science for science fiction

The Weird and Beautiful Relationship Between Science and Science Fiction

Nature boasts some rather beautiful symbiotic relationships. There’s the honeyguide bird in Africa (of the family Indicatoridae), that leads humans to honey in return for beeswax. There’s the famous and intricate relationship between tropical clownfish and certain species of sea anemone that allow both to flourish.

And of course, there’s the mutually beneficial, enduring and brilliant love story between science and science fiction.

Now, at university I didn’t study creative writing or science. I studied law, international studies, history and politics. So someone who knows a lot more than me can probably wave around some official definitions that say I’m wrong. But academics aside, science and science fiction to me are inextricably bound together. For the better.

SCIENCE FICTION FOR SCIENCE

science fiction for science

Science comes from scientia, which comes from scire, Latin for ‘to know.’ A crucial part of what separates us from our Cro Magnon ancestors living on the plains is our inheritance of humanity’s slow and steady accumulation of knowledge. But by it’s nature, there is no end to that journey. All it takes is a contradictory test or a dead end that leads to nothing, and we’re left at the beginning with only the scientific method to help us start again. And that journey is a long, ceaseless, grinding one that can burn out good researchers and spit them out like crushed wheat.

Whatever one can say of science fiction, and however one defines it, I think that at its core science fiction takes the knowledge of science and then asks the question: what if? And that question – and the stories, characters and heart that leap from it – is all it takes to light the fire in the darkness and give a direction to a long, harsh journey. Neil Gaiman, literary rock god and author of books including American Gods and the Sandman comic series, offers a particularly compelling example:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

So arguably, science needs science fiction. It needs inspiration. It needs a guiding light. And the relationship is definitely not one-sided.

SCIENCE FOR SCIENCE FICTION

science for science fiction

Now, obviously, science fiction is nothing without science. The genre was born from science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the rightful fascination of that time with the connection between electricity and life. So aside from general inspiration, science and scientific accuracy arguably contributes an incredibly important foundation of science fiction: immersion.

Immersion

One of the primary laws of fiction is that it must be immersive. There’s a beautiful concept coined by John Gardner called ‘the fictive dream’, which is why all people read. When you offer a story to be read, you’re promising the reader that they will enter your fictive dream. Each sentence penned by an author is an extension of this contract, building a world (or worlds) and a story with its own inviolable rules and systems. One of the fastest ways to breach this contract, or at the very least jerk people out of the ‘fictive dream’ and reverie of reading, is to write something that the reader knows is scientifically inaccurate.

Now there’s a sliding scale to this, of course. I certainly can’t claim to be utterly scientifically accurate, and part of science fiction is taking strange leaps and bounds on inspired science anyway. Then there’s the minor embellishments for the sake of an awesome story. After all, let’s be honest, feathered dinosaurs aren’t nearly as scary, and I don’t care that there’s no sound in space when the Tie Fighters sound so freaking cool.

But it is important to be scientifically accurate where you can, otherwise your reader might be jerked out of immersion so often that they give up all together. So scientific accuracy is especially important at crucial points of fiction, including character motives and crisis points. The scale of importance ramps up particularly where the science is well known, and more and more readers will be jerked unpleasantly out of their fictive dream if you get the science wrong. Believe me, it’s not a pleasant experience. You may have felt it yourself. I know I certainly have. For example, once you know the basics of how DNA works, you find the entire premise of science fiction such as the book Allegiant problematic. And don’t get physicists started about Indiana Jones and the Lead Lined Fridge.

To be fair, my own writing suffers from this somewhat. I am by no means a ‘hard’ science fiction writer, although I did consult with my good friend, the soon to be Dr. Aaron Brice on my story The Soldier in Division: A Collection of Science Fiction Fairytales, on how the protagonist Tamun developed his super immune system. But I do try and take truth where I can find it. After all, as Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” And the best lies have a lot of truth hidden within them.

Inspiration

That’s not to discount the importance of general inspiration in world-building and story-building and even character-building. Steve Jobs has a lovely quote on this:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

It has been said that you cannot write without reading. I would add to that that you cannot write science fiction without reading and studying more science. Great science fiction connects real things and transmutes them from lead into gold. And science itself is fertile grounds, because science is beautifully, delightfully, brain-twistingly weird. I mean, look at what happens when you set Ammonium dichromate and mercury thiocyanate on fire (hint: it’s been called ‘The Gate of Hell’ and ‘Hell’s Kraken’).


With today’s incredible technology and brilliant researchers generating more weird, wonderful, destructive and lifesaving knowledge, Science is an exciting world just waiting to be explored for new ideas.

The Conference

Science fiction’s debt to science (and science’s debt to science fiction, for that matter), and my own love of both, is why I bit off more than I could chew last year and ran a Pozible campaign to sell my books and some of Australia’s best science fiction (in Aurealis, the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Orb Magazine) to raise money for the Royal Society of Victoria (RSV), a local organisation dedicated to promoting science and science education. It was an exhilarating, nailbiting, stressful period, and I can’t thank those of you who supported the campaign enough.

This year, I’m excited to see the RSV closing the circle and hosting its first Science for Science Fiction conference on 10 September 2017 (a Sunday) at their beautiful building in the Melbourne CBD. As The Age put it: “It’s probably the first Australian conference to bring together scientists and fiction writers for a look at life, the universe and everything, whether real or imagined.”

I’m counting down the days (and will write a post to share for those who can’t make it). There’s an incredible selection of speakers so far, ranging from researcher and science communicator George Aranda and SFF bookseller Justin Ackroyd to astrophysicist Dr. Alan Duffy to freelance creative producer and writer Kat Clay. I’m particularly looking forward to geneticist Sophia Frentz’s presentation on The Limits of Genetics, and Worldbuilding and Getting Published by authors, editors and publishers Michael Pryor and Dirk Strasser respectively.

You can have a look at the program here and get tickets here.

Hope to see you there!

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