The “What if” Aspect of Science That Makes Science Fiction So Powerful

by Stephanie Barr

I have a love-love relationship with science in science fiction. I love speculative fiction and can be very forgiving of fantasy elements like telepathy and shape-shifting sneak in, for instance, because, who knows? But, if you’re cruising along at three-quarters the speed of light and the engine goes out, so you stop, I’ll be tempted to throw your book across the room.

I’m a physicist and rocket scientist so there are certain things that set me off. Lack of the basic understanding of classical physics and orbital mechanics is one (I still haven’t recovered from Gravity, see other blog posts if you want my ranting []), but, you know, there’s a universe of science we haven’t learned yet. We’re barely scraping the surface and anyone can write a good tale using the science we know and speculating the science we don’t.

I love to see things taken to the next step in science fiction, books where the implications of potential breakthroughs in science and engineering have an impact on society—because they do—and that’s part and parcel of the story. I want characters shaped by their new reality and who are proactive enough to have their own hand in shaping what comes next. I want have my notion of what sentient life really is challenged.

Science is more than what we know—though I prefer it if what we know of science is not trampled on like Grandma’s petunias in a flag football match—it’s what if. Every science breakthrough of note has started with that. What if this bacteria died in the petri dish because it was contaminated with mold – could the mold kill bacteria? What if the reason this dairy maid has been missed in several smallpox epidemics was because she’s been exposed to cowpox? What if we could harness the forces that hold atoms together? What if we could tame the forces that power the sun?

That’s all past but there are an endless number of questions we haven’t really answered yet, not the least of which is, what if we’re wrong about this or that accepted aspect of science as we know it? What if a society grew as advanced as ours but without electronics as we know it, having instead, biologically grown computers and electronics, or no metal alloys as we use but grown crystal structures? What if autism is a harbinger of the next level of intellectual development? Our limited understanding of the intricacies of it might mask a level of understanding beyond our current understanding.

What if we conquer faster-than-light travel only to find that our first explorations make us look threatening to existing space-faring cultures? What if we never find our way out of the solar system before disaster strikes? What if the solution we find is the last thing we ever expected?

I don’t expect we’ll know the answers any time soon, but there are whole galaxies of possibilities to explore to try to find out the answers. Many are out there now in various books, for all of us to find and delight in, to make us wonder.

To encourage us to play, “What if?”

Brief Bio

My name is Stephanie Barr and I write books, fantasy and science fiction and combinations thereof. A lot of them. I’m also a rocket scientist, raising my two autistic children as a single mother, and herd a bunch of cats. I have three blogs, which are sporadically updated: Rocket Scientist, Rockets and Dragons, and The Unlikely Otaku. Anything else even vaguely interesting about me can be found in my writing since I put a little bit of myself in everything I write.

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