Jun 6, 2013

Open Questions About Science Fiction

For someone with so little aptitude for sciences, I do love science fiction. I love gadgets and technology and the speculation as to how advances in science will change our lives. I'd love to some day try my hand at science fiction, particularly space opera.

Instead of one of my usual blog posts, today I thought I'd open up the floor for discussion.

How important is it that an author have comprehensive understanding of the scientific and technological breakthroughs that feature in their work? Can a writer get away with only a vague understanding of the laws of relativity and write about faster-than-light travel? Is knowledge of physics, space travel and cosmology necessary for a book involving space exploration? Can a person write about the emergence of an artificial intelligence without having studied real-life work in that field?

Similarly, how much mysticism can be brought to bear in science fiction? Are psychic abilities the limit of the paranormal in sci-fi? Can you feature a sense of spirituality and magic in space opera without creating cheap knock-offs of the Jedi?

I'd love to hear people's thoughts here, or on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. This is an issue really close to my heart, and I'm sure if I had the perseverance to write my own blog I'd have several essays under my belt. I'm challenging myself not to turn this response into an essay :P

    If I had a pie chart of what kinds of news I consume, about 80% + of it could be science and skeptic news. While I've never studied science in college, I'm more literate than most. This means I have a high bar when I'm suspending my disbelief for sci-fi. So when I say that Source Code is sloppy, Inception is only barely hitting the mark and Doctor Who is complete fantasy, I know that isn't true for everyone. A lot of retro sci-fi is laughable today, but the public understanding of science was so vague back then, that it worked.

    So I think that covers my first point. Science and fiction need to be in balance for a sci-fi. If the science isn't believable, your audience won't by into the fiction, or the story. But whether the science is believable is heavily dependent on how science literate your readers are.

    This is already turning essayish, but I don't write often, so I'm going to indulge myself!

    The further away in time and space you set your story, the less you need to know about modern science. Technology today would look a whole lot like magic to people a hundred or a thousand years ago, but humans are really bad at predicting what technology is going to look like even ten years from now. Near future settings are great for drawing people in, but you can lose a lot of your audience if you don't know what you're talking about.

    As for the issue of mysticism within sci-fi, I think a genre distinction is required. Science is integrel to sci-fi. Setting something in space, in the future or on a far off world doesn't make it sci-fi in my opinion. You have to engage in how things work. DS9 handles mysticism in a scientific way. The gods of one world are beings that exist outside of time. Star Wars was alway best as science fantasy. The force wasn't something tangible, it was something you felt. Something you had to believe in. The minute I heard about metaclorines, it felt sloppy.

    So there you go, it IS a bit of an essay, but I hope it's interesting too. I'm happy to waffle about this subject any time!

    - Siobhan

  2. Definitely! I regard Star Wars as complete fantasy and balk at attempts to inject harder science into it. It's pulp action and adventure. The fact it's in space and features laser weapons are really set dressing.

    In fact, I love seeing sci-fi that uses fantasy tropes, like the Mass Effect series.

    I think the closer to modern day tech-levels you go, the better your understanding of the "miracle exception" that grants the setting it's sci-fi status needs to be.

  3. Hm, you lit a fuse in my head, so here goes...

    I agree with Siobhan that the more distant in time you set your story, the less you need to derive your science from today's level, and the more you can extrapolate and go wild.

    ALSO, I think it's important to differentiate between hard science-fiction and all the other subgenres (space opera, adventure, romance, war & military, etc.). In hard science-fiction, the story always revolves around a scientific idea or achievement. The writer is required to explain the details of his core concept, and it's pretty much necessary to have a solid understanding of the sciences involved. In the other subgenres you can pretty much pull anything off as long as it seems plausible and makes sense within the story.

    For a principle to seem plausible in a scientific sense, it rather needs to sound scientific and be practical, than be actually possible. For example, you can write a story in which people travel back in time with the help of a stone (both being absolutely impossible in a true scientific sense), as long as you set up plausible rules and describe it as logically as possible. If you don't strive to write hard science-fiction, you never have to explain how exactly matter travels back in time, and what the stone is exactly made of.

    When it comes to cosmology, it gets even simpler. Cosmology is mainly a speculative science, meaning that today’s view of the universe is just a theoretical possibility, a point of view, not an established set of laws that you can't break. Our understanding of how "the skies" work on a grand scale might change in the future, as our technology to observe and measure them increases in accuracy. So when you write about faster-than-light travel or the exploration of strange galaxies, you have a lot more freedom of creative expression and get a lot more lenience in breaking the currently held views, than if you try to break empirically proven and established laws of physics such as those of thermodynamics, electronics, the dynamics of solid bodies, etc. Basically, you can invent any type of star-drive you like, from worm-hole generating ships to space-time-manipulating anti-matter drives (such as in Star Trek), as long as it seems plausible and practical. You mustn’t get into details if you don’t want to, but don’t make it sound as magical as pushing a button and hopping from one galaxy to the next without energy expenditure, or something like that. :)

    Which brings me to magic. Things are "magical" when they can't be explained by scientific reasoning, or break known scientific laws. You can use "magical" tropes in science-fiction if you base them on the scientific logic you set up within the story, and if you explain and use them in accordance with that logic. For example, having characters with "superpowers" (anything from telepathy to immortality) and not explain how that works from a pragmatic, scientific perspective (such as genetic anomalies, cross-dimensional interference, alien intervention, technological augmentation, etc.) is considered a faux pas. The setting alone (future, alien planet, etc.) doesn't define a story as science-fiction, it’s how the story deals with its extraordinary elements that makes the difference.

    And let's not forget -- if science really isn't your favorite research subject, you can always write cross-genre. The gray area between fantasy and science-fiction is enormous, generous and very fertile. You could even have space-ships powered by the souls of the damned if you like. The possibilities are endless!

    1. Ships powered by the souls of the damned. I like that :-D

      Perhaps because of how I approach storytelling and how my mind works, I often find that almost any vaguely correct-sounding explanation for advanced technology or special abilities will do for me. Unless, of course, an explanation contradicts something previously established within the story, or reveals a new piece of information that seems to have no reason to be introduced so late (hello, midochlorians...)

      I think I'd steer clear of hard sci-fi. I'm far too drawn to action and adventure and I don't believe I'd do the science justice if I stepped too far out of those areas.

  4. Hi Paul

    I don't think it's necessary to research a scientific discipline and explain it in depth unless the story revolves around it. Alistair Reynold's worked for the ESA, but he didn't really explain how ships could travel at just below light speed in'Revelation Space'. It made no difference to me as the story wasn't about that. Even Arthur C Clarke didn't feel the need to explain how everything worked.

    Providing something isn't blatantly wrong then I don't see why people stress about it. Besides, scientific theories are always in dispute until they're replaced by something else anyway. A sense of wonder, a great character, an interesting story - for me make up for a few people pointing out that so-and-so can't be done.

    All the best!

    1. Thanks Mark. It's my fear of getting things blatantly wrong that often plagues me. I'm a guy who likes when movies have sound in space because it's dramatic, and I don't enjoy realism purely for its own sake, unless it's adding a particular dramatic style to the story.

  5. I'm with Veronica for the most part. That said, nothing makes me close a book unfinished than a story with "too much" invented tech stuff. Good sci-fi is like any story, it's the characters we want to know, not the inner mechanics of crystal-harmonic star drives (I just made that up).

    Also, I have difficulties with our love affair of aliens who look, grunt and slobber like reptiles. Spielberg’s “Super 8” comes to mind, and a captured lizard with the strength of an uber backhoe, a spine tingling roar, and snacked on people legs. TNT’s thankfully failed “Fallen Sky” had a humanoid lizard on four legs with the vocabulary of dyslectic hog. “Alien’s and Cowboys” had lizards torturing humans to learn our weaknesses (though Olivia Wilde did look hot in human skin).

    Key phrase, technologically advanced. It’s a multipurpose concept. How do we take our concept of a species noted for cold bloodedness and the occasional hermaphroditic tendencies, enlighten them with the gift of knowledge to build starships, heal disease, yet still make them behave like … lizards? Some will argue incessant on the behavior diversity of aliens, but I like to think enlightenment came with a higher understanding of self, why we exist … our relationship with others. Babylon 5 gave G’Kar a brain and a heart. So enough with the dinosauric roaring and emotional equivalent of a crocodile. And even if they're the bad guys, for God’s sake, give them a pair of pants.

    1. I agree absolutely, if you don't have good characters, no amount of technobabble will save you.

      I think my problem with grunting, identical-looking aliens is that I find them difficult to relate to as characters. If they don't have recognisable personality, they're not people. They're not even shallow antagonists; they're just a part of the environment.

  6. First of all, thanks for your very excellent explanations of the difference between sci-fi and space opera. Using Star Wars and Star Trek really was the example I needed, because being a fan of both, I totally got what you were saying.
    As to the question you pose here, I do think some above average knowledge of science is necessary to write sci-fi, otherwise you're writing fantasy, in my opinion. A lot of what was written as sci-fi in the past is now real, and I think that as sci-fi writers, we need to stay within the realm of what could happen eventually, knowing the laws of physics, etc. There is of course room for bending those rules, because who knows what we'll discover in the future, such as FTL travel...
    Tina @ Life is Good

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tina!

      I admit that the kind of books I like to write often fit better in fantasy, and my favourite sci-fi stories could be easily described as other genres transposed into a futuristic setting.

  7. depends on the extent the characters need to know. a scientist needs to know more than everything, the hero should know something about what they have to use. but if u create a technology, it has to be plausible. so just enough truth to be believable, not impossible or ridiculous...