How Much Science in Science-Fiction?

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Science is what separates sci-fi from fantasy, and its usually the nature, plausibility and degree of scientific detail that tiers the genre into several “levels”. Hard sci-fi is the one with the balls of steel in that respect, but what about the other subgenres? How important is the plausibility, and by extension the probability, of the science bits frolicking around in science-fiction?

I’m not bothered by hard science in a piece of fiction. I enjoy reading my fair share of it, though I read more theoretical physics than hard sci-fi. But really, that line is reeeally blurred sometimes. I don’t write hard science-fiction however, and since my novel falls over the fence into the wild subgenre zoo, I inevitably wonder how much science is necessary in a non-hard science-fiction novel. And just how plausible does fictional science need to be in order to satisfy the reader, regardless of subgenre?

The most commonly supported perspective on science fiction aligns to that of anthologist Groff Conklin, who defines it as

“[consisting] of stories in which one or more definitely scientific notion or theory or actual discovery is extrapolated, played with, embroided on, in a non-logical, or fictional sense, and thus carried beyond the realm of the immediately possible.”

Even Heinlein, though strongly emphasizing the requirement of a “thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method,” tells writers “never [to] worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it’s supposed to do.”

Though I agree that science in science-fiction is not optional, since it’s engrained in the genre’s DNA, the plausibility of that science is highly debatable since it depends on what we define as currently known facts, and what we personally believe might one day be possible. So it makes little sense to me to grab a pitchfork in defense of an ideal that I’m not even certain actual sciences live up to at the time. But what about fictional science? What degree of scientific detail is necessary in a work of fiction to make it seem plausible?

I found an awesome compilation of opinions to nibble at and savor among SFSignal’s Mind Meld archives. By the mighty Alien Overlords, I love that site! I was unable to sit still without trepidating and drooling on my keyboard as I greedily crawled through their database in search of wisdom.

So let’s see the results of the gorging I cleverly disguised as blog post research.

James Lovegrove‘s proposition, that “Science is less important to SF than ideas,” is a nice and healthy viewpoint for me, since I’ve always believed that science-fiction is first and foremost fiction. It’s certainly not technical writing or research papers, and it needs a story if it’s to be considered fiction. That story had better be there as a solid backbone not just an appendix, preferably with a good set of ribs to support the juicy flesh and all the pumping, squirting and transmogrifying organs that make up the whole body of a book. Ideas, by remaining in a germinal state despite being integral to the story, leave more to the reader’s imagination than exhaustive speculations and chapter-long descriptions of technologies.

I strongly believe that story comes before anything else, even if that sweet, sweet worldbuilding masterpiece we call our setting is more important in science-fiction (and fantasy, and historical fiction) than any other genre.

But can an elaborate and intricate meshwork of technological details generate reader involvement nonetheless? I believe it can, but for a narrower audience.

Rifters universe creator Peter Watts had an interesting take on this:

“The plausibility of any given piece of SF is more a function of the reader than of the work being read.”

I don’t know about others, but I’m interested in creating a visceral experience deep in a reader’s guts, one that digs itself into her memory like a haunting and deeply personal experience. But I want it to slide into her awareness by means of her own imagination, not by hitting her over the head with a user manual.

Don’t all science-fiction writers want to create a sense of wonder, to stimulate a spirit of adventure and inquiry, and offer a new perspective on human existence and our place in the Universe? We can accomplish that by creating elaborate technologies and proposing courageous scientific theories, but I believe that a very science-heavy novel doesn’t foster a reader’s submersion into the characters as much as one that’s lighter in that respect, due to the necessarily frequent appeals to logic and rational thinking to understand the technicalities. And if a story is predominately experienced intellectually, without a personal involvement from the reader, then it most likely doesn’t exploit its full potential.

Peter continues to say that

“Science fiction isn’t here to say This is true or This will happen, it’s here to say Suppose it did: then what?”

and that speaks directly to my sense that science-fiction’s foremost virtue over other genres is the hypothetical exploration of potential futures, not the demonstration of their plausibility and determination of their probability.

Fabio Fernandes‘ (@fabiofernandes) position, that “through utmost attention to detail in a story, the writer creates the impression of reality”, is in my opinion an argument in favor of the value of storytelling skill and command of language, over the command of the sciences employed in that story. And even Karl Schroeder from the front row of current hard sci-fi says that he’s “never written an SF novel that didn’t hinge crucially on at least one utterly preposterous and impossible idea,” the most important aspect of writing convincing science lying in the writer’s storytelling abilities, as “anyone with a microgram of rhetorical talent can make anything sound plausible.” And I very much agree with Karl.

Tor’s editor-in-chief, Beth Meacham, said something very interesting in an interview back in 2005:

“While for me reading is often work because I’m analyzing and taking it apart and putting it back together, testing all the strands and threads of it, it should not be work for the ultimate reader. Reading should be fun, […] It’s all very well to have both ends of the genre but you’ve got to have a middle — and I’m not seeing the middle being published.”

I guess that’s where I want my fiction to be, in the middle. I want to include enough science to entice readers to continue speculating if they so please, but not so much as to dominate any piece of the puzzle and interrupt the reader’s experience of the story. In any one scene or critical moment, I want the story to dominate the science, the characters to dominate technology, and the flow of prose to steer clear of becoming even remotely like a treatise. At least, it’s what I try to achieve, whether it will work within context or not remains to be seen. *bites her nails*

 

Where do you stand on the question of scientific plausibility in science-fiction? Which approach have you taken in your own fiction? And if you’re not a sci-fi writer, what are the levels of science you’re comfortable reading in fiction?

 

31 Replies to “How Much Science in Science-Fiction?”

  1. Great post. Yeah… I’ve strayed too far into what you describe as the “user-manual” side of hard sci-fi. There’s a good, healthy balance to be found somewhere between there and X-Wing fighters bank in space 🙂 I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with plausibility being an extension of consistency and not losing sight of the story being about the characters not the plot.

    As an example, finding the Thing from another world buried in ice may not seem plausible at first, but it was handled in a self-consistent manner that built its plausibility. Ultimately, the book/movie was then about how people interacted with the Thing, not the Thing itself. So there’s good learning in how it was handled.

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    1. Thanks, Peter. I like that you’re not shy of owning up to what you feel was a side step in a previous work, it’s proof of a great character. 🙂

      I think the danger a scientifically oriented writer faces when writing hard sci-fi is to go overboard with explanations not because she’s bent on instructing, but because she’s eager to show she understands what she’s talking about. At least this is what I’ve noticed in new sci-fi writers, and it’s a temptation I’ve fought with myself. Keeping in mind a story is about characters facing trouble (and by extension, humanity facing adversity), more than it is about anything else, was a good way for me to stay clear of that pitfall.

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  2. As a reader, I’m much more critical of fictional science. If an author invents their own scientific principles/ideas then I need much more explanation/proof of plausibility than I do when an author uses accepted science, but maybe takes it to another level. If I recognize and have at least a basic understanding of the scientific terms/ideas used, then I’m much less likely to start questioning (which will eventually draw me out of the story).

    And if the author does use actual science, then I hate it when pages of the actual novel are used to explain it to me – I’d much rather look the science bits up later if I can’t remember/am not sure how it works. If the novel turns into a lecture (especially a lecture on a topic I already know a lot about) it drives me crazy – there have been books I’ve actually put down and not started again because of this. On the other hand, if the science is fictional, then I LOVE getting down into the nitty gritty of how it works and even expect the author to include figures when necessary.

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    1. Oh, that’s a very interesting perspective, A.K.!

      It’s very similar to how I read science-fiction: if I know the scientific theories employed, if they’re part of commonly accepted physics and astronomy—mainstream science, so to speak—then the author had better not sum up the past 50 years of science in her novel. But if the sciences employed are exotic, controversial or entirely made up, then I want to learn about their laws and dynamics, but only if they’re crucial to the understanding of the story. All else I prefer to read on that author’s blog than in the story.

      Thanks very much for the comment! 🙂

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      1. Exactly! And I completely agree with your previous comment too about new writers having a tendency to get a bit lecturely – although this happens in non sci-fi, too – it seems more an issue of the writer needing to sum everything up for themselves in the first draft, which is fine – as long as it gets removed before the final draft 😉

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  3. I’ve read some books that focus too much on the science vs the ideas. It’s not a fun ride at all. We read fiction to suspend our beliefs and to escape the real world for a little bit. So to me, SF can have some basis in the scientific rules, but those rules were made to be broken.

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    1. You’ve nailed it perfectly, Jay — fiction is supposed to pluck us out of our reality and take us on a wild ride, preferably through the galaxy, not a virtual classroom. However interesting they may be (and some really are), heavy scientific explanations and speculations are almost certain to kill the suspension of disbelief.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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  4. Really good post. I agree that sci-fi is first and foremost about ideas. Especially in the writing process, I think that most authors start with a big idea (such as cloning dinosaurs) and then prop it up with science of varying plausibility (using dino blood from amber and frog DNA to fill in the gaps). I hate to admit it but I get a little picky about the sub-genres of sci-fi. I critiqued a piece not long ago that claimed to be sci-fi but included things like demons and possession. I commented about it and was told that the story was actually “paranormal sci-fi”. YUCK. Even that term drives me nuts. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a story featuring soul sucking demons in space but for some reason calling it sci-fi of any kind makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

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    1. Thanks, Adam! 🙂

      Oh, the oozy, slurpy, smooshy soup of sci-fi subgenres… The story you mentioned is most likely science-fantasy, but only if there’s at least a bit of actual science in it along with the fantastic beings. Otherwise it’s futuristic fantasy, and nothing else.

      Maybe some writers cling to the name “sci-fi” despite not fulfilling the minimum requirements, out of fascination with the genre? Hope so. There’s no reason to call their story something it isn’t, no genre is “better” than another in an absolute, objective way. 🙂

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  5. I love hard sci-fi, but even if the science in a story is as hard as it comes, I prefer it when the author leaves the groundwork under the hood. It’s fairly safe to say that if I’m reading hard sci-fi in the first place, I probably have a decent understanding of physics and technology. You don’t have to slap me over the head with figures and diagrams (though if you absolutely must, put it in the back of the book as a reference, not in the middle of the story I’m trying to read). All that being said though, it’s still not usually a storykiller for me if the author goes too deep, as long as the story is compelling enough to get me through it. I just prefer it the other way.

    In my own stuff, I usually aim for that sweet middle you mentioned as well. I think it’s possible to respect (or extrapolate from) the boundaries of science and technology as we know them today without getting into the bits and pieces of it. I just subbed a story to a hard sci-fi market today, and the science element is a very subtle, yet wholly plausible part of the piece. Cross your fingers for me. 🙂

    Anywho, very nice post, Vero! You know how to get me rambling about something, I must say.

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    1. LOL! Thanks for the comment, James.

      *fingers crossed tightly*

      *ouch* *hurts when I type*

      I second your saying that if readers pick up hard sci-fi they know what they’re in for, and even so, they read fiction for the story & adventure, there’s more than enough science in actual science books.

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  6. I gave up on reading Red Mars because of how much boring science was included in the story. It read more like a terraforming manual than an actual novel. When your “novel” has multiple diagrams of orbital mechanics in it, I dunno if you can really call it a novel anymore.

    Stories that have things like FTL travel in them don’t bother me. As long as the story itself is good and the narrative’s internal logic doesn’t get abandoned halfway through.

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    1. I have to admit I haven’t yet read a science-fiction novel yet that contained any mentionable amount of extra material, but I understand that it can distract a reader. I think it’s a balance the writer has to strike in such a case, between some material that offers additional credibility to the storyworld, and extraneous stuff that dwarfs the actual story.

      Thank you very much for the comment, R.S. It’s good to see you here. 🙂

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  7. Veronica! You nailed it. I’m currently struggling with this dilemma of story v.s. science in my space adventure. I know I’m going to get bashed by the purists when I bring my ship near a white dwarf, but it is the most exciting part of the book. Could it happen? Why not?
    My father was told that we would never leave Earth because we didn’t have the power to break free of her gravity. Look at where we’re going now.
    Science fiction imagines the impossible and leads future science to its reality.

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    1. Aw purists-shmurists, if your crew has an important job near that white dwarf, that’s where their ship will take them. All problems that strive to hinder them in their pursuit only offer more puzzle-solving to the writer and delicious tension to the reader. Besides, only people who have had personal experience with white dwarf physics are allowed to argue against that. Ha.

      🙂 Thanks a lot for the comment, Sheron. Indeed, science-fiction has a much more honorable feature than any amount of accuracy can offer—that of inspiration to achieve greatness.

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  8. Great article as always, Vero! I agree that plot and characters need to come first–it is by focusing on this that we can avoid info-dumps in our prose. When I was writing my space opera, certain ideas seemed far-fetched, but I wanted to make sure they had a sufficient base of logic behind them. They needed to fit, not necessarily within our current knowledge of the universe, but with what *might* be possible if our current understandings were extrapolated in certain ways into the far future. So I would research specific fields of tech and then tweak the ideas as needed.

    In fact, a couple of the alien species in my novels might seem so far ‘out there’ that some readers might feel they fall into the realm of the mythological; however, they all (in my mind) have been explored to such a degree that the concepts are still based in science-fact as opposed to wizardry. I was careful to make sure there was at least an internal logic to the universe I was creating.

    “Science fiction isn’t here to say This is true or This will happen, it’s here to say Suppose it did: then what?” This is a great quote. Blindsight by Peter Watts is next in my to-read stack. This also reminds me of the movie I saw last night: Branded—which I highly recommend. Though not perfect, the movie is the perfect example of this quote, as in, ‘What if this happened…what would the world look like?’

    “…it’s usually the nature, plausibility and degree of scientific detail that tiers the genre into several “levels”. Hard sci-fi is the one with the balls of steel…” Couldn’t agree more (with both).

    What would you call your WIP, Vero? You’re saying you’re planting your flag firmly in between “sci” and “fi,” but if you had to give it one subgenre, as in science fantasy, space opera, cyberpunk, steampunk, etc., what would it be?

    Say hi to the mighty Alien Overlords for me next time they’re in town. 😉

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    1. Making alien species believable is very different from making technologies seem believable. It takes less knowledge of physics and current tech, but requires a whole different type of speculation, one that ventures into bio-chemistry, anthropology and cognitive behavioral analysis — because different brains will wield different societies & personalities.

      My novel’s definitely a psychological thriller, but it’s also most definitely science-fiction. My best guess is that the level of science in it would place it somewhere between soft (psychological / sociological) and xenocentric sci-fi. Not fantasy. Hm. Identifying subgenres is a tough job.

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  9. Veronica,

    I want to add so much more but then I look back at what you wrote and realize you’ve pretty much said everything on my mind already. 🙂

    There is one thing I haven’t seen addressed in the comments or your article yet, and that has to do with this article: http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/03/22/neal_stephenson_s_hieroglyph_and_the_dystopian_sci_fi_rut_.html. Some people think sci-fi needs to get back to its “roots” and be more hard science than it is now, because sci-fi used to drive innovation in the actual practice of the sciences themselves.

    While I agree that it should be one of the leading causes to investigate science, I’m not sure I agree that sci-fi needs to go 100% back to its roots. There’s a reason it developed the way it did to this point, and I don’t feel that most 21st century readers would want to slush through a bunch of science that only scientists would look at and say, “That’s brilliant! Let’s get right on that.”

    So, like many others have already said along with yourself, yes, let’s find a good balance of hard science and speculative “what if” ideas, always keeping story and characters first. Then we’ll have people interested all the way around, or at least we should.

    Bree

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    1. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Bree! It’s nice to meet fellow sci-fi lovers. 🙂

      I believe the inspirational value of science-fiction doesn’t lie so much in creating elaborate technical detail, since that is by far better accomplished by scietists, but rather in bold — even oitrageous ideas — that inspire scientists to peek out of the otherwise magnificent box of the immediately possible, and into the more distant desirable.

      It’s like you said, our goal should be to find “a good balance of hard science and speculative ‘what if’ ideas” so that on one side we might inspire and on the other entertain. 🙂

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  10. Let’s examine Star Trek circa 1968. Kirk’s communicator written as a technical piece of equipment or explained as science in the ‘science fiction’. 30 years later it has become science fact, the flip cell phone. Science Fiction in my humble opinion needs to have a level of real science, a percentage. But not to the point where the reader begins read snoring, Or skip reading. Just enough to proffer a believable vision from the reader’s stand point. Be that the future or simply a device, Science Fiction writers imagine and in many cases I believe their imaginings actually come to fruition.

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    1. Agree with you, Roger. Any idea proposed by a work of science-fiction is much easier accepted if it’s supported by sound scientific reasoning.

      It’s a tough thing to balance though, and I think it’s important to also trust the reader’s intelligence and willingness to deepen a speculation or research. Our primary job remains to generate enthusiasm for that. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

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  11. For me creating a pseud science is as much fun as world building but putting the character through that world is what it’s all about. The trick to good fake science are the details and a chain of logic made of rules that the writer can’t break.

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    1. Very true, Rachel. The experience of that world (through the characters) matters much, much more than the survival of that world’s pseudo-scientific concepts in the face of empiric argumentation. 🙂

      Thank you very much for stopping by to comment!

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  12. Nice post, Veronica!

    I write character-driven science fiction, so the best and simplest way for me to decide how much ‘sciency’ science to throw out is to choose a POV character with a level of scientific knowledge enough to know about it, but not on a professional level. She can be a scientist, of course, just in another field. You start to think — does she know this and that? Why would she? Why would she need to tell us about it? Does this add to the plot and and tells us more about this character and situation she is in? If not, who the hell cares about the layers of an atom and how quantum computing works in great detail. It should work as it does in real world. This is what sci-fi is. Real rules rule. If it doesn’t work that way, only then a more detailed explanation must be given. But that explanation better be logical to persuade us it is plausible. Otherwise it is not sci-fi anymore. More of a science fantasy, or pure fantasy.

    So, to sum things up, common sense and integrity is a must for any story. Just when it comes to science, try not to break the know laws of reality (physics, etc.) unintentionally. But if you do need to break those laws, you better know what you are breaking, and you better explain (to yourself first) why and how is it done. The world in your story must work in a logical way and the reader should be introduced to these rules as fast as possible.

    One more thing. You never know how science-savvy your reader is. If he is on a basic level of sciences, you’re good to go. If he’s not, he might get distracted by any smart words you use. I struggle with this regularly, because I feel it is unnecessary to explain a concept when you can and should use one precise scientific word. Overabundance of description will attract attention to things you otherwise wouldn’t want readers to focus on. Because your story is about something else entirely, and not a dictionary.

    Just my two cents. 🙂

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    1. Great two cents, Jelena! 😀 Thank you very much for the comment!

      I absolutely agree with keeping to the character’s POV at all times, including in her exploration of the technologies and environments of the story. It’s a great rule of thumb to keep away from extraneous info dumps.

      We can never plan for all levels of knowledge about science & technologies that readers might have, so I believe the best way to deal with that is to stick somewhere in the middle and only show things that are particularly interesting and important to the plot, nothing more, nothing less. But that’s a good attitude toward all kinds of descriptions: to keep them brief and potent.

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      1. While I adore 3rd-person anything, for the last year I’ve been writing in 1st-person POV. Descriptions became something intimately tied to my characters — depending on age, occupation, personality types, and many other factors — anything beyond these things was thrown out and avoided.

        Some might say I under-describe; I guess put too much trust into reader’s imagination to work things out. Editor even asked me to add more description to clarify some things. 😦

        But even then one lady complained she couldn’t imagine my characters and couldn’t grasp how my tech works. But since I had no similar problems with other readers, I assume this was an encounter with a reader who has no specific knowledge to extrapolate from the clues I’ve set in the text. And this brings the question of how much is too much of science and stuff. Some people really DO need a textbook! LOL

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      2. I underdescribe too, but because I always think “why would my character waste ten minutes thinking about how that building looks like, huh?” But the truth is, we have to include some description even where it might not be 100% logical for the character, or necessary for us, because the reader ain’t got the same things cramped inside their brains as we do, neither in matter of story nor setting. 🙂

        And yeah, that lady? Forget her.

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  13. I wrote a science fiction novella about a dystopian future and genetic modification, but all of that is secondary. Society and overcoming that dystopian reality bit was the main part, so it has little to no actual scientific explanations. Not sure what kind of science fiction that is, but there you go.

    I’m not the smartest person when it comes to science, and am learning a whole lot now that I realized I do, in fact, love science fiction enough to write it and write it often, but yeah. How much of the hard facts to put into a story is hard for me. I personally don’t mind a story that has some in-depth explanations, but more than that will be a drag.

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    1. Not all science-fiction requires explanations, and as long as the implications are plausible it’s still science-fiction and not fantasy. 🙂

      We’re all laymen when it comes to actual science. There are very few science-fiction writers who are true scientists (not hobby scientists), and it’s easy to tell them apart since they tend to write hard science-fiction and overexplain things. The rest of the sci-fi writing world are just enthusiasts and geeks, more or less, so I wouldn’t worry about not knowing very much hard science yet. 😛

      Thanks a lot for stopping by and commenting, Elisa! I’m glad you like my blog. Feel right at home. 🙂

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