One of the challenges to writing science fiction is … the science.
For me, the science was once a major deterrent to writing in the genre. I believed science fiction readers would demand world-building only Sheldon Cooper could craft. I don’t know why I felt this way. As a reader, my tastes tend to hang out on the cheesecake end of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.
Even hard sci-fi takes liberties with physical laws. This is fiction, after all, yet there is a tendency for critics to want writers in the genre to get the science right. Take astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse, who famously tweeted about the inaccuracies in the award-winning film Gravity. And there’s this NPR article which seems to take the position that sci-fi writers bear some responsibility for inspiring the next generation of rocket scientists. While Andy Weir may have done exactly that with his superb novel, The Martian, there exists a compulsion to point out ‘mistakes,’ such as the storm which kicks off the story.
Don’t let the ‘hard matters’ critics keep your sci-fi stories tucked safely in a virtual folder. The NPR article I mentioned prompted author Fran Wilde to ask ten writers to weigh in on the subject of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ science fiction. My favorite takeaway came from author Tade Thompson who wrote, “The exploration of cultures should not take a backseat to the exploration of the solar system.” And this, from Elizabeth Bear who describes science fiction as, “the literature of testing concepts to destruction: space travel, societies, ideologies.”
There’s a lot of room in the genre for a variety of tastes. Write what you love to write. If you prefer sci-fi that’s diamond hard, then do like Mark Watney and “science the shit out of it.” If you’re on the opposite end of the scale like me (I write space western) know your readers’ expectations and art the shit out of it–within your subgenre’s framework.
Newton’s Laws? Or Newton’s Strong Suggestions?
Even on the softer end of the scale, there are some considerations when playing fast and loose with the impossible. If you thumb your nose at Newton, make the result so spectacular we’ll stow our disbelief in suspended animation for the rest of your character’s journey. (Re: The Rule of Cool.) Awesomeness matters. So does consistency and cause and effect.
Tolerance levels vary.
Personally, one-man armies, infallible badassery and cars that endure multiple should-be-fatal collisions push my button of disbelief. (Batmobile and Bumblebee, excluded.) On the other hand, I’m all in for Star Trek transporters, Thor’s hammer, and anything Firefly/Serenity. As I mentioned, I write space westerns so my tastes should come as no surprise. When writing, I try to honor the science, but not at the expense of my stories.
So how might an unscientific writer get the science less wrong?
Delivering on this post’s title, here are three of my favorite resources which speak specifically to science fiction writers:
Winchell Chung, aka Nyrath, calls his website a “glorified term paper.” I call it a science fiction wonderland. Mr. Chung helps dream weavers like me “get the scientific details more accurate.” That’s been true in my case but Atomic Rockets is so much more than a reference. If you love science fiction, visit this site! The collection of research and factoids, and pure genre nirvana is priceless to an author. Warning, it’s addicting. If you’re a writer and, like me, you find Nyrath’s work invaluable, consider becoming a patron.
Physics of the Impossible
Theoretical physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku, tells us that, today, “the fundamental laws of physics are basically understood… and physicists can state, with reasonable confidence, what the broad outlines of future technology might look like.” His book contains three parts. First, he covers what he calls Class I Impossibilities. Sci-fi technologies like force fields, phasers, teleportation, and several more are impossible today but they don’t violate known laws of physics. (I was happy to learn that my latest novel’s plasma curtain was not an outlandish device.) Next, Dr. Kaku covers Class II Impossibilities, namely, faster-than-light travel, time travel and parallel universes. These technologies might be possible millions of years in the future. Finally, the Class III Impossibilities will never be realized because they violate the laws of physics. Can you guess what they are?
Dr. Kaku now has a series on the Science Channel which goes by the same name.
Dr. Stephen Gillett, a geologist, “does planets for a living.” Who better to turn to for planetary inventions? Topographies, atmospheres, suns and moons and gravity, Dr. Gillett does the math. Truly, there’s a lot of math. He also provides examples of sci-fi world-building done right. Two fascinating chapters are devoted to the Earth which, during most of its history, was an alien scum world. If you want to build geologically credible planets then get this book.
Annals of the Former World
John McPhee’s collection of essays provides a complex yet entertaining treatment of the geological history of North America. John McPhee tags along with geologists to decipher road cuts, piecing together clues about the geologic past. Did you know the Earth was “prone to rolling?” As McPhee tells it, New Jersey was once as close to the equator as Yucatan is today. Read this book and be a danger on the highway whenever you drive past a sheered hunk of hill.
Okay, so this last resource wasn’t written specifically for sci-fi writers but few research materials are, and —> this book makes a party out of rocks!
What are your favorite resources for getting the science not-too-wrong?