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True or False? Scientific Research is a Requirement to Write Believable Science Fiction

“To write fully believable, near future science fiction today, you almost need to be voracious antisocial polymath, deeply conversant in half a dozen technical fields, as well as familiar with ongoing social, economic, and environmental change.”

So says Jason Stoddard when he talks about The Burden of the Modern Science Fiction Writer.

He makes an interesting point. If science fiction is all about science, then only a thorough understanding of science, or at least the particular science around which the story revolves, will result in a believable story. Otherwise, he says, you get the kind of technical explanations that hearken back to the days of Golden Age SF.

My first instinct upon reading this was to look for examples where this is not true…


I wondered if the focus of the story plays some part here. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a character study and we don’t need to understand the cause of the apocalypse. However, the author must still paint a realistic picture to coincide with such circumstances in order for the setting to be believable. Nancy Kress is not a geneticist, but she knew enough to make Beggars in Spain believable. Tobias Buckell is not a rocket scientist, but the world he creates in Sly Mongoose is believable. Hmmm…no help there…

I also wondered if there is a certain amount of blind acceptance on the part of the reader. Suspension of belief is a fluid thing and readers can vary on their requirement of it – even from story to story. For example, some readers might be completely satisfied with some non-technical hand-waving while others would require in-depth explanations and info-dumping to prevent them from tossing the book across the room. But even in this case, I wonder how unnecessary such science must be to the story in order for it to be overlooked. Maybe this skirts too close to the boundary between science fiction and fantasy…

For the moment, then, I will say that the above supposition is true: authors need need to do a respectable amount of technical research to make their stories believable.

Unless someone out there can think of examples where this is not the case?

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

17 Comments on True or False? Scientific Research is a Requirement to Write Believable Science Fiction

  1. As with everything, it depends.

    In the very least, a SF writer must be a good bullshit artist to write believable SF. I think that some research is also required – enough to feed the bullshit. But I don’t think a writer necessarily needs to be a de facto expert on a wide-variety of science to write believable science – of course, being a de facto expert would be an advantage.

    Either way, someone well-versed in the science will be able to see through the bullshit and/or research. And if said science guy/gal is still reading SF, then they long ago learned to deal with inaccuracies in their SF.

  2. This is a Mind Meld question.

  3. Darn it, this is too good not to self-pimp. I wrote a review/article earlier this year at Strange Horizons looking how how suspension of (dis)belief worked in various Greg Egan short stories. Even for this notoriously hard-sf writer, sometimes he used no more than a sentence or two of newspaper headline science to get you into the story, then everything else was plot/ideas/ethics/characters.

     

    http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2008/06/axiomatic_and_d.shtml

    I think I’ll be examining this further in a research paper for ICFA in March 2009, as well. Sorry for the blatant self-promotion!

     

  4. If you use the word “requirement” then the statement is obviously false.  But if you ask “does scientific research make a big difference in one’s ability to write hard scifi” then the statement is obviously true.

    From Heinlein to Asmiov to Benford and Baxter, technical training and experience makes a profound difference in one’s ability to explain the science and get past it.  Anybody can write about science, but if you are not deeply familiar with it you can get bogged down and sidetracked.

    I hope nobody tries to nitpick this argument to say that scientific research is more important to a scifiwriter than engineering.  Any technical discipline will dramatically improve science fiction writing including medicine, mathematics, computer science, science, and engineering.

    Personally I found my PhD in chemistry to be invaluable in my abiltity to think about future worlds, imagine the reasonable outcome of existing theories, and to describe them in words which everyone can understand.  It’s also interesting to me, which may be the most important part of writing.  Few people can write anything if their heart isn’t in it.

  5. Anonymous // December 9, 2008 at 3:44 pm //

    Sean – I’ll nitpick your argument, but for a different reason: “Anybody can write about science…”

     

    That’s the statement I take objection to. I’ve seen some people, particularly scientists, who are completely unable to communicate/explain even their own field of specialty. Heck, I’ve been taught by some and I’m guessing in the course of your Ph.D. you were too.

     

    It really takes the intersection of two skill sets: understanding science, and the ability to make it comprehensible. At least for non-fiction science writing. Both alone are rare enough to make the combination a thing to treasure.

  6. While doing my PhD in Cybernetics, I was told a series of conflicting statements:

    It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

    It’s not who you know, it’s what you don’t know.

    But my favourite (and most useful) was:

    It’s doesn’t matter what you know, as long as you know more than everyone else in the room.

    I think this applies to writing Sciencey Science Fiction. In fiction, you suspend belief. You have to suspend rather a lot of it for Sci Fi, the readership expect that. You don’t need to explain complex Science stuff to write good Sci Fi, you just need to write to your audience and be consistent. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve decided to have sound in space, as long as it doesn’t break the consistent telling of the story, you can do what you like. That’s the point.

    Does a PhD help me write science fiction? I doubt it. It helped me show that I could create a large body of work on my own that is worth something. I got the same kick from NaNoWriMo too. If you want to write Sci Fi, you probably have an inquisitive mind already, that’s enough! PhDs are good for making your mind work in different ways, which is nice but doesn’t magically endow you with the ability to make sense to the rest of the world!

  7. You might not have to put all the science in the story, but you need to know the science (real or imagined). For example, in interviews mentioning Sly Mongoose, Buckell tells the story about a presentation he saw on Venus given by SF author and scientist Geoffrey Landis. Landis gave him a CD of the research so Buckell could mine it for his book. Or, look at Alastair Reynolds. A working astrophysicist, he’s got the background. But he keeps it in the background of the tale.

    Some author’s love to show what they know. Sometimes it goes over the top (my favorite example being a chapter in one of the middle voumes of the Honor Harrington series where pretty much it started with the one character asking the other a question…with the rest of the chapter being introspective backstory internal to the character…and ending with a verbal response to that question). Sure, the author has done his research. But we didn’t need a thesis in the middle of a story.

    Alternative: If you’re making stuff up, keep it consistent. That was always the problem I had with Star Trek, especially Next Generation. They’d establish something in one show. Then contradict or ignore it in another. Throw in some more babble, hoping the pretty lights would keep us quiet.

  8. Science fiction isn’t about science, it’s about a philosophical exploration of what humans will do and are capable of in fantastic situations. SF is always about “Now” and never about the future. It’s about the author and the reader and not about devices or the supposed laws of physics—which do not matter.

    They don’t matter because a story about how the internal combustion engine is completely boring without human reflection. Frankly, I have no real knowledge of how that, my phone, my computer, and lots more work, yet I have a very interesting life. When I sit in a chair I don’t mention what it’s made from, I don’t say “plasteel” or “TriTanium” or any such thing, because I don’t know. Equally, I do not explain how my car works to people as I’m telling a story about my life.

    If I wrote a book about myself and could send it to a 19th century cowboy to read about the future, it would be about my life here, not about the technical details. Conversely, if I did send just the technical details it would be amazingly boring.

  9. If you’re going to write SF, you do need to do a certain amount of research. Let’s look at that 19th century cowboy. If you want to be the next Zane Grey, and don’t want to be laughed off the range, you better study the background if you’re writing Westerns.

    If you want Solar Pons in his deerstalker cap in the foggy streets of London during the reign of Victoria, you better at least pull up a map of London during that period…or you’ll be laughed off of Baskerville Estate.

    Same with science fiction. If you’re going to do a story about cloning that is realistic…don’t have your clone wake up with the memories of his/her original. Memory is not passed through genetic material. If you’re spaceships stop on a dime and cause Sir Isaac Newton to spin in his grave, you better have a post-Newtonian rationale or a very good pile of consistent BS.

    Science matters. Physics matters. Biology matters.

    Now…whether you put all that research into the story is up to you. Some people do it well. Others, not so much. But the research is part of the framework that makes your story good enough for me to suspend my disbelief.

  10. Fred,

    In your examples, science does not matter.

    The clone story ought to be about what it’s like/impact of being a duplicate existentially. If the best explanation in the world were given to explain the clone and his knowledge, but he just went about his business the story would have no impact. The same goes for the ships. They’re to get the character from point A to B so that you can tell the story about human conflict/discovery/etc.

  11. This is why I thought story focus played a part. No, you don’t need to know how a ship works if it only transports a character from points A to point B. But you *do* need to know more if a major part of the story is about how that ship achieves sentience. Nobody is suggesting that a story be a repair manual for an engine, but *some* explanation may needed and *if* so, then a scientific explanation makes it more *believable*.

  12. Of course I agree, but I’m just stating a case to make people think.

    There’s a lot of articles on the net that I’ve seen blasting SF for not being factual and it seems to me that the point of the stories are lost on them. The earliest instance of SF, I’ve seen, was from Voltaire. He wrote adventure stories, ones with aliens, and a story which strongly parallels Tarzan. None of those stories are actually about the surface subject matter (aliens, superhumans, etc)but rather they’re about philosophical themes he wanted to present entertainingly.

    I think that was very generous of him, as compared to most philosophers.

    Anyway,the SF stories are never “believable” if you’re the type of person who likes reading about the adventures of lawyers and whatnot. But, they are accessible to everyone if the stories are presented about being about life now. Whether the author likes it or not all of their stories are about “Now” because the author is from now.

  13. Point taken. 🙂

    RE: …blasting SF for not being factual

    This is where I think suspension of disbelief comes in. Reader tolerance of facts varies from story to story. For example, I can easily forgive time travel stories for their huge and impossible tropes, simply for the sake of the story. But other times there will be some minor niggling fact in some other story that just sticks in my craw to the point of ruining it.

  14. I’m a huge Iain Banks fan and view his books as comments on politics, economics, psychology etc. He doesn’t put any real effort into explaining how the fantastic machines and worlds he creates work, and again, I don’t care. But, building on your point, he presents his ideas confidently and they’re cool and exciting so they work well.

    If he introduced a book where donuts were featured as the secret behind the Culture, then I might think differently of him.

    I hope he doesn’t get any ideas from reading this post.

  15. I’m sorry…what? I stopped listening at “donuts”.

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