Science or Fiction in Science Fiction
By guest blogger John Steiner – Author website:
There are schools of thought in writing science fiction regarding how realistic it should be. This is more than the Star Wars versus Star Trek conundrum over which is better. This is about how to tell a science fiction story. The answer depends on the focus of science fiction.
To start, George Lucas himself has never considered Star Wars to be science fiction, rather he calls it a science fantasy that retells the grail stories. Unless we make a long stretch, the Force doesn’t exist. “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power,” Alec Guinness tells us, “It’s an energy field generated by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”
At best, that could be Dark Matter, but for being generated by living things only. Star Trek likewise makes a number of assumptions that we learned since 1968 aren’t scientific. For instance, the human alien hybrid Spock wouldn’t exist. Goats and Crayfish have more than 70% commonality in their genes, yet there aren’t any crayfish/goat things running around. Most of Star Trek’s aliens are vertebrates, tetrapods [meaning four-limbed], mostly mammalian and most of those are themes on primate evolution.
The truth is that aliens won’t have any common genes and may end up using one of numerous possible Xeno-Nucleic Acids [XNAs] and any of over 200 amino acids in proteins entirely unlike anything on Earth. They could have skeletal support that we haven’t seen or imagined. Maybe they don’t use neurons to contain the mind, but something like nucleic acid computers, allowing their minds to exist within a single cell. And that’s just addressing carbon-based life centered on cellular structure with water as the chemical solvent and molecular oxygen as a metabolic oxidizer.
Yet, we’re glued to these stories, because science alone isn’t the focus. Instead, they offer the feeling of interstellar travel and interspecies contact. Fictional storytelling requires bringing real emotions to surreal or unrealistic events. However, science fiction where the science is as close to real as possible also has lasted the decades.
Space Odyssey 2001 and its follow-ups like 2010 bring with them the environmental dangers of space for thrills as intense as Klingons bearing down or cybernetic black knights with energy swords barring the way. Others of the hard science fictions are still leaving their mark on audiences; like Sunshine from 2007, Gravity, Solar Crisis, or Interstellar just this last year. They prove to us that making the science itself integral to the story can still induce exhilaration.
Myself, I like to reach for as much of the above and more into my science fiction. I love the wide cast of characters that Star Wars and Star Trek bring, along with the military action of Aliens, Halo, Mass Effect, and Battle for Los Angeles, but the hard science stories remain my favorites, and so I want scientific facts to come alive in my own work.
For those writing science fiction, I suggest that you first decide what makes the story. If it’s about a character who bought a ticket on a star-hopping cruise liner then you can skip the science. Like the alien, Alf, all the reader needs to know is that when they turn the key the ship goes. In the Giants of Ganymede by James P. Hogan, the science of how a dead human astronaut found on the moon could be 50,000 years old makes science come to the fore of the story and drives the main plot.
In the aforementioned Battle for Los Angeles, how the aliens crossed the stars isn’t important, because we see events unfold through the U.S. Marines tasked with defending the west coast from them. And yet, we’re given glimpses of realism that could’ve just as easily been left on the cutting room floor. We see the aliens rescuing one of their own who is injured. We’re told they want our planet for its water to be used in fusion, and have no interest in talking to us or acknowledging our intelligence.
My preference for science fiction is that human ships don’t have gravitational field generators, and must rotate ships for the sense of gravity or use gene therapy to render astronauts immune to the effects of prolonged zero gee and free fall. When considering shields or cloaking devices, I drew a line defining the extreme limits. In Star Trek there is never a convincing explanation for how a shield blocks weapons fire while still letting communications and sensors to work through them. Likewise with the cloaking device, where it flawlessly bends light around the ship, yet that ship can see past the field preventing light and other energy forms from getting inside.
However, I asked myself a harder question. Is it more energy efficient to simply devote power into not getting hit than to pump out megawatts for a bubble larger than the ship at all times just to keep an instantaneous pinpoint attack from getting through? Yes, space has radiation and high velocity particles that need to be kept from damaging a ship or the people inside. However, does that require an energy field of such power that most nuclear reactors would not have enough juice for an appreciable duration? In fact, suppose absorbing some of that energy is the more economical option.
Granted, a larger question science fiction writers should ask themselves is whether aliens are out there. If so, we have to wonder why they haven’t come here in the lifetime of our civilizations? If there are hostile aliens, why haven’t we been invaded before now? For that matter, why not hit us before we even invented the wheel, much less before discovering flight?
I reason for being such a stickler to accuracy is also to ponder the future of humanity. What will our institutions and cultures be like in centuries yet to come? What are the limits of artificial intelligence, and how will they really react to learning of their own sentience? I wonder how future conflicts between humans will pan out in the future, and what definitions of society are on the way for which we haven’t invented terms for. New promises and perils are coupled with old adages and questions that have haunted us down the ages.
To learn where your work will shine the brightest takes experimentation. Toy with single-scene stories or short chapters, and you’ll find that balance between science and fiction which suits you best.
Flipspace Mission 1: Flight of the Mockingbird
Flipspace Mission 2: Branching Out
List of published works available at Melange Books