Later this year, I've agreed to teach a workshop called "How Much Science Do You Need to Know to Write Science Fiction?" The class isn't until July, but it's never too early to start fleshing out the ideas I'll be covering.
I intend to cover some common strategies authors use when writing science fiction. The genre covers a lot of ground and can refer to stories built around very specific and mostly accurate science fiction facts to outright fantasies that are sprinkled with "science" jargon. Utterly debunked pseudoscience like telekinesis or precognition still gets treated as plausible. There's also a lot of faith that some science facts we are currently quite sure of will one day be overturned. No one is going to mock you for writing science fiction where faster than light travel is taken as a fact. It's respectable to pretend that we will one day travel to alien words where we can safely breathe the air. And, at least on screen, having humans and aliens interbreed is no big deal.
The sheer scope of science fiction means I should probably start my workshop by first defining the term. What is science fiction? I think there's a more important question that creates some of the problems with defining the genre. What is science?
It doesn't take a lot of research to realize that the definition of science means one thing in a dictionary and another in general usage.
Going to the old Miriam Webster, science has a topline definition of, "knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding." This speaks to the authoritative weight of science, but feels a bit broad. For instance, I probably have more knowledge of English Literature than the average person. Or, in another area where I have some quantitative data, there was a headline popping up on news sites not long ago about how most US citizens would fail a US Citizenship test. Fewer than 50% could name the three branches of government or explain the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. I took the sample citizenship test used for this survey online and scored 100%. I wouldn't describe myself as an expert, but think my knowledge of basic American civics would in no way be described as "ignorance and misunderstanding." Yet, I also think that very few people would call extensive knowledge of civics or literature or comic books (where I'm also pretty well educated) "scientific" knowledge.
Digging deeper into the dictionary, we arrive at this definition: "knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method." The scientific method isn't explained within the definition, and a lot of the definitions of this term online are somewhat wordy, so my condensed version is that the scientific method is a way of testing factual claims about the physical world that involves careful observation, the formulation of an explanation for these observations, the repeated testing of that explanation, and the willingness to toss out or modify explanations that are contradicted by new observations.
The transformative power of the scientific method when it comes to understanding the world around is profound. Before this was adopted as a standard of knowledge, the world was mostly comprehended via myth, superstition, and dogma. Dogma is knowledge handed down by an unquestionable authority. A king or a priest would declare something to be true and, for anyone subject to their authority, it had to be treated as true. In most of Europe for over a thousand years it was true that man had been created by God, that kings ruled via divine will, and that the Earth was stationary with the sun, moon, and stars moving around it. Men were mortal and women experienced pain in childbirth due to punishment for the sins of the first man and woman. People who had fits or suffered from mental illnesses were plagued by demons.
And, whatever it's connection to mental illness may be, the ultimate appeal to authority was to claim that you got your information firsthand from God. This was such a successful tactic that it shaped human history with far more reach and far more force than any king or empire of kings could match.
Of course, even before the scientific method arose, dogma had competition: Reason. The Greeks gave the world a method of deciding truth via argument, with premise after premise leading to inevitable conclusions. Reality was an extension of the mind, since the mind was ultimately the only tool we had for knowing the world. If the world existed primarily in our thoughts, it must be possible to arrive at truth purely by thinking about it, and reason provided an excellent canvas on which men could paint the image of reality. Unfortunately, a beautiful as a reality of pure reason might seem, time and again it led men to believe in things that had no true underpinning in the real world. As it happens, reality is under no obligation to be reasonable.
The important difference between knowledge handed down as dogma, or built upon a foundation of pure reason, and knowledge arrived at via the scientific method, is that dogma and reason have no need to put their "facts" built upon any sort of evidence. Who told you the facts, or the beautiful logic behind the facts, was more important than the facts being, you know, factual.
Science as understood by popular culture looks very much like a list of facts handed down by authorities. And, of course, science does have authorities. But, when Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection people didn't accept it because he was an expert. They paid attention because he had evidence. His evidence was documented in meticulous, even tedious detail, and was available for anyone to study for themselves. His theory wasn't presented with the hope that no one would challenge his evidence or conclusions. Instead, it was put forward into an scientific culture where every aspect of his theory and his evidence would be examined. People who found his ideas suspect were free to do their best to refute both his premises and his conclusions.
This is still the heart of good science. Every claim gets examined, all evidence is publicly available. Sometimes, theories are so firmly established that they seem like dogma. I've had arguments with people who think that the theory of evolution is just an alternative religion, taken as faith and impervious to evidence that refutes it. In reality, elements of evolution are modified continuously as new evidence gets uncovered. Many alternatives to natural selection have been proposed, and all come up short when tested by the real world. The Soviets rejected natural selection for an evolutionary theory known a Lysenkoism and based their agriculture around it. This bad evolutionary theory wound up contributing to famines that killed tens of millions.
At least Lysenkoism was put to a brutal, real world test, and eventually rejected. The current popular competing "theory" of "intelligent design" fails as science because it makes no predictions that can be tested. You couldn't build an agricultural program around it, because it has no theory about how organisms change other than that some higher intelligence tweaks things from time to time. When this designer makes changes, why he makes changes, how he makes changes, where he makes changes... unknown. Unknowable. And thus--even if it was absolutely true--completely useless as a tool for understanding life.
In contrast, natural selection makes predictions about what will happen to bacteria exposed to antibiotics. It gives us ideas of how insects might respond if we keep using the same pesticides on crops year after year. It makes large scale predictions about how flora and fauna will change over time as their environment changes. Importantly, if these predictions turned out to be wrong, scientists would change their theories. Even if the predictions were confirmed, if new theory came along that made better predictions, the old theory would be abandoned or modified. Dogma, authority, and beautiful arguments all get ground to dust beneath the wheels of actual, repeatable, verifiable observations.
Don't believe this? Every advance in science starts with an admission that the best previous explanation wasn't quite right. There would be no science at all without scientists ability to utter the words, "We were wrong." If a politician or priest says, "We were wrong," it's normally with a great deal of embarrassment. When scientists say, "We were wrong," it's often in a tone of celebration and awe. Newton's laws of gravity reigned until they were replaced by Einstein's theories. A "tree of life" derived from the study of bones reigned until it was redrawn by genetic evidence. There was a time people reported spotting a planet closer to the sun that Mercury, known as Vulcan. Multiple lines of evidence "proved" its existence. Then, thanks to Einstein's equations explaining Mercury's orbit better than Newton's had, the Vulcan required by the old physics vanished.
While you won't find this in any dictionary, I think that the best, short, definition of science is this: Science is the intellectual knife we use to carve reality free from the thicket of the unreal. Science isn't the only tool in mankind's toolbox when it comes to understanding the world. Art, religion, emotion and pure animal instinct all have roles to play in defining who we are as humans. But science explains our existence in both galactic scales and microscopic scales. It explains our ancient and recent past and hints at possible and probable futures. It helps us understand where we came from, who we are, and who we might hope to be.
Still, sometimes the other tools in the toolbox we use to describe the world are better at describing the human experience than pure science. As a novelist, I think there are truths both grand and subtle that are better examined in works of fiction, things that no telescope or microscope will help us understand. Science fiction is where the tools of science and the tools of art come together to create something wondrous.
Fairy tales have enduring power, existing in every culture in the world, and so beloved by children that it's possible that we've somehow evolved to need these stories to comprehend the world. Fairy tales explain morals and ethics and human character all why evoking a sense of wonder and magic.
Now take these fairy tales and, instead of building upon a foundation of magic, reimagine them on the foundation of wondrous reality. As a child, this to me always seemed like the true appeal of science fiction. I knew that stories of fairy kingdoms and gingerbread men and flying carpets were pure myth. But stories of spaceships and intelligent robots and distant planets--these things could plausibly exist. For me, it was an important distinction. It was entertaining to read about things that could never be. But to read about things that might be true, or that might one day become true, was more than entertaining. It was thrilling; it was inspirational. I still get that reaction from good science fiction, a feeling that I'm catching a glimpse of a something that's a perfect blend of imagination and fact. And while I'm capable of enjoying stories that are works of pure fantasy, I still experience a degree of awe when I find myself immersed in good science fiction.
So, how much science fiction do you need to know to write science fiction? All of it! Well, quite a bit of it. Okay, some. At least a little. Hardly any at all, if you're brazen or bold enough. I believe the better you understand science, the better you'll write science fiction, but, more importantly, the better you understand fiction, the better you'll write science fiction. Sometimes, you'll need to trade away good science in order to grab the prize of a good story. But, even when you're bending science to your will, you can do so in a way that is respectful to the underlying truth. Explaining how to do this is going to take some time. I'll be expanding on this topic in future posts in this series. Stay tuned.
Welcome to my worlds!
I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!