Is it Science or is it Fiction?

by Robert Scanlon


What do you prefer in science-fiction? Do you lean toward the science, or do you like the fiction more?

Of course, it’s all fiction. But some people prefer their science-fiction closer to the hard science and to what is hypothetically possible, or just a small stretch from what is possible given our current knowledge.

And then there are some who prefer to have their science-fiction completely imaginative — which some say is merely swords and sorcery, or pure fantasy, but in a space setting.

Take Star Wars, for example. It’s a combination of some science (maybe not much), and a lot of fantasy. I mean, Jedi mind tricks, lightsabers, improbable aliens, and plenty of planets all of which seem to have the same gravity as Earth. So Star Wars is a lot of fun, but certainly not hard science.

Contrast that to Star Trek. Although it appears to be just a low-budget Space Opera TV series from the 60s, the writers did try to get some of the science correct, especially in the modern movie adaptations. Although once again, we do seem to be visiting an awful lot of planets with the same gravity as Earth.

Some of the sci-fi classics have taken a hard science approach to developing an imaginative setting. For example, Larry Niven’s Ringworld. In Ringworld, an entire ring-like structure encircles a star at roughly the distance of Earth’s orbit from the sun. It spins or “orbits,” and generates gravity in this fashion. Niven built an entire spectacle from one premise.

Having said that, Niven was then taken to task by fans, possibly physicists themselves, who pointed out many flaws in the hard science, and Niven was forced to rewrite his premise in the second book, The Ringworld Engineers. Nonetheless the hard science behind Ringworld and its sequel makes it a much more curious read, where much of the conflict is driven by the science.

And perhaps that’s what it comes down to, a question of what generates the conflict. Does the conflict in the story arise because of the science, or does the conflict simply come from the interplay of characters and plot, and it wouldn’t matter whether the setting was science or fantasy, it just happens to be set in “space” or some futuristic setting.

Perhaps you’re like me, and you sit somewhere in between. You don’t mind if some of the science is at present impossible; for example, faster than light drive. Or hyperspace. Or galaxies peppered with multiple types of aliens, all of whom are able to converse with each other. Somehow this tickles my imagination. I enjoy being transported into a future where perhaps this is all possible.

It’s not too much of a stretch to take ourselves back into the medieval world, show the people of that time our cars, planes, computers and iPhones, to have them exclaim that it is simply magic and not provable by science.

Perhaps so, but it does seem as if it would take someone to completely bust Einstein’s theories to get us to faster-than-light drives. One day, I hope.

But I do like some of the science in my science-fiction to be reasonably accurate, particularly where it is portraying something we know to be true today.

For example, if your spaceship does not have artificial gravity (yet another functionality that has yet to be developed without the use of centrifuges or rotational space stations), then it makes sense that people should be floating around the spaceship, using anchor points or magnetic boots or some form of device to allow for easy movement. When a fight breaks out on board, it should be realistic and believable within the zero gravity setting.

We shouldn’t be expecting folks to be running along the ship’s passageways as if they are on Earth. So if they do, it does tend to take me out of the story a little. But if the story has already grabbed me, my mind will somehow switch over to thinking, “well it’s just swords and sorcery in space and that’s okay.” As long as it is consistent I guess!

Equally, acceleration, relative speed, gravity (I seem to be fixated on gravity) and other current-day physical science should be realistic and reasonable, or within reason in a science fiction story. We shouldn’t expect that every planet visited in a science-fiction Space Opera epic would have identical gravity to Earth’s.

Nor should we expect that every alien being is bipedal. (Though I am guilty of this in my stories.)

At the end of the day, whether you prefer hard science or speculative fiction or something in between, it’s all about believability. Any science-fiction is going to require the reader to suspend their disbelief for some period of time, because after all it is science-fiction and it is meant to represent something that isn’t possible today, but only possible in our heads.

And is that the fun of science-fiction?


Robert Scanlon is the author of Constellation, a Space Opera Science-Fiction Epic with plenty of debatable science, some hard science, and of course the obligatory bipedal aliens. Constellation is a fast-paced adventurous galactic escapade, featuring a daring female space pirate.

11 thoughts on “Is it Science or is it Fiction?

  1. A good read, Robert! This is something I struggled with when initially defining my time travel adventure series that has a space opera bent. How “hard” did I want it to be? I used the below as a reference:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MohsScaleOfScienceFictionHardness

    I would say my series falls between 3 and 5 on that scale. Although the series is based on the concept of time travel and its effects, which I would classify as soft, it has mid to hard elements where possible. For instance, I have ultrasonic radiation used for tactile feedback. An example of mid is that I have geosynchronous space habitats that rotate (I didn’t delve into the coreolis effect), and are part of a Dyson bubble. I extrapolated on that even further and have the concept of a backbone ship that the habitats can attach to so that if the bubble needs to move, it has a portable means to do so.

    However, the Dyson bubble isn’t the conflict, but just one setting of many for the characters and plot. While some engineering details are mentioned, it’s not critical to the story. I wanted to showcase what might be possible, but don’t go to the hard sf level on it.

    Another aspect of space travel I tackled was food, drink, and bathroom activities. I settled on a matter conversion unit, an element storage tank, and a matter replicator that uses the element storage tank and a series of patterns. Using the bathtoom just goes through the matter conversion unit and ends up inthe element storage tank. Although this system is mentioned and is part of the story, it’s not part of the conflict.

    My first series is mainly a love letter to futurology 🙂

    In my second series, out next year, I struggled with the gravity on ships. I didn’t want to be tied down to dealing with gravity via rotational or linear acceleration, since the series is most comparable to stargate atlantis and mass effect. Although rotational will still be used in some areas, like space stations, I wanted ships to use something softer.

    I settled on grav plating, like Star Trek, with the in book explanation that gravity is an emergent phenomenom that can be controlled. The idea is that through manipulation of the underlying framework, it can produce a 1g environment. The detailed physics to do this is partially known to the ship’s engineer, but his focus is that the plating has dimensions with an input and an output, and specifications on its usage. I’m a programmer by day, so I liken this to including a propietary DLL into code. You know its signatures, and what it returns, but can’t see what’s inside although you know at a high level what is possible with the DLL.

    Thinking about it, I guess my series could have parts of it replaced by magic with a detailed framework, but the setting and some of the ideas are grounded in what might be possible in science in the future.

    Anyways, just my two cents. I enjoyed reading your post!

    1. Thanks, Adair! I’m humbled by your very detailed response!

      There’s no question there’s an appetite for hard science in sci fi – The Martian is a great example (“I’m gonna have to science the hell out of it!”). It really is a mainstay of the plot.

      But I must admit, in my own recent work, I just went with “switch on the artificial gravity now that we have restored power” and left it at that!

      I love your analogy with DLL files, too. Smart to draw a real-life comparison for something made up. Perhaps our minds will more easily suspend disbelief. That’s another post in an of itself – the use of analogy and metaphor to “explain” sci fi “science”!

  2. Re: AG, I have two words for you: mass attractors!!

    Sure they’re heavy, but if you have the luxury of considering AG, you must already have a good thrust to mass ratio, so …

    Oh. Sorry. What was the question again? Is it science or is it fiction? Get it right enough and it can be BOTH! 🙂

    1. Yes, Felix. That is definitely the holy grail – when both contribute to the story, and it would be less without the science! (And you do this very well btw. I love your integration of science!)

  3. I really enjoyed The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction when Kristine Kathryn Rusch was the editor. I still remember her letter to readers explaining that physics isn’t the only science, that biology and psychology, genealogy, etc are also sciences and fair game for science fiction. I also still remember some of the stories I read in it, twenty something years ago. Clothing that is really a parasite. A society that has made sleep obsolete…

  4. I think I fall somewhere in the middle on this too. I enjoy both Fantasy and Science Fiction, so I don’t at all mind the more fantastical Sci-Fi settings (like Star Wars), and equally enjoy the more science-driven ones. In many ways, so long as there is an explanation — and consistency — a reader can suspend disbelief. Fantasy requires this too, though not to the same extent.

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