I’m brazenly stealing this topic from a panel at ArmadilloCon because I thought of something after the panel was already over. The idea was to ask which sciences do we not see very often in science fiction. Some of the suggestions included medicine, neuroscience, and mathematics. The science I didn’t think of until too late was… well, I suppose I should call it communication theory.
I’m talking about the kind of science that studies the problem of communicating with someone over vast time and distance when you don’t necessarily have a language in common. There’s the classic trick of broadcasting prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11…), but what do you do beyond that? What do you put into the signal to give the key to deciphering it?
Contact by Carl Sagan delved into that. The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt touched on it as well, and I remember an old book by James Gunn called The Listeners that played with some pictogram strategies. The most recent of these books is twenty-five years old. Other than that, I haven’t seen anything. (Though obviously, I have not read everything.)
A similar problem would exist if you wanted to leave behind a marker for an evolving race to find in a few million (or billion) years. Apart from some kind of “Kilroy was here” message, what might your monolith attempt to communicate to the poor blokes who dig it up? For that matter, what would you do to help them find it?
And even more mundane (but no less terrifying), how would you preserve our current knowledge for the survivors of some impending catastrophe? That is, if the killer asteroid or genocidal pandemic are underway, how do you leave information for the next civilization that arises from the ashes in thousands (or millions) of years. They very likely won’t share our language. They might not even be our species. If Earth is doomed to become the Planet of the Apes, it would be nice if they knew what the Statue of Liberty was about.
Anyway, I’d like to see more science fiction addressing these kinds of issues. The “Kilroy was here” marker is particularly compelling to me, but I don’t yet have a full story for it.
What sciences do you think SF is missing?