Unreal science

My wife and I spent the weekend at ConVersion, Calgary’s annual science fiction convention.

Featured this year were David Weber as Guest of Honor, Larry Niven as Special Guest of Honor, and R. Scott Bakker as Canadian Guest of Honor and Jeremy Bulloch, who played Boba Fett in the original Star Wars trilogy, as Media Guest of Honor.

What was lacking was the usual Science Guest of Honor. But the lack of real science just got me thinking more about unreal science.

David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels take place in a far future in which hundreds of worlds have been colonized and formed into “star nations.” Since his novels are Horatio Hornblower-like stories set in outer space, there’s a lot of combat involving giant starships…which use a clever and well-described method to get from system to system at speeds equivalent to thousands of times that of light.

Just one problem: as far as we know, it’s impossible to travel faster than light.

Faster than light space travel is just one example of something which is probably scientifically impossible that science fiction authors, who are normally quite concerned about getting the science right in their stories, use without a qualm.

Another is time travel. Still another is telepathy. My own science fiction novel Lost in Translation (coming out in paperback from DAW Books in October) not only has faster-than-light space travel, it also has as its main characters two empaths–people who can sense the emotions of others–who become telepaths with the help of a genetically engineered life form that hardwires their brains together. This is probably complete nonsense, scientifically speaking. And yet I continue to get annoyed at bad science in science fiction movies.

Robert J. Sawyer, probably Canada’s best-known science fiction writer, rigorously researches the scientific concepts that form the basis for his novels…but even he would admit, I expect, that not everything that happens in his stories is scientifically probable. He doesn’t really think that some time soon a gateway between our world and a parallel world where Neanderthals instead of homo sapiens dominated will open in Sudbury and discharge a Neanderthal scientist.

So are we science fiction authors a bunch of hypocrites?

I don’t think so. Sure, Hugo Gernsback, who founded the world’s first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, back in the 1920s, saw science fiction (which he called “scientifiction”) as a means of educating people about science, and, sure, it’s sparked an interest in science in thousands of people (myself included)–but that’s not really its purpose.

It’s science fiction, remember. Science fiction is fiction inspired and driven by scientific and technological advancements, but it’s still fiction. It’s concerned with alternate worlds, worlds that are different–different because society operates differently there, different because of technological change, different because events in that world didn’t unfold the way they did in the real world.

If you’re going to tell stories of alternate worlds, you need ways to get to those worlds, or explanations for why they are the way they are–and that’s where the scientifically faster-than-light travel and time machines and telepathy and other such conceits come into play.

So why write these stories of alternate worlds? Because by doing so, science fiction writers are able to say things about our own world that, because of the unusual setting, sneak by the defenses and prejudices of readers and cause them to think thoughts they might not have otherwise thought.

All of which may seem like a pretty heavy load to be borne by a form of storytelling that also inspires grown women to dress up in metal bikinis…but science fiction not only inspires, informs, enlightens and alarms, it most of all entertains. It wouldn’t be as inspiring, informational, enlightening or alarming if it didn’t.

I think most science fiction writers want their books to be as scientifically accurate as possible right up to the point where the story demands otherwise. And then they’ll fudge away, breaking or at least seriously bending the laws of physics (usually providing some sort of plausible-sounding explanation to assuage their guilt) because ultimately, for a writer, the story comes first.

Besides, if there’s one thing we know about science, it’s that things once considered impossible have a way of becoming possible, given time.

So who knows? Someday, even the most outlandish story-serving conceits of science fiction writers may be the everyday technology of a future generation.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2006/08/unreal-science/


    • Moriel on August 25, 2006 at 12:37 am
    • Reply

    (Found your blog through Karen Hancock’s, if you’re curious.)

    If it makes you feel any better, I’m even worse–I’m really no good with math or science, but I’m an obsessive perfectionist, so while I’ll notice very little bad science in SF (well, unless it’s really bad, and even then I might not be able to tell you why), I still want my SF elements to be more or less plausible because readers will probably know what’s crap and be distracted from the story I’m trying to tell. Otherwise, I wouldn’t care a lot about bad science, and I know I have elements that qualify–faster-than-light travel is a big one, and telepathy’s another.

    I don’t even know where I’m going with this comment now…

    • scrawney on August 15, 2006 at 11:03 pm
    • Reply

    You SF writers are all just a bunch of dreamers… which is exactly why we read your stories. Dreams stretch beyond the possible. SF, because of the scientific foundation involved, portrays that which is beyond the possible as very real. And, frankly, most of us don’t care if you bend the laws of physics a little!


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