Putting the Science in Science Fiction (and vice versa)

[— Karen Myers —]

Plenty of SFF authors have practiced (professionally) what they preach (in their stories) — in the world of science, anyway.

This is everyone’s favorite: Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex by Larry Niven (From “All the Myriad Ways” (1971)). Niven answers all the important questions. It’s a classic, and short — if you’ve never read it, now’s your chance. (It will explain the post image above.)

Here are some examples from The Real Science of Science Fiction… (below)

The “Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” by Isaac Asimov, about a compound that is so soluble it dissolves just before it enters water, is SF written in the style of a research paper. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thiotimoline , Commentary, Text)

Team writing can also help the infusion of science ideas into SF. Pair an SF author and a scientist, and see what results. One great example of this approach is the quartet of Science of Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. In each book, Pratchett writes a short Discworld novel that exhibits some scientific properties of interest; in alternating chapters, Stewart and Cohen then explain the underlying science.

Back in the 1960s, Fred Pohl edited The Expert Dreamers and Groff Conklin edited Great Science Fiction by Scientists, with stories by George Gamow, JBS Haldane, Fred Hoyle, Julian Huxley, Norbert Weiner, and more.

More examples, from The Best Books by Scientists Who Write Science Fiction… (below)

Dragon’s Egg by Robert Gordan: The idea of intelligent life existing on the surface of a neutron star as massive as our Sun, the size of a mountain, and with a surface gravity 67 billion times that of Earth seems like sheer fantasy but Forward presents impeccable science to make it all seem entirely plausible.

The Coming of the Quantam Cats by Frederick Pohl: The existence of these other worlds next door to our own is the best scientific explanation of the mysteries of quantum physics, such as the famous puzzle of Schrödinger’s Cat, and Pohl wraps it all up in entertaining fashion with a story of what happens when those worlds interact.

So, with all of these examples before us, we have no excuse if we can’t do a song and dance to “justify” (for some values of justification) our claims in speculative fiction.

What aspects of science have you invented or abused in your stories? Handwavium has a long and noble history we can all contribute to…

22 thoughts on “Putting the Science in Science Fiction (and vice versa)

  1. I’m known for researching the heck out everything, whether it be military organization, weapons, and science.

    A Beta reader complained that Relativity was too hard a subject for a Marine to understand, but my take is that all I wrote was basic Marilyn Monroe level of understanding i.e. being able to explain the concept, not do the math.

    OTOH one reviewer of my first book said the story was too real; I imagine partly down to using real science and military logistics etc I guess.

    I read a lot of science journalism to keep abreast of advances in science, because I think it’s my duty to do so if I’m going to call myself an SF author.

  2. Eh, the question of how it serves the story does arise.

    Doing fantasy limits it, but I used science in “Where There Is Smoke” for spoiler reasons

  3. Something to look out for in making something “scientific” is remembering that knives cut both ways– I have an intense dislike of stories where I can see the strings an author is pulling to justify the conclusion they want…and it’s always in only one direction. If something supports their desired goal, it’s in there, if it goes against it, then it’s ignored or obliterated. A sub-group of this is “as required by plot”. (Did I just hear all the firearm guys groan?)

    Part of story-telling is making it so that I either don’t see the strings being pulled, or I’m having so much fun that I don’t care!
    (if you depend on the latter, it’s going to limit your range of appeal)

    It’s perfectly OK to have characters blink and go, in character, “I have no idea how that works” (scientifically) as long as they know how it works (from their perspective) and the author knows how it works (in world).

      1. There are forms of FTL where that would work — he managed to chart a difficult to fly shorter route — but not Star Wars’s.

  4. Only tangentially related to the post, but my favorite new hard SF author is Michael Rothman. Not only does he write a compelling and well paced story, but he takes pains after the story to explain the actual science he used. It’s not all handwavium and made up terms (looking at you Star Trek, even though I thoroughly enjoy many of the stories), sometimes shoehorned into a story as am explanation.

  5. My space operas are more on the science fantasy side, I guess, but I make some attempt to justify the psychics as the result of an ancient eugenics/genetic engineering project, I try to keep my terminology and time dilation straight around black holes, and I try to remember what the Lost Fleet books taught me about the time delay in communications and battle data when you don’t have FTL comms.

    The Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs was dumb in the original (or at best Han trolling what he takes to be a couple of hicks), but some of the retcons are interesting.

  6. A science failure in science fiction can also hurt reader enjoyment. One book I read last week almost made me wall it then and there: the protagonist goes to see the rings of Saturn in his new spaceship. (He bought it in a junkyard thinking it was a movie prop, then when he got home the ship’s AI started talking to him.) The spaceship is sitting near Saturn’s rings, no problem. The protagonist suits up, opens the airlock door, and is immediately pulled out of his spaceship, only his tether line saving him. What happened? Did he forget to close the inner door so that the ship’s air pushed him out? No; as the protagonist (as a first-person narrator) goes on to explain, Saturn’s gravity pulled him out of the spaceship.

    Yes, you read that right. Saturn’s gravity. Pulled him out of his spaceship. But only once he opened the door. The spaceship continued sitting in space, while he fell out.

    If you’re slapping your head and saying “Gravity does NOT work like that,” congratulations. You know more about gravity, and/or orbits than this author. Hey dude, if you’re going to make space a major feature of your story, please learn a little bit about it. At least play Kerbal Space Program or something, so you learn how orbits work. (KSP 2 just came out in Early Access today with a very limited feature set, but one of the things it already has is a GOOD set of tutorials on how rockets work, how orbits work, and so on).

    1. Another mistake I’ve seen a few times: ships falling out of orbit due to battle damage. Or, pieces falling off of damaged ships. No, and No. Knocking something out of orbit takes almost as much delta-V as putting it there did. Blow up a ship, and the pieces will continue on in more-or-less the same orbit.

      Most science fiction stories require some form of handwavium. Anti-gravity, warp drive, force shields, whatever sorts of technology the story needs that we don’t have today. One must exercise great care where the handwavium interacts with the universe of phenomena familiar to us.

      Here’s an example: My character has a personal force shield, impenetrable to any weapon from sticks and stones to missiles and atomic bombs. How does she walk? The shield can’t be open at the bottom; blast and concussion effects would get in and kill her.

      Don’t worry, I worked out a solution. 😀

      Handwavium must be as compatible as possible with our current understanding of physics. Anti-gravity can’t lift mass using less energy than the mass liberates by falling back to the ground or you’ve gotten a free lunch. Unless you propose to build a world powered by perpetual motion machines.
      Zathras understand.
      [pause for thought]
      No. Zathras not understand. But, Zathras DO.
      Zathras good at doings. Not so good at understandings.

      1. “Blow up a ship, and the pieces will continue on in more-or-less the same orbit.”

        I can see that for most of a ship, but an explosion has a central point of its sphere, and some portion of that 360 degrees is going to impart delta-V against that velocity. Wouldn’t that affect the orbital path of pieces of the ship?

        1. To a degree.

          The various pieces will likely be in “different” orbits/paths but IMO it is unlikely that any of the pieces will be “going in the opposite direction” that the ship was heading when it was destroyed.

        2. Oh, the pieces will spread out. Some of them will go into lower (faster) or higher (slower) orbits. Some of them might get kicked hard enough, on the right vectors, to enter the atmosphere or escape the planet’s gravity and go wandering through the star system as random navigational hazards.

          However, you do not shoot down an orbiting ship and have it crash on the planet unless you’re a complete idiot. Or Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy.

          A few blowed-up ships will make a real mess of a planet’s orbitals. See ‘Gravity’. They got a few things wrong, but a whole lot right.
          “Yes. I grew potatoes in my own shit. It’s as gross as it sounds.” — Epilogue of ‘The Martian’

          1. “Or Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy.”

            Did you run this by David Weber? Admittedly, multiple failing fusion reactors and space stations measured in kilometers adds whole new levels of how potent the explosions are and how much debris is available……

            1. That was ‘some of the pieces get kicked hard enough to enter the atmosphere’.

              Start with space stations big enough to simultaneously build and overhaul multiple 8 million ton starships, along with dozens to hundreds of ‘little’ ships, only a few hundred thousand to a couple million tons each, and the pieces can be bigger than supertankers. One of the pieces mentioned specifically was about 300,000 tons. In the Manticore system, that’s small.
              At my house, the ‘things that go bump in the night’ are cats.

    2. :grumbles: I laid awake last night trying to figure out how to get that scene, if the author was just in love with it and HAD to have it.

      Handwavium gravity manipulating tech plugged into the ship’s material, which has to be between the inside of the ship and whatever is making the gravity.
      Could justify the “it’s a prop” type lightness of the ship, and you could have a set-the-scene dialog where it’s mentioned as part of the ship’s propulsion working by sort-of negating gravity.

      1. The ship’s plated with Cavorite! 😛

        (First Men In The Moon)

        A type of unobtainium that blocks gravity. Lay a plate of Cavorite on the ground and everything above it becomes weightless.

  7. Niven’s conclusion that Clark Kent’s spent cells would possess a full Kryptonian power set and that ALL his body functions were super was not supported by anything in the canon, plus he ignored the Red Sun Lamp trick, but I know many are dead set concvinced this is a real thing DC commissioned from him.

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