January 09, 2009

Science and Fiction--Writers Respond #3

Here we continue on in our look at the relationship between science and science fiction (see my posts here and here and Peggy's here and here). Today's question for science fiction writers:

How important is it to you that the science be right? What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?

As always, the full list of respondents is on the ScienceOnline09 conference wiki, and all the answers are worth reading in their entirety.

There was a very wide range of opinion among writers about the importance of accuracy in the science. Some felt it was paramount.

The science has to be right. Science our best determination of how the universe works, and has certainly outlined many ways in which it doesn’t work. Getting it wrong is the same as getting anything fundamental wrong in a story, like misplacing New York City in Iowa, or having Brazilians speaking Spanish rather than Portuguese. If it’s wrong, you are too ignorant of the world to write about it correctly.
--Mike Brotherton

Science must not only be right it should be rightly put forth also .Otherwise there are chances that it may transgress the limits of sensibility/rationality and may plunge into the realms of pseudo science.
--Arvind Mishra @ Science Fiction in India

For my own science fiction work, paralyzingly so.
--Kelly McCullough @ Wyrdsmiths

It’s vital that the science be right, and I research it exhaustively, all the more so as I’m not a professional scientist. Sometimes you get to the point where you just have to speculate, of course, but the question is how far you can inch your way forward before you have to take that leap. . . .
--David J. Williams @ The Mirrored Heavens

For others, it wasn't quite as much a priority.

I wouldn't knowingly leave an error in the books, and I do check whatever I can. For example, I had a scene where a robot is trapped in a vacuum at a distance from its spaceship, and uses a gas cylinder to push himself back to safety. I just wasn't sure how to research that one. Then, a couple of weeks ago I saw an old Jon Pertwee episode of Doctor Who where he pulled the exact same stunt, so now I can point to that and say 'hey, they thought it would work too ...'

Not that I'm going to claim Doctor Who as my one and only resource ...
--Simon Haynes @ Spacejock News

I've been reading every magazine I can get my hands on for general idea conglomeration, because far-future large-scale SF sort of makes science debatable. How can you predict tens of thousands of years in the future? Just fling everything together and go crazy. :D

This flippant attitude is probably part of the reason I haven't been able to create a decent SF story yet.
--JesterJoker @ Sa Souvraya Niende Misain Ye

Most writers, though, thought accuracy was important but second in priority to the needs of the story.

To me getting the science right is not that important, but a reasonable check should be done by any author wanting to right a science fiction story. But once again the story needs to dictate what and how things happen; for instance, if a character needs to travel to the asteroid belt in a certain amount of time, I’ll calculate if it’s possible to travel in the allotted time by a legitimate propulsion system, just to give credence to the story. But I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the propulsion system, speeds, and artificial gravity or relativistic affects, unless they are important to the story.
--Robert Evans @ SciFiWriter

There is some poetic license, but for the most part, the closer to accurate science you get the more reliable your extrapolations will appear to the reader. If you’re sloppy about your science, then you might be sloppy in your observations about people and your story may suffer as a result.
--Nina Munteanu @ The Alien Next Door

Getting the science right is important. But no more important than getting the characters, the personalities, the personal stories and the details of plot right.
--David Brin

To me getting the science right is not that important, but a reasonable check should be done by any author wanting to right a science fiction story. But once again the story needs to dictate what and how things happen...

What those that are in the science and research fields need to take away from science fiction is the sense of imagination. Science fiction is not meant to be an easy to read text book for physics. It is to tell a story and initiate imagination.
--Robert Evans @ SciFiWriter

More important than it should be; my formal training has left me scarred with the usual need to cover my ass against nitpickers and professional rivals. That said, though, I think too strict an adherence to the known scientific state-of-the-art is a straitjacket that constrains the imagination. There's a reason they call it science fiction; to keep all your stories within the realm of today's established science is to suggest that there are no more breakthroughs to be made, that we pretty much know everything already. That's a profoundly antiscientific attitude.
--Peter Watts

...I do think it's important to be pretty faithful to science. I don't think you have to be a zealot about it, though. We have to remember how quickly science can change in this world. Not too long ago everyone was telling us that the whole panspermia thing was a load of crap. Now a lot of folks aren't so sure. Same with the exoplanet thing. Science changes, so there's nothing wrong with taking a few liberties here or there as long as they try to keep with the general truth of things. When it comes to the basics, though, I think one should stick with what is accurate. Physics should still work in one's science fiction story.
Shaun Duke @ The World in the Satin Bag

This is a question that I'd answer very differently on a case-by-case basis. In the end I owe my loyalty to the story -- but I've got a whole mess of scrapped fiction where an inability to make the science work with the fiction led me to abandon a piece.


But in the end, my feeling is the more accurate the better. Given two stories of comparable literary value I will strongly prefer one over the other if it has accurate scientific content.
--Sean Craven @ Renaissance Oaf

Most of the writers use a variety of resources for scientific information, online and personal. The greatest differences seemed to be among opinions of Wikipedia, which proves that writers do have something in common with the rest of the world.

I can access pretty much any scientific journal I want, thanks to some connections in the University community. Also I get telepathic messages from my cats.
--Peter Watts

I use a wide variety of resources ranging from a personal library to the internet -- and no matter what I do I'll always feel guilty for not having done more research. What's really thrilling is that scientists are frequently very generous with their time and advice -- and you can track them down on the internet. When I was working on a film script set in the Jurassic I received a great deal of advice from working paleontologists -- and it was great to see them argue with one another over such issues as whether cabeza de sauropod was a good taco filling.
--Sean Craven

When I need to check accuracy I tap the rather large academic network of scientists that I've developed through my wife and my own work in science education as well as various online resources and an extensive personal science library.
--Kelly McCullough

For me, when I write about science-rich topics, I have it easy. Easier than most, anyway. I have degrees in physics, electrical engineering, and a PhD in astronomy. I have a lot of basic knowledge and assimilate new findings quickly. I can read the scientific journals on the latest findings if I have too. Still, basic resources are usually more valuable and useful as a writer. I’ve compiled some resources that I use: the Hard SF Writer’s Bookshelf and Online Astronomy Resources for Writers, for instance. When I need to learn some science for a story outside my expertise, I will usually start with online resources like wikipedia, which continues to improve in breadth and quality. If I need to know things more in depth, I usually identify a popular science book that covers the topic and read it. I have a lot of contacts with other science fiction writers, and networking can put me in contact with someone who can answer my questions (I wind up helping other writers when it comes to astronomy).
--Mike Brotherton

My number one resource is the web in order to check the accuracy of my work. If I can’t prove what I want, and my assumption is turning in to being a science fantasy then I leave it at that.
--Robert Evans

I use a lot of resources: anything from Google and Wikipedia to text books and scientific journals in the local library. I frequently read the popular science magazines to keep abreast of what’s new (e.g., Scientific American, Discover, etc.). I’ve gotten several short story ideas from an article in one of these.
--Nina Munteanu

As for resources, I find that Google is enormously helpful for finding accurate information. But you have to be careful. Wikipedia is a great way to be misinformed. I know this first hand as a student. Wiki is often wrong and the problem with Wiki is that other sites now cite it as if it were a legit source. It's not. The best places to find out things, such as different aspects of science, are university websites or actual science websites. They're easy to find and there are hundreds of them, if not thousands. Another thing to do is to ask people who would know (mainly for things that are a bit complicated and very specific).
--Shaun Duke

David Brin, however, uses my favorite method.

I find that it is easy to get expert opinions from top scientists, for the cost of some pizza and beer.

For my own work, I agree with those who believe that whatever a writer can get right should be right. However, because much of what I write is social science fiction and because if we could predict where science will take us, we wouldn't need to do the science, I'm willing to take some leaps. I do try, though, to either give an idea of how unlikely we consider something to be (alien races that can communicate effectively with humans) or to avoid giving any explanation that would make things seem plausible in the universe as we know it (interstellar travel).

For resources, I've used all of those listed by the other writers: internet, reference books, journals, pop sci magazines, my own science education, bribing scientists to wax enthusiastic about the details. That last one really is one of the perks of writing SF.

We're coming up on the end of our summaries, just in time for the conference. Peggy has one more set of answers from the scientists. Then, coming Sunday, I'll have a guide to the science and science fiction blogs recommended by our respondents.


PalMD said...

As a reader, running into clearly wrong science is like fingernails on a blackboard---unless, in a fantasy-type way, it is clear from the beginning that science won't be an issue.
But like some of the writers said, all the good science in the world won't make up for a crappy story.

(written as someone who had read probably several hundred sf novels by 7th grade)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Yeah. One of the extra challenges in writing SF is writing for an audience that will contain scientists. It's easy to say, "whatever a writer can get right should be right." It's harder to do it, especially when something is set on another planet or in another society where using standard, Earth/U.S., industrialized defaults for anything can mean getting something wrong.

I don't know how often I've been pulled out of a story by bad economics, just because it isn't one of the sciences (rudimentary and problematic as it is) to which a writer has given much thought. I don't read as much SF as I used to, because it takes a really good story to pull me back in when I see something like that. But a good story can make up for crappy science. Sometimes.

(And yay for SF geeks!)