How “right” should the science in science fiction be?
This is one of those questions that tends to rise to the surface every so often, and then sinks beneath the waves again, after a lot of turbulent discussion. I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself, but, hey, we all like a good argument every now and then, right?
This is also an issue that can often crop up more in “hard” science fiction books. I’m talking Greg Egan, Ben Bova, Kim Stanley Robinson…people who take a lot of time writing the science into their science fiction, explaining in loving detail how spaceships, or terraforming, or genetic engineering, work. Or at least, might work. (I’m not going into the whole hard SF versus soft SF thing – probably one of the favourite arguments in fandom, although I will note in passing that Fran Wilde blogging at Tor had a nice feature asking various authors what they thought about it).
This all ignores the main and somewhat obvious factor: if the science in a science fiction book is futuristic, as in not something being done today, as in, hypothetical, it is basically totally made up science. I know, right? Total revelation! Of course, some of it will sound more plausible than others, either because it is not much of a step up from existing technology/theories, or because it has been constructed with great care as part of the worldbuilding of that story. There is a contrast to be drawn between things that can – with effort – be extrapolated, even if present-day technology is still potentially centuries away from such possibilities – and others that are so far in the future they can essentially be constructed de novo. Taking Robinson again, the generation ship constructed in Aurora is described in detail, and at least semi-plausibly: propulsion is achieved by means of fusion engines and it is accelerated out of the solar system by a focused laser beam. The enormous, galaxy crossing, super-AI controlled ships in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, that tap the energy of the “hyperspace grid” are not, by current standards, remotely plausible. His whole use of forcefields, anti-gravity, displacement, etc. is equally far-fetched. But it doesn’t have to be realistic. The Culture is a civilisation so far in advance of our own that we can’t guess at how the science is remotely supposed to work – so, in essence, we don’t know if it might be possible in the future. Which in turn means that you can’t definitively say it’s not possible. Importantly, Banks never tries to explain it, which actually lends it credibility. If you start having to explain in detail a totally made-up technology you end up with, well, technobabble. Star Trek’s warp drive and transporters of course have the same principle: ironically, the communicators and, in later incarnations, the handheld computers, proved prescient predictions. It seems perfectly normal to see Jean-Luc Picard holding what looks like an ipad, until you remember there was no such thing back then.
One thing that I think you can’t excuse though, and that’s getting current science wrong, or extrapolating really badly from existing technology in a way that it is already clear wouldn’t be possible. Most SF authors (at least the good ones) I think generally avoid these pitfalls, probably because most of them also read a lot of SF, if not science, and are aware of the been-done-before mistakes. Which is not to say some don’t make the odd gaffe. Movies can be a lot worse for this: a lot of them sacrifice credibility for action, or have a rushed, ill-thought out “explanation” for their problem/solution.
Sometimes where you really see authors falling down on the science is when a non-SF author writes a science fiction book (which is, interestingly, usually not described as such; SF is still often regarded as not being proper literature). One well-known recent example of this is Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. “What!” I hear you cry, “That was a great book!” Well, yes, I wouldn’t disagree with that. It was a beautifully written, evocative tale….
…I’m spoilering this here, for the central plot device….
….The trouble is, it smacks of someone who doesn’t read the literature thinking they had a wonderfully original idea, when anyone who was a science fiction fan said “Oh, they’re clones” pretty much straightaway. Fine as far as it goes, and I get that it was full of metaphors about mortality and growing up and all that jazz and the whole clones thing was really a detail to provide insight into the human condition. Etc. But that bad science did mar it for me, when usually my credulity has quite a stretch tolerance built in.
“Huh? How could he get it wrong? He never even described how it was done,” is the next objection. Which is kind of my point. What really got me was this: we’re supposed to believe these children, raised in a 50s or 60s-ish English boarding school, are isolated from the modern world, products of perfect human cloning so they can be living organ donors. But the rest of the technology hasn’t kept pace with the cloning. Why are there not computers? Mobile phones? Why is there not the internet? You can’t take just one thing and advance it by decades, but leave everything else static. It doesn’t work. Cloning needs the molecular biology revolution, which couldn’t have happened until there was the computer revolution. The science that is supposed to be happening there isn’t possible in the world he created. It’s as if somebody wrote a history book in which Napoleon wasn’t defeated at Waterloo because his troops had kevlar body armour, but everything else was exactly the same. Which destroys the sense of belief somewhat.
So, in a nutshell, don’t get the real science wrong, or cast it adrift from its proper time and place. Oh, and be warned: if you do go to all the trouble of trying to make your future science right, crafting and explaining your technology with loving detail, there will always be an expert who will take this as a challenge and come along and point out the flaws…as these guys did with Aurora. Sorry, Mr Robinson.