Fact 'n' Fiction 'n' Me

John Gribbin (1993)


When Concatenation asked me to write about "the interface between SF and sci-fact", on the basis that I trained as a scientist (PhD in Astrophysics, Cambridge, 1973) and now write science fiction, I guess they expected me to tell you how important it is to get the science in science fiction right. If so, they are in for a sad disappointment. I'm not interested in putting the elements of my scientific training into SF. I find it much more interesting to put the elements of my background in SF (as a reader) into my science. And that is how I got to do a PhD in astrophysics in the first place.

I practically learned to read with the aid of Astounding, and gained my early impression of what life as a scientist was like from its pages. It never occurred to me that it might be possible to earn a living by writing SF, but the idea of becoming a scientist very definitely appealed. So I did. Naturally, I gravitated towards the wackiest and most way out ideas -- black holes, Schrodinger's Cat and the like.

I was never any good at the science, but after I got thrown out of the game, I managed to keep in touch by writing about it. Then I realised that what I was writing could have come out of the pages of Astounding itself. The penny dropped and, with some minor rejigging and changing a few names to protect the guilty, I started selling the same sort of stuff, but now under the label SF.

The point of all this lies in what you think the "S" in SF stands for. I am interested in speculative fiction, just as I'm interested in speculative science. Scientific speculation is often far wackier and more way out than anything dreamed up by SF writers -- witness the story of mini-black holes, presented in serious scientific papers and then picked up on in SF. Or Larry Niven's notorious theft of Frank Tipler's idea for a rotating cylindrical time machine.

But the speculation doesn't have to come from the realms of 'real' science. What matters (taken as given the need for characters, plot and so on) is that a story is self-consistent within the framework of a particular speculation, and that the speculation contributes to the storyline, not just being bolted on as special effects. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy Star Wars, only that it isn't SF, just space western; on the other hand, Back to the Future (especially II) meets my criteria. And, as I have said before, these criteria make Terry Pratchett a "hard" SF writer in my book. He defines the parameters within which his speculation operates, sticks to them, and leads you in totally unexpected directions as a result.

That's another reason I am attracted to both SF and sci-fact -- the unexpected twist. Albert Einstein didn't believe his own equations when they told him the Universe must be expanding; Lord Kelvin proved that no mechanism known to science (19th century science) could keep the Sun hot for more than 100 million years; Caltech researchers, trying to prove once and for all that time travel is impossible discovered that it is, in fact, allowed by the laws of physics. This is clearly ridiculous and pinpoints a flaw in the laws of physics; why, it's as daft as the idea that the Universe is expanding!

My favourite example is the impeccable reasoning of the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, in the fifth century BC. If I just told you that he thought that the Sun was a lump of red-hot iron, 35 miles across, whizzing past 4000 miles overhead, you might snigger at his stupidity. But was he so stupid? From measurements of the angular height of the Sun from different places on Earth, Anaxagoras was able to use simple geometry (triangulation) to calculate, using the reasonable assumption that the Earth is flat, that the Sun is just about 4000 miles (in modern units) overhead; because lumps of red-hot iron sometimes fell from the sky in the form of meteorites, he inferred that the Sun was also a lump of red-hot iron; and, from the angular size of the Sun, knowing its distance he worked out that it was about 35 miles in diameter. This is beautiful scientific speculation, logically derived from just one false assumption. It would make the basis for a terrific SF story [not unlike Gribbin's Innervisions...]. So, is it SF or sci-fact? Will, say, the Big Bang theory one day be simply the basis of a good SF story, and no longer sci-fact?

One of the things that also intrigues me is the way the scientific mind works. The top scientists, like Anaxagoras, operate exactly in the way that the best SF writers operate. They think of a crazy (or not so crazy) idea, then follow it through to see what it implies. I've sat in on brainstorming sessions over coffee (among other things) with astronomers and physicists, and I've co-authored SF on several occasions. There's no difference! Which leads me to suspect that the entire structure of modern science is, indeed, a self-consistent fiction, which seems to explain what is going on, but is entirely a figment of the collective imagination of the group of speculative writers that we call scientists.

This is such an intriguing theme that I explored it in my latest book, which for some reason Roc are marketing as fiction. Following this, I may write it up as a scientific paper and offer it to a learned journal for publication. The interface between SF and sci-fact? There isn't one; there is no clear boundary at all, any more than there is a clear boundary between the nitrogen molecules and oxygen molecules in the air that you're breathing right now.

Mind you, the argument works both ways. Concatenation didn't ask for my views on the interface between SF and mainstream fiction, so I'll give them anyway. The so-called mainstream, to me, is a sub-genre of SF. It all takes place in parallel realities, definitely not in the world that we live in, and parallel universe stories, fun though they are, are just one sub-genre of the wide-ranging scope of SF proper.

There's no difference between SF and sci-fact; nor is there any difference between SF and the mainstream novel. Which means, of course, that Jane Austen was a scientist, and the interface between SF and sci-fact can be found on page 27 of Emma.

John Gribbin is an astrophysicist who has forged a career in science communication. He has worked for the world-leading journal Nature, been the physical sciences editor of New Scientist, and is the author of over a score of popular science books and some science fiction.

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