Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Meaning of "Life"

I'm the compiler of  <>, a wiki on "The Human/Machine Interface in SF," which is based on Clockworks: A Multimedia Bibliography of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF — that "Multimedia Bibliography" phrase is the publisher's; we called it a "List" (Greenwood Press, 1993). 

The end of the 20th century was a time when literary studies were getting a heavy dose of Philosophy, and respectable scholars by God were to Define your terms! My writing partner, Thom Dunn, and I hadn't always done so and had taken a little guff for the failure. So in the Introduction to Clockworks, toward the end of our Introduction, pretty safe from the eyes of most readers and, we figured, all those unpaid academic reviewers, we wrote this, defining the last part of our subtitle:

In SF. In our Abbreviations, we differentiate between "SF" and "S.F." "S.F." is "science fiction," and SF is "science fiction" plus related genres such as eutopias, dystopias, some fantasy, and some horror. In our earlier volumes The Mechanical God [Greenwood 1982] and Clockwork Worlds [GP 1983], we declined to define "science fiction" and noted the comparable inability of biologists to define "life," of attorneys to define "tort" let alone Justice, of mathematicians to define "point" — and we noted the generations of literary critics who have discussed comedy and tragedy without ever coming up with standard definitions of those terms. Here, we recommend a definition of "life" Erlich heard somewhere and liked: "The process by which entropy is reversed, locally and temporarily, in a volume both in contact with and set off from surrounding space-time"; but we still decline to define "science fiction."

Although we did give some indications of where we set the SF borders.

It was a joke, with a bit of a "Screw you" to the pedants: we won't define "science fiction," but we will tell you The Meaning of Life.

Over the years, a close friend or two with strong backgrounds in the relevant sciences, and strong tendencies toward the wise-ass, has or have suggested an example or two that fit the definition but are obviously inorganic (crystals forming in a sack or "sac" that's a semi-permeable membrane ... and such). 

Okay, but this much in my defense, sort of, and to complete the story with the probable source of the biology-lore I passed along. From Jessica Riskin's The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, a work I'm annotating for the wiki: "'When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on 'doing something,'" and that "the most salient 'something' that organisms characteristically did was to resist entropy, to avoid decay into equilibrium" (Restless Clock, p. 369; ch. 10). And the source of the quote? Edwin Schrödinger's What Is Life? (Cambridge U Press, 1944).

Ah ha! Sort of. At least the lore I passed on — and I got it as academic folklore, word-of-mouth, a kind of rumor — at least the lore I passed on had a respectable genealogy.