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!

Monday, March 18, 2019

How Much Science Do You Need to Know to Write Science Fiction? Part Two: The Hard Stuff!

Science fiction has its subgenres, and one of the most respected subgenres is "hard science fiction." The term arose during the 50s as a way of dividing stories based on "hard" science like orbital mechanics from stories relying on "soft" sciences like sociology. (Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 would be soft science fiction. The world he portrays has a few technological innovations like fireproof houses and full wall televisions, but the plot of the story is built mostly around a societal change as reading gets branded as a dangerous activity... which, in fairness, it can be). The term also became a sort of filter to divide the wheat from the chaff in the genre. Science fiction had been popularized in pulp magazine and B-movies and any reasonable critic of the genre couldn't help but notice that a lot of tales labeled as science fiction were written by people who really didn't know much about science.

It's perhaps unfair to bring comic books into this, but the Golden Age Wonder Woman once fought invaders from Mars by riding a kangaroo into space. Don't panic, that last sentence isn't evidence that I've suffered a stroke while writing this paragraph. Space kangaroos happened. In fairness, they were very large kangaroos, and they could jump from asteroid to asteroid in outer space and... okay, look, let's not waste time thinking too much about this. At least the writers were aware that there were asteroids in outer space. Kangaroos in space were the sort of imaginative elements that could make science fiction exciting, but also made it difficult to take the stories seriously. Some science fiction authors wanted their stories as educational and explanatory, and hoped that readers might come away from their work knowing a little more about the way the world worked than they did before they read the story. Stories about space kangaroos muddied the waters and made it difficult for the general public to tell which of the fanciful notions being discussed in science fiction were plausible and which were mere fantasy.

In fairness, science fiction in the pulp era had more room to expand into the vague, gray areas of the slightly plausible. In 1920, life on Mars hadn't been ruled out, and telescopes were still fuzzy enough that features of the Martian terrain could maybe, possibly, be seen as structures built by ancient civilizations. Beneath the opaque clouds of Venus, why shouldn't there be rain forests? It was known that electricity could make the limbs of a corpse move. Why couldn't you electrify a living brain and become a superthinker? Physics in that era seemed to be in a state of constant churn, with new particles and rays being discovered every year. Why weren't tank mounted deathrays just around the corner? New elements were still being found. Why couldn't the next one be a miracle element, with the power to do just about anything the author imagined? Need an invulnerable hero? Element X! Need fuel for your jet belt? Element X!

Eventually, all this speculation came to dominate the genre. It knocked loose any feeble hold on respectability the genre may have gained from authors like Jules Vernes and H G Wells. The majority of people writing for pulp magazines were, obviously, pulp writers. Actual scientists could find real work. Pulp writers had a business model built around cranking out entertainment as fast as humanly possible. Tentacled aliens menacing Earth women sold magazines just as well (and probably better) than more serious examinations of what actual spacefarers might look like and what they might want.

The label "hard" applied to science fiction indicated a serious attempt by the author to strike out the sillier aspects of the genre and write about technologies and scientific principals that could stand up to scrutiny. A story I regard as a primary example of this genre is "The Cold Equations," by Tom Goodwin. In this story, a spaceship with medical supplies has been dispatched to a frontier planet desperately in need of them. A girl stows away aboard the ship to travel to the planet to be reunited with her brother. Alas, when she's discovered, the pilot explains that her added weight will doom the mission. The ship carries precisely enough fuel to land the ship with the expected cargo, and the addition of her weight will cause the ship to crash, dooming the colonists. To save the mission, the girl leaps from the airlock to perish in interplanetary space. We say of doing things that are easy, "it ain't rocket science." This story is literally rocket science. Which isn't to argue that it's a perfect story. The idea that interplanetary ships wouldn't have been engineered with enough margin of error to account for the relatively modest weight of a single girl is a bit hard to swallow, as is the idea that nothing else on the ship could have been jettisoned to save the mission. But, as the title hints, the heart of this story wasn't the girl or the pilot. It was the equations.

More recently, The Martian by Andy Weir takes pains to make a story of survival on Mars scientifically plausible. There are critics of the work who can point out gaps in the science, but that doesn't detract from the fact that the novel works in large part because the underlying science feels well researched and well thought out.

The important word in that last sentence for any would be writer is "feels." Ultimately, if your goal is to educate people on scientific principals with 100% accuracy, you should be writing textbooks. What a good author is aiming for is drama. People are presented with difficult challenges, and they overcome these challenges, or the challenges defeat them. If the challenges or the solutions involve real scientific concepts and technologies that can be extrapolated from known scientific principles, this can give the drama an extra layer of weight. The reader feels like, "this can really happen!" And, by explaining a real scientific concept or plausible technology, the author can possibly inspire inquisitive readers to delve into the subjects more deeply.

There are hundreds of objections that can be raised to the science in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.  That doesn't undercut the fact that the books (and subsequent movies) have inspired people to learn more about dinosaurs and genetics. The book also had some interesting bits of biology drawn from the real world, such as the fact that there are species where members can change sex based on environmental conditions. The fact that Crichton explains genetic engineering even with big gaps and inaccuracies makes the book feel plausible. A reader can imagine this actually coming true.

There's an art to meshing the right explanation with the big thing you want to do in a book. Dinosaurs=DNA was a good fit. If Crichton had said that the dinosaurs were being plucked from the past via wormholes, this would have been harder to swallow, but still vaguely believable. We can't actually create wormholes to study, but pretty much all physicists agree that wormholes must exist in our reality, and any tunnel through space is also a tunnel through time. A time travel explanation would feel more speculative, but most readers would probably shrug and move on to the good bits about dinosaurs devouring people.

If Crichton had said that the dinosaurs had been discovered still surviving on an island in the Pacific, and compared their rediscovery to that of the coelacanth, plausibility would have been stretched further. In 1920, maybe an island could still be hidden. It's a big ocean, and ships and airplanes might plausibly have missed something. But by the time the book was written we had photographs of the globe from space. An island big enough to hold dinosaurs would have been spotted. It's not completely impossible if it was a very limited number of smaller dinosaur species, but still feels pretty lame.

Finally, Crichton could have just abandoned any pretense at a scientific explanation. The dinosaurs came into our world by the power of magic. The park organizers hired a coven of witches to chant over a cauldron and summon the creatures through the mists of time. Pretty much no one would have taken this seriously. It just doesn't feel right.

On the other hand, the coven of witches summoning vampires into the world, or raising an army of zombies doesn't feel off to most people. But, vampires are a mystical problem, so a mystical source for the problem works. Dinosaurs are found in museums. People with PhDs write about them in respectable journals. They aren't figments of imagination, so to write about them plausibly requires that the author demonstrate some authority on the underlying facts.

How do you get this authority? The hard way. Do some damned research. But, the important thing to understand is that the best science fiction isn't researched after you get the idea for a story. Instead, if you want to write science fiction, especially hard science fiction, you need to be learning this stuff years before you start typing. The libraries of the world are full of books explaining the various disciplines of science in language that laymen can grasp. In my novel Dragonforge, I talk a lot about the genetic hoops the sky-dragons have had to jump through in order to survive as a species while starting from a very small pool of breeding individuals. I didn't come up with this idea then go back and research it. I instead took inspiration from things I'd already read about actual real world attempts to save species from extinction after the number of members of that species has dwindled into the hundreds, or even the dozens.

For another example, when I was deciding how big my dragons should be and still be able to fly, I didn't just make up a number, nor did I have to sit down and work out a lot of math to figure out the surface area of the wings versus the total weight of the body. I didn't dig into the fine tuning of lung capacity or the type of jaws they'd need in order to have the most efficient diets to support a high calorie lifestyle of flight. Instead, things I'd read years before gave me good guidance for dragon wings because I knew just how big pterosaurs had gotten. I didn't need to do my math to make dragon flight plausible. I can just point to the fossil record as proof that huge animals can, in fact, get into the air.

If you want to write hard science fiction, my best advice is to never stop researching. Constantly map your ignorance, then strive to correct it. Pick something that already interests you then chase down all the ideas that spin of from it. My own interests began with a strong curiosity about evolution. Once you start studying evolution, you start learning about geology, and start thinking in very long time spans. Understanding the origins of life leads you to reading about the origins of our planet, and the formation of stars, and the role the moon has likely played in making Earth habitable. Evolution also led me into mysteries of the human body. Why aren't we as hairy as most of our fellow primates? Why are our arms and jaws so much weaker? There's also aspects of human behavior that look suspiciously similar to chimp behavior, which gives me a different perspective on some human customs and cultures, and made me want to read up on differences among human societies to see what behaviors are truly universal. A lot of the things I learn wind up making their way into what I write.

In the end, there's no half-assing it. If you want to write "hard" science fiction, you need to stay curious and continue studying. You need to have the capacity to feel excitement when you catch glimpses of things you don't know about, and stay hungry to chase down every new bit of information you can. Then, when you do write science fiction, don't write with the goal of showing off your mastery of the subject, but instead write the story you want to write with the confidence that you've done your homework. Each novel is a test, and readers will give a pass/fail grade on whether they stayed connected and engaged with your world. Getting the science right will help you pass that test. 

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