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.