Monday, March 24, 2014

Ruled by Cool: How Much Science is Too Much?

Hello hello!

So, a quick post today. As some of you will know, I'm an editor as well as a sci fi writer, and that means that I fix a lot of errors. But, being a writer, I also make them.

I've been watching Mythbusters a lot lately. Unfortunately, I don't spend my days firing guns, breaking down doors, fending off wild jellyfish, etcetera, so my understanding of how to do these things is impaired. And Hollywood certainly doesn't help. Did you know, for instance, that bullets don't ricochet and produce sparks? Sure, they do ricochet, but--as frequent readers of may also know--they certainly aren't as fatal as advertised, either. In movies, TV, and a lot of books, one shot means you die.

But what about science fiction? We often talk about matter transporters, Faster Than Light (FTL) travel, fast-growth cloning, and other semi-realistic and sometimes purely fictional technologies. (Yes, I know cloning is real, but we haven't cloned any humans and we haven't sorted out that pesky issue of the telomeres yet.) So when it comes to the little details, do we follow the 'Rule of Cool' (doing whatever seems coolest) or do we try our best to create something realistic? There's a few approaches to this, which I'll outline below.

Approach 1: Whatever is The Coolest

This is what it says on the tin. Ricocheting spark-bullets? Diving through suspiciously close asteroid belts? Ignoring side-effects of a drug treatment? Convenient amnesia? Arguably, this is sloppy writing, but it's also within most readers' comfort zones and is often easy to picture. As well, most readers won't be experts, and most who are will recognize the value of entertainment rather than something that's, well, more rigorous in intent. However, some readers are annoyed by this, and too many scientific errors or historical anachronisms will bounce you right out of a story.

Approach 2: Scientific Rigour

Jack McDevitt stands out as an author who follows this; Charles Sheffield, too. It characterizes a lot of Golden-Age sci fi, but not the pulp sci fi (which tends to follow Approach 1). This is more realistic, and that can be nice, but it can also be bogged down by exposition. Sometimes it's also a bit inaccessible. After all, not all of us who write sci fi are teachers or astronomers. It also involves a lot of research. However, 'getting it right' is really satisfying, and readers often compliment it.

Most sci fi falls into the middle, but there's a skew towards each end. Personally, I think that due to the lack of scientific education, we should be aiming a bit more towards Approach 2, but modifying it. Really, it's okay to have space be silent and sacrifice sparkly bullets and deal with injuries realistically. The thing about Approach 1 is that it arguably makes a story too easy for the characters. Consider Starship Troopers, which is intentionally a satire, and which makes use of Approach 1 very heavily. Consider Alien instead, which was a bit more realistic, and much more difficult for characters to survive.

It's a matter of taste, but consider doing your research very thoroughly before your next story--question the little stuff, too, not just the location of the nearest habitable moon or planet. How would doors work? You don't have to--and shouldn't--explain everything, but a little realism can go a long way.

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


  1. Excellent points! I try to keep my science realistic, but without expecting readers to be scientific experts or weighing the story down too much. I expect a few basic things to be adhered to, like gravity. But my biggest bugbear is inconsistency.

  2. Great title, and thanks for posting on this topic. I tend to love the stories where the writer has done his or her research and then applied a liberal dose of imagination.

    One of my biggest pet peeves in SFR? Authors who don't know difference between a solar system and a galaxy or confuse terms like intergalactic and interstellar. Writers of SFR certainly don't need a science degree to create believable world--or universe--building, but if the story is set in space, a basic understanding of astrophysics is a must.

  3. Delightful! I'm so happy you guys liked this. But yeah, I think you kinda need to understand science to write science fiction. It's okay to start off with ignorance or slip up, but the science is really important! It can bounce your audience right out. And really, you don't have to do all the math to understand and appreciate astrophysics at a good enough level.


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