Tag Archives: science

The Cosmic Train Schedule, and Getting Science Right

by Jennifer Willis

During the Q&A following my author reading at Orycon in November, I was asked a question I’d not gotten before:

“What was the coolest thing you learned while researching your Mars books?”

What an awesome question, right? I had to think quickly on my feet and sort through all of the fun stuff I got to dig into while working on these three books. The answer that sprung to mind, though, was the Cosmic Train Schedule. And I promise that’s not something I just made up.

The Cosmic Train Schedule is an online resource that includes real-world transit times between Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It’s a massive timetable that spans centuries and gives exact dates for departures and arrivals as well as information on aphelion, perihelion, and other fun geekery.

And I did geek out over this. I opened up a new project in Aeon Timeline and mapped out all of the (fictional) manned missions to Mars for my series, including both the government-sponsored trips crewed by trained astronauts and the waves of colony missions that are central to my stories. This helped me get a better sense for the lengths of missions, a reasonable timeline for sending people on interplanetary voyages, and a hard schedule for overlaps between missions and gaps when there would be no human beings on the Red Planet. While I had a lot of nerdy fun pulling that together and inserting more mundane elements like future Super Bowl dates (because I also mapped out a fictional NFL expansion as background material), I also needed this information to construct and drive my stories—particularly for the third book, Mars Heat.

So why go to all this trouble? Because actual science matters in science fiction. This can be tricky for authors, because sometimes real-world limitations and physics can get in the way of what would otherwise be an awesome plot point. But I try not to use handwavium too much if I can help it. This is a big reason I’m still excited that I got to participate in the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers at the University of Wyoming in 2011, even though my brain melted as we tried to absorb what amounted to a college course in astrophysics in the space of a single week. It’s no coincidence that Mike Brotherton—founder of Launch Pad, UW physics and astronomy professor, and sci-fi author—is the one who directed me to the Cosmic Train Schedule.

Sci-fi authors have a unique opportunity to promote science literacy through our work. Countless astronauts, scientists, and others credit their early sci-fi reading for inspiring their studies and careers, and scientific understanding is important for everyone. Plus, it’s fun to learn something new while you’re in the middle of a great read. My SFR books aren’t hard science fiction, but I do try to get the science right where possible.

A chronically optimistic nerd, Jennifer Willis writes urban fantasy, sci-fi, and sci-fi romance. She is also the writer behind the Northwest Love Stories feature in The Oregonian and has a byline in the Hugo Award-winning Women Destroy Science Fiction from Lightspeed.

Putting the Science in Sci-Fi

by J.D. Lakey

Don’t tell anyone. This will be our little secret. I use a calculator when I write. I have to.

It started out small. I invented this planet full of humans who have traveled so far in space and time from human Earth that they have forgotten it exists. The world of Black Bead is full of psychic creatures, some of whom would dearly love to eat you. The main character, Cheobawn, lives in a dome that protects the humans from these predators. In the first book, the protagonists go outside the dome to have a bit of fun.

Here comes the math. Part of my world-building involved creating a unit of distance. A click – the distance an adult dome dweller can walk in an hour. The question became this. If you were an adult concerned about the well-being of your children without being a helicopter parent, how far would you let them travel? Next question. If an adult can walk one click per hour how long does it take for a group of kids to travel the same distance? How far would they go if they meant to break those rules? How far would they have to be from the dome if they had to run to get home in a hurry?

That was the simple math. In the second book, Bhotta’s Tears, the math became tricky. The people use huge elk as mounts and pack animals. So here is the equation. If a mule train on Earth can travel X number of miles in a day at Y miles per hour what does that equate to in bennelk miles on the planet Occonomara? Getting that number allowed me to confidently plot out an adventure to the edge of the Escarpment and back.

That math part was easy. The third book, Spider Wars, required the invention of a quantum entangled stone grown in the brain of a giant lizard that altered how humans traveled through space-time, a race of aliens who can drag a star ship around dimensional corners, thus eliminating that tedious time problem inherent in space travel, and a race of spiders who solved that same problem by recreating themselves, getting rid of the need for star ships or spacesuits. The trick to writing this without boring the reader to tears with explanation is to have the science firmly in mind and then have your characters walk around inside a world where these things are true. If I can make the reader believe it to be possible then the reveals in the fifth book, Arrow’s Flight, are easier to write because you have already explained all the science.

The ultimate questions become the ones concerning eugenics. If you were a highly evolved civilization who wanted to engineer your children to survive a hostile universe full of the aforementioned creatures, what would you change about yourself? Would you become as psychic as the animals on this alien planet? Would you become a race of physically adept warriors? Or would you simply engineer a brain that could process the immense amount of data required to do it all? Now walk around in this world with an avatar empowered with those skills and see what kind of trouble you can get into.

Welcome to Cheobawn’s world.

J.D. Lakey is the author of The Black Bead Chronicles. Find out more at www.jdlakey.com

The Science in Sci-Fi: How Important Is It?

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



The Science of Magic in Fantasy

by Andy Peloquin

The Flying Carpet (1880)
by Viktor Vasnetsov

We’ve all read books where magic is used as a tool to accomplish the impossible. The hero finds himself in peril or the heroine is confronted with insurmountable odds, and magic saves the day!

What rubbish. That sort of magic is unbelievable, not to mention lazy. To be realistic, magic has to be more of a science.

In truth, magic is sort of a pseudoscience. Well-crafted magic systems have their own very clear rules. For example, take Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic:

  1. An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

  2. The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than its capabilities. What the magic can’t do is more interesting than what it can.

  3. “A brilliant magic system for a book is less often one with a thousand different powers and abilities — and is more often a magic system with relatively few powers that the author has considered in depth.”

Magic varies from book to book. What one fantasy author writes may be disdained by another. But a well-presented magic system is as clearly-defined (at least in the author’s mind) as the laws of gravity. If X happens, Y is always the reaction. Combine X and Y, and Z will always happen. There is a certain raw, elemental force to magic, but just like fire, water, air, and gravity, it must be understood in order for it to be effective.

As readers, we’re being asked by the author to suspend disbelief long enough to believe that magic exists. Fair enough, right? It’s why we love fantasy in the first place. But if the author doesn’t give us a sort of magic we can wrap our head around, it’s TOO unbelievable.

We may not understand how the magic works, but we have to understand how the magic works! Sounds silly, but let me explain:

  1. We don’t understand how the magic works – We don’t know where magic comes from. It could be wild magic from the earth, innate sorcerous abilities, mutant powers, or any number of magical sources. Seeing as we don’t have access to that magic, we don’t really know how the magic works. We just know that it does because the author has told us it does.

  2. We have to understand how the magic works – We have to know that when the mage waggles his fingers just so, it’s channeling magic from his mind, from the earth, from his deity, or from some talisman. We may not understand exactly where the magic comes from or how the person taps into it, but we understand their struggle with it, their limitations, their abilities, and their strengths and weaknesses.

It’s easy for an author to say, “Magic works” and trust that we’ll accept it. But that’s not the case! Magic needs to be as well-defined as the science of the world we’re reading. Just like we know that “what goes up must come down”, so too there have to be constants in the magic systems, something we can wrap our minds around. The more defined, the easier it is to suspend disbelief of what we know to buy into the premise of “magic”.

Check out Andy Peloquin’s books here.


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.