The Science in Science Fiction

Science fiction comes in so many flavours that defining 'science fiction' is problematic. One aspect of our understanding of SF is that it should be technically accurate.
But is this more important than the story? Should it be compromised to tell a story? asks author and psychologist Ian Hocking

From one perspective, technical accuracy should never be compromised. It could be argued that because the public get impressions of science through the creative media (books, films, and so on), it is important to ensure basic accuracy. True, the damage that can be caused by the unintelligent presentation of scientific 'fact' is worryingly extensive. We have all seen news reports that mishandle findings. An example? 'Doctors have found a link between coffee and heart attacks...' The reporter will then go on to advise that a reduction in caffeine intake will lower the chances that a given viewer will suffer a heart attack. The critical error here is the assumption of causality; that the heart attack is an effect of the coffee. Equally likely -- in fact, this is what we must say, since many of these studies use statistical methods that cannot prove a causal connection -- caffeine consumption and heart attack incidence are correlates; maybe they are linked to a third variable, such as a 'Type A' personality. In sum, a reduction in caffeine may not reduce your risk of heart disease because the two are not causally related. Better to address the root causes, if you can identify them.

But should science fiction be held to such standards? I would argue not. Because, first and foremost, the responsibility of a storyteller is to tell a story. If the storyteller is primarily concerned with edification -- rather than letting this grow organically from the story -- then an alternative form of dissemination, such as the essay or the documentary, might be more appropriate.

In a recent essay on the Cassandra Effect in SF - i.e. why nobody seems to bloody listen - Ben Bova suggests that few people read SF because:

...perhaps it's that word 'science' that frightens them off: they think the stories are too difficult for them to understand. They're not.

Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps SF is seen as too challenging. My own view, however, is that science fiction is commonly conceived as tedious unless one is interested in gadgets, time paradoxes, poor characterisation and the wilfully obscure. As an SF writer, I would not agree that this conception is an accurate one, but it does appear to describe the common reaction.

Bova goes on to say:

Perhaps the problem lies with the visual entertainment media: movies and TV. Let's face it, most of Hollywood's "sci-fi" has its origins in comic strips, not actual published science fiction. Many people don't realize that the "sci-fi flicks" on both big and small screens are a far cry from the intellectual and emotional depth of real science fiction.

As a recent convert to graphic novels, I don't agree with the implication that comic-form SF lacks intellectual and emotional depth. Indeed, it seems equally easy to screw up literary SF. Who else has tried to forget 'Johnny Mnemonic'?

'Intellectual depth' is an interesting term. I find this problematic in the context of creating fiction. A story is a series of moments that, through the interactions of their meaning, create emotions in the reader. Intellectual depth, it would appear, works at a level incommensurate with the story. Sure, we can be entertained by a bit of techno-jargon, we can go 'Ahhh,' when the author explains how a nifty camouflage suit can lower the wearer's refractive index to zero, rendering them invisible. But this not the story. It is, yes, part of the support structure of the story, but it represents a reduction of forward motion while what the reader should really care about - the characters and what happens to them - is put on hold.

When the story is put on hold for attention-stretching paragraphs, even pages, you place your fiction into the category that justifies the response of those who hate science fiction: 'I'm not interested in all that space stuff'. You shouldn't have to be interested in the space stuff to an enjoy an SF story any more than you need to have an intrinsic interest in African territorial jurisdiction to enjoy Casablanca, Russian history to enjoy Dr Zhivago, or time paradoxes to enjoy The Terminator, or the ad nauseam creation of languages, legends and appendices -- yet you want Frodo to reach Mount Doom and you worry for the tragic figure of Gollum.

In my novel Déjà Vu, I describe an 'Einstein-Rosen bridge' (a point of connection between two areas of space-time) and its use as a time machine. Now, I have made several changes to the way the time machine works, and these changes are not possible within the rules of Einsteinian physics. (An Einstein-Rosen bridge should have two entrances at either side, and the best way to have your hero travel in time is to accelerate one to a speed that approaches the speed of light -- but don't try that at home.) Much of my science is this context is technically inaccurate... but accurate within the 'universe' of Déjà Vu. That universe is defined only by its relation to the notes of meaning I want to strike during the story.

I guess I've come to this conclusion through the editing process. I've learned that what makes a scene good isn't the tech; it's the meaning conjured by the characters, their struggles, the conflict, and the wider narrative. When working to improve a piece of fiction, you can fiddle with the meaning (I'm using this word in a broad sense that encompasses 'emotion', 'affect', 'interest' and so on) or you can fiddle with the technical stuff. At the end of the day, it's the sharpening of meaning that improves the work by any real margin.

This was brought home to me when writing the next novel in the Déjà Vu universe, Flashback. I deliberately avoided any solid research prior to its writing. Why? Because a story is a series of emotional moments happening to people you care about, full stop. The story, at this level, is completely independent of the techo/scientific stuff (the exception being a story where a turning point is based on something technical). The non-novelists reading this post might wonder if it is possible to write a technothriller without doing any research. Well, I've done it. (Whether the novel is any good, of course, is a separate issue.) It's the way that an episode of a medical drama is written; the writers draft a script and leave it full of holes with statements like 'insert gross illness here' or 'Kovac and Pratt argue about whether the treatment was appropriate; K wanted to take the most cautious approach, P the most reckless' and then the medical consultants will work with them on the dialogue. The dialogue -- i.e. the research -- is not the story bit. The story bit is the relationship between Kovac and Pratt.

You might recall reading a book where the writer has misunderstood the separation between his research and his story. There's a certain amount of showing off involved; the writer has done a shed load of work and wants to prove it. You know the writers I'm talking about. Their works contain chunks of 'research porn' and instead of being gripped, the reader feels like they've stumbled into a seminar on the metallurgy of the AK47. Best to avoid that. I think the writer needs to ask:-
(i) What kind of meaning am I trying to project?
(ii) What research do I need to do in order to 'sell' this?
(iii) How do I need to alter these real-world concepts/applications to fit with my meaning?
(iv) How do I 'sell' my story using the minimum of research detail?

Flashback will probably read as a novel that contains a lot of research. For example, I have my main character, Saskia Brandt, seize the controls of a diving 737 in an attempt to recover it. In order to make this feasible, I've spoken to more than one 737 pilot, read some training manuals, and been lucky enough to have a pilot check my draft for factual inaccuracies. But while this is something I want to get right, it is important to see it as secondary to the story; the moment a scene progresses on the basis of what you, the author, the thinks is the 'wow factor' of your research, then alarms should, literally, ring. In science fiction, the fiction should come first.

Dr Ian Hocking is a research psychologist and a writer based at the University of York, Great Britain. His latest novel is Déjà Vu and Flashback is coming soon in 2007.

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