by D.M. Pruden
How important is actual science in Science Fiction? Does anyone care if an author gets the physics right in their space battle scenes? Do any more than a handful of geeks even notice when the science is off? Does it even matter?
These are all questions that occupied me when I first ventured into the world of authorship. I am a scientist by profession, having spent the better part of 36 years as a geophysicist. To say science is an interest of mine is like saying basketball is of interest to Koby Bryant. This puts me into a camp that may be different from the rest of society, or more specific to this article, the science fiction reader community. It certainly colours my perspective on the kind of sci-fi I like to read and write.
Some would (perhaps rightly) argue that sticking too close to the real world detracts from the purpose of a good story; to transport the reader into another realm. There are certainly some very popular books that have “broken” the laws of physics in favour of a good tale. Andy Weir, the author of the wildly successful novel, The Martian, admits to taking some liberties with the real effects of windstorms on Mars. He and his editors, rightly, opted for dramatic storytelling and a bending of exact science to facilitate a good story. Does this devalue in any way the novel? I don’t believe so. The Martian, for the most part, gets the science right in the parts that matter and tells an amazing story. It is, by far, one of my favourite modern science fiction novels.
Some would argue that I am an advocate for the school of ‘Hard Science Fiction’ and perhaps I am; or not. What I have witnessed within some of the sci-fi writer forums online is that many who brand themselves as hard science fiction authors are not so much caught up with the science in their stories as with the technology. Some of them will wax on about the proper configuration of a particular ion drive design, citing why it will work, and someone else’s idea is not viable. While writers like this are certainly well researched and far more knowledgeable about these topics than I, I can’t help but wonder if they are missing the point.
There is a difference between science and technology. Science is an activity; an act of exploring the world around us to uncover how it works. It has birthed Newton’s laws, Maxwell’s equations and Einstein’s relativity. Nowhere does it speak to smart watches, brain implants, FTL drives or star gates. Those fancies are all manifestations of science being applied to invent technology, and this is really the stuff that gets drawn up into science fiction for many readers and writers alike. The actual laws of physics are very few. The permutations on their practical applications are manifold.
One has only to observe the explosion of modern technology to realize this. We are in an age of technology, not an age of science. Most recent scientific research is under pressure to produce practical, economically exploitable results. Pure scientific research is rare and diminishing. It still happens, but not nearly at the explosive pace of its exploitation.
It is precisely this explosion of technology that is currently taken for the science in sci-fi. Our technology is advancing at a phenomenal pace. New inventions, only fantasy a decade ago, now adorn our wrists and homes. To explain our contemporary lifestyle to a person living in the 1950’s would have been to describe a science fiction world beyond their ability to conceive. Imagine how difficult it is for a modern writer to stay ahead of this rampaging techno-tsunami and write a sci-fi story. It is a daunting task. Every day, inventions that I believed to be far in the future are being turned out by companies. What is a writer to do?
In my opinion, first and foremost in any writing, including, or maybe especially in science fiction, the story is everything. More specifically, a good story about someone to whom the reader can relate is the most important part of writing. Too many times I have picked up what promises to be a good read, only to discover the author has spent far too much time developing their fictional world, replete with all of its amazing technology, and forgotten to tell a story about the people in it. I believe that, while paramount to good science fiction, world building is like the skeleton of the story. It is meant to be something upon which the entire plot is built and should sit in the background, only referred to when necessary. There are times when the setting can become a major character in a novel (books like Dune, The Martian and Lord of the Rings are but three examples), but in no case does the author shove his research at us proudly and say, “look at what I built”. The setting is woven into the intricate pattern of the story and thus becomes an integral part of it. It becomes a tale of how the character reacts and relates to others within such a world.
Whether a novel is set in deep space or inside a virtual reality game world, the stories of science fiction are best when they are well-told fiction. The setting happens to be what it is, and that is okay with me, and probably for most readers as well. It is why sub-genres like steampunk work.
As for me, I’ll continue to calculate orbital velocities and gravitational constants in my stories, just to keep the characters honest within their world. But after that, telling their story within that world is my primary goal. Yes, the science matters to me. The fiction just happens to matter more.
Doug Pruden writes under the name D.M. Pruden and is the author of two books, so far: The Ares Weapon and Mother of Mars. A retired Canadian geophysicist, he lives in Calgary, Alberta. When not writing science fiction, he enjoys spending time with his granddaughters, working on his golf handicap in the summer and his squash game in the winter. You can get to know him better at his website: www.prudenauthor.com