There’s not a new post for the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy series this week. Instead, I thought I’d highlight the articles that we’ve done so far in 2017, not only to encourage people to read them, but also to demonstrate how injecting realism into science fiction and fantasy can make them far more compelling stories. Let’s dig in.
Remember the Human Element
Most SF/F stories are about people, and it’s sometimes useful to remember how people conduct themselves in the real world. For example, in her article on rogue viruses in science fiction, biomedical scientist Lee A. Everett wrote:
“If you’re sneaking in or trying to blend in with the staff, then step one, you’re going to head to the locker room and get naked.”
I like that line because it’s funny, and also true: the first thing anyone does when entering or leaving a high-security biological lab is take a shower. If you don’t address that in your steal-the-virus-weapon story, we scientists are going to throw a fit.
I’m not an expert in filmmaking, but I know that this form of media, and the industry around it, operates quite differently from the world of publishing. Among the many priorities juggled screenwriters and producers while making a film, scientific accuracy is probably not high on the list. One thing I love about books is that they have the luxury (the space) of informing readers. Movies do not. As veteran rock climber Michelle Hazen put it, in her post about how to write rock climbing wrong:
“The best way to write rock climbing wrong is to copy anything you’ve seen in a movie.”
Movies are about entertainment, plain and simple. Don’t look to them for factual accuracy.
Imagine What Could Go Wrong
Many of my favorite sci-fi novels extrapolate on some current real-world technology and imagine what it will look like in the future. More often than not, that promising technology is somehow bent to evil purpose. Right now, in the field of genetics, the CRISPR/Cas system for gene editing — presented in wonderful detail by microbiologist Mike Hays — is arguably the hottest new technology. It lets us make targeted changes to the genomes of living cells. As Mike writes:
“CRISPR gene editing is not perfect… But what is a bane for scientist can be a boon for the science fiction author.”
Pick a new invention or technology, imagine the worst that could happen with it, and you’ve got the seed for a great science fiction story.
Balance Practical with Awesome
One of my favorite posts from this year is the article on practical spaceship design by engineer Eric Primm. In it, he makes the observation that a realistic military spaceship would almost certainly be black in color, to make it harder to spot against the colorless backdrop of space.
Think about it. From quiet submarines to desert-tan Humvees to camouflage-clad soldiers, it’s clear that modern militaries place high value on blending in to their surroundings. And yet, if you think about most of the starship stories that we know and love, they rarely adhere to this principle. Why not? I think Eric offers a clue in his opening line:
“Science fiction loves a beautiful starship.”
Black, colorless ships make sense from a military realism standpoint, but it’s hard to make those look awesome on a book cover or movie screen. Moreover, the fans of science fiction have been groomed to expect ships to look like Star Destroyers or the U.S.S. Enterprise. The challenge for a sci-fi author is to balance what’s realistic or practical with what’s simply awesome.
Remember Your Bias
We all have biases, many of them unconscious and based on our unique set of experiences. Unsurprisingly, the world that we know has a strong influence on the SF/F stories that we dream up. As physicist Jim Gotaas points out in his wonderful post on habitable exoplanets, even our planetary experience is an unusual one:
“It turns out that our old familiar solar system, with rocky planets close to the sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) and gas giants (Jupiter and Saturn) and ice giants (Uranus and Neptune) further out, isn’t the typical example we previously thought.”
Creating truly unique stories requires a recognition of your own bias, throwing it out, and dreaming up worlds that no one has seen before.
Accuracy as Responsibility
One of the reasons I started this blog series was to help authors write more realistic fiction by (1) debunking common misconceptions about SF/F topics, and (2) offering experience-based advice on getting things right. It’s not just about writing better stories, but also taking responsibility for the reaction of people who consume those stories. Psychiatrist Jon Peeples offers an example of why this is important in his recent post on treatments for schizophrenia:
“Books and movies can make mental health treatment look scary… I’ve had many patients who’ve been afraid to get good treatments because of what they’ve seen on television.”
Even when they are clearly labeled fiction, stories have power. They shape the way readers perceive the world around them. Because of that, I think we have a certain duty to pursue realism, particularly in science fiction.
The Power of Metaphors
Metaphors are a wonderful literary device, just as they’re an important teaching tool for complex topics. This is beautifully illustrated by computer expert Matt Perkins in his Encryption 101 for Writers post, where he describes encrypted communication using Sesame Street:
“I call you and let you know I have cookies for you. You bring your special self-latching lockbox (public key) but you leave its key at home (private key). You walk down the street with the empty box wide open. At my house, you fill the box with cookies and close the lid, locking the box. You carry it back to your house, fetch the key, open the box, and enjoy your delicious cookies. And Cookie Monster is none the wiser.”
Metaphors use the familiar to explain the unfamiliar. They’re powerful tools, and a lot of writers would benefit from using them more often.
Even SF Stories Are About People
Arrival is one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s based on an award-winning story by Ted Chiang about a linguist who’s tapped to decipher the language of a newly-arrived alien species. I loved it so much that I was a little nervous when linguistics expert Christina Dalcher offered to do a post on the linguistics in Arrival.
Usually when a scientist wants to discuss their area of expertise as portrayed in a movie, it’s not a good sign. Yet I thought her assessment was admirably balanced: as I’d expected, Arrival got some things right and some things wrong. Perhaps more surprisingly, Christina noted that the movie “isn’t about linguistics at all.” This isn’t what you’d expect if you watched the previews.
The more I thought about it, however, the more it rang true. The scientific element of Arrival (linguistics) isn’t what made it a great film. Instead, it was the main character (played by Amy Adams), the choice she’s faced with, and the decision she makes.
The speculative element of a story is certainly important, but the characters are what matter most.
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