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.

Author: 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 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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