Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Putting the Sci in Sci-Fi

I've written before about world-building, focusing on the art of weaving it into the body of our stories. It's a necessary part of pretty much any genre of fiction to one degree or another, but particularly in speculative and historical fiction. Right now, I'm going to focus on a different aspect of world-building, specifically in science fiction.

Forget working in the details. I want to talk about whether the details work.

It's science fiction, right? Fiction, as in made up. Yeah, but you also have the 'science' part. You want things to be a little out there, imaginative, something the reader hasn't thought of before, but now that you suggested it, "Yes, that's so awesome!" At the same time, you don't want it to enter the realm of, "But that's totally impossible!"

Finding the balance between scientific feasibility and creative license isn't easy. I don't think I know any writers who don't dive in and do some research when they find they need to. There are natural limitations. (For example, check out the letter Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry sent Isaac Asimov in response to the latter's criticism of the television series.)

However, I've come across instances where I feel like authors didn't realize they needed to do a little research. Maybe they lacked the background knowledge. Maybe they just didn't think it through from the angle I naturally look from. Maybe they put more emphasis on what worked for their plot than what actually works from a logical world-building perspective.

Maybe I'm just a science snob.

To be honest, I see this particularly in YA sci-fi. Not saying it's true of all (not remotely!) or most. I hope it's not even true of many. But it's certainly true of some. Some who call themselves geeks, love sci-fi as a consumer, but don't get the whole left-side-of-the-brain engagement going in their writing.

I'm not saying all sci-fi has to be hard sci-fi. We don't need pages of techno-babble backing up the scientific elements of the story. But here are some (very general) scientifically minded questions I try to consider in my world-building details:

  • What progression led to the present level of technology in the world? Is it ascending (advancing technology) or descending (lost knowledge due to some event in the past)?
  • What limitations are there, preventing all tasks from being dirt simple? If technology makes some things super-simple, but others still require effort, does that distinction make sense?

  • If my setting is Earth, but X years in the future, how do elements of our current world influence my story? How have elements of our present degraded over time? (Never forget entropy.)

And here's a biggie:

  • What laws of physics (as currently understood) am I going to try to break, bend, or circumvent? How can I justify it? (The justification can be highly fictional, but must be consistent within itself.)

Any other sci-fi buffs out there? Are there ways you see the "sci" in sci-fi getting glossed over too much (in YA or otherwise)? What strategies do you have for keeping your imagination within some confines of scientific consistency? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


R. Mac Wheeler said...

Thought provoking points.

Enjoyed reading. Especially thanks for the link to the letters between JR and IA.

Have a great day

- Mac

Ted Cross said...

While I love reading far future sci-fi, I've always preferred to write about the near future, because what interests me most is the evolution of the big future technologies. I try to figure out why I think will really happen and write about that. This is why my sci-fi novel concentrates on immortality, because to me that is the holy grail for humans and I think it will become possible eventually...though not necessarily in the manner that most people think about when they think about immortality.

Mike Lewis said...

I think you hit the nail on the head in your final question, when in the parenthetical statement you used the word "consistent."

I think you can do just about anything you want in your fictional world, provided that it is 1) plausible and 2) consistent. Once it becomes inconsistent, it also loses its plausibility, and then you've lost the reader because they are either confused or they cannot believe the story anymore.

That doesn't mean that if a space ship takes 20 minutes to travel 40 light years should also take 40 minutes to travel 80 light years. You can define a set of rules for your new technology, but then you must remember to abide by them. (Or, like we often saw in Star Trek, come up with a new set of technology that operates on a new set of rules...)

Mike Lewis said...

I also think that there is some value in the "unexplained". Case in point: Star Wars.

With the initial three movies (Episodes 4, 5, and 6) we had this wonderful mysterious power called "The Force". For whatever reason, only certain people were endowed with this power to be able to control simple minds, move objects, and if you're really good, shoot lighting out of your fingertips. It definitely brought a huge "fantasy" aspect to an otherwise "SciFi" movie. In those initial movies, The Force was never really explained beyond that, as well as the fact that your feelings and emotions had an effect on its use.

Then, in my option, Lucas screwed it all up in Episodes 1, 2 and 3. All of the mystery surrounding The Force was shot to heck. Why the Force had to be explained with midi-chlorians, etc. doesn't make sense to me because I can't really see how those details affected the overall story, other than removing the mystery behind it. In the end The Force became something complex rather than simple. Does it not stand to reason that if you provide a technical explanation to something, then you are allowing the possibility for that thing to be affected by technology? I was happier knowing that The Force couldn't be affected by technology, because it was outside of that realm. Now? I'm not so sure.

E.B. Black said...

Sci-fi is confusing for me. I love it as a genre, but most of it involves space travel, which isn't really possible since over eighty percent of the universe is made of dark matter. Not even light can travel through dark matter, so we couldn't either. And yet we accept the way space travel is portrayed as the universe being filled with empty space. So I don't know how much I need to study and how much I can stretch the truth. It gives me a headache sometimes thinking about it.

R.C. Lewis said...

Mac, thanks for stopping by!

Ted, absolutely. I think these issues probably apply even more in near-future SF, since you can only go a step or two beyond current technology. You can't do as much "assuming we develop ways to do this, this, and that, then we can have all these other things."

Mike, definitely on both points. Consistency within your own system is critical. Of course, first you have to have a system readers/viewers can buy into. And I agree that over-explaining can kill the allure of some things. Also, the more you explain, the more you may leave yourself open to inconsistencies and holes.

E.B., the dark matter aspect of space travel doesn't seem much of a barrier to me, because it's still in a very "trying to figure it out" stage, which leaves it a little more open.

Also, the sources I checked state that about 80% of the *matter* of the universe is thought to be dark matter. Not the same thing as 80% of the *universe itself* being dark matter. (Kind of like if I say "80% of the fluid in this cup is oil, and the other 20% is water." That doesn't mean the cup is 80% full of oil. The glass may only be 10% full, most of that oil, but the majority of the glass holding air.

Riley Redgate said...

Eeenteresting post. And yeah, argh, nothing ruins a story for me quite as quickly as poorly-thought-through faux-science. My main gripe always has to be, "WELL, WHY." Because the plot of a sci-fi, obviously, will involve technological elements - but those elements sometimes have a Dark Side, to create conflict, and for that not to seem like a straight-up contrivance, I've got to have something to hold onto as to WHY humans invented it in the first place.

Luckily, as we're the species that created the nuclear bomb, my capability to suspend disbelief due to motive is pretty large. I don't particularly *like* the "science for the sake of science!" line of motivation, but I'll buy it.

Actually, I see this a lot in dystopia, too. Like, "Why on EARTH did the government think this sort of thing was a good installation?" It's so easy to have a Big Bad Government that's oh-so-convenient for the plot, when said government makes no sense from its own perspective. *sigh*

Honestly, I don't mind too much *how* the science is developed, as long as it *is* developed. I tend toward the side where I'll totally read fake technobabble for pages because I eat it up, but I get that most people won't, so I'm okay just seeing snapshots here and there. As long as the author doesn't raise any questions they won't/can't answer, I'm good.

Paige Foreman said...

I agree with Riley. I see a lot of glossing over in dystopia and those books garner a lot of puzzled looks from me.

I see glossing over in Stars Wars too...But it's Star Wars. No one is going to think that stuff is possible.

This post was very interesting to me because my next shiny new idea is going to take place in the degenerative era of the universe, which means that I will need to do LOTS of major speculation and research. I will probably be asking myself the questions you posted a lot.

Rissa Young said...

This post came at a great time for me. Writing sci-fi can be hard, there's a lot of research to be done and physic laws to be obeyed.

Sometimes, trying to get the science right overrides the story and I have to remember it's about the characters and plot, not jut the science.