MIND MELD: How Important is Plausible Science In Science Fiction?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week we asked our panelists the following question:
Here’s what they said…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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