Science (fiction) doesn’t have to be believable?

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sci fi movie postersI recently encountered a Facebook post by an author of a science fiction novel based around the idea of global cooling.  He had discovered a website of climate theorists, the Space and Science Research Center, whose opinions roughly matched those of his book, and was proud to point out the connection.

Unfortunately, the SSRC is an avowed anti-warming group, whose theories are not backed by actual scientific data:

“The Space and Science Research Center (SSRC) is (apparently) a for-profit company located in Orlando, FL. They appear to have an anti-global warming agenda, though their arguments have yet to be examined in detail. They present an appearance of scientific grounding, but they do not seem to have any peer-reviewed papers on their theories.” (From Issuepedia)

I politely pointed this out, and added that “although it’s nice to take your SF from the headlines, one should caution whose headlines are being read…”

However, my point was essentially ignored by other posters, including the author, all of whom expressed little or no concern about whether the science in the story was actually correct.  One such poster lauded the author, and added:

“I suspect your book will be much better fiction than anything peddled by the SSRC. Science does not have to be believable, as long as your characters are.”

When I read that, a small part of me died inside.

I (apparently) represent a dwindling number of science fiction authors who believe that the science in science fiction is important enough to take every effort to make it not only believable, but as far as we can determine, possible.  We put considerable effort into researching our science and technology, crafting our stories around as plausible a series of scientific details as we can work out.

But it also seems to be true that the majority of science fiction consumers out there will bitch endlessly about the scientific accuracy of Interstellar… but will pee themselves watching the latest Star Wars trailer.  That they don’t care how impossible it is to fly through space faster than light… it’s so cool that they want it anyway.  That Cal-Tech physicists working as scientific advisers don’t have the same cred as talking trees and raccoons.

This is distressing—and not just because it means people aren’t buying my books; it means that growing segments of the public do not know or care about science or how it works.  And as it takes knowledge of science and how it works to actually work in scientific fields (assuming your goal is not to blow yourself up or contaminate the planet), it means that the future of our scientific progress is looking very bleak.

Talk to today’s scientists and rocket experts, and what you hear from them is a list of science fiction television shows and books that inspired them to get into science.  That list includes work by authors who knew a lot about the science they wrote about, and endeavored to not only inspire, but teach their readers about the world around them.  You won’t hear many of them wax enthusiastic about the Shatner-vs-Gremlin episode of The Twilight Zone, or any episode of Lost in Space; you will hear them speak glowingly of the technology presented in Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of authors like Clark, Asimov, Bova and Pohl.

Sure, you can have your entertaining sci-fi with no real science; your Star Wars, Godzillas, ETs and Guardians.  But the real value of science fiction comes in its examination of the possibilities and pitfalls of science and technology, and how it will impact our real lives.

I really don’t care to know that some kid learned defensive light-saber techniques from me… because exactly who is that going to benefit?  But one day, I’d like to know that one of my books was part of the library of works that inspired a future scientist to improve our energy systems, artificial intelligence or off-planet life support systems.  I’d like to know I helped inspire someone to design a better waste management system, a more efficient jet engine, a more intuitive cellphone interface or a longer-lasting battery.

Because that’s the real power of science fiction.  Any genre can entertain; but science fiction can inspire people to learn about real science and technology, and find ways to make life better.

Though I admit I’ve written series of sci-fi novels where scientific accuracy takes a back seat to entertainment… my proudest accomplishments are those stories where the science is as believable and accurate as possible, and still rocks a great story.  It is not an impossible feat; and it’s one that we should be striving to expose more people to, for the sake of our mutual future.

We should not encourage willful ignorance.  We can, and must, do much, much better than that.

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6 thoughts on “Science (fiction) doesn’t have to be believable?

    • In responses to this post, I keep hearing familiar arguments (which all boil down to “So what? Sci-fi is too much fun to care about the SCIENCE!”). I’ve also had this thrown in my face:

      “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
      – Arthur C. Clarke

      My response is as follows:

      Everybody likes to use that A.C.Clarke quote as an excuse to do anything they want, physics be damned, then just say, “It’s just way beyond us, so it seems like magic to you.”

      Hear that vague, high-pitched whirring noise in the air? That’s Clarke, spinning like a dynamo in his grave.

      Even when Clarke was at his most inventive, he was still doing everything he could to adhere to accepted scientific principles and the laws of physics at every turn. This is in complete contradiction to people who invent ideas for their stories out of whole cloth, with no effort or consideration in the laws of physics or scientific theories.

      So, if you want to quote someone in defense of non-science fiction, stop evoking Clarke and just quote Eric Cartman: “Whatever! I do what I want!”

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      • Jeff Darling

        There are several groups in the mainstream (not the far-flung reaches) of scientific research convinced we will get to the point , by stretching space in front and compacting behind, that we effectively go FTL. Even Hawking had a positive comment.

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      • Problem is, none of them (including Hawking) has a clue how said stretching and compacting would be physically done in the first place. The amount of energy required is so large as to be effectively (quite likely literally) impossible to harness; and it needs to be very specifically shaped and manipulated, not just held in place.

        But the real problem is one of scale. While a single subatomic particle may be able to be coaxed into moving faster than light for a brief moment, a complex collection of said particles (say, a space ship) cannot be expected to be moved in concert for an extended period of time. It would be a lot like assuming that since you could balance a microbe on the head of a pin, carrying a galaxy about on that same pin would be just a difference in effort. Physics just doesn’t scale up like that, because the difference in how physics operates between the subatomic and macroatomic levels is like the difference between night and transcendental philosophy.

        So, though it sounds like a great theoretical physics exercise, it’s unlikely to ever result in actual, practical technology. Flying through the galaxy in FTL space ships is a wonderfully romantic notion that nonetheless just doesn’t hold water.

        Researching this subject myself over the years has led me to one conclusion: A brute-force method of “pushing” coherent objects faster than light won’t happen. It’s no more realistic than the idea of communicating across global distances by tying messages to rocks and throwing them. However, as we’ve discovered ways to translate those messages into signals that could be transmitted by electronic systems, making global communications possible, we may yet discover another way of accomplishing the act of changing an object’s location from one place to another, across distances that the objects could not travel at the same velocity. (I explored such a method in Verdant Skies, if you’re interested.)

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