What Is Needed for Good Science Fiction

This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion.  There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind.  It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.

Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots.  I watched Star Trek:  The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged.  I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov.  Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references).  Certainly, Asimov knew better.  The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created.  It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us.  The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.

The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right.  This leads to the topic I want to talk about here:  What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy?  That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.

As a preface, I note that all fiction involves the willing suspension of disbelief.  We know it’s “just a story”; but while we’re reading it (or watching it, or listening to it on audiobook, or whatever), we, like Fox Mulder, “want to believe”.  We treat the story as if it’s something really happening.  Anything in the story that is unrealistic or inconsistent jars us out of our willing suspension of disbelief.  It breaks the magic spell, kicking us back into the real world.  We cannot become lost again in the fictional world—the story is ruined for us.  Now, what kind of things will break the spell, so to speak, will vary.  We know that the conventions of writing and the knowledge of the past were different in William Shakespeare’s day; so when he has gonging clocks in ancient Rome (in Julius Caesar) we forgive him.  Aliquando dormitat et bonus Homerus, after all (“Sometimes even good Homer nods”—in other words, even the greatest writers screw up sometimes).

Likewise, if we read The Lord of the Rings, we know quite well that hobbits and elves and dwarves and orcs and such do not, in fact, exist, and never have; and in fantasy more generally, we know quite well that the subject material is—well, fantastic.  That is the convention of the genre, though; so we are not bothered by sorcery and unicorns and such.  We wouldn’t tolerate such things in a realistic, “mainstream” novel, because the conventions are different; but in fantasy, it’s all good.  The believability of fantasy is more a matter of consistency and motivation rather than fantastic things as such.  In short, you may have elves or unicorns or wizards or whatnot; but once you’ve established how any of these behave, you have to stick to it.  You can’t have elves be magical in some contexts, but not in others, for example (unless you explain that only some elves are magical).  Unicorns are either mortal or immortal; and so on.

Beyond mere consistency, you need to have believable motivations.  A character, be he human, orc, or whatever, has to act from believable motivations:  love, hate, greed, and so on.  A given character, once established, has to be portrayed as acting in a way consistent with his/her personality.  Proper character dynamics apply to all forms of fiction, not just fantasy or SF.

Returning to SF, our main topic here, the situation is very much similar to—but subtly different from—fantasy.  As with fantasy, we’re dealing with things that don’t exist—interstellar travel, time travel, aliens, and so on.  The difference is that the things in SF might exist (there may well be actual aliens out there) or could exist (it is plausible that in the future interstellar travel may be accomplished).  Thus, we can’t be quite as arbitrary as we can in fantasy.  One very important way in which we are more tightly bound with SF is the distinction between pseudoscience and imaginary science.

“Pseudoscience” means exactly what it looks like: “fake science”.  Pseudoscience is any purportedly scientific theory or system that violates established natural laws or which has been demonstrated to be false.  Perpetual motion and any schemes to get more energy out of a process than was put in are both excellent examples of pseudoscience (which we talked about before).  They both violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (and in some cases, the First Law of Thermodynamics, too).  They are both thus impossible, barring a revolutionary discovery that would overturn most of what we know about physics. Another example of pseudoscience is phrenology, the concept, popular in the 19th Century, of determining an individual’s personality based on feeling the bumps on his head.  There is, of course, not the slightest proven basis for this.

Now in fairness, the boundaries between real science and pseudoscience are often blurry.  Alchemy was once thought to be a legitimate endeavor.  We now know that the quest to change lead into gold was pseudoscience, since no non-nuclear process can do so.  On the other hand, much actual knowledge was gained, and became the basis for the science of chemistry.  The distinction became clear only in retrospect.

Similarly, there are some current areas regarding which the label “pseudoscience” is controversial.  Two examples are psychic research and UFOlogy.  Most mainstream scientists would classify both fields as pseudoscience.  However, there are some people with legitimate training in the sciences, who are by no means “woo woo” (to use the derogatory term that some use about any “weird” or “paranormal” phenomena), who nonetheless have argued for the legitimacy of psychic research and UFOlogy.  The most careful and zetetic observers would say that, at the very least, the verdict on these fields is still out.  At some point in the future, presumably, we will have a clearer perspective.  Either psychic research and UFOlogy will turn out to have been, indeed, pseudoscience; or they will end up being legitimate, after all.

“Imaginary science” is exactly what it says–science that is cooked up out of the writer’s imagination.  Unlike pseudoscience, imaginary science makes no claims to be real.  At the most, it claims to be plausible.  A perfect example of imaginary science is faster-than-light (FTL) spaceflight.  Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity clearly showed that FTL is not possible.  Various imaginary science devices such as hyperdrive, warp drive, stargates, and such are imaginary ways around this limitation.  They are plausible in that they hypothesize things that might, with greater knowledge and technology work–e.g. an Alcubierre warp drive, where space itself moves faster than light, thus avoiding a violation of relativity; or hyperspace (space of more than three dimensions), in which it is postulated that physical laws work differently; and so on.  There is no claim made that such things do work, or even could work; but there is at least an effort to give a veneer of scientific plausibility.  To give a specific example of the difference:  In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, the follow-up to A Wrinkle in Time, there is a scene where the cherubim Proginoskes transports Meg Murray instantly across the galaxy to see the destruction of a solar system by the Echthroi.  This is obviously fantasy–there is no explanation as to how this transportation occurs beyond the fact that Proginoskes is an angel, and angels can do impossible things.  By contrast, while an actual, practical implementation of an Alcubierre warp drive is probably not possible (sorry, Star Trek fans–I feel your pain!), there is an attempt at a scientific rationale for rapid transit through the galaxy.  SF, unlike fantasy, won’t settle for “an angel did it” (unless of course it explains that angels are actually super-advanced energy beings, or some such).

Other examples of imaginary science are time travel, artificial gravity, deflector shields, tractor beams, uploading of human consciousness to computers, and so on.  As with pseudoscience, there are some gray areas.  Some things in SF are not strictly imaginary, but just have not been implemented yet.  For example, interstellar travel (at sub-light speeds, of course) has been proposed by means of solar sails, Bussard ramjets, particle drives, and so on.  These methods are all based on known science and technology that either exists or that could be developed.  They just have not been actually put into use because of technical challenges, lack of funding, and so on.  Others ideas, while indeed imaginary, may become true science in the future.  For example, uploading human minds into computer storage is at present imaginary, because, while plausible to a certain extent, no actual way of implementing it is yet known.  It may come to pass in the future, at which time it will no longer be imaginary.  Likewise, the submarine the Nautilus in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was based on imaginary science at the time he wrote it.  He posited a power source that had unlocked the energy of nature–not possible then, but true enough when nuclear engines were devised.  Similarly, the means of making a workable long-range submarine involved many things that were not doable at the time, but which Verne plausibly outlined.  At the time, all of this was imaginary science; today it’s just science, period.

At this point it will be useful to point out a popular misconception about SF.  It is often thought that the purpose of SF is prediction.  Admittedly, there has been much amazingly accurate prediction in the SF genre over the years.  Jules Verne, as noted above, accurately predicted nuclear submarines, as well as scuba diving, helicopters, and travel to the moon; many writers predicted space travel and lasers; Star Trek predicted computers you can talk to and cell phones (more or less–communicators are close), and Star Trek:  The Next Generation predicted tablet computers.  All this is impressive.  The point, though of science fiction is not, contra common belief, the science part, but the fiction part.  Prediction of itself is something you get in a Popular Mechanics article, or something from the field known as futurism.  On the other hand, science fiction is still fiction.  Its purpose is, or should be, to tell a good story before anything else.  This is sometimes debated–it has been argued (even by Isaac Asimov in his essay, “The Little Tin God of Characterization“) that ideas take precedence in science fiction over plot or characterization.  I disagree.  This is indeed true of much “hard” (and not-so-hard) SF in the pulp era; but I don’t think it should be considered a necessity for truly good science fiction.

After all, lots of predictions did not, in fact, come true.  Robots–at least of the sort that Asimov wrote about–do not, as yet, exist.  Star Trek may have predicted cell phones and Siri; but we’re no nearer to interstellar travel, meeting logical aliens, or producing artificial gravity.  Jules Verne was wrong about the plausibility of traveling to the center of the Earth (and very wrong in portraying a version of hollow Earth theory).  None of this diminishes our enjoyment of Asimov, Star Trek, or Verne.  It’s neat when a work of SF accurately predicts the future; but that’s not a necessity for good SF.  Some imaginary science and technology will remain imaginary; and that’s OK.

So, after having discussed this, what concrete rules can we establish as to what is needed for good SF?  I would suggest the following, without insisting they be set in stone:

1. It should display at least a minimal understanding of basic science concepts.

Discussion:  I read a novel in which a plot point was a potential danger to another planet from a large asteroid knocked out of orbit of our sun.  The other planet was in the second galaxy over from ours.  Yes–galaxy.  The nearest galaxy to ours, the Andromeda Galaxy, is two million light years from us.  To get even there, at sub-light speeds–let alone to the next galaxy over–would take billions of years.  Hardly an imminent threat.  The author clearly had no idea of basic astronomical concepts.

2. It should not violate known science.

Corollary:  Avoid pseudoscience like the plague.

Exception 1:  If one makes an effort to give a rationale for such violation of natural law, then it’s OK–you’ve got imaginary science.  Asimov’s magnificent but frustratingly flawed novel, The Gods Themselves, actually posits a way to obtain unlimited energy without violating the Laws of Thermodynamics.  The method involves a meticulously explained parallel universe with different physical laws than ours.  The Gods Themselves, in fact, has some of the best imaginary science I’ve ever seen.  What frustrates about it relates to characters.  That’s not a topic for here, though.  The point is that instead of invoking pseudoscience, Asimov takes a sophisticated imaginary science approach to unlimited energy.

Exception 2:  This is in the YMMV category, and thus a matter of taste:  Sometimes we allow an implausible violation for the sake of the story.  As I’ve noted before, Asimov (IIRC) never explains the power system his robots used–they, too, are perpetual motion machines.  He certainly knew better; but the value of his stories in looking at the societal implications of robots, as well as his accuracy in other areas of the relevant sciences, persuades us to give him a pass.  The same goes for Data in TNG.  Different fans, of course, will have differing levels of tolerance for such violations (whether they result from ignorant flubs, as if often the case, or deliberate make-believe, as in Asimov’s stories).  There’s no hard-and-fast rule.  What I’d say is that the merit of the work has to be high, and the violation relatively tangential.  Each fan, though, will have his/her own standard.

3.  Put at least a reasonable amount of effort into explaining the imaginary science you use.

Exception:  In some cases, there are well-established SF tropes involved in a work.  In cases such as this, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.  For example, hyperspace and warp drive are concepts that have been around for decades.  Thus, there’s no need to explain how FTL works in a work involving interstellar flight.  It’s OK to strategically drop a term such as “hyperdrive” or “hyper-jump”.  Likewise with artificial gravity.  That’s actually far more implausible than interstellar travel or even FTL spaceflight.  However, it’s taken for granted that future space ships won’t have crew floating about in zero-G; and with a few exceptions (e.g. the Discovery One in 2001:  A Space Odyssey), rotating toroidal ships are almost never depicted.  Thus, as unlikely as artificial gravity is, it’s a near-universal trope; so we just have to live with it.  The tl;dr version of this rule is that you’re not writing a technical manual;  you’re telling a story.  Don’t fall so much in love with the nuts and bolts of explanation that you forget what you’re doing.

4.  Use tropes intelligently.

Discussion:  As TV Tropes points out, there are no good tropes and no bad tropes; just tropes that can be properly used or poorly used.  Not every author, director, etc. is a worldbuilder, and that’s all right.  Not all stories require worldbuilding.  It’s all right not to do like J. R. R. Tolkien, who even went to the extent of devising entire languages and calendars, and giving the specific dates of the main events of the story!  A few–or even several–strategically and properly used tropes can work quite well.  Even the greats in SF were not above using tropes as they needed.  In the words of the old Eric Clapton song, it’s in the way that you use it.

That said, tossing tropes in at random, without relevance to the story, is sloppy and lazy.  I was reading a cheap sci-fi* ebook I got off Amazon a few days ago.  Within the first chapter, I noticed

A.  The protagonist was described as an “intergalactic” space ranger, and then as the best in the galaxy.  “Intergalactic” means from one galaxy to another.  Something taking place within a single galaxy–as with Star Wars, Star Trek, and almost every major series except Andromeda–is intragalactic.  In the context of the story, it was pretty clear that the author had no clue what “intergalactic” means.  I give a pass on inaccurate use of this word to the Beastie Boys, and not to the author of this book.

B.  The protagonist tells the onboard computer to set the hyperdrive to Warp 10.  ??!!  First, some tropes are so closely associated with specific franchises that they ought not to be used outside those franchises.  “Warp 10” screams Star Trek.  (Admittedly, Star Trek:  The Next Generation, did this, too, pilfering Asimov’s well-known “positronic brain” to use for Data.  I was actually irritated by that, too)  Second, a hyperdrive and a warp drive, imaginary though they may be, work on completely different principles.  Third, the whole thing could have been paraphrased to avoid either trope (e.g., “she set the coordinates for the return trip, set the ship for maximum speed, and began her journey home”), since this was not relevant to the thrust of the story.

C.  In the next line, the third-person narration notes that the ship can cover light years within seconds, and then notes that with the autopilot on, the protagonist slips into sleep.  This implies a relatively long journey of several hours or days; and yet the implied speed of the ship indicates much faster trips than that.  I mean, at a speed of one light year per second, you could go nine hundred light years within fifteen minutes.  Small compared to the galaxy, but a pretty decent distance.  This may be more a matter of taste on my part, admittedly; still, I think it could have been expressed in a less seemingly contradictory fashion.

D.  The protagonist has captured a notorious criminal.  The criminal, at one point, releases an illegal aphrodisiac.  This causes the captive’s body temperature to rise, which overwhelms the ship’s life support, causing alarms to go off and the ship to plunge into danger.  Once more, ??!!  The “something puts the ship in danger” trope is perfectly legit; and in the context of the story, it’s towards the end of hooking up captor and captive in the “opposites fall for each other when in mutual danger” trope.  Per se, that’s fine.  But this?  Yes, when you get erotically hot and bothered, you get–well, hot and bothered.  Your temperature isn’t going to rise that much, though–homeostasis and all–else you’d die.  Which would kill the romance.  Even if your temperature went high enough to actually kill you–around a hundred three, hundred four degrees, or so–such a relatively trivial shift would in no way, shape, or form overwhelm a ship life-support system designed to transport living being through outer-freaking-space, which, trust me, has temperatures way hotter and colder than 104° Fahrenheit!

By this time, I abandoned the novel and removed it from my Kindle Fire.  It had cost a couple of bucks, but, oh, well–lesson learned.  Any one of these things by itself might have been tolerable (probably not, though–the characterization seemed weak and cardboard, too); but when a whole hodgepodge of tropes was thrown more or less carelessly and randomly together as a substitute for storytelling and a disregard for any iota of logic, the overall effect was just too much.  There’s worthwhile schlock, and schlock not worth bothering with–and this book was in the latter category.

5. Most important of all, tell a good story.

Discussion:  The days are long, long gone when cardboard characters, a formulaic plot, and a few gee-whiz, slam-bang tropes are enough to pull of an SF story.  No amount of meticulous worldbuilding, carefully constructed imaginary science, and well-deployed tropes can make a boring plot interesting or dull characters intriguing.  If you don’t care about the characters or the story, you aren’t going to care about the “science” part of the science fiction.  It’s true that some early science fiction really is more about the ideas than plot or characters.  With the exception of the iconic Captain Nemo, few of Jules Verne’s characters are remembered.  Most of H. G. Wells’s characters were pretty much interchangeable, and the novels of space opera pioneer “Doc” E. E. Smith are pretty much cardboard stereotypes.  In the youth of the genre, the sense of wonder brought about by the fantastic ideas covered a multitude of sins of plotting, characterization, and so on.

Today, however, audiences are long accustomed to space travel, time travel, aliens from space, robots, lasers, and so on.  A well-crafted story can still evoke the SF sense of wonder in which fans have delighted for centuries.  Still, with our more sophisticated understanding of the genre and its conventions, we expect more than just ideas.  We want interesting characters and plots, themes that will make us think, dialogue that sounds real.  Simply put, we want good stories.  A sufficiently good story can override violations of Rules 1-4, in fact.  As noted, Asimov’s robots are as much perpetual motion machines as any others, and yet we forgive him that, because the stories are compelling.  The Star Wars franchise comes close to breaking (or outright does break) Rules 3 and 4 a lot; but the story of the Skywalkers compels us to stick with the saga (sometimes against our better judgement).

In the post on aliens and robots, I mentioned two novels I read in which one protagonist was an alien cyborg who did not need to breathe, eat, sleep, or even defecate, and pointed out how this violated the Laws of Thermodynamics in a pretty comprehensive way.  For all that, I read both novels in full.  They weren’t great literature, but the characters were engaging enough for me to forgive the violations of Rule 2.  On the other hand, I honestly couldn’t finish Robert A. Heinlein’s rather weird novel The Number of the Beast.  The premise is fascinating and the imaginary science, as is typical with Heinlein, is quite well-thought out.  The problem is that it’s one of his later novels, and Heinlein, originally noted for snappy dialogue, characters that were more than just caricatures, and interesting plots, was by this time more or less phoning it in.  None of the characters appealed to me (to say nothing of some incestuous subtexts–a rather squicky thing that also started popping up in later Heinlein) and the story seemed to be going nowhere.  He violated not a single rule; but he didn’t (for me, at least) write an engaging story.

So in conclusion, the rules above are what I tend to look for in SF novels, stories, movies, and television series.  As with most things in life, there are exceptions; but to me, at least, these are pretty good guidelines.  In short, good science and good fiction.

*In science fiction fandom, “SF” or “sf” is the preferred abbreviation for “science fiction”. “Sci-fi” is considered to imply schlocky, inferior, or unserirous attempts at science fiction–e.g. the old Buck Rogers serials, or many of the stories of the pulp era.  In short, “SF” implies serious science fiction, and “sci-fi” is implicitly derogatory, implying trashy literature (or movies, or whatever).  That said, there’s a place for schlock and trashy art.  Different fans have different tolerance levels for it; but as Philip José Farmer once said, you can’t really understand any literature from its “classics”.  You need to read some trash, too; and that’s OK.  Thus, I willingly cop to some artistic slumming now and then.

Posted on 04/04/2018, in Entertainment, literature, pop culture, science, science fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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