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?