Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Science Realism in Fiction

I came across a great article last week about the science in science fiction.  It was written by Jenny Cabotage, who is both a fantasy writer and a biologist.  As a scientist who "knows better", how does she handle slightly unrealistic science in the spec fic she consumes?

She sits back and enjoys the ride.

That conclusion took me a while to come to.  Even as a kid, I reveled in finding technicalities in the science fiction I consumed.  Remember, this was the late 80's and 90's, when our TV scifi diet consisted of Star Trek and Quantum Leap.  Scientific errors were low-hanging fruit.  Explosions would never be very large in oxygen-free space, we could never upload a virus into an alien ship and expect it to be compatible, and if you go back in time and even breathe, you will change the future.

Or my biggest pet peeve: Why is the evil guy always ugly??

Maybe that's why I loved reading classic SF so much.  Isaac Asimov, a biochemist himself, always wrote stories that seemed at least plausible.  Even those I considered far-fetched, like the famous "stars" who recorded their dreams to sell as mass media, become more possible as time wears on.

As I learned to write, I promised myself I would never make the cardinal mistake of Star Trek aliens, where each race was basically a human with advanced makeup and appliances.  Aliens won't be humanoid.  They'll be weird!

As I got even older, I noticed that even fictional aliens who weren't humanoid tended to be modeled after earth animals.  You've got the stereotypical reptile race, the ape race, the insect race, the lion or cat race, the cute mammalian race, and the fish people.  Also lame.  Can't these people think of anything more interesting?

Then I learned about certain concepts of character development.  The reader must sympathize with the characters.  They need to feel connected.  They need to relate.  And it's really hard, if not impossible, to make a reader relate to a gelatinous blob with purple dots that thinks in binary and can merge with another of its species and come away as a different creature.

(Perhaps this is why Star Wars seemed so refreshing.  The cast of aliens is brilliantly diverse, and Lucas manages to make us relate to them.  The bad guys are still ugly, though.  And they speak with British accents.)

I think back to some of the scifi that went way too far away from my human values, my human desires.  For some readers, that scifi might have been thought-provoking, but for me, it was as unrealistic as too-human SF.  Or worse, I found the ideas distasteful.

To use Asimov again, and I'll try to do this spoiler-free, I hated how he "ended" the Foundation series in Foundation and Earth.  (More books have been written since, by other authors, and I've not read them yet, so I don't know if they fixed what I hated.)  Instead of leaving me feeling like they'd saved the universe, I felt like they made a huge mistake.  And more importantly, the novel failed to complete the promised plot arc that the previous books established.  The ending seemed to come out of nowhere.  The goal shifted and all the things I'd been made to care about were deemed unimportant.

Note that I read this when I was like, 17.  And haven't read it since.  Who knows what I'd think now.  The point is, that many humans have a certain set of values, and for some, Asimov violated those values in Foundation and Earth.  He failed to convince me that I should agree with the aliens, yet his humans went right along with it.

Are there aliens out there with weird and crazy values?  Yes.  Maybe those aliens are even right, even if their values are deplorable.  And we should explore them in SF, just as we should explore aliens with weird bodies, or science that is barely understandable, or not comprehensible at all.  The problem is, how do we tell those stories in ways that people can relate?

I ran into this problem in the early drafts of Emerald City Dreamer.  I wanted to be as "realistic" as possible. I wanted to be true to my characters as possible.  The result?  My characters came off completely unsympathetic.  They weren't even aliens.  Everyone in ECD has a humanoid body.  It's just their actions and values, even the actions and values of the humans, did not make enough sense to a large enough percentage of my critiquers.  So I had to make some major changes.

In fiction, the story is far more important than "realism".  The world has realism.  In SF, we use stories to explore ideas, and those can be accurate down to the letter.  Internally consistent, and even completely scientific.  But in the end, stories are, ultimately, about the characters.  What choices do they make in this world of new ideas?  The answer to that is what makes readers feel satisfied, or not, at the end of a story.  That is what makes readers interested enough to keep reading.  That is what separates this medium of fiction from academic papers and essays.  Because of the characters and their choices.

To pull that off, readers must relate to the characters.  Especially if they're aliens.  Especially if you must sacrifice some scientific realism or logic to make it happen.  You have to risk a couple of readers saying, "That would never happen", to make the rest of your audience love your story.

It helps me to think of SF as mythology.  Because, in a way, it is.  In the old days, the hero trudged into the underworld to save his lover from the torments of a god.  Today, he's got a high-tech costume and he's fighting aliens with quantum tunneling stabilizers.  So what if that costume could never contain all those gizmos and gears or make him actually fly or any of that?  Who cares if Black Widow, being thrown against a stone wall from somewhere in the sky would actually crush her dead?  (Ok, I cared for a couple of seconds.)  And who cares if the technobabble is technobullshit?

When you hear a myth, you're not rolling your eyes, saying, "Yeah, like the gods would ever talk to Orpheus.  He's just some dude.  And like Hades would give a crap about music.  Hell, there aren't any gods in the first place."  We accept it as myth.  As fiction.

Likewise for our science fiction.  Yes, it's great to try to include as much science in science fiction as we can.  But after a while, we have to accept that it's just myth.  At the very least, taking this attitude helps me enjoy movies more.

At best, it helps my writing.  I try to pack in as much realism as I can, without making the stories too inaccessible to readers.  In fact, realism is a great tool to generate ideas during world building.

I'm building a world right now, about a species that co-evolved with a fungus that produces a complex biochemical mix the aliens need to thrive and survive.  The themes are about classism and privilege and poverty.

Because there are no humans in my story, I walk a difficult line.  I cannot describe my aliens through a human perspective.  My aliens have to be sympathetic and relatable on their own.

My world building process goes something like this: "Assume X is true.  What would that do to their culture?  To how their bodies evolved?"  I take those answers, and say, "Now that Y is true, what does that do to their religion?  To their attitudes on war?  To how their reproductive systems evolved?"  Those kinds of questions help me brainstorm and hopefully come up with awesome details to set in my world, and perhaps even plot points.

At some point, I realized my creatures seemed a bit like otters, and they had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth.  They walk on two (sometimes four) legs, and have two genders.  And their personalities, for the most part, are strikingly human.  Why?  Why would aliens "just happen" to have all these elements, when they evolved so far away in a completely different ecosystem?  And why does their climate seem a bit like a swamp?

I could tweak those facets.  Give them alien faces and even more alien bodies and come up with strange surroundings.  But that would go too far.

They have faces because readers need at least a few anchors to the reality they understand.  I want them to love the characters and understand my message, so I give the aliens faces.  Enough of this planet is like Earth that readers have a context to understand the changes I've made.  So I can spotlight that which I want the readers to see.

You get to a point where it is mythology.  The point of my story is, "What happens when classism is biologically enforced in an obvious way?"  I want the unfairness of my alien society to be clear and emotional.  I want them rooting for my poor character, and hoping my upper-caste character does the right thing in spite of his cultural programming.

I don't want readers hung up on trying to picture a creature shaped like a five-legged walrus with no torso, or sort out their feelings for a protagonist with tentacles for a face.  I might explore those options in another story, where they don't distract from what I'm trying to do here.  Maybe in a different story I'll have human characters to be the lens through which we view the uber-strange aliens, or where the uber-strangeness is part of the mood I hope to establish.  Maybe I want you to feel confused or disturbed or unsympathetic or whatever.  (Hi, Kafka.)  But not here.

So as we consume fiction, it helps to let go a little.

As creators, learning to letting go a little, in just the right places, is part of the craft.


  1. "The bad guys are still ugly, though. And they speak with British accents." --> This made me laugh!

    Great, thoughtful post. Your world building process/considerations are so smart.

  2. Hi Sebastian, thanks for the inquiry. I will contact you via email to discuss.