January 05, 2009

Science and Fiction--Writers Respond #1

Back in November, Peggy Kolm and I started soliciting input from science fiction writers and science bloggers about the relationship between science and science fiction for our session at ScienceOnline09. We got an amazing response. Thank you to everyone who took the time to answer.

Everyone who responded is listed on the wiki page for the session (if not, please let us know and we'll fix it), but that's a lot of information, so over the next week or so, Peggy and I will be summarizing and highlighting some of the answers. Today, I'm looking at the answers to our first question for science fiction writers:

Why are you writing science fiction in particular? What does the science add?

There were almost as many distinct answers to this question as there were people who answered it, but a few themes did emerge.

1. History with the Medium

I have always loved science fiction from the first time I saw Star Trek to the first real sf novel I read (Philip Jose Farmer’s A Private Cosmos). I read everything science fiction I could get my hands on, and watched every TV and movie as well. I had decided by the time I was eleven that I wanted to be a science fiction writer. Writing is a compulsion, and it’s time intensive with small chances for financial success, so you’d better just spend your time writing what you love best.
-- Mike Brotherton

I write and I have a strong interest in the sciences and I've read science fiction all my life. Given this, what else can you expect from me?
--Sean Craven @ Renaissance Oaf

My SF reading began with Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, both of whom placed a great deal of importance on the science in their work. I guess it was natural that when I started to write, science fiction was my first choice.
--Simon Haynes @ Spacejock News

2. Asking the Important Questions

...it's the only genre big enough to wonder where we're headed and what we're doing to ourselves as a species. In fact, any story that shoots for that goal, that explores the impact of science on flesh, becomes a work of science fiction pretty much by definition.
--Peter Watts

I’m writing science fiction because it’s the only literature that addresses the issue of our long-term survival (or not) as a species. No other branch of writing out there gives an author a canvas broad enough to grapple with the question of Where All This Is Going—in fact, I’d go so far as to say that most contemporary mainstream “literature” could care less about anything that’s occurring outside the angst-ridden local coffeeshop where all the MFAs hang out (and I guess this is the part where you ask me how I really feel).
--David J. Williams @ The Mirrored Heavens

Science fiction allows us to bring the weight of real knowledge to bear on the human condition. Took me a good twenty minutes to get around to admitting that... Sounds pretentious as hell, doesn't it? But it's true. Most fiction springs from situations that are entirely human -- SF is a wonderful way to deal with the fact that humans are a singular phenomenon in a much wider universe. And the more science we've got, the more it affects the human condition.
--Sean Craven

3. Scope for Imagination

For me, I think the science brings the story that important aspect of strange. It feels damn good to be overwhelmed by a book with /everything/ in it, but I find it hard to even come closer to some of the trippier things.
--JesterJoker @ Sa Souvraya Niende Misain Ye

For me writing science fiction is an escape from the mundane affairs of everyday and a glimpse into a future; a chance to imagine what might be, whether it is scary or a paradise, and the opportunity to add my distinct and different voice to those that have already imagined a future, in order to tell others what I feel could happen.
--Robert Evans @ SciFiWriter

Science is like a huge, ever-changing toolkit or framework. There's just so much incredible stuff that you can never run out of ideas or possibilities.
--Simon Haynes

And at the end of the day there are some speculative questions that are just plain interesting -- my most recent SF piece deals with the idea that humans aren't made for rational thought -- and that if given access to hardcore rationality they might not reach the decisions that are healthiest. That kind of "Huh, what if?" thought process is really important to me.
--Sean Craven

4. Added Realism

...I can and do try to make my fantasy as rigorous as possible and I very much approach creating worlds and magic systems from the point of view of someone who wants an internally consistent and theoretically robust system. My studies and work in science and science education have made me a much better writer of fantasy.
--Kelly McCullough @ Wyrdsmiths

Perhaps what science adds, when I make an effort to really use it (and I guess I use science all the time in science fiction, but when I talk about really using it I mean actually going out of my own little box to find new concepts to work with or trying to portray a better grasp of something I don't know a lot about), is a sense of reality. The idea that this story I'm writing could actually happen. That's important to science fiction I think: that the science make the stories and imagined futures seem real enough for the reader to actually consider the possibilities. The science makes the fiction stronger.
--Shaun Duke @ The World in the Satin Bag

Science provides the premise and the plot tools to throw characters into the realm of “other” or “unknown”, which is a wonderful way to study human nature. Science fiction, says Robert J. Sawyer, is about ideas that mean something to a society and a people. It is also about how we react and function with the challenges of the unknown. Science grounds the reader in reality while the writer takes them on a fictive journey. It is a little like doing a dry-run to prepare oneself for possibilities. Science fiction often turns into science fact.
--Nina Munteanu @ The Alien Next Door

For me, science adds reality to a story, adding to the writer’s authority and the reader’s suspension of disbelief which is critical to the success of a story. Plus it’s completely fascinating! I mean, you can figure out a fascinating magic system, but it isn’t real. How relativity works is totally fascinating too, and the fact that it is also real adds a dimension fantasy can never have.
--Mike Brotherton

5. Sharing the Science

Writing to me at least is for my own satisfaction first and a very strong motivation to share the gained knowledge however meager that may be to fellow beings who need that knowledge. Sf writing serves to satiate my innermost desire.
--Arvind Mishra @ Science Fiction in India

I write SF because I am a scientist and science (particularly environmental science) is both familiar to me and fascinates me. I write this because it is one of my passions and I totally believe that a writer should write about something they are passionate about.
--Nina Munteanu

6. Not About Science

In fact, most SF authors read History far more than science. Indeed, history -- and its possible extensions in time or other universes -- is far more often a topic of interest than any specific point of science. SF should have been called Speculative History.
--David Brin

As to the science: it’s critical for me, but nonetheless it’s perhaps not as central as it is for many SF writers. My main focus is on the politics/geopolitics, and I’m interested in the science insofar as that creates parameters that shape/constrain the decisions of leaders at various levels of the military-industrial complex. That said, SF is all about the corruption (dilution?) of technology’s promise, so the science is by definition high in the mix. . . .
--David J. Williams

7. Science in the Way

This is part of the reason I naturally go toward fantasy; I don't think I know half enough to create a decently bizarre SF story.

Many of the areas that I find most interesting in terms of story have reached a point where I don't find much that is written in them genuinely scientifically plausible. I'm not at all sold on the singularity. I find the idea of faster than light travel ever more implausible. Ditto serious extra-solar system travel. I still like aliens, but I don't see us interacting with them anytime soon, not physically at least. I've never bought time travel as a science trope, though I love magical time travel. Psionics? Nope. Etc.
--Kelly McCullough

Personally, I combine a lot of these elements when I'm writing. I've read SF most of my life, so the conventions and vocabulary of the genre are something that come easily to me. I love the sense of discovery and a lot of the really geeky details of science. Writing something that lets me share that is just plain fun.

On the other hand, there are many ways in which what I write doesn't have to be science fiction at all. I could talk about colonial economics and rebellion and the intersection of cultures in a historical context just as well. But if I do that, it would be very easy to get bogged down in the ongoing debates over a particular set of events. It would also be far too easy for readers to think that this is all in the past. Setting my story on another world avoids the problem of too much specificity and reminds everyone that history can repeat.

Again, a big thank you to all the writers who answered. Coming up on Wednesday:

What is your relationship to science? Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool? Do you have a favorite field?


Arvind Mishra said...

Excellent Compilation of the essence of what has been expressed by the participants,Stephanie ! Quite impressive.Please go ahead !My good wishes for the sucessful moderation of the session!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thank you, Arvind, for the good wishes and for participating.