Lately I’ve come across people discussing/a few posts/ general comments regarding science in science fiction. More specifically: how detailed should the science in science fiction get?
What a fascinating problem!
At first, I thought it was a straight forward answer, but as I started writing (and rewriting) this post, I found myself thinking more and more of my own opinions on the matter, and what a truly interesting issue this was.
Too much detail, and you get something akin to a technical manual (don’t forget the fiction part of science fiction), too little detail and people have no idea what’s going on. It’s a delicate balance so how can a sci-fi writer meet that balance and not confuse or bore their readers? In other words, how can you get the science “good enough” so that the reader maintains his or her suspension of disbelief?
I’m not a sci-fi writer, nor am I a sci-fi reader (for the most part) but I am a scientist and so this topic interests me, thus I tried to figure it out for own little self.
The first thing I did was eliminate the obvious. I don’t think anyone out there needs to be told that too much detail is a bad thing. When I think of science-y detail, I think of allll those peer reviewed articles that, while on one hand are really cool, is not something you want to write a fiction novel out of. It can be boring, convoluted, and your reader can forget that there is a story buried in there somewhere. Also, with all details exposed, you run a higher risk of people (you know, those people) trolling for accuracy.
So, with that point put aside I asked myself two questions that I hoped would allow me to understand my thoughts on the subject:
1)How is science introduced/used in published science fiction to be made acceptable
2) Under what circumstances do I get annoyed, as a geoscientist, with science in fiction.
To tackle the first question, I thought of the few sci-fi books I’ve read over the years, and it helped that I just finished Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, so that sci fi was fresh in my mind. It seems to me that a lot of the science in sci-fi operates on basic scientific principles and also builds on itself in a scientific way.
By basic scientific principles, I mean scientific theories or premises that the general public has a handle on. Good examples are gravity, the laws of motion, evolution, laws of thermodynamics, etc. The general public may not understand these in great detail but they understand them well enough that if an author uses it as a foundation for say, space travel, or world building (in terms of evolution), the general populace will get what the author is saying without the author having to go into detail.
For example, in Out of the Silent Planet, the ship Ransom, Watson, and Devine travel in is circular and has a gravitational center. The side that faces towards the sun as they travel is hot, while the side that faces away is cold.
When I read this, I didn’t really spend my time questioning it, or questioning how they created gravity in the ship or any of those other details because it made sense in a general way. It is set up similar to the way the earth functions and that was enough to suspend my disbelief.
The key here, however, is that the point of the story wasn’t about the gravity on the ship or how the ship functioned. In fact, the only time I saw a high degree of technically explanation in sci-fi is when the science in question was specifically important to the storyline.
Now science can be sort of important to the story line in a lot of science fiction, but readers can accept it because the science/technology/alien creatures build on these basic scientific principles in a logical way. Science is all about following something to a logical conclusion, so once an author establishes a few basic principles, be they real (gravity, evolution) or made up, and follows them logically then the reader is less likely to nitpick or get confused.
This last realization led me to my answer for question 2.
My question to myself was when have I gotten annoyed at science in fiction.
I have to really focus more on fantasy, since that’s what I mainly read, but I think the same conclusions can apply. If I’m dealing with a fantasy world, I tend to go easy on landscape development because I think to myself ‘Hey, it’s a made up world. They can do what they like.”
The only time I found this attitude didn’t apply was when an author strayed from the principles they established in the beginning.
I’m talking about that insulting book A Darkness Forged in Fire. I reviewed it a while back and among the many things I hated about it, was the laziness of the author in terms of his concept.
The author introduced a forest of metal trees that fed on the ore beneath the mountain to grow. Now of course we know in the real world this is impossible, but it was acceptable initially to me because you make things out of metal from ore. Galina is the ore of lead, bauxite is the ore of aluminum, so I could accept that there was magic involved in making these trees.
Then I ran into a problem with a line discussing one particular tree:
"Glinting, obsidian-shelled acorns covered the ground beneath [the tree]."
Okay this is obsidian:
|Thanks cool geology site!|
This is where obsidian comes from:
Metal is in no way related to obsidian. How on earth would a metal tree make obsidian acorns?? Especially since he explained how those trees grew—by feeding on ore in the mountains. If you’re going to acknowledge certain basic principles of how materials are formed, i.e. how metals come from ores, then you can’t just ignore the other principles of geology and toss them out the window.
It struck me as lazy, as if the author said to himself ‘Hey! Obsidian sounds cool! Let’s just add that here.’
That annoyed me. In that instance, when established principles weren’t followed through, I found the science to be ridiculous.
So I think, as a sort of summarized conclusion, I think, for me at least, to keep a reader’s suspension of disbelief in terms of sci-fi, a writer has to keep focused on the story, not get too bogged down in nitty gritty details, and most importantly, establish principles that the reader can grasp and follow through logically with them.