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The science and the fiction in science fiction

Posted: Thu Feb 01, 2007 10:52 pm
by Windwalker
I have two friends, both published SF writers. One insists that the science in SF has to be right, once the postulates have been set. The other believes that the story has to carry the day, although the science must be as sound as possible.

This division between hard and soft SF, with all its stereotypical implications (who writes and reads each style, etc), has existed since its inception as a genre.

We are all writers and readers of SF here. What are your opinions?

Posted: Fri Feb 02, 2007 5:12 pm
by rocketscientist
I put this question to a literary friend of mine with whom you are aquainted. Her response was succinct and I agree.

"If it's fiction of any sort - it needs to be plot driven."

Posted: Fri Feb 02, 2007 5:26 pm
by Windwalker
Indeed -- plot, characters, ideas are indispensable, gadgets are not. There is also a danger in showing science too clearly in SF: it can quickly become dated and quaint. "Softer" SF ages much more gracefully.

Lovely avatar, by the way!

Posted: Fri Feb 02, 2007 5:33 pm
by rocketscientist
8) Thank you! *simpers*

Posted: Fri Feb 02, 2007 5:39 pm
by rocketscientist
Although *thinks* I do enjoy a good gadget every now and again. Also when there are some absolutes (or near ones) like human biology or Newtonian physics aplied to things like planets and gravity and such, I like to get a glimpse of the workings. But schematics? Asided from what artistic qualities they may add - I can leave it.

I think balance is good in scifi - but plot (with all it's trappings) is paramount.

Re: The science and the fiction in science fiction

Posted: Fri Mar 02, 2007 2:48 am
by caliban
One last post tonight and then I must either go to bed or work on writing a routine to solve complex-valued Hamiltonian matrices. :)

When I teach SF and science, I find it more instructive to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. For anyone who is interested, I will just give here links to my extensive lecture notes:

General set of lectures: ... tures.html

On definitions on science fiction

On the use of science in science fiction

The summary: science is not simply rhetoric, no matter what the postmodernists would have us believe. Science in fact distrusts logic and rhetoric, because you can use logic to "prove" that witches burn because they are made of wood and you can determine if a woman is made of wood by seeing if she weighs the same as duck. Instead, science is based upon repeatable experiment and observation that anyone, in principle, can replicate.

SF is, however, wholly rhetorical. So even if SF simulates science, it is not real science, because SF works by analogy, or extrapolation, or a variety of other rhetorical strategies. SF lacks that key hallmark of science: an experiment or observation repeatable by neutral parties. So, by its very nature, the science in SF is merely a simulacrum, and usually a poor one.

I find the "science" ideas in SF to generally be shallow and unoriginal. (There are occasional exceptions, but rare.) More interesting are the narratives about science. Here are some examples:

Frankenstein Scientific discovery is a heavy responsibility that can have negative consequences.

The Time Machine: in the end, all of our science and technology comes to nought; our economic system will just eat us alive, literally.

Woody Allen's Sleeper: all ideas are eventually overturned: in the future people will think tobacco is the most healthy substance. (I once heard this argument used, though not quoting Sleeper, as an argument against evolution.)

Gattaca : be wary of seeing the world through a single technological lens, here genetic engineering.

A few SF novels do actually tackle philosophy relevant to science. For example, both Benford Timescape and LeGuin's The Dispossessed reject quantum mechanics in an attempt to assert that pain and struggle in life are not meaningless. Conversely, Dick's The Man in the High Castle views life and history as a set of quasi-random events, very much like modern quantum mechanics.

The level of verisimulitude needed for a story depends on the narrative about science. If the SF is merely an excuse for an exotic setting. .e.g Star Wars, then technobabble reigns. If, on the other hand, one is quarreling with the philosophical implications of the statistical nature of quantum mechanics, it helps to get your science as real as possible. Benford does the science better than LeGuin, although LeGuin has more compelling and more vividly drawn characters. (One important difference: Benford is careful to illustrate the importance of experimental confirmation, while LeGuin leaves it out altogether.)

I'll finish with the basic slogan from my class:

Science is not mythology, but it is often treated by the public at large as if it were mythology. Science Fiction then is the literature that deals directly with science as a mythic language.

Posted: Fri Mar 02, 2007 2:44 pm
by intrigued_scribe
Science and the various rules and concepts that accompany it definitely fit into SF in pervasive ways, especially where the more detailed workings are involved. Even so, though the intricacies often strengthen the foundation of the plot and make the premise all the more convincing, I agree that plot is the foremost factor.


Re: The science and the fiction in science fiction

Posted: Fri Mar 02, 2007 3:23 pm
by Windwalker
caliban wrote:I'll finish with the basic slogan from my class:

Science is not mythology, but it is often treated by the public at large as if it were mythology. Science Fiction then is the literature that deals directly with science as a mythic language.
Your whole post (its concluding statement in particular) has the sound of nails being hit squarely on the head. Science fiction unquestionably acts as mythology for many of its readers -- even religion, in extreme cases. This particular function may partially explain why SF mostly uses traditional storytelling modes.

For me personally, as biologist and perennial cultural outsider, the most fascinating thing is to explore and extrapolate how sentients respond to anything that requires a significant mental or emotional shift -- from Cro-Magnons interacting with Neanderthals, to humans digesting the heliocentric model (with all its implications), to meeting a non-human intelligence. I realize that these descriptions cut across defined genres, but I, too, am a contrary! (*laughs*)

You touched on the hot-button topic of the Other. In connection with it and as the other side of the coin to Chris' Fermi Paradox posts, I'm thinking of posting my Making Aliens essay on the blog.

Science, religion and paranormal abilities

Posted: Mon Mar 05, 2007 1:29 pm
by Windwalker
As a scientist and a writer, I come up constantly against the question of paranormal abilities, which invariably tie to the mind/body dualism, the issue of agency, theories of mind, etc.

The New York Times had a essay yesterday that touches on all these matters and presents a very good picture of where thinking stands right now. It also has a real-life counterpart of the Bene Gesserit ritual in Dune. The focus is on belief (broadly defined) as an evolutionary characteristic of our species. The essay is long, but well worth the reading:

Darwin's God

Biology in Science Fiction

Posted: Mon Jul 16, 2007 10:10 pm
by Walden2
Biology in Science Fiction

By Ken Newquist

Those who think aliens with wrinkled noses are an infuriatingly lazy approach to depicting the potential diversity of life in the universe will find a welcome home at Biology in Science Fiction.

The blog chronicles the intersections of speculative fiction and the life sciences, with recent posts invoking William Gibson in a conversation about how memories are stored in the brain, running down recommended summer reading from Science magazine and lamenting the lack of respect biologists get in the genre.

Updates are posted daily and feature a rich mix of news, books, movies, commentary and interviews. The site includes links to its most popular posts—such as the genetics of Heroes—as well links to various SF biology resources around the web. The combination makes the site perfect for those who like a little more science in their fiction, as well as biology fans seeking to keep up with the speculative aspects of their field.

Posted: Tue Jul 17, 2007 9:08 am
by Windwalker
This definitely looks like a blog to watch. I'll read it more carefully and get back with more specific comments. Thank you for noticing and mentioning it, Larry!

Posted: Mon Oct 29, 2007 5:10 pm
by Windwalker
I recently read an SF novel that attempts to seriously address the physiological/behavioral consequences of living on another planet, which is earth-like enough to allow unassisted breathing, etc. It's Hurricane Moon by Alexis Glynn Latner. Thrown in for good measure are politics, genetic engineering, stasis... and the characters are well-delineated.

This is the first book I recall that attempts to grapple with all these biological issues, which are usually ignored in most SF, both soft and hard. Not a perfect book by far, but truly worthwhile reading just for the attempt alone.

Posted: Wed Oct 31, 2007 8:38 pm
by Windwalker
BenBella is a small publishing house best known for its "Smart Pop" series (critiques of Firefly, Buffy, etc). Apparently, last fall they brought out Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time in which eight points about SW were debated in a prosecution/defense setting.

The major prosecutor was David Brin, the major defender (not surprisingly) Matt Stover. Interestingly, I touched on the eight points debated in the book on my own essay, but of course the book entries are much more detailed. Here is the Amazon site: SW on Trial