Friday, 25 October 2013

A Science Fiction Writer, an Astrophysicist and a Blog Writer Discuss “How Important is Getting the Science Right, in Science Fiction”

Oct 15, 2013 Dodecahedron Books Media Centre, Edmonton Alberta
Part One – The Place and Scope of Science within Science Fiction

Writer:  Helena Puumala (Kati of Terra series, Witches Stones, Northern Gothic short story collection).

Astrophysicist:  Scott Olausen ( PhD student, several papers in The Astrophysical Journal).

Blogger:  Dodecahedron Books blog writer (also a statistician in his day job).

Blogger:  So, first question - does it really matter if the science in Science Fiction (or Speculative Fiction in general) is right  or wrong?

Writer:    It depends on how wrong the science is.  Common knowledge should be correct, but once you are out of the realm of “regular science”, everything is fair game.  People will generally go along with you, if the story is good.

Astrophysicist:  It depends on how difficult the Science Fiction is.  You don’t have to be perfect.  What is more important than accuracy is verisimilitude.  It should feel right, or seem plausible.  For example, the movie “Gravity” had some issues about space stations being too close to each other, and too easy to get to with the tools that the characters had at their disposal.  The orbital mechanics were all wrong.  But if you weren’t aware of these things (or could ignore them) it was scientifically plausible.  The visuals were spectacular, the sense of weightlessness was well done, and the technology seemed reasonable if you didn’t know too much about it.  If the science was 100% accurate, you wouldn’t have had the same story.  But if the science is unnecessarily sloppy, then you don’t cut it much slack.  It would seem like they don’t respect the audience’s intelligence or didn’t bother doing their homework when it came to common science.

Blogger:  So, basically, it sounds like you are both getting at the idea that it’s ok to get the science wrong as long as that doesn’t get in the way of the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief and immerse himself or herself in the story.

Here’s a converse of the first question.  Can the science be too accurate, so that it isn’t really Science Fiction anymore?

Writer:  If you stick too close to today’s science, it’s a novel or other entertainment with a scientific angle, but not SF.  It’s contemporary fiction that happens to be about space or science.

Astrophysicist:  .  It might even be non-fiction that has been fictionalized to an extent.  As they say, “based on a true story”.  That would probably cover books like Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” or the movie “Apollo 13”.  A movie like “Gravity” is a little harder to say - it’s fiction, but it could almost be true.

Blogger: Science Fiction is supposed to inspire the emotion of awe or wonder.  Perhaps those events are just too close to us, historically speaking, to have that effect.   So, lets look at the other side of the Speculative Fiction continuum.  Science Fiction versus Fantasy - where’s the boundary?

Writer:  Dragon sex is definitely well into fantasy.

Blogger:  I guess you are referring to some of the books in the Sci-Fi Romance section, that get kind of kinky.  For the record, Kati of Terra is sweetly romantic, with very little that crosses into what could be regarded as explicit sex, though there is some ribald humour.

Writer:   That’s true about Kati of Terra.  But some books in the Sci-Fi genre do get kind of out there.

Blogger:   So, a book can get into too much sexual fantasy, which detracts from the science fiction story?

Writer: I think so, but everyone’s tastes and boundaries vary, I suppose.  Leaving that aside, one difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy lies in their relationship to time.  Science Fiction tends to be futuristic, while Fantasy is the opposite of that - often medieval.

Astrophysicist: Yes, Toklien and the like are often medieval-ish, with magic in the forefront rather than science.

Blogger:  Sometimes Buffy the Vampire Slayer and stories like that get referred to as Science Fiction.  What do you make of that?

Astrophysicist:  Thinking back on Buffy, I liked the series, but I would hardly consider it Science Fiction.  But the boundary between Science Fiction and Horror can be flexible, too, I guess.  At the one end you have monsters and magic.  At the other, you have aliens and advanced technology.  And as we all know, a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, at least to those who don’t understand it.

Blogger: Yes, Arthur C. Clark said that, I believe.  The X-Files is an example of something that nicely spanned that Horror and Science Fiction boundary.

Writer:  I call my books Science Fiction, but I admit that a lot of people would call some elements of my fiction Fantasy, or fantastical.  For example, I have characters with ESP and I posit planetary spirit life forms.  So, the boundary between Science Fiction and Fantasy can be porous.

Blogger:  No doubt about it.

Astrophysicist:  We should also keep in mind that some stories that typify the phrase “Science Fiction” in the popular mind have plenty of the things the writer just mentioned.  For example, Star Trek has Spock’s telepathy, Troi’s empathic abilities, and Odo’s shape-shifting, to name just a few.

Blogger:  That raises the following question.  When you are reading novels or watching TV or movies, do you put them through a scientific credibility filter?

Astrophysicist:  I guess I reserve my scientific credibility filter for The Astrophysical Journal, and the like.  I don’t demand scientific accuracy from Dr. Who or Star Trek.  I accept the fact that they fiction and for fun.  Every script doesn’t have to be passed by an astrophysicist.  Internal consistency is important, though.  All that being said, really poor science is hard to accept.  Take “Battlefield Earth”, please.  Somehow, radiation from nuclear weapons was supposed to have ignited a planet’s entire atmosphere.  Umm, there would have been solar radiation and cosmic rays all along, which would have done the job eons earlier.  Besides, what reaction, chemical or nuclear was supposed to be going on in that atmosphere?  It just didn’t make sense.

Blogger: Yet, weirdly that book spawned a religion called Scientology.  I guess that just goes to show, be careful about believing labels.

Writer:  When I am writing my stories, I do try to put them through a scientific credibility filter.  Obviously, mine will be a lot different filter from that of an astrophysicist.  But I want to avoid errors about science that aren’t necessary to carry the story.  I don’t want people coming to me and saying I screwed up.  When I do something unscientific by today’s scientific standards,  I want to give some kind of explanation or at least acknowledge the issue.  For example, if I need interstellar travel (and it’s hard to do much Science Fiction without it), I want to at least hand-wave a technology into existence to explain it.  In the Witches’ Stones series, for example, I posit something called Omega Space, which facilitates interstellar travel.

Blogger:  I liked Omega Space.  It struck me as kind of mathematical or Platonic or something.   So, to summarize, I think we could say that getting the science at least plausible is important, though it’s not essential to conform completely to the standards of today’s science.
Part 2 next week

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