Science in S.F.

For some time, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that some readers who proclaim their love of science fiction don’t really love science or SF that actually relies on science. What they love are the gadgets, the faster-than-light travel, the blasters or lasers, the AIs that think like people and not like artificial intelligences. And many of these people seem to get upset if science gets more than a passing mention.

Now… I know. I’m the one who has, for years, railed about writers who don’t write about people, or whose characters are cardboard propped up by in-depth and very realistic science that goes on for too many pages. And I’ve called that segment of the genre technoporn.

But there should be a middle ground [yes… I’m once more advocating for middle ground and moderation in a society that is ever more polarized] where science is a real and tangible part of the fiction, but enables or restricts the acts of the characters in the fashion that it does in “real life.”

When I wrote Solar Express, I knew that there would be a segment of readers who didn’t like the fact that the two main characters communicate through what is essentially a future form of email. And some readers did object, not as many as I feared, but I wasn’t restricting my characters artificially, or because I was being old-fashioned, but because even speed of light communications don’t work in real time much beyond the orbit of the moon because of the time delay. The Earth is roughly eight light-minutes from the sun, and that means a 16 minute delay between sending a message and getting a reply. I also limited the technology to what we know is theoretically possible… and potentially affordable.

But I’m seeing a growing number of readers who aren’t interested in the slightest in science, and who object if even a hint of real science lasts more than a sentence.
Some readers will likely say that’s fine if the book is set in a future where the plot doesn’t rely on science, but unless we’re talking post-apocalyptic societies with lower technologies, the science should at least be semi-realistic. And, if the writer is dealing with a plot relying heavily on science and technology, some of that needs to leak out in passing, enough so that the “science” isn’t just another form of “hand-wavium.”

Science has great possibilities for speculative fiction, but real science also has considerable limitations… and high-tech science is incredibly expensive. The Navy attempted to come up with a truly futuristic warship in the U.S.S. Zumwalt, but the advanced guns required ammunition that cost almost a million dollars for each projectile. Just 2,000 rounds would have cost almost $2 billion.

So… death stars are really nifty, but no realistic empire could ever afford to build them, and most of the weapons wouldn’t work, and certainly not the way they’re depicted. All of which just may be why there are fewer and fewer authors who even attempt realistic SF, and why so much of what passes as hard SF is really science fantasy, but which very few readers or writers want to admit.

12 thoughts on “Science in S.F.”

  1. JakeB says:

    I particularly liked that Solar Express was half epistolary novel, but I may be old-fashioned in that way.

    I suspect the science vs. science fantasy argument has been lost at least ever since Star Wars started being called science fiction . . .

  2. Sam says:

    Perhaps because of the science fictions authors whose work I read I’ve always felt this was more of a problem with movies and television than with books.

    I’ve always made allowances for science fiction that makes use of real world science and fantasy science as long as it makes the distinction clear.

    An example of fantasy science I would put forward is the Doctor’s TARDIS from Doctor Who. The TARDIS is a vehicle produced by an impossibly advanced alien civilisation that can travel throught time and space and is bigger on the inside that the outside. The science fantasy conceit being that the advanced aliens – the Time Lords – had mastered dimensional engineering.

    Ultimately the TARDIS is just a plot device to take the characters from one location to another so that the story can begin.

    In the early days of the series a lot of the stories attempted to be educational by integrating current historical and scientific knowledge into the show. As a result you would see a mixture of real world science and fantasy science.

    Unfortunately these days the modern series doesn’t try to educate or inform it’s audiences but rather merely to entertain them.

    I do think there is some value in fantasy science concepts like the TARDIS though. They inspire the imagination and lead you to wonder if such things are possible. I’ve heard some physicists say that a construct that is larger on the inside than the outside may be theoretically possible.

    At least in part scientific and technological progress is made by redefining what is possible.

  3. Daze says:

    It isn’t always possible to see exactly where the plausibility line is. The obvious example to me is the ansible: many stories from the 1940’s on may have introduced the equivalent technology in some form just to keep their interstellar story moving at faster than glacial pace, but quantum entanglement science suggests that there could (one day, not soon) be a plausible scientific basis for how an ansible might work.

  4. Richard L. Hamilton says:

    I prefer that sci-fi and usually even fantasy make a reasonably small number of assumptions beyond the world we know, and use them in an at least internally consistent manner to enable the story, without taking away so many challenges as to make the story implausible.

    To achieve that, in-story explanations probably have to have been created; but they don’t necessarily have to be included in the story at all, merely implied by the way that natural appearances fit the unstated explanations. For those who like explanations of fictional tech or magic, when it doesn’t advance the story to include the explanations, they could always go in an appendix.

    Different authors seem to have different ideas about how much unpublished backstory they should create. Some claim they should always know more about the characters, society, tech (or magic) than is published; others claim to know nothing about those beyond what they have written or plan to write;Tolkien by deed of creating millennia of backstory must fall into the former category (even if his interest was the linguistics and the history they implied rather than great consistency in other matters), and I seem to recall Donaldson effectively stating that he was in the latter. And then there are those like Terry Brooks, whose earlier books seem to me to contain little or no backstory for the later ones to pick up on, as if he did very little advance planning, and made up each sequel as he went along.

  5. Richard L. Hamilton says:

    IMO, science in sci-fi (or magic in fantasy) should enable the story, and not impair it by being a get-out-of-jail-free card. It should have sufficient background to have internal consistency (arguably more than actually appears in the story proper), and a well-defined point of departure from the familiar, to give some sense of connection to it. Some analog of conservation laws must exist, and some skill must be acquired, to use the tech or magic.

    Exposition on the tech or magic IMO, unless it serves a necessary role in the story, should be saved for an appendix, for those who enjoy some insight into the additional background material. (Some might even enjoy some notes on the supporting research connecting it to established theories, mythologies, practices, etc.) If consistency of the story requires ideas that need not be explicit in the story, that need not be held back as unrevealed for future use, I would think that the effort of producing an appendix from working notes might even be profitable by appealing to those who liked extensive background, without driving away those who liked the story to flow more naturally.

    Different authors seem to prepare vastly different amounts of background material that does not appear in their stories. I seem to recall that Donaldson said he didn’t know more about characters or events in his stories than what he wrote or planned to write (I’d find it a challenge to maintain consistency working without a larger hidden plan); Tolkien, with his interest in what sort of history might have led to a language that he found aesthetically pleasing, had a vast amount of background material unpublished in his lifetime, although being largely limited to that focus, it didn’t prevent other areas where suspension of disbelief might challenge the reader. And as far as I can tell, Terry Brooks made up his sequels for the earlier Shannara books as he went along, with little indication that a plan for the arc predated and influenced any given book, although that changed somewhat for the later ones that were planned as series segments, essentially multivolume stories in that universe.

    Am I missing a point somewhere? 🙂 I do appreciate thought put into consistent tech/magic, logistics, weather, effect of moonlight on battles, etc, even if I don’t want needless exposition on those in the middle of a story.

  6. Richard L. Hamilton says:

    Sorry about the quasi-duplicate post. My posts weren’t showing up immediately as they usually do, so I thought they’d been lost.

    1. No… there were problems with the server hosting the domain.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    Some of us like science and speculative science. Some of us like stories and story-lines (eg parafaith war and ethos effect) that are internally consistent.

    Some of us even look down our noses at the rise of the neo-Luddites and flat earthers.

    ps: I agree with JakeB: Star Wars is not science fiction… its fantasy dressed up with space clothes instead of medieval costume.

    1. JakeB says:

      I calculated from one battle scene in _Phantom Menace_ that blaster bolts travel at about 500 miles per hour. Faster than an arrow, but slower than a bullet . . .

  8. Arin Komins says:

    I occasionally teach project management, and I use the Death Star example — what do we think the business case for that project was, what was it’s ostensible goal, it’s secret goal, who are the stakeholders, etc.

    Most people don’t want to apply actual real world situations to their fiction.

  9. Tom says:

    Take a science concept.
    Add a “What If”.
    Use this as the environment for a human event.

    There you go – a SF novel.

    The skill is in the communication.

  10. Michael John Creek says:

    Fantasy masquerading as Science Fiction is ok, but as soon as the author begins writing using hard science facts like light-years, kilometers, galaxies etc. and they show that they don’t know what these terms mean, it really grates.

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