Scientist and author, Ian Miller, explains why the science in much science fiction is not weird enough, and how his science fiction became published scientific papers.
I have always had an interest in science fiction, but since I am a scientist, I have also noticed that only too much of the science fiction really makes very little scientific sense. Don’t get me wrong; I have no objection to weird life forms and strange physics, but only too often, in my opinion, the “weird” is either something reasonably ordinary all dressed up, or alternatively, it seems to get the author out of a difficulty of his own making. Oddly enough, most of the strange physics is to avoid the real problems of space travel, and to make everything “more ordinary”.
Yet some real physics are ignored where it could provide real moral problems. As an example of what I mean, one of the great triumphs of twentieth century science is relativity, and relativity has some really odd situations, yet these are largely ignored. Consider a great plot excuse: “They started it!” Now, consider that it is possible to construct scenarios involving relativity when two observers can truthfully state that they saw two given events in the opposite order! Now who started what? What are they going to feel when their retribution is shown to be totally unjustified by further unbiased observers in different frames of reference?
What is science fiction? Obviously it depends on your definition, but I would argue that the original fiction fitted the definition. The oldest story I know of, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is about power and a search for immortality. The Odyssey, besides the blood-thirsty ending, is about man’s relationship with the Gods. What we find is that these are great stories in which the hero has to battle mind-blowing problems that test their personal failings, but also the stories lead the reader to consider some of the great problems people of the time faced (and to some extent, still do.)
One of the greatest assets to a science fiction writer is actually something that almost contradicts the thinking behind much modern physics: time symmetry. In physics, one interval of time is equal to any other equal interval in its physical effects, and it is from this that we get the law of conservation of energy. In human activity, there is no such symmetry, and humanity’s problems in one century are different from those in another. Oddly enough, writing courses, etc., invariably ignore this advantage, and writers are implored “to consider the human condition”. The advantage for writers is that time asymmetry gives us a continual supply of fresh material, so why not take advantage?
That, at least, is my excuse! In the course of my life in science, I have had intermittent bouts of research on biofuels; the work was intermittent because so was the source of funding. While it seldom makes it to public awareness, we are also running out of easily available resources. When you move your iPad screen with your finger, does it occur to you that in only a few years such devices have consumed about half of the world’s supply of easily recoverable indium? For me, this was the stuff for my first thriller.
My questions are, what happens when oil and resource availability fails to match our desires? What happens to debt-ridden governments as economies go into reverse? More to the point, how do we avoid the worst of such situations? I do not have answers, but I am convinced that our best chances of avoiding the worst outcomes come when we start thinking about them and doing something about them now. In any case, is this not material for fiction?
I am writing a series of futuristic novels that start as thrillers (one self-published), and as we get further to the future, become more science fiction, with backgrounds that look at futures that we might wish to avoid. But I also want to try to make the stories fit with plausible science, and in one that is yet to be published, the plot depends on relativity.
Trying to be realistic does not mean you have to be limited to what we know now. One reason why my earlier novels remain unpublished is that I got side-tracked. When I offered an aside explanation for an advanced propulsion system, I realized therein lay a new model for nuclear structure, which, two years later, became a published paper. Similarly, in another as yet unpublished novel I had to come up with an “unforeseeable discovery” on Mars. What I came up with became the basis of a different theory of planetary formation, which will be self-published in an eBook.
Detailed science must not appear in novels; all that is needed to show how science works is an indication that there are rules. My approach is to give a very brief explanation of something, then later show how this leads to something else that is not obvious. What I hope is that when the reader has finished, they will think they have read a thrilling book, but in the subconscious there will be something extra to think about, and an indication of how to go about that thinking.
Ian Miller is an independent (i.e. he owns his own laboratory) semi-retired research chemist who lives in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. He has been writing science fiction for a number of years, and has finally elected to commence self-publishing it. The first of a series of futuristic SF/thrillers, Puppeteer, is now available as an eBook from amazon.com | amazon.co.uk | Smashwords (which caters for all major eReaders)
Details of both his activities, and his book on how to form a scientific theory, together with links, including to a scientific blog, are at http://www.ianmiller.co.nz.
I LOVE SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES BUT I HATE IT WHEN THEY ARE TO PHONEY TO BE HALF WAY RIGHT OR REAL. GREAT PAGE.
Thanks. I agree. I’ve got a high tolerance for nonsense with sci fi movies and TV, but I groan every time the aliens are destroyed by sticking a USB drive into their computer systems and watching the ‘loading virus, please wait…’ progress bar on the alien’s computer screen.
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Articles like this make me wish my public school science education was better!! Here is to downloading the Science for Dummies onto my iPad!
Me too. Ian and Bob did some great guest posts. Bob’s are quietly powerful, and I still can’t get over the idea that Ian had an idea for his sf story and turned it into a real scientific paper. I’ve worked in the past with a couple of Kiwis (Ian is from New Zealand) and they were both very smart individuals. Perhaps they teach them well there 🙂
Yeah, I served with a few Kiwis in Iraq…. Smart people for sure!!