MIND MELD: How Important is Plausible Science In Science Fiction?

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This week we asked our panelists the following question:

Q: How important is the plausibility of the science in science fiction?

Here’s what they said…

James Lovegrove
James Lovegrove was born on Christmas Eve 1965 and is the author of at least 35 books. His novels include The Hope, Days, Untied Kingdom, Provender Gleed, and the New York Times best selling Pantheon series (The Age Of Ra, The Age Of Zeus, The Age Of Odin). In addition he has sold more than 40 short stories, the majority of them gathered in two collections, Imagined Slights and Diversifications. He has written a four-volume fantasy series for teenagers, The Clouded World, under the pseudonym Jay Amory, and has produced a dozen short books for readers with reading difficulties, including Wings, Kill Swap, Free Runner, Dead Brigade, and the series The 5 Lords Of Pain.

James has been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Manchester Book Award, and his work hasbeen translated into 15 languages. His journalism has appeared in magazines as diverse as Literary Review, Interzone, and MindGames, and he is a regular reviewer of books for the Financial Times.

He lives with his wife, two sons and cat in Eastbourne, a town famously genteel and favoured by the elderly, but in spite of that he isn’t planning to retire just yet.

Speaking as someone whose editors continually have to pull him up on his shaky grasp of physics, I’d say science is less important to SF than ideas. Yes, there’s “science” in science fiction, but there’s “fiction” as well. Some authors base their work solely on an accurate understanding of science and credible projections of where it might take us in the future, but SF is also about creativity, the play of ideas. In a book you can invent a wacky machine that sounds right, serves the plot, works within the terms of the world you’re creating, but doesn’t have to be in any way scientifically credible. If it fits in context, don’t sweat the details. The reader will believe in it if you believe in it.

Karl Schroeder
Having wracked his brains to be innovative in the novels Ventus, Permanence, and Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder decided to relax for a while and write pirate stories, starting with Sun of Suns and continuing with Queen of Candesce, Pirate Sun, and The Sunless Counries. Of course, these novels are pirate stories set in a world without gravity — but hey, swashes are still buckled, swords unsheathed, and boarding parties formed in the far-future world of Virga. He’s currently thinking about how to hammer science fiction into some new shapes based on current research into cognitive science. When he occasionally pokes his head out of the trenches, he blogs about this stuff at www.kschroeder.com.

What counts as ‘plausible?’ I’ve got a reputation for writing ‘hard’ science fiction, with rigorously worked-out and plausible ideas–but I can tell you right now that I’ve never written an SF novel that didn’t hinge crucially on at least one utterly preposterous and impossible idea. Ventus? –Faster than light travel. Permanence? –Same. Lady of Mazes? ( …Mmph, I’ll get back to you on that one… maybe I wrote one…) Sun of Suns? –A ‘technology suppression field.’ Listen, anyone with a microgram of rhetorical talent can make anything sound plausible (a fact that explains nearly everything about the Predicament of Mankind); it’s all in how you present it. Jay Lake’s got a whole universe built as a vast Victorian clockwork mechanism, and I buy that. China Mieville does a wicked satire on Hegelian philosophy in Perdido Street Station, a kind of intellectual drive-by shooting, but I haven’t heard anyone complaining about the ‘plausibility’ of crisis theory.

Of course, the flipside of all this is something that Nietzsche pointed out and that far too few people consider: “Just because an argument is convincing, that doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s merely convincing.” Judging some SF as ‘better’ because it’s more ‘plausible’ is as foolish an exercise as believing seven impossible things before breakfast.

Here’s my rule: am I having fun? Yes? Then I’ll keep reading.

Fabio Fernandes
Fabio Fernandes is a writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. Also a journalist and translator, he is responsible for the Brazilian translations of several prominent SF novels including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, England, and USA, and in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II:

Steampunk Reloaded. There’s another story coming up in The Apex Book of World SF, Vol. II, ed. by Lavie Tidhar, later this year.

The key word, I think, is plausibility. Since Frankenstein to, let’s say, the Old Man’s War trilogy (who follows more less in the same footsteps of Mary Shelley’s magnum opus, especially in The Ghost Brigades), science acts like a trigger, a device to make our minds work around a subject – a subject usually best summed up by the words “what if?” But the most important thing is to convince the reader that some invention, device, or technology are real, could be real, could effectively work. For the old suspension of disbelief to occur, the writer must know how to apply what Roland Barthes called “the effect of the real”, that is, through utmost attention to detail in a story, the writer creates the impression of reality, making the reader feel being there, belonging there with the characters. If you can apply this effect of the real to the science in your story (something that hard SF writers like Robert J. Sawyer or Stephen Baxter seem to do pretty well), then the plausibility of the science in science fiction is really all-important. But William Gibson’s cyberpunk stories did not need scientific plausibility to make the stuff of legend, and deservedly so. Or Samuel Delany’s. Or Jeff VanderMeer’s. In my opinion, it all depends of the kind of story you want to tell.

Todd Glasscock
Todd Glasscock is a writer and editor in Texas. He blogs at http://exileonninthstreet.wordpress.com.

As I draft fledgling attempts to write science fiction, I find myself worrying about the believability of my understanding of the science part. I come from a liberal arts background, though I love science and loved my required science classes at university: basic zoology and botany and astronomy, as far as the hard sciences go, and anthropology, as far as the soft sciences go. But, much of my understanding of science comes from studying the history of science in history classes, watching TV shows and reading mainstream science journalism.

How much scientific knowledge does a science fiction writer need to make his or her fiction plausible? Is it enough to throw in some starships and have their crews beat the problems of faster-than-light-travel — time dilation, for instance — through well-worn conventions such as hyperspace? And what makes even well-researched science in SF plausible?

In Nancy Kress’s short story “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls,” for instance, very advanced nanotechnology comes to a small town; the technology is so powerful in this story it seems almost magical. Is that science plausible? It seems so to me from what I understand of nanotech. But then again, for early 19th century readers of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, galvanized resurrection was believable science, and what, I think, makes such early SF acceptable for readers today, at least in part, is the scientific tradition Shelley’s Frankenstein comes from—the tradition of rational investigation of the universe. It’s the same tradition Kress’s story follows.

The rational investigation of the universe makes even Richard Matheson’s vampires plausible in the novel I Am Legend, says SF critic Graham Sleight in his introduction to a recent re-release of Matheson’s novel.

“[Rational investigation] is a very characteristic idea of science fiction: the idea that the universe can be made sense of if studied with sufficient care,” Sleight writes.

Of course, as I’ve begun to write my own science fiction, I also realize that who the character is and what the character wants is also primary to the story. It’s primary to any story, and the writer’s ability to craft his or her fiction has to be evident for the story to work as much as, and maybe more than, the science’s believability.

Peter Watts
After years of having to settle for awards garnered by translations of his work into other languages, convicted tewwowist Peter Watts finally won a Hugo for his novellette “The Island” in its original English. It was probably just fandom giving the finger to the Department of Homeland Security, but he’s okay with that.

I’d argue that scientific plausibility is vastly overrated — and speaking as someone whose novels have actually been used as core texts in both science and philosophy courses, I should really be a poster boy for the anal-retentive science-huggers in the crowd.

The fact is, though, that the state of scientific knowledge itself changes daily. Twenty years ago, the concept of “dark energy” was fantasy. Today we’ve got leading physicists admitting at least the possibility of time travel. To slavishly adhere to what we “know” to be true today is to claim that we’ve already pinned down the fundamentals, that there are no paradigms left to shift — and that’s one of the most profoundly antiscientific sentiments I can imagine.

But beyond that philosophical stance, there’s the more intimate fact that the plausibility of any given piece of SF is more a function of the reader than of the work being read. Larry Niven’s stuff is frequently cited as a good example of Hard-SF — it certainly rocked my world back in high school — but anyone who knows the first thing about molecular genetics knows that aliens devolving into humans, genes that code for luck, are the stuff of pure fantasy. Somewhat further along the scale, I’m constantly trying to cover my ass against all those ferret-faced nitpickers I left behind in academia. I’ve flailed around for pages at a time, trying to explain how a fictitious doomsday germ might subvert signal molecules on the cytoplasmic side of a host-cell vesicle so that the vesicles avoid fusion with lysosomes — and while my handwaving would pass muster with a high school grad or even an undergrad, it would be every bit as implausible as Niven’s to a professional microbiologist.

But you know what? In either case, it doesn’t fucking matter. Science fiction is not about “facts” any more than science is (and science isn’t about facts any more than a house is “about” bricks). Science is a process. What’s important isn’t so much that you adhere to facts as to principles. Given the “impossible” premise of an ftl drive or spacing-guild navigators that trip out on Space Mescal to steer between the stars, does the story explore the consequences of that conceit in a way that makes sense?

And that’s why I continue to have a soft spot for Niven after all these years; he didn’t just predict the automobile, he predicted the traffic jam (to paraphrase a famous line I’ve seen attributed to at least three different people). Transplant technology strengthens the death penalty; teleportation between different latitudes unbalances an object’s energy budget; aliens, while frequently wrong in the details, are clearly designed with the process of Darwinian evolution front and center.

So if someone writes a story in which the hero’s house is built of upsydaisium, you’re not going to score any critiquing points with me by pointing out that upsydasium doesn’t exist. Science fiction isn’t here to say This is true or This will happen: it’s here to say Suppose it did: then what? Those of us who insist on conforming to today’s paradigms and no others (The Mundanistas come to mind) are welcome to do so.

Personally, though, I think they should lighten up.

Jennifer Ouellette
Jennifer Ouellette is the author of The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (2010), The Physics of the Buffyverse (2007), and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics (2006). Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Discover, Salon, Nature, and New Scientist, among others. She maintains a science-and-culture blog called Cocktail Party Physics, and also writes about space science for Discovery News. From November 2008 to October 2010, Ouellette was program director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a Los Angeles-based initiative of the National Academy of Sciences aimed at fostering creative collaborations between scientists and entertainment industry professionals.

I think it comes down to making sure the science is in service to the story, not the other way around. You want your audience to lose themselves in the fiction, as if it were real — while knowing full well that it isn’t. That’s part of the unspoken contract between writer and reader, filmmaker and filmgoer. Making sure one’s science is at least marginally plausible is critical to building a credible fictional world — otherwise readers/viewers will get pulled out of the story whenever something strains the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. (*cough* Red matter. *cough*) The “rules” of the universe need not be consistent with real-world physical laws, but they should be consistent within that world. The flip side is that if you get too bogged down in nitpicky technical details, you’ll interrupt the narrative flow to the point where it ruins the fantasy experience for your audience. Save the hardcore nerd-gassing for the fandom forums; it’s more fun that way. :) The most successful creators of good science fiction always manage to strike just the right balance between these two extremes.

I think it’s also important to bear in mind that just because something isn’t scientifically feasible now, that doesn’t mean it never will be. Read Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon today, and you’ll likely find the premise laughable. Use a cannon to shoot a capsule containing scientists to the Moon? Seriously? But given what was known at the time, it was a respectable premise. The reality proved a bit more challenging, but 70+ years later, we put a man on the moon. The best science fiction dares to dream big, thereby inspiring young minds to want to become scientists and invent the amazing things they read about as kids — or some reasonable facsimile thereof. It’s a constant give-and-take between science fiction and science fact, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

John Hemry
John Hemry is a retired U.S. Navy Officer. His father (LCDR Jack M. Hemry, USN. ret) is a mustang (an officer who was promoted through the enlisted ranks), so John grew up living everywhere from Pensacola, Florida to San Diego, California. He is also the author of the Stark’s War and The Lost Fleet series of SF novels.

As the old saying goes, the difference between fiction and what really happens is that fiction has to be plausible. The same can be said of the science in science fiction and real science. Certainly a writer wants to propose fictional future science that seems consistent, understandable and plausible. However, real science sometimes doesn’t pass all of those tests. Some of the science in quantum physics would be totally implausible if proposed as fiction rather than proven in the lab. Entanglement? Wave/particle duality? Yeah, as if anybody would ever believe that stuff.

The science in science fiction has to pass a higher hurdle than real science does. It has to feel like science, which to the average reader means it makes some sort of sense and behaves in a predictable and consistent manner. The science cannot vary every time it is needed to resolve a plot point. Readers will forgive a lot if the story is well done, but if the science in the story serves as a deus ex machina, time after time producing just what is needed just when it is needed, then plausibility goes out the window along with decent story lines. We all know that real science is not a genie offering unlimited wishes with no trade-offs. If the science in science fiction serves as that kind of genie, it destroys plausibility. In my opinion, that more than anything else was responsible for the death-spiral of the Star Trek television series of the eighties and nineties, in which the science increasingly could resolve any problem and any dilemma. In the end, adjusting the shield frequencies couldn’t protect against implausibility.

12 thoughts on “MIND MELD: How Important is Plausible Science In Science Fiction?”

  1. To my mind plausible science in science fiction is very important. The key word is plausible, not acurate, not real, not even hypothetically possible… just plausible…

    For me Kim Stanely Robinsons Mars trilogy is a prefect example of plausible science, everything he talks about is theoretically possible and makes sense not just as science but within context of the novels, plots and characters. When he came up with his rejuvination technology he looked at what that might actually mean in terms of peoples memories, of how this would affects peoples views on society and family commitments and all the rest.

  2. I want a good story — period. If that means fudging the science then so be it. I love the book Dune and have read it five or six times. Does he get the ecological science wrong or falls back on folded space to further the story? Yes and frankly I don’t care. I still like Foundation. I still like a thousand other things as well.

    If every story is going to have spaceships that take 1000 years to get from here to there, I’m going to be pretty bored very soon.

  3. Shout out to my buddy James Lovegrove! I’d say as long as the science is plausible in the confines of the story then I am reasonably satisfied. I think the Big Idea is more important than the minor details. At the same time though I have been enjoying some more science(y)-fiction lately. Specifically Peter Watt’s novelization of Crysis 2. I think credible knowledge of science can definitely enrich a story. It can also bog it down into a text book slog. 

  4. Ikay, it seesm we’re accepting that there is HARD SF and SOFT SF. If that’s true, then in Hard SF the science should be a logical extension of what is known, whether or not it can be proved by today’s methods. In Soft SF it just has to be inclusive of some kind of science, technology, accepted elements (such as psi). My take.

  5. After reading The Things, his excerpt and essays for Crysis: Legion, and now this MM answer, I’ve become a big Peter Watts fan this month.  All awesome.  Just had to comment.

    Thanks, Peter Watts.  

  6. Good commentary 1 & all the contributors.  I especially appreciate the remark about Trek by J. Hemry.  As a reader, I often see gadgets or technologies based on pseudo-science included in stories as “chrome” – to make things sound futuristic rather than being necessary to the story.  When that pseudo-science conflicts with my lay understanding of real science & engineering, it’s annoying & distracting.

    This is as much, or more, a problem in mainstream fiction than sci fi, especially when it comes to cinema & TV.  If cars were half as likely to explode as they are on TV…

     

  7. The thing that irriatates me is when science ficition completely ignores the science, TV and movies are the worst for this…

    Outcasts is a classic example in that it was a science fiction show in which the vast majority of the science was basically wrong… We were shown a brian scanner that would have worked in Star Trek back in the 60s when they really didn’t know much about how the brain works… but for scifi written in the last year or two it showed a fundemental lack of understanding of what we now know and don’t know about how the brain works.

    On top of this we have spaceships that have detatch 1 way landers that come with escape pods… landers that take the entire population of the ship down in one go… We have scientists who argue against doing simple tests to try and understand why a genetically sterile created set of humans are able to reproduce, the same scientist seems completely unaware that there is a problem with the fertility of the colonists… as well as numerous other plausibility failures…. meaning that the suspension of disbelief required to watch the show was far beyond my capabilites, even after a bottle of Jack I was still to intelligent to watch the show.

    I fully understand that science fiction writers can’t keep upto date on everything (although many seem to do a decent enough job) and that they certainly can’t predict the future, but I don’t think its unreasonable for me to expect that they try and keep abreast of what current scientific understanding is when it comes to their ‘science’.

  8. Effort counts in my book.

    SF should make a least a good faith effort with the plausibility of its technology, as it is known when the story or novel or written. It can be slavishly rigorous–but it doesn’t have to be.

    Too slavish, and you wind up with the “Mundane SF” movement that I disagree with so vehemently.

  9. Karl, I think you hit on a really key issue below:

    “Of course, the flipside of all this is something that Nietzsche pointed out and that far too few people consider: “Just because an argument is convincing, that doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s merely convincing.” Judging some SF as ‘better’ because it’s more ‘plausible’ is as foolish an exercise as believing seven impossible things before breakfast.”

    I’ve found over the years that “plausible science” is often in the eyes of the beholder. One of the more amusing and common experiences I’ve had as a hard SF writer is fielding complaints from readers with limited science credentials (or whose credentials lie outside the field in question) who lambaste me for committing “bad science” — in the very same passages that actual researchers in the relevant field cite as their favorites. 

    Plausibility is subjective. The same passage that looks like a thought-provoking extrapolation from the Many Worlds Theory to a working quantum physicist can look like mushy-brained nonsense to someone with a background in civil engineering. And vice versa, of course! 

    Part of the art of writing good hard SF is learning how to craft science explanations so that they work for everyone. And I use the word ‘art’ advisedly. Because even though the underlying science that we’re talking about has an objective basis in cold hard equations, the skill of a science fiction writer lies in translating the hard sciences into those slippery characters we call words. I can’t say I’ve figured out the magic formula. In fact, after a decade or so in the business, I’ve come to believe that there is no magic formula. And that’s a relief, since life would get boring fast if there was one…. 

     

     

     

  10. @ Chris – I would say the word art is the prefect word to describe creating plausible science fiction. To my mind the athours/writers are painting a picture of a future world that they want the reader to share and explore, how they make that picture appealing is to use their artistic flair and the skill they can bring to envisioning technology and how it impacts the story they are telling.

  11. Re: Peter Watts on “genes that code for luck”:

    Don’t you see? As soon as we go looking for them, their function migrates to introns, histones, or whatever else the investigator currently dismisses as irrelevant junk. So their indetectibility is strong proof of their existence, and their logical impossibility just clinches the deal. 

  12. I would like to thank Peter Watts for making the excellent point that we can’t really judge the plausibility of the far future (and congrats on the Hugo, too!).  And John Hemry, you described exactly my problems with the transporter in ST TNG. If you can reissue people from the transporter, like running off an extra copy of a document, no on would ever have to die. Making the technology too powerfuil takes the challenge out of it.

     

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