Thursday, April 22, 2010

Science in Science Fiction

There are a lot of varieties in science fiction stories, but one of the subgenres that interests me focuses on the use of a specific technology or science as a plot device. I’ve sometimes heard these stories referred to as “science fact”. If we attempt to write such a story, I think there are some things to keep in mind.

If we’re writing a technology story, we should have some understanding of how this technology works. We may not need to give intricate details about its inner workings, but it seems lazy (and lends to implausibility) to just say, “Of course it works.” The assumption of futuristic technology that simply works might slide past the reader more easily if it’s a device common to other stories, such as time travel. If we use a common device, though, I think it’s nearly impossible to use the device as the main plot point without writing a clich├ęd story. The nice thing about futuristic technology is that we can use a lot of creativity in how such devices function, even if they employ far-fetched theories. Readers will feel more secure if we at least allude to some of the principles involved with the device. For example, imagine that if Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” had simply employed a magic box that made dinosaur eggs; that’s not nearly as believable as extracting DNA from fossilized mosquitoes.

For science stories, details should become much more factual. If a story is set on the moon, for example, the facts about lower gravity or tidal locking might come into effect. If a story involves physics, we should research the kind of physics we’re employing. Guessing is a terrible idea because it makes a story look foolish or sophomoric. As a software developer, I’m especially picky about stories that involve programs or code, and I can tell when a writer doesn’t know what he or she is writing about. We want readers to laugh with us, not at us.

We shouldn’t think that because we’re writing science fiction we no longer need to write what we know. Science fiction is actually a very challenging genre to write because of the research it takes along with the normal necessities for a good story, such as characters, plot, setting and pacing. It’s a lot to juggle.

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