>A Step Back in Time

>Kate and I were talking yesterday — well, to be honest, we were IM’ing — about possible topics for today’s post. We discussed a number of things, everything from how we are both being hit by new books wanting to be written to how nervous we are as we wait to hear from publishers/agents/etc to the panels being presented at Libertycon this weekend. The one thing we kept going back to is something Dave touched on in his last post — how the older authors, such as Schmitz, have seen a new generation of readers come to know and love them through re-issues of their work.

But there is a different side of the issue I want to discuss today, one the name of a panel at Libertycon brought back to mind. I say “back to mind” because this discussion cropped up on Baen’s Bar a year or so ago and has also made the rounds on several LJs in the past. But it’s an important issue, at least in my mind as a writer, and one I’d like to get your opinions on.

What is the name of the panel that got all this started you ask? “Shell Worlds: Why Space Opera Has It Wrong”. In particular, what stuck in my mind is the last of the title: Why space opera has it wrong.

I’ve had discussions bordering on knock-down, drag-out arguments with others about the validity of the old space operas. They claim Heinlein is no longer important because his technology is either too old fashioned or impossible. They diss Asimov because he based his Foundation series on historical narratives and faulty assumptions. John W. Campbell is nothing more than a name in a list of greats who has no importance today beyond the fact he helped make SF what it is today.

These readers eat up the technical aspects of books similar to David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. They hold on-line discussions dissecting every possible equation to prove or disprove what Weber writes. They discuss the specifications of the different ships and munitions used in each and every assault.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of David Weber. But my eyes glaze over after the first couple of paragraphs of technical data. I want the guts of the story — the characters and the conflict. I can forgive an author if his science doesn’t quite work today, especially if he wrote 50 years ago. It’s the story that grabs me, not the tech.

What about you? Which is more important to you — accurate tech (or at least believable according to today’s standards) or character and conflict? Do you see the inaccuracies of the science of the old masters as a problem today and why?


  1. >Personally — ye gadz, people will accept alternate history and fantasy premises, and they are going to quibble about tech that doesn't match current understanding? Sorry, but I read (and read — funny how the past tense and the present are the same) those old masters, and they are still good. Willing suspension of disbelief — where and why do you draw that line?

  2. >Definitely story, Amanda. The premise can be interesting, but I want to know how it affects the people and their society.We don't have FTL or the kind of Nano or AI that we heard about in stories and we may never have them.It's how these things would change us that matters.

  3. >The old writers don't bother me, not on their tech nor their non-PC cultural assumptions.When modern writers violate the laws of physics I get irritated. Or they display either their prejudices or their slavish subservience to PC (one token black and woman in each adventure group).In many ways SF is about breaking the laws of physics. FTL and fold space and dimensions in endless numbers. But at least there are hypotheses about all of the above. A modern writer can't just shrug off the light speed issue with a shrug "Guess all those scientists were wrong" (E.E. Doc Smith.)And the token woman doesn't have to be genetically engineered to be as strong as a guy – she actually can carry a lighter pack. And ten minutes of Googling will get you all the planetary data you want, all the distances and so forth. You cannot have a character from Arcturus, and claim the home planet of humans has been lost(Andre Norton.) Some obnoxious reader is going to point out that Arcturus is only 32 light years away, and surely is a part of your empire that covers the whole spiral arm.Now, as you pointed out, DW has a large techie fan base. So he has to go out on a limb with all sorts of specifications for an entirely fictitious propulsion system, weapons systems and so forth. A truly mind boggling example of the need to have a consistent system of magic.I think the older writers were able to get away with careless inacuracies, both because of the readers' greater ignorance, and the novelty of the concepts they presented. A writer has more trouble now breaking new ground and wowing the reader with something new to think about. So they – we – can't get away with sloppiness.

  4. >Mike, thank you. You made exactly the same point I try to when discussing this with those who feel the masters are no longer relevant because they didn't anticipate exactly where tech would go. As long as what they use makes sense in the world(s) they created, I don't care if it makes sense under today's rules. Well, I don't if I care about the rest of the book, the characters, the conflict and the overall plot.

  5. >Rowena, I agree. I can overlook a lot when it comes to science if there is a great story with characters I care about. Now, that doesn't mean I am as likely to let modern authors get away with muffing the tech as I do the masters. It's too easy to find the answers with the internet these days. But where the masters are concerned, I read them for enjoyment and am continually amazed at how much they did get right.

  6. >Pam, don't get me started about those writers — and publishers — who try to push their version of PC down a reader's throat. That is a particular hot button of mine. But you are right, I'll toss a book across the room when a modern author gets heavy-handed with either his prejudices or his PC subservience.As for breaking the laws of physics today, it is too easy to google for an answer or put a post up on a board asking for help. There is really no good reason for an author not to get it right — at least within the framework of what we now know. Still, there has to be a plot and characters we care about or, for me at least, it becomes just another dry textbook.That is one reason I enjoy Weber as much as I do — and why I respect him as a writer. He manages to walk that fine line between giving enough tech and in deep enough detail to satisfy his techie fans and yet he has built a universe and populated it with characters we love to love and love to boo. (Gawd, that's an awful sentence)And, yes, there is no excuse in this day of the internet for us, as writers, to get sloppy. Perhaps it is time to begin putting together a list of tech-related sites helpful to those of us writing SF. Any suggestions?(I'll compile the list and then post it here for easy reference.)

  7. >@Matapam: If I were that talking to that obnoxious reader you mention I would point out that Andre Norton's SF books cover a huge amount of time. In The Solar Queen the natives of Sargol are primitives and in later books they are wealthy and esteemed citizens(and crime lords) of many planets. Before the events in The Beast Master, Earth is turned into a radioactive cinder by aliens during a multi-system conflict. Afterwards she describes a tendency for people to look away. Most native Terrans are dead and the important thing is mankind's future in space, not a worthless barren hunk of rock.In both of theses stories and others, a major focus is the ruins of past civilisations, that man finds and explores. There is an obvious inference for mankind's future in these lost empires.Given this it would be very dangerous to argue that Norton didn't know where Arcturus is or take that into account when she wrote that humanities home was lost. Asimov also lost Earth in the Foundation books. Was he careless too(Apart from his faulty assumptions as in the main post)?On the actual subject of the post why is the Award for Poetry in SF called the Rhysling? It isn't for Heinlein's use of hand dampened radioactive piles in space ships which is both out of date AND impossible, it is for the below lines.(and I dare anyone to find me better)"We rot in the moulds of Venus,We retch at her tainted breath.Foul are her flooded jungles,Crawling with unclean death."Rhysling went on cataloguing the Solar System "Harsh bright soil of Luna", "Saturn's rainbow rings", "The frozen night of Titan""We've tried each spinning space moteAnd reckoned it's true worth:Take us back to the homes of menOn the cool green hills of Earth."The arching sky is callingSpacemen back to their trade.All hands! Stand by! Free falling!And the lights below us fade.Out ride the sons of Terra,Far drives the thundering jet,Up leaps the race of Earthmen,Out, far, and onward yet-"We pray for one last landingOn the globe that gave us berth;Let us rest our eyes on fleecy skiesAnd the cool, green hills of Earth."

  8. >My point was that _now_ a writer must be clear that the empire has grown up at a large distance from Earth, in order to justify losing it. Using a named star is fine – so long as the star is indeed distant. The Last Planet was the first Norton I read. 1966. I was in Junior High, and recognized the star name. It was a good number of rereads later that I checked how far away that star was. It's one of very few nitpicks I have with a very large and fine body of work. I think her Universe is an excellent example of the long term evolution of a fictional society.

  9. >Tintinaus, you are right about Rhysling and the lines. They are moving and wonderful and, at least to me, are yet another reason why no one should ever turn away from Heinlein for any reason. There are so many reasons to read Heinlein and the other "masters". I think that is why I get so frustrated with those who will dismiss them simply because their science or tech doesn't live up to today's standards.

  10. >I don't care if space opera gets its science wrong – unless the book is packed with pseudo-science-geekery for the technomagically inclined. If the people and the stories work within the framework of the universe, I'm happy to read it.I've read – and enjoyed – E.E. Doc Smith, Heinlein, and so forth (Asimov never did much for me, for the most part). The characters worked within the situation and the assumptions that were being made, and the stories and the conflicts were great.I personally don't care if someone from Arcturus claims the home planet's been lost, if the reasoning works and the story works. And anyone who tries to tell me Heinlein has been superseded because his characters use slide rules instead of computers or calculators had better hope I'm not wearing my steel-caps. They will get grief. A lot of grief.In short? Character and story. The language might date, but that, never.

  11. >If you take the premise that you won't read anything that is out of technologically out of date or politically incorrect to absurd lengths, then you wouldn't read Dickens or Austen.As Matapam and others have said, we are just as bound by out social mores (political correctness).

  12. >Rowena, I'll admit there are a few I wouldn't mind NOT reading — Bronte for example. However, a book that is a good reflection, in both language and social/political influence, of the time it is written or is written about won't cause me to fling it across the room. But the book where the author beats me over the head with his political views or PC schtick will.For example, I loved Dune when I first read it. I still respect what Herbert did with it. And there is no way to deny that it is a book with a "message". But that "message" became annoying when it kept appearing in book after book — I will admit, I haven't read the latest books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

  13. >I wonder if we could take it the other way around? If an author isn't really engaging you with the character, plot, and setting, is that when the bad science or logic get irritating? I mean, if we're engaged with the character and in there shooting our rayguns at the bad guys, do we really care about the lack of rationale for a pink sky? But when we don't really care about Joe, that's when we notice that his flying car is just too heavy to work?

  14. >Matapm, I don't really think distance has anything to do with it. All you need to do is to is forget where you came from. There are a multitude of reasons that this could have happened.

  15. >Brendan, I agree with you — up to a point. Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series is a perfect example of both distance and events leading to the colonists forgetting where they came from. They not only had to deal with Thread falling from the sky, relocating from one continent to another due to geological conditions — all of which led to a loss of tech. Add in the lack of communication with the home system and the passage of time and, well, the connection was lost.Conversely, if a colony on the Moon, or one of the other planets in our solar system, was to lose touch with the fact they came from here originally, there'd better be a damned good reason for it. All they'd have to do is look in a powerful enough telescope or other similar equipment to see they aren't alone.The whole key is if, under the rules of the "universe" the author has created and the laws of physics as we know them now, does it make sense? It doesn't have to be perfect. But it can't be so far off in left field that it takes you out of the story.

  16. >Yes, it needs to make sense, by the rules of the Universe.I think we're falling into two groups, one that gets thrown out of the readers trance by what they see as obvious ignorance of reality by the author, and those that don't notice it.But we all seem to agree that the early SF writers get a pass on the tech not being up to date (Duh!). I suppose for modern writers, the two paths to follow might be exemplified by David Weber, who goes into tech detail, and Lois Bujold who skates over the details of the tech and concentrates more on the cultural effects.

  17. >Mike, for me at least, you hit it on the head. I can forgive a lot if I'm invested in the characters and plot. But, if I don't care that much about them, I'm going to notice the details and, if they make no sense in the "universe" the author has created, I won't continue reading. And it's not something that is exclusive to SF/F. I'll drop out of a mediocre western/colonization/etc., story where the hero rides his poor horse at a gallop for hours on end without pausing to rest his mount, water him, whatever. Nothing drives me crazier than to have a mystery set in present day or the near past and have DNA results within hours instead of weeks or months. Most departments still rely on the FBI or state agency for results and that takes time.So, in answer to your question, if an author doesn't engage me with his characters, setting and plot, his bad science and/or tech will annoy me to no end and will, quite often, be the final straw that stops me reading the book or story.

  18. >Certainly for me its about the character first. What annoys me most about space opera is that the characters seem to me to be a little plastic – not really the assumptions about FTL etc. I get annoyed by the uber-smart verging on sociopath central character. Incinerate a planet? No problems. Let move on – emotions optional.I think I agree with the prior comments on technology. If its written currently – particularly if its contemporary – then the science has to right. Little excuse really, with the internet.My pet hate is the way a new scientific principle can be discovered to save the day, then implemented into a technology in one Star Trek episode. It's probably the engineer in me, but technology takes a LONG time to develop into a practical application.

  19. >Chris, unfortunately, I see that plastic, one-dimensional character in too many sf/f books and stories. The aloof elf, the fallen royal posing as a common hunter/soldier, etc. Fortunately, I think that has been changing. At least I hope so.

  20. >Amanda, your comment about magical DNA results is a pet peeve of mine too. I dearly love "NCIS" — I'm really attached to the characters. But I just want to cringe every time Abby manages to get a hit on the miraculous, all-knowing "DNA Database" faster than you can say "And I would've got away with it too, if it weren't for those meddling kids!"

  21. >And it definitely has to be character and story for me. I need to have people I care about, and they need to be doing interesting stuff (so something like "Honor Harrington Bakes Brownies" — not gonna cut it… unless she beats a hexapuma to death with the brownie pan). Now, being an unrepentant techno-geek at heart, I will admit that I can "nerd-out" with the best of them (oooohh… shiny!). So, when Dave Weber goes into to a tech-dump, part of me wants to sit there and say "Cooool." But, the part of me that showed up for the story puts up with it because he knows that DW is going to deliver an awesome story with great characters. And once nerd-boy finishes reading the sales brochure, we can get back into the meat-and-potatoes of the story.But yes, character and story are most important to me, with setting and tech toys being further down the food chain. What good is a breathtakingly beautiful and painstakingly detailed setting if nothing worthwhile happens there? What use is that ACME GeeWhiz 5000 in the hands of a do-nothing bench-warmer?

  22. >Robert, NCIS doesn't bother me nearly as much as the CSI shows. Maybe it's because I do love the characters — especially Abby — so much. And at least she will tell Gibbs on occasion that results don't come back at the drop of a hat. CSI and its various incarnations are, imo, the worst of the current crop at realism not only when it comes to scientific results but also how law enforcement works. Not only to most techs not interrogate suspects but the day when I saw a prosecutor address the jury and talk about the defendant not taking the stand and how they could infer guilt AND not have the defense attorney object OR have the judge all but come over the bar at her was when I quit watching. I guess coming from a law enforcement background, that sort of thing bothers me as much as tech errors do an engineer.

  23. >Robert, do you have any idea what sort of images you brought to mind with your "Honor Harrington bakes brownies…after beating a hexapuma to death with brownie pan"? It scores right up there with the images of Nimitz and Farragut "planting" one of Faith's stuffed 'cats for the gardeners to find. You are an evil, evil man.And don't get me wrong, I like the tech as well and do my own fair bit of "shiny….ooooh". I just don't get into all the calculations. They make my poor brain hurt. But, I do want them to at least make sense in that particular universe and will ooh and aaah over them after the story and characters.

  24. >I agree with you about NCIS — I'll forgive any amount of handwaving as long as you throw great characters and a good storyline at me. Though I might be a bit biased: I've never met a Don Bellisario show I didn't like 😉

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