This sort of follows on from my “In Defence of Genre” post, so
Is this the image of science we want to be portraying?
you might like to take a look at that first.
But anyway, I’ve been thinking about what precisely science-fiction is. It covers a great deal of subgenres, some of which I’ve written in. But the fundamental idea behind it is in the name, I think. Science-fiction. Equal measures of each. Fiction about science. Or fiction involving science. It boils down to the same thing, that the difference between sci-fi and other brands of fiction is the science.
And I think that lies at the core of a lot of matters. Given that science is under a daily assault (by various religious elements of society some of the time, by the Daily Mail misrepresenting it most of the time), it seems all the more important that sci-fi represents science in the most honest way possible. To me, sci-fi has always been about dreaming, about what could be in the future, but I know that a lot of people think of sci-fi as impenetrable nerd-gruel, but it really doesn’t have to be.
Reflecting on it, I think a lot of the bad sci-fi is the scientifically inaccurate stuff. To compensate for frankly impossible plot developments and holes that the writer has dug themselves into, they throw impenetrable technobabble and deus ex machinas into the mix, despite having little to no understanding of how the universe actually works. And then we’re using science as the plot crutch that magic so often is in fantasy.
The science in sci-fi doesn’t have to be so bold. It should be the lifeblood running through the veins of the story (and now I’m waxing all lyrical). What I mean, is that it shouldn’t be something glued onto the side to make it fit under the sci-fi label. Science is not a gimmick. And yes, there are sci-fi tropes which are used so commonly that they pass right under the radar (e.g. hyperspace, wormholes, noises in space), and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it still makes me smile when I see something that adheres more strictly to the rules it claims to be built around. I’m talking, lack of artificial gravity, sub-light travel only, kinetic weapons rather than laser-based. They’re minor things, but give the story a sense of realism.
Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert when it comes to science and technology. I have a working knowledge, and I did well enough when I studied them, but it’s been four years now since I’ve had any substantial education in the sciences. So do I have enough knowledge to avoid hypocrisy on this matter? I’m not altogether sure. I try to do my research, I try to keep myself within the realms of scientific possibility (still a very wide berth, for a writer with a reasonable imagination to play within), but in the end, I’m not an astrophysicist, or an engineer, or a geneticist. I’m a law student who likes to write sci-fi.
But maybe if we all make that effort to understand what we’re reading and writing about, then the world will be a little better. Certainly, for writers, I feel our fiction will be. If the science is accurate, then the fiction feels closer to reality, and that is what a writer should be aiming for. I’m not saying only people qualified in science should write sci-fi (because that would be hypocrisy), or that only people qualified in science should write sci-fi (because that’s stupid, and even aside from that would create a cut off community of science enthusiasts, like Norfolk meets CERN, while the rest of the world returns to the dark ages). But sci-fi can be, and is, so much more when the writer takes the time to present an accurate snapshot of the universe, with just a bit of research, to get the science right.
Realism doesn’t limit imagination. It just focuses it down the right avenues.