Thursday, October 25, 2012

Anders on Ten SF Myths

Charlie Jane Anders, editor of io9, lists ten science myths that space opera and other SF genre gems constantly propagate. Excerpts:
We all love to point out the ridiculous bad physics in science fiction -- it's like an awesome sport that everybody wins. (Except physics.) But the truth is, sometimes you have to violate the laws of physics to create science fiction stories that people want to watch. We asked six great physicists to name their favorite occasions when breaking the laws of physics makes science fiction better, and here's what they told us.
Read the whole thing. Anders' list makes for interesting reading, no doubt. But the whole thing ends on a slightly snippy note when the chair of Yale's physics department, Dr. C. Megan Urry, writes, "The bottom line is that although many topics in astrophysics are ideal for science fiction settings, really, I think the universe is stranger and more wonderful than anything authors could imagine in their heads!" Talk about your left-handed compliments.

Honestly, though, I get it: Dr. Urry is a scientist and has pride in her craft. Yet allow me to offer my perspective as a (marginally credentialed) writer. Yes, we want to avoid some of the howling inaccuracies that popped up in the old pulps. (Alfred Bester's "Adam and No Eve" comes to mind, wherein the protagonist survives a rocket reentry by bailing out over land with a parachute.) But as Anders mentioned in the article's introduction, liberties make for great stories. (Consider Bester again. In The Stars My Destination, he creates a radioactive hitman whose very presence causes nearby plants to wilt. Utterly impossible and incredibly creepy.) Science shouldn't be the centerpiece of science fiction or any other narrative; that foundational honor belongs to universal human experience. Sure, write your hard SF that shows the universe as an incredibly complex thing charged with grandeur and glory. And while you do that, peer deep within the human heart, into that space within that's every bit as vast as the space without.

(Picture: CC 2010 by lrargerich; Hat Tip:


Chestertonian Rambler said...

It's a complex question. The problem is, many forms of great art (including SF) thrive on limitations; fantasist Brandon Sanderson even enshrined the topic in one of his Laws of Magic Systems ("limitations are more interesting than powers.") Contemporary science provides us with a fascinating set of potential difficulties and limitations; for those wishing to write hard SF, that is a good thing.

Or one can just steal a page from Niel Stephenson, and make sure all one's stories take place after the farthest technological event horizon one can imagine.

Loren Eaton said...

Man, I've always wanted to love Stephenson, but his fiction feels so opaque to me. And this is coming from someone who loves William Gibson.