Collated tweets on science and fiction

- 4 comments

I ranted this weekend on science in fiction on twitter–thought I’d collate those into a blog post. Warning: minimal editing (that’s why every sentence is around 140 characters ^^).

I’m getting a bit tired of “it’s not really hard SF” argument, which–oddly enough– often coincides with “this story is written by a woman/POC/other marginalised POV).  (before anyone asks, I don’t have a specific occurrence to point to; it’s just an accumulation of small things).

Thing is: the discourse about what constitutes hard SF–supposedly “real science! ™”–is very normative. It demands certain narrative forms, certain ways of addressing the reader, certain methods of expositing the science to make it sound plausible. Note that I said “plausible”, which means “what people are ready to believe”, which is different from “what is actually true”.

Even ignoring the problem of evolution of science (I’ll come back to that!), I’ve read hard SF stuff that was… er… out of date/inaccurate (I have a general science background, though my area of speciality is the mathematics of computer algorithms; and the H has a PhD in Quantum Optics, so between both of us we can muster passable science analysis). And that inaccuracy/out-of-date character *absolutely* didn’t prevent me or him from enjoying said books, btw–we don’t want to be snobs, and our enjoyment of books isn’t the cutting edge science. (actually, if I do want cutting edge science, I tend to read journal articles–though of course that’s pretty much restricted to fields of science I’m conversant with, so a pretty limited subset of everything that’s published).

I swore I’d come back to the evolution of science, so here goes: today’s science is likely going to be debunked (aka “evolve”) within a few centuries. 19th century science, pre quantum mechanics and pre general relativity, is vastly different from 21st century science. So any books set in, say, the 24th century that still rely on *today’s* understanding of science are a nice fiction. And, again, that’s OK. We’re writing/reading SF books, not journal articles, and requirements are different (real engineering specs make for bad fiction anyway, a bit dry!). 

There you go, afternoon rant. Would be interested to know what people think?

4 comments

  1. Often in hard science fiction, it seems people decide on plausibility based on whether it’s an established trope or not. If it is a trope, it’s plausible. If it’s not, it isn’t. Which has nothing to do with whether something is scientifically possible or not. I think this is what often hits marginalised writers, as they’re more likely to explore future ideas that aren’t common tropes (or take the tropes a different way).

    I also dislike things being dismissed because though they’re possible, they’re not the most likely outcome based on our current knowledge. We’re not placing bets on the most likely future. We’re writing fiction. And who knows… that thing with the small chance of happening might turn out to be the future. The real universe is a strange place, and likely to be stranger than anything we can come up with.

  2. I think there’s something to be said for ‘hard sf’ as a kind of discipline, like writing poetry that conforms to a strict meter — imposing strict constraints on the possibilities that are allowed in world-building can be an interesting creative exercise. Howver, I wouldn’t say that the ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’ of an sf story or novel is a good indication of quality on the reader’s end, though, at least in my case (after all, plenty of strict meter poetry is terrible). I’m a lot less forgiving about implausible societies and characters than I am about implausible science, for instance, so long as the implausible science is at least attempting some kind of verisimilitude.

  3. Yogurt mechanics based hard SF. Challenge.

  4. Polenth: yes, exactly–thanks for commenting. Tropes are a huge part of the plausibility factor, and definitely weigh heavily. And yes to the futures–there are multiple possibilities, and it doesn’t have to be the most probable one.
    DDOwen: oh, I’m not denying the interest of hard SF–it totally makes sense you’d want to write that type of stories. It’s just that I doubt it’s automatically superior or more plausible than any other field of SF. (and yes, it’s not always very helpful to the reader, though I tend to think it’s got a certain “feel” that people can look for).
    Mathieu 🙂

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