When it comes to writing science fiction, which is more important: the science or the fiction?
There’s often an uneasy relationship between sci/fi and science fact, and it can be a tricky asteroid field for the writer to navigate. Asteroid fields are a good example of this, actually: in books, films and games, spaceships are forever weaving through treacherous three-dimensional mazes of spinning rocks, typically to evade capture. Science, however, tells us that such fields are actually much more tenuous, with vast distances between each object. Zipping through a real asteroid field would be easy and probably quite dull, but where’s the fun in that? It’s much more exciting to have a ship dodging vast shards of deadly debris while the pursuing bad guys unleash beam-weapon death. Because, of course, one of the hunters will get it wrong and will crash into one of the asteroids. That’s just a law.
Science fiction, by its very nature, often simplifies and (over) dramatizes the physical reality of our universe. For many casual readers, this doesn’t matter a jot: what matters is the story. It isn’t a concern if the science is impossible, just as long as it’s consistent and used to convey an engrossing tale. So far as we know, it’s impossible for a ship to travel faster than the speed of light and remain intact, but limiting velocities to the light-barrier makes almost all of sci/fi unworkable. Does it matter? I’d say not: in science fiction, a sense of wonder and thrill is more important than being faithful to the truth (as we currently understand it).
At the same time, some writers put a lot of work into producing fiction that works firmly within the realms of scientific possibility. The genre has many devoted readers who have a very good understanding of real science, and who will very happily point out the flaws in a story if they’re there. I think that’s fair enough – if you know how astrophysics or biochemistry or computer science works, a story that breaks the rules of what’s possible is going to be annoying. Some writers work hard to produce books that an expert could happily read and enjoy, others aren’t so bothered. There’s surely room for both. Space, as Douglas Adams once pointed out, is big: “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” There’s room enough for all possible futures.
And, of course, the whole point of science is that it knows it doesn’t know all the answers. Its whole point is to come up with better models of reality by finding the flaws in the current ones. One day, FTL travel might be possible, and there are plenty of examples of scientists being inspired by science fiction. A book like Physics of the Impossible by the physicist Michio Kaku describes in detail how many of the tropes common in sci/fi are or might be possible one day. There’s a familiar quote, versions of which are ascribed to people as diverse as the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and the sci/fi writer Arthur C. Clarke: the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. Whatever the source of the line (it’s probably Haldane), the point is that the little word “can” gives sci/fi writers enormous scope to try and do exactly that: imagine something new, intriguing, wonderful, perhaps impossible. Worth doing for its own sake, but also because today’s impossible has a habit of becoming tomorrow’s possible.
And actually, I think it’s wrong to emphasise the tension between science fiction and fact as I’ve done above. The discoveries thrown up by science are very often the starting point for story ideas. The two feed off each other, but they are symbionts rather than parasites. To pick a trivial example, while researching some background information for my own Triple Stars trilogy, I came across a description of a blue dwarf star – something I’d never heard of. Blue dwarf stars are theoretical objects, and it is not possible for one to currently exist given the age of our universe. Reading that, I immediately knew I wanted to have one in my books – because, how did it come to exist? How is it possible? Those questions became fundamental to my story. A scientific discussion of the physics of blue dwarfs is not going to be much fun for the sci/fi reader, but a space opera set in a galaxy where such things exist because they’ve been engineered – that is (hopefully) fun.
For me, the whole point of sci/fi is that it has the capacity to put the readers into situations that are not possible in any other literary form. The sense of wonder that imbues books like Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go or Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels is unique to the genre. To take another example: minds that are far beyond the limits of small biological entities such as ourselves – be it intelligent starships or planets – are wonderful to read about, to become for a time. That is, literally, mind-expanding. Fantasy can do something similar (in different ways), but only in sci/fi is it possible to see the real universe through such marvellous eyes.
Always assuming, of course, that the entities in question even have eyes…