Science in science fiction…

I loved those original Star Trek episodes because the best were based on sci-fi stories written by seasoned sci-fi writers, ones like Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison. They were often morality plays too, that is, good stories with some important themes mixed in. (Who could forget the message that racial prejudice is just plain stupid in the classic episode about the two black-and-white guys fighting on and on, one black on the left and white on the right, the other just the opposite?) These episodes often contained some sound scientific extrapolation too—your smart phone is a version of the Starfleet’s communicator, for example.

Episodes in the spinoff series, often written by screenwriters who had little training in science and often promoted pseudo-science, were much less entertaining if not downright distasteful. They were also just bad writers of sci-fi, starting a tradition that continues today. Generally speaking, of course, Hollywood fails at putting believable science into sci-fi and often creates pseudo-science in its screenplays. While maybe everyone knows Wiley Coyote can’t go over the cliff in an inverse-L-shaped path and finds it hilarious when he does so, is that any different than the Enterprise coming to a full-stop, thus violating Newton’s First Law? (What maybe that ether drag, created in theory by Maxwell and disproven by Einstein, suddenly reappears?) And Next Generation’s Counselor Cleavage reading minds is pretty farfetched and bordering on fantasy too. Of course, the Star Wars tales are also just fantasy episodes—they even have princes, princesses, and knights who fight with sabers (making them neon-colored with sizzles doesn’t make them more sci-fi-like—it just makes them silly).

So let’s forget about Hollywood and move on to literature.  As a continuation of a previous article, “Does Fiction Have to Seem Real?” let me ask, “Does the science in sci-fi have to seem real?” I’m talking about hard sci-fi. That’s still a broad sub-genre. But consider the sub-sub-genres of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. While I enjoyed Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Howey’s Wool, my kneejerk reaction to these books was that there was no real explanation of cause, only the effect. I’ve changed my mind a bit, though. The story in these books is found in the effect—hence the post in post-apocalyptic. My own post-apocalyptic efforts—Survivors of the Chaos and Full Medical are examples—discussed the causes much more than the three books named, but that was a personal choice because I put as much emphasis on the causes as the effects. In my upcoming The Last Humans (see the last pre-publication excerpt in my blog archive), I also focus on the effect, although the cause is mentioned, and I’m satisfied with the result.

Other hard sci-fi genres need a more detailed extrapolation of current science. Of course, the farther the extrapolation goes into the future, the more chance for error. Any scientist knows that extrapolation beyond real data is a dangerous game. Some things like interstellar drives and faster-than-light (FTL) starships or communication systems are far in the future, if they’re even possible. When that happens, the best solution is to get beyond the science and go on with the story. But human variants like the clones and mutants in my “Clones and Mutants Series,” the MECHs in the “Mary Jo Melendez Mysteries,” or Humans 2.0 produced by an ET virus in More than Human: The Mensa Contagion, have to be more plausible if only because they’re easier extrapolations of current science to events in the near future.

That’s why a scientist might feel more comfortable reading speculative fiction that doesn’t go far beyond current science and technology. For example, s/he might prefer Hogan’s Code of the Lifemaker to his Giants series, although the first book in that series sticks pretty close to current science and technology. Your opinion on how believable the futuristic science is might depend on your background too. When I read Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, I felt insulted that a sci-fi writer violated current physics (his solution to FTL was a varying speed of light, slower the farther away you are from galactic center, as if those central black holes did a lot more than expected). Obviously not enough sci-fi readers cared about that—he received a Hugo—but I think there’s a warning there: some readers will not tolerate a violation of known laws of physics, chemistry, or biology. But they might not have a problem with the unknown.

The corollary is that a sci-fi author needs a solid background in science if he wants to make his story more believable—he must become a generalist, though, not a specialist. You might not lose all your readers if you write pseudo-scientific techno-babble, but you’ll lose some of them. For me Vinge’s FTL solution was just as silly as Wiley Coyote’s inverse-L-path over the cliff. (I did like his jackbooted-butterfly aliens, though, and the collective ET intelligence, which I expanded upon in books #2 and #3 in the “Chaos Chronicles Trilogy.”)

Many sci-fi readers don’t care about such details and can enjoy the sci-fi tale without questioning the extrapolative science. I did something similar when I saw the movie I, Robot, making an effort to forget the original Asimov story and just enjoy Will Smith and the visuals. Yet I still found Code of the Lifemaker much more believable than that special-effects extravaganza called The Matrix. Of course, one’s a book and the other’s a movie, and I don’t like the actor in the movie.

By all means, don’t let my blathering about science or lack thereof in sci-fi ruin your enjoyment of the genre. It’s all entertainment, and even the most absurd extrapolation or pseudo-scientific babble plays second fiddle if you enjoy the story. My only worry is that some people might think the Enterprise can stop on a dime or Wiley Coyote can actually follow that path over the cliff. There’s too much pseudo-scientific and/or anti-scientific sentiment going around these days (especially in Washington, where we even have a leader that ignores it), and it’s becoming as contagious and dangerous as Ebola or Zika.

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In libris libertas!

 

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