Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The art of pseudo-science

So you want to write a SF romance.
But you are no scientist. You are an author. The story is buzzing in your head, threatening to split it, the characters are alive and grumbling at you to let them out to play.
But the science???
Welcome to the SF writer's nightmare.
Where I am stuck right now.I am no geneticist, but I want to write about cloning and its ethics, its consequences, its limitations, and how it affects people's lives in my story.
But is a bone enough to reconstruct the DNA - or is a frozen tissue sample needed? If the reconstructed DNA is inserted in a modern human ovum, is it cloning? is it reconstructing? is it something else?
Will the readers know all this or not? As soon as the readers began doubting the truth of the science, the story is labeled as "paranormal". That wouldn't bother me - hey, I write paranormal! I love it!
But I also want to write SF. I want it to be separate from magic. I want a scientific-sounding explanation.
The books of the Anita Blake series are labeled as paranormal even if she treats vampirism and lycanthropy as diseases - infections which can be treated to a point and cured or transmitted to others.
So what are the limits of SF? Is something that isn't entirely explained in scientific terms and/or with the knowledge we have of science right now (and the speculations for the near future) not SF but paranormal?
I was just wondering, and wondering if you face such dilemmas too. :-)

13 comments:

  1. Research is important for getting the details right. There are books and other resources out there that can help you with the details of cloning or designing spaceships that follow the rules of science.

    I think the farther out you go into the future, the more freedom you have with the science. But some things may never be scientifically possible. I recommend the book Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku for a discussion of what's possible now, what may become possible in the future, and what may never be possbile.

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  2. I dislike books that depend on SF tropes entirely for the science part of the fiction. I think you need one good solid extrapolation from current science.

    Since your story is dependent on the DNA cloning, then you'll certainly need to make it believable. I love to see Afterwords or even an appendix with a brief discussion on the current science with a couple of good references that support what you're doing with it in your story.

    Research is fun. Writing is hard.

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  3. Thanks Sandra and Marva! I will check out that book, Sandra, it sounds interesting! I try to read widely, I am a subscriber to Scientific American and do as much research as possible before writing. But inevitably there are things that will belong to the realm of fiction.
    Marva, you are right: writing is hard - but just as fun as the research!

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  4. My opinion is that you can rest assured there WILL be at least one reader somewhere who will know if you got it wrong. It may be that they were attracted to your book because they like the subject of cloning.

    That said, I don't think the science has to be textbook perfect. Like Marva said, extrapolation is a good thing--but to extrapolate you have to understand what you're extrapolating or it won't be realistic.

    And, that said, don't spend a year researching either. I can't remember which famous SF author is was (Asmiov?) who said not to say too much about how things work in the story.

    Research so you know what you're talking about but only give as many details as are necessary to make it believable and understandable to someone who has no idea what you're talking about.

    Call me a geek but I tend to go to some of the fanfic bb sites and look for the science threads where I can ask questions. I had a question once about what type of impact would make a geosynchronous orbiting sattelite appear to swing like a pendulum to a person on the planet below. They jumped at the chance to explain all the math and theory. LOL. It was fun. (That was an Andromeda board.)

    I believe there are yahoo groups that have people who'll answer questions about things like science, police work, CSI work, etc. Don't be afraid to ask around for answers.

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  5. I think you have hit on one of the important things in SF. Asking not just if we can do something but if we should and what are the ramifications. These questionshave long been the playground for science fiction.

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  6. Yes! Not can we, for surely given enough time, we can, but should we - therein lies the question.

    Solid science background is a must, but that doesn't mean you need a PhD in physics. The glorious part about SF is that we don't need to be bound by what is but what could be. Read the research and take the next jump.

    And while you're jumping, don't be afraid of the local university for fact checking when you need it...

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  7. ^^ I agree! I like it when an author uses real world science (and sometimes current breakthroughs) to show that they did enough research to back up the scientific aspects of the story. It's fun (and can sometimes lead to interesting story twists from my experience), it adds a bit of reality to the world building and it may teach the reader a little something interesting they didn't know before. :-)

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  8. Hi Jay - Just jumping in here to say that this is a really interesting question and I think all the replies have a lot of merit (Anna I think Isaac Asimov said something like 'show what it does, but don't try to explain how it does it', and I think that's really great advice.) I use cloning in my story 'Starquest' and although I did a fair bit of research I only give a few hints as to the process, enough, I hope, to add a bit of authenticity to the story line. I also hint at the moral implications and how some cultures might be horrified by the concept and others look upon it as being as acceptable as, say, a kidney implant. I think the main thing is to research, find out as much about the subject as you can, and then use no more than absolutely necessary to the telling of the story. The fact you know a lot about the subject will come through, even if you only use a fraction of what you've l
    earnt.

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  9. Thanks, Hywela. That's the quote I was thinking of.

    Jay, one thing to keep in mind is that many readers pick up SFR because they think the science is fun. If I didn't read in part for the science I'd be reading contemporary or fantasy romance or something.

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  10. Great comments, everyone! I think you all have the right idea (and Asimov is the best role model there is, here), that there must be a balance between the science and the story. There is a core of SF readers out there that get off on all the details of the technology, but if we as SF romance writers follow them down that rabbithole (or wormhole), we'll certainly lose the romance readers we hope to woo. To me, the science in an SFR novel should be seamless and unobtrusive--like a phone is in this day and time. You pick it up, you make the call. No one has to spend five pages explaining how it works. The implications of the phone call are what we care about. It just so happens I address some of this over at Spacefreighters Lounge this week in a blog titled "We Love Our Bad Science." Synchronicity!

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  11. I think it's fine to work with a basic understanding of science and the scientific process. After that it's fun to fill in the details with a bit of research. It's great fun finding people with the information I'm looking for. It's like a scavenger hunt. Often these people are delighted to talk about a their favorite subjects. It works best for me to approach such people in a casual manner. If they feel buttonholed as an expert they kind of freeze up or get to technical.
    I find it helps to use drawings and models. Then we can point to things in the drawing or on the model without me getting confused by technical jargon.
    Some models that I use are quite simple, a piece of rope, a folded mapkin. It my story I work with telecommunications and with maritime technology. I keep a bunch of questions in mind that I need answers for. When I meet up with someone who might know I bring out my questions. I've also gotten good answers from people on forums and yahoo groups related to a particular subject. I love what the research does to my writting. Some of my best love scenes come from me trying to figure out how the technology works. The technology suggests and inspires ideas for the romance, actions scenes, and character development.

    I have noticed that if a science-fiction story uses paranormal tropes it is seen as paranormal regardless of how well the science is handled.Sad but true.
    I write the type of SFR that will be on the SF shelf. To me science and technology are of central importance. I write speculative fiction, imagining a piece of technology and then speculating on how that technology affects a romantic couple. Take the technology out and the story falls appart because there is no longer any speculation driving it.
    Without the speculation, it's just two people making out and that is as old as Adam and Eve.

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  12. Fabulous discussion, everyone.

    My own modus operandi in developing the SF in SFR is to take a grain of scientific fact and apply a liberal dose of imagination. After all, isn't that how most great discoveries are made, like when Newton saw the apple fall and started thinking about the 'what if' of it?

    By taking what's known and asking myself, "OK, if A is a given, what if in the future we could do (invent, utilize) X, Y and/or Z?" Looking at how that might affect characters, relationships, politics, society, and/or the universe, a story idea begins to take shape in my head.

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