Thursday, May 23, 2013

How much is just right?

I sometimes blog about the balance of science and fiction in science fiction. A while ago, I read an interesting blog post about the balance of "real" science and fiction. That is, how much research writers should put into their material, and how factual any facts need be.

Interesting subject. I normally say that science must be real enough to be believable. The problem with that statement is, of course, that believable differs from person to person.

My point of view is this: as soon as we take just one step beyond the everyday knowledge most people possess, we’re all writers and readers; not scientists. 

With that I mean, we don’t know exactly how stuff works. The science we meet in TV, journals, and books is simplified to appeal to a layman, and reality is usually infinitely more complicated. To make it even more interesting, some “truths” don’t stay true, and others we pick up from media where someone else made them up.

I used to think I knew a lot. I have a high IQ, I read a lot, and I have a curious mind. The more I learn, the more I realize I haven’t even scraped the surface. Most the things I thought I knew are no longer true, were too simplified, or were fiction in the first place.

As an example, how many here thinks a human dies pretty quickly in space? I used to think so.

I’ve read about the swift and painful death of space in dozens of sci-fi novels, not to mention TV shows and movies where people’s eyes pop out and humans turn into popsicles within seconds. In reality, a human would survive around 90 seconds. That might not be plenty of time to send out a rescue team, but it’s significantly longer than I imagined.

Is there friction in space? Would a ship eventually slow down on its own? I used to say “no” but then I thought of solar sails and theories of travel between planets. That line of thought led me to this article.  Now I don’t know. Another example of all the things I don’t know.

Besides photons, there is matter between the planets and stars. There’s various debris of course, like rocks and asteroids, and space holds large amounts of molecules, they’re just spread out over a really large area. Traveling at the speeds we can achieve, this matter doesn’t pose much of a problem. At higher velocities, we don’t know. Will a bullet harm you if I toss it to you across the room? Probably not. Will it harm you if I shoot it from a gun (give it higher speed) and hit you? Definitely.

If writers were to be completely scientifically correct, the books would be boring enough to put readers to sleep within a page. It’s supposed to be science fiction, right? The word fiction implies “making stuff up.”

When looking at the sub genre of science fiction romance, large parts of it would be doomed if we were to stick to scientific facts. How many books have you read where a human falls in love with a funky looking alien and they have kids, just like that? In reality, assuming there are aliens and we met in spite of the vastness of the galaxy, this would be very unlikely. 

For two beings to have offspring, they have to be closely genetically related. (I’m not talking related as in a family, but as in a species.) Looking at the physiology behind romantic love, our happy little pheromones and stuff are based on the urge to procreate. An alien developed on another world without genetic connection to us would be so different we might as well try to fall in love with a jellyfish. 

Luckily, authors like myself write fiction, not fact, and we can ignore science when it’s convenient or fits the story. My heroines generally fall in love with aliens, but since taking a class in astrobiology I tweak it so they’re all fairly human, and we have common DNA somewhere in the background. I don't mind reading stories about a green being with tentacles making it with a human; it's still entertaining. I just don't find it believable. 

Don’t get me wrong. I think any writer is obliged to perform research for their books, whether they write something historical, contemporary, or set in the future. Science fiction is hard to research because it theorizes about things that hasn’t happened, and inventions that don’t exist. Truth is, we don’t know much about the world outside this planet. That’s a good thing; we can make it up. =)

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