Science Takes a Beating

I like to write and read science fiction.  Not fantasy, mind you, nor horror or steampunk or alternate history or many of the other subdivisions into which the genre is currently divided.  It’s fun and interesting to me, and it gives me a chance to use some of the science I learned in high school, college and graduate school in new and interesting ways.  It means, though, I have to keep up with the newest developments in science, mostly physics and astronomy, in order to be current in what I put on the page.  But that’s what science fiction is all about.

Science fiction is an extrapolation of the current state of knowledge into the future, and is presented in such a way as to form an interesting and intriguing story.  A story with characters the reader cares about and wants to know more about.  It’s a sort of amalgam of real science with conventional fiction–Jay Gatsby meets Buck Rogers, if you will.  As such, science fiction needs two fundamental things to carry the story well: good writing and good science.  The good writing, for the purposes of this blog, I will set aside.  It’s the good science I’ll concentrate on here.

The science should be well-researched and timely.  The old adage, ‘write what you know’ isn’t hard to follow; a little time spent in the library or online will give an author more than sufficient information to write a short story about almost anything, though having a PhD in some scientific discipline helps immensely.  Not everybody takes their research seriously, though, and the results can be, well, unusual.  Startling, perhaps, even comical.

A few weeks ago I saw an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which a man was being held, as Rod Serling’s voice-over at the beginning of the show said, on an asteroid nine million miles from Earth.  The first view of this ‘asteroid’ was of a desert area (probably filmed in the US desert southwest), and the man, a prisoner in solitary confinement on this ‘asteroid,’ was walking around in his shirtsleeves.  That’s very interesting.

That concept made a good story, okay, but the science behind the story was terrible.  First, an asteroid doesn’t exist 9 million miles from Earth, and if it did, that might be its closest approach because most asteroids are way out beyond Mars, and only a rare one gets that close to Earth.  Second, an asteroid wouldn’t be able to hold an atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen as this one so obviously did.  Its gravity wouldn’t be strong enough.  No asteroid is that big.  Yet this, remember, is an episode of a well-known, well-liked, and popular television show.  Where did the authors get this terrible concept?  Why would they put that on nationwide TV?  Some time spent in the library (no internet in the 1960’s) or a science adviser would have helped them considerably and not make the episode look like a child’s concept of asteroids.

I’ve been in critique groups in which I’ve been criticized for not having good science behind my fictional stories.  Yet, Twilight Zone gets away with it.

Another example.  Remember in the second episode of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back (the second episode, made around 1980, not the current numbering system) where Luke Skywalker and R2D2 take off from the Hoth Ice Planet and travel to the Dagobah system to meet Yoda?  Luke takes his X-wing fighter.  He’s traveling from one star system to another in a small, single-seat craft, not meant for interstellar travel, and not equipped for lightspeed.  In reality, the trip would take so long he’d never live to see his destination, yet he lands in Yoda’s backyard (in Yoda’s swampy backyard) as young as when he left.  Granted, Star Wars took a lot of other liberties with science, but this one has always stood out in my mind as a particularly atrocious example.  If I put that in a story, my critique group would howl like a [fill in your own simile here].  But it actually occurs in a well-known movie, happily loved by one and all.  Somewhat of a double-standard.

In short, sure the science should be good, but sometimes the science takes a back seat to the vagaries of the story line and gets twisted into a mess no one recognizes.  No science fiction story will ever be one hundred percent accurate, it wouldn’t be science fiction if it was.  But it can be better than the two examples above.

  1. #1 by Kimberly Evans Allen on February 20, 2013 - 10:31 AM

    Hi Roger. The older I get, the more I see and experience, the more the Twilight Zone (and other science fiction) do not not even seem fictional!!

    From a layperson’s viewpoint, I can enjoy and appreciate the story (and often philosophical metaphors) from a science fiction novel/movie/tv show without having a clue about the actual science involved. A scientist will be quicker to point out flaws, which makes sense if they are peering through scientific lens.

    So, what to do? what to do?

    Keep writing and enjoy the journey.

    Kimberly Allen

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