9 thoughts on “The science in science fiction”

  1. Good point about the sci­ence in fic­tion. Yes, you can be incred­ibly accur­ate and research to the nth degree, but then your work might only appeal to a hand­ful of SF-read­ing sci­ent­ists and be per­ceived as ‘too hard’ for the aver­age per­son.

    The oth­er thing I agree with: most people want to read about inter­est­ing char­ac­ters first, and inter­est­ing sci­ence second — or maybe tenth.

    I sup­pose it’s just a mat­ter of writ­ing for your inten­ded audi­ence.

  2. Thanks for your com­ment, Simon. I guess it does come down to writ­ing for your inten­ded audi­ence, and I think even those hard-SF lov­in’ sci­ent­ists would prefer to have their ideas presen­ted into the wrap­per of a good story — oth­er­wise why not read a bul­leted list of ‘ideas’.

    Reminds me a little of a film I saw recently, the ori­gin­al ‘Solyaris’, Soviet pro­duc­tion. Quite focused on beauty and with lots of things to say about the dehu­man­isa­tion impact of tech­no­logy (or the les­son that our/alien tech­no­logy can indic­ate that we’re less ‘human’ than we think we are). Still, the cent­ral char­ac­ter was inter­est­ing (a psy­cho­lo­gist 🙂 and his love for his ‘rep­lic­ated’ wife is really the centre piece. That said, there was plenty of non-story mater­i­al in the film. My the­ory is that it’s easi­er to sit through a story with lots of non-story ele­ments when it’ll only last two hours. When it’s a nov­el, you’ve got have a little more than that from the story/characters.

  3. Just look at 2001 vs 2010 (the films, not the books.)

    2001 is a sci­ence film where­as 2010 is more of an action movie. I prefer the former, but how many times have you heard people say they just didn’t get it, or that it was bor­ing?

    The prob­lem is that when you write for a wider audi­ence you can be accused of dumb­ing down the mater­i­al to appeal to the low­est com­mon denom­in­at­or. (I just came back after read­ing the art­icle you linked to, where the author says you need to write for primary school level sci­ence.)

    I think there’s a bal­ance — not being con­des­cend­ing while not explain­ing how every riv­et was made. Not cock­ing up the most basic phys­ics (whoosh­ing sounds in deep space, that kind of thing) while not going into lav­ish eye-cross­ing detail.

    I’m not say­ing sci­entif­ic SF is a no-no, just that if you want a chance of big sales then you need to appeal to a big audi­ence.

    On the oth­er hand, if sci­entif­ic SF is a rar­ity then per­haps when it DOES get pub­lished all those who are des­per­ate for it will des­cend on a new release in their thou­sands. (This seems to be the case with SF/humour.)

  4. Ian,

    I’d agree with you that writ­ing a story that the read­er can derive “mean­ing” from is the para­mount con­sid­er­a­tion. I like the way Mr. Haynes sum­mar­ized it: “not cock­ing up the most basic phys­ics while not going into lav­ish eye-cross­ing detail.”

    I think if you are talk­ing about very futur­ist­ic set­tings or those with­in their own uni­verse, there is also a lot more room to play. The prob­lem as I see it is what hap­pens when cur­rent tech­no­logy and sci­ence are addressed. While the char­ac­ters and their emo­tions must drive the story, I believe the read­ing audi­ence can take away oth­er “mean­ings” from the work with respect to the tech­no­logy. And this can have a real impact on pub­lic policy.

    I work in the US nuc­le­ar industry (which I under­stand is a top­ic of some debate at the moment in the UK). Where has the pub­lic gained it’s know­ledge of this power source? Sure, there are pamplets, speeches and sci­ence art­icles, but I’m will­ing to bet the man in the street has gathered developed much of his feel­ing for the top­ic from fic­tion — on TV, in movies and in print. The inform­a­tion presen­ted in these por­tray­als is almost always poor and mis­lead­ing — at least in the US ver­sions and the occaision­al Brit show I see. This affects the pub­lic dis­cus­sion. (Which is not to say that if good inform­a­tion were provided that every­one would want a nuke plant in their back yard.)

    I’m sure there are examples in med­ic­al fic­tion and crime fic­tion that also cause some sig­ni­fic­ant ripples in the real world. The prob­lem isn’t the enter­tain­ment value of fic­tion with sci­ence and tech­no­logy in it — - it’s the blurry line between what is presen­ted in these stor­ies and what the pub­lic comes to believe as “fact”. Whatever their lit­er­ary or fac­tu­al mer­it, Tom Clancy’s books have influ­enced US pub­lic per­cep­tion on mil­it­ary tech­no­logy for years — which has fed into policy decisions. Michael Crichton’s recent con­trari­an look at glob­al warm­ing, “State of Fear”, may also have its mer­its (it’s been cited by politi­cians and pun­dits and also got Mr. C. an audi­ence with President Bush) — - but I doubt if most of the folks I see read­ing it in the air­port know much of the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Crichton’s claims — to them it’s a defin­it­ive account. (I’ve read a num­ber of reviews on the web not­ing the book has lots of foot­notes, so it must be right.) When it comes to sci­ence, most read­ers aren’t equipped to fil­ter out the good inform­a­tion from the “story-telling” inform­a­tion.

    Writing a good story that’s 1) not over­loaded with facts and 2) doesn’t dis­tort sci­ence and tech­no­logy in a way that leaves the read­er with incor­rect or incom­plete impres­sions on issues of the day, would seem to be a reas­on­able stand­ard for a writer. But item 2. isn’t much of a factor these days, at least if my con­tacts with the pub­lish­ing com­munity are any indic­a­tion. In fact, con­sid­er­a­tion of it seems to be viewed as some­what det­ri­ment­al. I think there’s some neg­at­ive con­sequences to that.

    Thanks again for bring­ing up the sub­ject, Ian. Sorry to blath­er on so long. I am think­ing of writ­ing anoth­er nov­el, but next time I’ll pick a sub­ject where the accur­acy in any sci­ence presen­ted won’t be much of an issue. That would be a refresh­ing change for me.

  5. James, there is one solu­tion. You could write and (hope­fully) sell a less sci­en­tific­ally tech­nic­al book, some­thing aimed at the gen­er­al book read­ing masses — and I include myself in that cat­egory. Once you’re in print you might be able to ratchet up the sci­ence in the next and sub­sequent books.

    In oth­er words, a bit like boil­ing frogs. Start with luke­warm water and take it from there.

    Of course, you might not be seek­ing career advice from ran­dom inter­net strangers who don’t even write in your genre, but it might be the way to go.

  6. Thanks for mulling it over. Actually I’ve had quite a few folks without sci­entif­ic train­ing read my book and enjoy it. It’s aimed at a gen­er­al audi­ence. I feel the prob­lem has a bit more to do with get­ting in the front door of main­stream pub­lish­ing, which I believe has more restrict­ive tastes than the pub­lic at large. (See the LabLit.com series Meet My Dragon, epis­ode 1, for an example of a pre­vi­ously-pub­lished writer hit­ting the same road­b­lock and ulti­mately going around it with suc­cess.) Or per­haps I’m just fool­ing myself.

    But you’re right — to get in the door, you have to fol­low the house rules. Perhaps next time…

  7. Thanks for your com­ments, James. I under­stand your frus­tra­tion at the por­tray­al of nuc­le­ar power — I’m no expert but I think we’ve got a sim­il­ar media over here in the UK. I guess it’s to be expec­ted when, by its nature, the media is full of people who are stronger on arts than sci­ence (I write this as yet anoth­er sur­vey is repor­ted in the news as news, with no attempt to look crit­ic­ally at the deriv­a­tion of the find­ings). Best of luck with your next book.

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