In the 1660s the Irish chemist Robert Boyle made a list of 24 wishes: a page or two of solutions to all the challenges of 17th century life that he hoped might come about in the not too distant future. They ranged from the explorative: ‘the art of flying’, or the practical: ‘the acceleration of the production of things out of seed’, and ‘the making armour light and extremely hard’, to the fantastical: ‘the attaining of gigantik proportions,’ and, almost as an afterthought, the oddly obscure: ‘varnishes perfumable by rubbing’.
A handful of centuries later almost every wish on Boyle’s to-do list has become reality, including a number of medical hopes - ‘the prolongation of life’, ‘the cure of diseases... by transplantation’ - that must have been dearly longed for in the hit-and-miss days of Restoration-era surgery, and looking at this list of hopes now can be a little sad, knowing that its author understood he would never benefit from a single one.
It’s easy to see how Boyle’s wishes must have been the product of frustration, an inability to accept a life as yet untamed by science: they dream of greater control and wisdom, of being bigger, stronger, better informed. England had experienced an agricultural revolution in the last two hundred years, growing ever wealthier and more advanced. It had survived an attacking Armada, apocalyptic plagues and a brutal, chaotic civil war, emerging reinvigorated into the light. The industrial revolution was at this point only a hundred years away, and perhaps Boyle could already sense the changes in the wind. His wishes could almost be those of a child, still small and uncertain and afraid of the world, longing to be grown-up, impatient with the glacial slowness of life. In some ways the list is a mirror, society and the individual reflected in a desire to meet the universe as its equal, and so perhaps what Boyle set down all those years ago could be compared with the first tentative jottings of a piece of science fiction, a pre-industrial forebear to the novels and films and ideas of today, that was itself just following a line of speculative ancestors as far back as Lucian’s A True History, written in the 2nd century AD. And, from a similar wish list of which Boyle’s is the progenitor, this is often how science fiction seems to form.
In these writings the future itself is nothing but a medium, the opportunity presented by a clean, fresh page. It exists in the emptiness of Boyle’s parchment as it does between the lines of a modern notebook or in the glow of a backlit screen. The future is, as Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, ‘a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in. A means of thinking about reality, a method,’ and it is on this blankness that we write our own hopes, continuing Boyle’s spirit of invention.
Where the wish list of the 1660s creates the potential for plenty of drama, a novelist’s list must also usually generate a flaw, an imperfection that agitates and eddies and froths the mixture into action, driving the currents of the story. Of the three or four great ages in SF literature, near-future dystopia, the earliest, does this constantly, reproducing this flaw thousands of times in a spectrum of colours and shapes, each the manifestation of a fear. The subgenre could be described as anti-Boyle, however, for its wish list is the haunting negative of our 17th century utopian dreams, where the imperfection is coming perilously close to winning outright, or has indeed done so already. We can see it in the wonderfully named Buggers of Ender’s Game, humanity’s sudden infertility in The Children of men, the victory of the Axis powers in The Man in the High Castle. The Flaw breaks the world, which in its suffering fights back.
In the second broad era of Science Fiction, under which full-blown Space Opera most commonly falls, we witness the rise of transhumanity, the augmentation and enhancement of the body in response to the Flaw: the Ultranauts of Revelation Space, the SC agents of the Culture, the factions possessed by the Spice in Dune. Boyle even foresees the glandular/neural modifications of Banks’ Utopian citizens in point 12 of his wish list: ‘potent druggs to alter and exalt imagination, waking, memory and other functions...’ and the rise of genetic engineering in works like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (point 17): ‘the transmutation of species in mineralls, animals and vegetables.’ The inhabitants of SF’s second era have modified themselves in the Boylian philosophy, achieving an unprecedented command of their bodies and surroundings: a command of the Flaw. The adulthood so craved in the small 17th century wish list has been reached at last, and Robert Boyle’s spirit of self-improvement lives on, replacing the next phases of evolution with its own slow change.
In other novels the world continues to turn, and a third era comes to pass, that of the posthuman, the contented stupor of old age. It is in this time that I set my first novel, The Promise of the Child; in a century when humankind as a species has run its course, falling prey to the goblin races bred from it over the millennia. In this third age nearly all of Boyle’s still unrealised wishes can find a home, such as the gigantism of man does in my own book, and a certain eccentricity prevails as the genre falls slowly away from allegory.
By now the infant that was Boyle’s civilization has braved dystopian adolescence and in adulthood the Flaw has been largely overcome. In so doing we have altered beyond recognition, like the Morlocks and Elois of H.G. Wells or the primate tribes of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, and exist in a world of wondrous horrors. Here at last the rules of science fiction seem to sag and loosen, as if succumbing to the same entropy that unwinds the last physical structures and laws, to be subsumed by heat death or creeping, numbing cold. The fourth era, explored by writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, has begun, where even protons have started to decay.
But there is still one last wish yet to be granted, the penultimate jotting on Boyle’s list, written in a loopy, faltering hand: ‘a perpetual light’. Sure, he’s probably just anticipating the light bulb, invented one hundred and forty-odd years later, but it’s nice to think he might have meant something more; true immortality, perhaps not for the individual but the species. And in fiction it is answered, a new list is written, delivering us into the hypothetical realm of a fifth age, the transdimensional, the transchronological.
‘No, but affording the opportunity to become time proof. Age proof. In theory, one might become able to step down consecutively through earlier universes... well, forever.’
‘So this thing can do something the Culture can’t?’
‘Looks like it.’
‘And I take it the Culture would like to be able to do what it can do.’
‘Oh, yes. Yes, very much so.’”
(Excession, Iain M. Banks, 1996, p.115)
Robert Boyle died in 1691, a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Robert Boyle Prize for Analytical Science has been awarded since 1982. ‘Varnishes perfumable by rubbing’ have indeed been invented, and allowed the singer Katy Perry to make her 2010 album Teenage Dream smell like cotton candy.
Tom Toner is the author of The Promise of the Child, out tomorrow from Night Shade Books.