Who Cares About the Science in Science Fiction?

I do!

Let me introduce myself.  I’m an astronomer, a professor at the University of Wyoming, and a science fiction writer.  I’ve been blogging for a number of years at www.mikebrotherton.com, primarily about the intersection of science and science fiction, and I plan to do that here, too.

Let me start by making a case for science in science fiction.  Without science, it’s just fiction, which isn’t a bad thing.  But for those of us who crave both realism and novelty, another minor variation of boy meets girl or good guys vs. bad guys isn’t going to cut it.  I mean, even something like Star Wars is just a samurai movie with a veneer of robots and space ships without a lick of serious science.

The best science fiction, in my opinion, takes the science seriously.  It shows us something amazing and true about the universe we live in, dazzling in that truth, illuminating something we, humans, a thinking animal, have figured out.  What can an alien planet be like?  What’s it like in space?  What’s it like when stars go supernova?  What’s it like…really?

In the current explosion of science and technology we’re living through now, early in the 21st century, future shock is a real thing.  We’re constantly being asked to deal with new challenges our ancestors could not even imagine: nuclear weapons, GPS tracking, instant global communication, ubiquitous video surveillance, genetic screening, fertility treatments, a billion sources of information on the internet, space tourism, and more.  Science fiction is the medium to first anticipate and explore responses to our changing technology and understanding.  It doesn’t even have to be specific: finding

The roots of science fiction are in books like Frankenstein, the War of the Worlds and the Time Machine, Brave New World, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  These cutting-edge tales explored new possibilities and the terror and opportunity they promised.  New worlds.  Life as a machine that could be engineered.  Sociological trends.  This is the good stuff.  Good, smart adventure at a surface level, plus deep meaning for society and how it would respond to new technologies.  Taking away that deeper meaning doesn’t necessarily make anything better, and taking away the limits of science doesn’t either.  Fantasy can have deep meaning, too, but not about the major changes our current civilization is facing.  Confronting those changes illuminates new facets of the human condition never explored before.

There are truly new things out there, but only in speculative fiction, and only science fiction has the realistic ones.

When a story grabs at the surface characteristics of science, the shiny baubles, but doesn’t buy into the real meaning of the science, we get trite and simplistic adventures like Armageddon, The Core, or Independence Day.  If you don’t respect the science while presenting scientific fiction, you can’t create anything serious and meaningful.  Maybe everything doesn’t have to be serious and meaningful, but in that case, why make the pretense of trying?  I find it offensive and counterproductive.

And lest you think me an elitist snob for taking offense, when was the last time you paid money and invested the time to see a movie and lost your suspension of disbelief over and over again and didn’t take offense?   Historical movies getting history wrong, medical dramas getting doctors wrong, legal dramas getting the law wrong, any movie with bad acting that gets human behavior wrong, and science fiction movies getting the science wrong, all these are offensive to an engaged movie goer.  And rightly so.  Getting things wrong is bad craft.  While it’s probably impossible to never make a mistake, not caring about mistakes isn’t a valid position, and it’s especially crazy to have a lot of them on a project with hundreds of millions of dollars invested.  It’ll keep on happening, unfortunately, as long as these error-ridden messes make money and we keep buying tickets.

So how about you?  Do you care whether or not the science is right in the fiction you read?

While I intend to explore the issue of getting the science write in science fiction, and getting people to care about it, I’ll also be exploring the entire spectrum of science and science fiction, from astronomy discoveries of interest to the science fiction community to great portrayals of science in science fiction, and everything in between.  It should be fun, and I hope more than just rants about the bad science still all too common.

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  1. Hey, Mike, I'm totally right there with you. I always considered "Star Wars" (one of my all-time favorite movies, ya know) "space fantasy" and not "science fiction". It ceases to be "science" fiction the moment that Luke turns off the targeting computer and relies on some mystical force. Yup.

  2. I remember an interview with Quentin Tarantino right after PulpnFiction came out. They asked him about the sequence of events, the way he'd intercut the story lines. Wasn't he concerned that the audience would be confused?

    Tarantino repkied that 'audiences are smart. they get it. Film is often non-sequential. Trust the audience.

    I think that The Big Bang Theory's success suggests that even when it comes to complex science (anything more than water has three common states dependant upon temperature and pressure) the audience can be trusted.

    This suggests to me that a good story can get it right and still'be well received.

  3. I'm a supreme nitpicker- bad science kills me in fiction. Take for example the explosion of the deathstar. Given it's diameter, how fast are the pieces moving when it explodes? Light speed? Or how about the Klingon moon Praxis?

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