostic ethanol, produced from nonfood crops, produces less than half of that.

But ethanol derived from Midwestern corn puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than gasoline does, according to the California agency’s study.

That’s not fiction. It’s fact.

Still, when people want to contradict what I write, they point out that I write fiction. Science fiction.

I admit that if the only science fiction you’re aware of is what you see in movie theaters or on television, you have every right to be skeptical. That stuff isn’t based on scientific fact; it’s based on comic strips or the dreams of juveniles.

I remember once, when I was editing Omni magazine and living in Manhattan, I was picked for jury duty. Prospective jurors are questioned by the prosecutor and defense attorney to determine their fitness to serve on an actual case.

I got as far as being asked, “You’re a writer? What sort of things do you write?”

When I said, “Science fiction, mostly,” I didn’t even get to finish the “mostly.” Both the district attorney and the defense attorney leaped to their feet and shouted, “Excused!”

The judge, however, was interested. “You mean like Isaac Asimov?” he asked. We had a pleasant little chat about Asimov and science fiction while the rest of the courtroom waited for the wheels of justice to resume turning.

I may be prejudiced, of course, but it seems to me that if more people read science fiction — real science fiction, not the Hollywood tripe — the world would be a better place.

When I say “real science fiction,” I mean stories based solidly on known scientific facts. The writer is free to extrapolate from the known and project into the future, of course. The writer is free to invent anything he or she wants to — as long as nobody can prove that it’s wrong.

Thus science-fiction stories can deal with flights to the stars, or human immortality, a world government, settlements on other worlds. All of these things are possibilities of the future.

In the past, science-fiction writers have written about computers, robots, space flight, nuclear power, organ transplants, prosthetic limbs, brain stimulators, climate change, overpopulation and a myriad of other ideas and possibilities — usually several decades before they became actualities.

If our political leaders had been reading science fiction, we might have been spared the Cold War, the energy crises, the failures of public education and many of the other problems that now seem intractable because we were not prepared to deal with them when they arose.

We could be living in a world that is powered by solar and nuclear energy, drawing our raw materials from the moon and asteroids, moving much of our industrial base into orbit and allowing our home world to become a clean, green residential area.

But very few of us read enough science fiction to learn how to look into the future and see the possibilities of tomorrow, both the good and the bad. Certainly our political leaders are constantly surprised by each new crisis. They don’t look into the future any farther than the next election day.

Science fiction, at its best, is an experimental laboratory where you can test new ideas to see how they might affect people and whole societies. To my mind, it should be required reading for everyone.

But then I’m prejudiced.

* * *

Global warming news: Satellite images taken this March show that the ice cap covering the Arctic Ocean is getting thinner and smaller, almost as small as the record low measured in 2006.

The extent of the ice cap in March was smaller than the long-term average for the Arctic by an area about the size of Texas.

Just the facts, folks.

Incidentally, science-fiction stories were looking at the problems of climate change 50 years ago, and more.

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of 120 books, including “The Immortality Factor,” a novel about stem-cell research. Bova’s Web site address is

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