Saturday dawned bright and…foggy and humid. My way to the convention lay, as usual, through the familiar streets of downtown Chicago, through the tall skyscrapers whose tips hid in the low-lying clouds and fog that are so common in the city. It was my third day of the convention, and I was already starting to feel some of the exhaustion and wear that comes from several days of packed programming. Thus, my Saturday included only one panel. That panel in itself, however, is enough for an entire article.
I attended a panel on Science and Science Fiction, whose aim was to discuss how much actual science the genre of science fiction needs. A bunch of physicists, along with a moviemaker, piled into a high-ceilinged ballroom with gorgeous views of the city to discuss the question. The very simple answer, of course, proposed by one of the panelists, is “enough that the reader won’t complain.” But, readers being nitpicky as they are, are there other criteria?
To begin with, however, it may be helpful to define science fiction itself. When is a book science fiction, meaning, when do we actually get to start nitpicking the science? For the purposes of the discussion, we borrowed a definition of science fiction from Analog: if the story won’t work if you take the science out, it’s science fiction.
I suppose, if I were to distill the hour and a half discussion to a neat thesis, the answer to the question would be: “Not too little and not too much.” There must always be a balance, in the Force as in how much science we put in our science fiction. That balance, I think, reflects the very nature of science as a dynamic force, constantly changing, progressing, expanding, and yet possessed of its own limitations. Those are factors science fiction writers must be aware of.
On one end of the spectrum, then, there’s too little science, or undeveloped science, or inconsistent science – that is, science written by an author who hasn’t done his homework. Which is, of course, bad storytelling as well as disrespectful to science. But further along the spectrum, there’s also the grievance of an incomplete portrayal of science: that is, an accurate portrayal of certain advancements that completely eschews others. For example, much sci-fi portrays the advances of technology, yet does not deal at all with advances in culture, biology, chemistry, or human society in general. Science advances as a whole, just as society advances as a whole – not in bits and pieces. It’s an important truth to keep in mind as a writer.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the dangers of too much science. Science fiction leads to extrapolation, and extrapolation is dangerous, for it opens the door to the possibility that the same science that creates the problems can solve them. There must be a limitation to how much science can do. And, of course, not all the science has to actually go in the book. The partial differentials that make wormholes possible in theory are good in the planning stages of a novel, but a writer who includes them all on the published pages is probably making a grievous mistake of focusing too much on science and too little on story.
What every science fiction writer must also keep in mind is that science is changing. To write good science fiction, one must understand the nature of these changes. Science doesn’t really get proven “wrong,” we just discover theories that are “more right.” Newton wasn’t wrong about the theory of gravity and Einstein didn’t invalidate him. Newton was just incomplete, and Einstein “completed” his theories. And, one day, someone may come along to “complete” Einstein. So, the things that we think are possible and impossible today may change as science itself changes. Thus, science in science fiction must be open to possibility and not limited by what we know now – and yet limited enough that it does not delve into the realm of completely ridiculous implausibility.
It was at this point that the question of FTL (faster than light) travel came up. It’s one of those things that Einstein said was impossible, and nobody’s disproved Einstein yet, which hasn’t stopped science fiction from trying. It’s a prime example of science that could be founded on too little research, and yet could also be entirely plausible.
And it was at this point that the physicists in the room started arguing about string theory and and wormholes and the ways in which those would allow FTL travel (though one must point out that string theory and wormholes do not allow one to actually exceed the speed of light, but to travel through different dimensions and/or distances, but I digress…).
The point, as I hope I’ve made clear, is that science is complicated, both as a practice and as a concept. It must be treated with reverence, placed on a pedestal, and yet poked and prodded with doubts and questions without cease.
After the panel, I wandered around the vendors’ room and art show. My experience with conventions being minimal, I knew little of what to expect from such places. I’ve heard elegies and raves about the wonders that can be discovered at the vendors at ComicCon and DragonCon, and I hoped Chicon would not disappoint. The vendors, however, turned out to be more of an eclectic collection of booksellers, pitching everything from glossy copies of popular science fiction and fantasy titles to old magazines. I was, however, unsuccessful in my search for old paperbacks of George R.R.Martin titles – though I did obtain a pair of angel-wing earrings that I look forward to making a part of an upcoming cosplay.
The art show, however, was quite another thing, with stand after stand of futuristic, ethereal, and breathtaking views of space, stars, and fantastic landscapes filling the room. If I were a little richer, and had more wall space, I might even have brought home a piece of space, gorgeously rendered. But alas, I was left to do naught but admire. I will, however, end with a shameless promotional pitch for a particular artist whose prints caught my romantic, geeky eye.
The rest of the day I dedicated to decompressing and preparing myself for the full day of panels I had planned for Sunday, a write-up of which will be coming shortly, courtesy of this geeky blogger.