Monday, June 16, 2008

Getting the Science Right in SF

Jo Walton has written an interesting post where she claims that she doesn't write science fiction because she know both too little and too much science. If she were ignorant, she could write without caring whether she got the science right, but she isn't, so that means having to do research that distracts from actually writing the story:
So I have this thing about aliens with four genders. It takes place in the universe where the solution to the Fermi Paradox is that FTL drives make your star explode after 20 uses. So these aliens are stuck in their solar system (with a couple of other aliens who showed up and can't go home) and they know about other aliens. (Earth may or may not exist in this universe. It doesn't matter. This is a story about some aliens.) My aliens have a mother planet and a terraformed marslike, and a moon where they live in domes. My character comes from the terraformed planet. He's leaving a spaceship on the mother planet, he smells the mother planet air, and he thinks "Ah, the sweet smell of /INSERT ATMOSPHERE COMPONENT GAS HERE/, which we don't have in the air of my terraformed home, which smells so atavistically good because this is where my ancestors evolved, but which nevertheless reminds me of the three years I spent here in the prison camp." And I stop, and I trot off to ask what atmospheric component gas it could be (and already you notice I have stopped writing and started checking, and also, note how much I had to explain to get to this point, which in the actual story would all not be explained) and after a long discussion I find out that there's nothing, unless I totally change everything I want, or give them noses that can smell argon or something (which is an unnecessary complication when they already have turtle shells and four eyes and the interesting thing is the four genders) and I have to scrap that sentence which was doing set up and incluing and background and was about to set up the next sentence about how he met his best friend in the prison camp and was going to lead on into some actual story.

If I didn't know any science at all, I'd just merrily put traces of chlorine in an oxygen atmosphere and it would all be as dumb as heck but at least it would actually get written and the characters would get out of my head and get to have their adventure.
While some commenters are arguing that she doesn't need to identify that atmospheric component to tell the story, the point is that Walton does need to, to tell the story the way she would want it to be.

And certainly there are people who would notice the omission of a plausible explanation. As SF writer (and astronomer) Mike Brotherton points out, getting the science wrong can take readers out of the story:
If you don’t, you risk the greatest threat to fiction writers, a threat greater than poor characterization or limp prose or anything else. You risk losing the suspension of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief is critical to the entire enterprise of fiction, and when it’s gone, you’ve lost the reader, perhaps forever. Bad writing or weak characters risk this too, of course, but having a reader stop and think, with regard to an important plot point, “I thought penguins were at the south pole, not the north,” and then wait for a payoff that never comes…well, that’s a crime against readers.
And ultimately the author is responsible for what ends up on the page:
One of the best one-sentence pieces of advice about writing professionalism I got from Octavia Butler. She said that you shouldn’t ever send something out that had mistakes in it that you knew of. You were ultimately responsible and a professional didn’t send out something with errors.

Perhaps your editor will forgive you, and your audience too, if the error makes it into print. But perhaps not, and that may be the only chance you ever get with them.
I personally don't think that SF necessarily needs a ton of technical details to be "good" (in Walton's example, she could simply say there was a unique smell without specifying the source), however the details that are included should at least be plausible.

(Jo Walton post via Charlie Jane Anders @ io9)

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