Thursday, June 23, 2011

Putting the Science in Science Fiction: Part 1

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?


Anonymous said...

Very good article today. I write near-future sci fi using the same premise that it could happen. In fact, it could happen today. I perform much research, go easy on the data dump, and try to give a scientific explanation for things such as opening a wormhole. College campuses like M.I.T. and research and development centers are great places for the setting.

Cellophane Queen said...

Since I avoided science classes in both HS and college, I depend on my extensive reading by authors such Clarke to give me hints on stuff that's doable and McGuffins.

I like sleeper ships with colonists in suspended animation to bridge those big gaps between stars. I definitely think that there's sufficient evidence to support that.

When I did need FTL, I was happy to find that Professor Einstein himself approved of bent space and wormholes. If Big Al said it was possible, that's good enough for me.

Hm. I think I should write my own blog post on this topic since I'm going on so long in a comment.

Nice post.

Tanja said...

This reminds me of: <> and also of John Aristotle Philips, whose university thesis was "How To Make An A-Bomb", which he compiled from public documents (mostly), and is known as the A-Bomb kid: <>.
Brilliant article.
Thank you

Heather Haven said...

Terri, love this. Your comments about solar sails bring back the memory of meeting a young scientist in NYC who was on his way to NASA to explore the possibilty further. It was one of the most romantic notions I'd ever heard. The idea of the Flying Dutchman in space! The decade was the 70s, I didn't hear about it again for years, and then suddenly it's popped up again. A very real and tangible thing. If I wrote any SciFi, it would be about that.

Jim Hartley said...

I find it is so much easier writing "soft" SF or science fantasy, because I prefer writing to research. But you can't avoid it ... even in my book "Magic Is Faster Than Light" which sets witchcraft in a world with space travel, it took some work to find out where I wanted to send my spaceship full of witches.

I sort of let things ease across genres. In one story, "Sorceress," I started with a scientist experimenting with an artificial wormhole - definitely SF - but then it grabbed her and dumped her into an alternate world where sorcery works. How do you classify that?

I will try to stick with correct science when it is needed, but if magic propels my spacecraft better, a sort of Wiccan Warp Drive, so be it.

Rhobin said...

While science fiction works from some concepts of science and reality, isn't it interesting that the process also works in reverse? As one example of many, cell phone design was based on Star Trek gear.

Mike Hays said...

Hard science fiction for me. Being a professional scientist, I love the researching and finding the science then building stories around them. I also like journal articles and magazines, such as Discover and Scientific American. There is a story hiding in about every little nugget of information.
Good stuff, Terri.

Terri main said...

Thanks for your comments. In the next installment, I talk about getting ideas from these journals.

Mike, I remember reading Scientific American in Junior High and High School. I would read The Amateur Scientist and drool over the ideas. We never had enough money back in the day to do any of the things they described, but I could dream.

Bill The Scribe said...

I recently learned that the orbit used by communications satellites, geostatonary are also called "Clarke Orbits" after the man who first proposed them back in 1945, 12 years before the first satellite of any kind. That man was Arthur C. Clarke.

My Current WIP is actually a paranormal mystery, but my magic is done in a way that puts it closer to hard SF than fantasy. One of my rules is that there is no violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

Terri main said...


I'm not saying "hard science fiction" could not have FTL. You just have to be sure in that type of setting it is based on something more than a vague "McGuffin Engine." It would need to have a basis in some current type of theoretical understanding of the universe. There are some proposals out there which theoretically could work, but are impractical for various reasons.

M. L. Archer said...

Excellent article!