The science in science fiction

James Aach, author of Rad Decision, responded to one of my earlier posts with a comment about the portrayal of science and technology in fiction. You can read his essay on this here. My own thoughts on scientific realism in fiction are fairly complex. A few years back, I would have argued that factual information in fiction should be watertight, a la Frederick Forsyth. This ties in with my professional training, which is, more or less, scientific. It also stems from a very real frustration with the media. Any given news report will tend to contain errors of critical reasoning that would, if the report was marked as an undergraduate essay, result in a fail. An example? ‘Doctors have found a link between coffee and heart attacks…’ The reporter will then go on to advise that a reduction in caffeine intake will lower the probability that one will suffer a heart attack. The critical error here is the assumption of causality; that the heart attack is the effect of the coffee. Equally likely – in fact, this is what we must say, since many of these studies use statistical methods that cannot prove a causal connection – is that caffeine consumption and heart attack incidence are correlates; maybe they are linked to a third variable, such as a ‘go-getting’ personality.

Aaaanyway – in our culture where ignorance of Einstein is worn as a badge of honour and ignorance of Shakespeare conjures the gasp of ‘Philistine!’ – I understand how basic errors in the analysis and reporting of technology can get on one’s nerves.

As for the portrayal of science and technology in fiction, I think I’ve arrived at a place where I prioritise meaning over factual accuracy. For example, in my novel Déjà Vu, I describe an ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge‘ (a point of connection between two areas of space-time) and its use as a time machine. Now, I have made several changes to the way the time machine works, and these changes are not possible within the rules of Einsteinian physics. (An Einstein-Rosen bridge should have two entrances at either side, and the best way to have your hero travel in time is to accelerate one to a speed that approaches the speed of light.) So much of my science is this context is technically inaccurate…but accurate within the ‘universe’ of Déjà Vu.

I guess I’ve come to this conclusion through the editing process. I’ve learned that what makes a scene good isn’t the tech; it’s the meaning conjured by the characters, their struggles, the conflict, and the wider narrative. When working to improve a work of fiction, you can fiddle with the meaning (I’m using this word in a broad sense that encompasses ’emotion’, ‘affect’, ‘interest’ and so on) or the technical stuff. At the end of the day, it’s the sharpening of meaning that improves the work by any real margin.

This was brought home to me when writing the next novel in the Déjà Vu universe, Flashback. I deliberately avoided any solid research prior to its writing. Why? Because a story is a series of emotional moments happening to people you care about, full stop. The story, at this level, is completely independent of the techo/scientific stuff (the exception being a story where a turning point is based on something technical). The non-novelists reading this post might wonder if it is possible to write a technothriller without doing any research. Well, I’ve done it. (Whether the novel is any good, of course, is a separate issue.) It’s the way that episodes of ER are written; the writers draft a script and leave it full of holes with statements like ‘insert gross illness here’ or ‘Kovac and Pratt argue about whether the treatment was appropriate; K wanted to take the most cautious approach, P the most reckless’ and then the medical consultants will work with them on the dialogue. The dialogue – i.e. the research – is not the story bit. The story bit is the relationship between Kovac and Pratt.

You might recall reading a book where the writer has misunderstood the separation between his research and his story. There’s a certain amount of showing off involved; the writer has done a shedload of work and wants to prove it; or the writer is just a geek and wants to write stuff out in full. You know the writers I’m talking about. Their works contain chunks of ‘research porn’ and instead of being gripped, the reader feels like they’ve stumbled into a seminar on the metallurgy of the AK47. Best to avoid that. I think the writer needs to ask: (i) What kind of meaning am I trying to project? (ii) What research do I need to do in order to ‘sell’ this? (iii) How do I need to alter these real-world concepts/applications to fit with my meaning? (iv) How do I ‘sell’ my story using the minimum of research detail?

Here’s a snippet from Flashback. The excerpt features aircraft investigator Hrafn Óskarson entering the hall of a school that has been taken over for use as a morgue. What I’m attempting to do here is not saturate the reader with facts, but impart what it feels like to be a man like Hrafn at this moment in his life. It still has some duff sentences (it’s a draft), but the overall path of the scenelet is OK. Each of the dozen bits of ‘research’ should do two things: (i) create meaning and (ii) much less importantly, ‘set the scene’.

There was a tin-foil alphabet pinned to the wall. Elsewhere, photographs from a skiing trip. From a tissue-paper forest peered Red Riding Hood, a wolf, and a witch. Hrafn reversed from the displays and crossed the hall. He wondered why it should be that, as he entered middle age, the memories of childhood quickened. Those summers when the night never came. That day his bother Ragnar arrived with news that the cats at their aunt’s farm were to be made into gloves, and the frantic race to stop it, only to find their aunt indifferent. The morning their father’s Cessna 150 hazed the wind-turbine atop their bungalow.

Hrafn crouched. He tugged a passport from his jacket and drew his thumb across its gold-stamped title, Unione Europea Repubblica Italiana. The photograph showed a woman with shoulder-length, auburn hair. He let her eyes imprint his vision. As gently as a doctor with a timid patient, Hrafn unzipped the recovery bag.

The smell of raw hamburger meat beckoned memories of investigations on whose stepping stones he returned to the night his Boeing 747 lost all engine power over the Pacific. There had been anxious, high-concentration minutes as the thousand-tonne vehicle sank towards the moonlit waves. Only at a low altitude had the jets restarted. They landed in Jakarta, and, later, Captain Óskarson drank with the Rolls Royce agent who came to inspect their engines. The mechanic mentioned that Mount Galunggung had erupted the previous afternoon, and both men understood that jets had choked on ash. Hrafn thanked the mechanic, wrote his resignation letter on the hotel note-paper, and returned, by land and sea, to a farm in Akureyri, where he was in time for the last months of his aunt’s life.

Here, in the school.

On a whiteboard next to the door, a doctor had written, Mortui Vivis Praecipant. Hrafn read no Latin, but he had seen those words many times.

Let the dead teach the living.

He cast back the lid of the bag.

Well, I’ve rambled on and off my point for a bit, so I’ll get back to working on the second edition of Déjà Vu.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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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