During World War II, a science fiction writer wrote a story in which scientists developed an atomic bomb. Little did the writer know that The Manhattan Project was underway to do just that in reality. Military intelligence agencies descended on him certain he had somehow penetrated the most secret research project ever mounted.
The author, though, showed the investigators that he simply based his story on known concepts of atomic science found in scientific journals and that it was no big leap from that theory to the development of a nuclear based weapon. He was eventually released.
This story illustrates the intractable relationship science fiction writers have with science fact. After all, “science” comes first in the name of the genre. Science fiction takes known scientific fact and extrapolates from that fact into a future possibility. For instance, in the last two years NASA and the Japanese Space Agency have both deployed small satellites using solar sails for propulsion in open space. I am currently working on a follow up story to Dark Side of the Moon in which our characters take a luxury cruise from the moon to Mars on a solar sail powered spaceliner.
Will there be solar powered spaceliners in the next 100 years? I don't know, but it is a reasonable extrapolation from known science, that there COULD be. That's enough for the story to be realistic, believable and scientifically justified.
Science Fiction: Hard, Soft and Fantasy
Before continuing, I should give a break down of three basic types of science fiction: Hard science fiction, soft science fiction and science fantasy. I think it is important to remember, that no one of these is inherently better than the other. Some of us may gravitate toward one type in our reading and writing, but that doesn't make that particular sub-genre superior to the others.
Hard Science Fiction. Hard science fiction builds on a reasonable extrapolation from known science. It doesn't postulate changes in our understanding of physics or how the universe works. Often, it takes current technology or social trends and speculates about where those trends are leading. A master of the hard science fiction story is Arthur C. Clarke. For instance, his Rendezvous with Rama and subsequent books in the Rama series demonstrates how self-contained space habitats might actually be constructed.
One misconception about hard science fiction is that it is overly technical. I must admit when you have spent several hours studying about some topic, like I am doing right now with solar sails, it is tempting to try to plug all that “interesting” technical stuff into the story. However, these “data dumps” tend to slow down the story and should only be used when absolutely necessary to advance plot or establish the setting or characters. It's more important the writer of hard science fiction know the basic science behind the story than for the reader.
Soft Science Fiction. Often set in the distant future, soft science fiction does not tie itself so closely to scientific fact as we know it today. Frequently, these stories postulate new discoveries that changed the understanding of the universe. Star Trek is a good example of soft science fiction. The discovery of “warp fields” which in some way bend space and time and allow for faster than light travel is part of that universe. Even with soft science fiction, rarely do you depart entirely from known science. For instance, Warp Drive is a way around the cosmic speed limit of the 300,000 kilometers per second predicted by the theory of relativity. It is not, however, a repudiation of that theory.
Soft science fiction often depends on some made up bit of technology with a scientific sounding name that does something based on future physics but it purely imaginary in nature. These are sometimes called McGuffins. It's like when the engineer on the Enterprise says something like, “I have to strengthen the containment field around the Warp Core using a ________” You can fill in the blank with any scientific sounding word and it works.
Science Fantasy. This term, as I use it, applies to a science fiction story which uses science and technology as a substitute for magic, but in just about every other way, the story is a fantasy epic. The classic example is Star Wars. The story is a classic fantasy plot. The rightful heir to the throne must lead an army to reclaim her rightful place. We also have all the elements of good vs. evil. We have a type of magic called The Force. There are wizards like Yoda and The Emperor and their acolytes.
Sometimes this science fantasy can be less epic, though. A good example from the movies is the Back to the Future series. There is very little real science there, and the professor could just as easily been replaced by a wizard who sends the boy back in time.
Each of these requires a different level of science underpinning the story. Obviously, hard science fiction writers need to be spot on with the science. Soft science fiction don't need to be as careful in the story, but still must know when their future technology is based on current scientific understanding or on some future discovery. Science fantasy, of course, requires the least scientific reliability since the level of suspension of disbelief is so high that people accept just about anything short of a total violation of the most basic principles of science.
Later today, we will talk about using scientific research as a jumping off point for story ideas. Meanwhile, what type(s) of science fiction are you writing or interested in writing?