The "Facts" We All Know

A recent scientific article reported the results of a study of the conversational patterns of men and women. The results? That men and women actually utter almost the same number of words daily. The topics talked about did differ by gender — men talked more about tools, gadgets, and sports, women more about people — but the difference in the volume of conversation indicated that, on average, women talked only about three percent more on a daily basis. More interesting was the fact that the “extreme” talkers were male.

What I found most interesting about the study was its genesis. One of the researchers kept coming across references to a “fact” that women talked three times as much as men did, but he could never find any research or statistics to support that contention. I can’t help but wonder how many more such facts are embedded in our culture… especially in the science fiction and fantasy subculture.

Science fiction, in very general terms, is supposed to be based on what is theoretically possible in the sciences, and over the years I’ve heard more than a few authors talk, both sotto voce and loud and boisterously, about how they wrote “hard science fiction,” solid stuff, based on science. And to give them their due, most of them did. But with a tradition of such “hard” SF going back over seventy years, why is it that SF writers have had such a poor record of predicting the future?

The first reason, I submit, is that many of the “facts” accepted by writers don’t stay facts. They were theories or assumptions based on science that was either already outdated or which soon became outdated, yet was still widely accepted. For example, Tom Goodwin’s “classic” story [“The Cold Equations”] basically suggested that there was absolutely no flexibility in oxygen supplies in a spacecraft, largely, I believe, because he did not anticipate oxygen recycling and the like, or the kind of human engineering and ingenuity that allowed Apollo 13 to make a miraculous return to earth. The other problem with “The Cold Equations” is that Goodwin combined the “laxity” of long-accepted technology with the totally tight margins of experimental and pioneering craft. The only prevention for intrusion into a spacecraft about to launch was a sign? For a culture sending a ship across interstellar space? Yet, so far as I can tell, few if any writers or critics ever noted this at the time.

Also, like the “conversation” fact uprooted by this recent study, there are other cultural facts and myths, so deeply part of our society [as well as different “facts” deeply rooted in other cultures] that we seldom question them. There is the “fact” that the ace pilot is tall, lean, and rangy. In fact, usually the pilots best able to take high gee forces are shorter and less rangy.

A second reason is that technology — or magic, if we’re considering fantasy — is only one of many factors. Costs and economic viability usually trump technology. That’s the principal reason why there’s no follow-on aircraft to the Concorde. And why we don’t all have those personal helicopters predicted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yet still, all too many SF authors don’t consider the economics of their cultures or futures.

So… if you really want to write something that’s accurate, consider those “facts” you have tucked away very carefully… and don’t forget about the cost of implementing that nifty technology.