This morning, I stumbled across this post on io9: Yes, It Matters If The Science In Your Science Fiction Story Is Accurate.
It’s an interesting read, if a bit abbreviated on the subject, and it links to another article internally that it quotes. You can read that one here at the Berkeley Science Review, or find the link in the io9 article if you’re so inclined.
The general theme of both of them is that making sure the science is as accurate as possible is actually more about how far you can stretch the suspension of disbelief before it snaps. It’s about plausibility, rather than accuracy. It’s part of the idea of verisimilitude, of faking it just enough to get across the point and the purpose without wading in and showing off how very little you actually understand.
The idea of verisimilitude is actually something trained into me through my years in theatre, because it is very much understood that you’re not going to make an exact replica of… pretty much literally everything. It’s all suggestions. I’m going to suggest a doorway by putting a frame downstage and letting you assume that the house has four walls. It’s putting a boat on wheels and attaching it to a rope and giving your actor an oar to play with while you drag them from left to right. It’s not accurate, it’s the suggestion of accuracy. There’s an artistry to providing just enough detail, in just the right ways that makes the audience buy in.
And part of why that works, especially in science fiction is a part of a quote from the end of the Berkeley article that says:
Science fiction merely takes the variables that we know to be important, changes the values a little, and sees what stories and relationships are important to that believable, but mutated, world. – David Litt
It’s an over-broad generalization, unfortunately, but it does say why science fiction works: when done right, it’s the suggestion and support of various aspects of the story that make them real enough to be plausible. Yes, it’s about tweaking details, but more it’s about following the science to its furthest logical conclusions.
And – to elaborate somewhat in a different direction, this actually reminds me about how similar Science Fiction and Fantasy are as genres. At their hearts, they’re both about presenting the (currently) impossible or (currently) improbable, grabbing firmly ahold, and running with it as far as you can, all in service to the type of story you want to tell. Sometimes that story is about how the scientific or fantastical element facilitates or complicates the story you’re trying to tell, and sometimes it’s simply about the impact that element has on humanity (or the society upon which you’ve inflicted your story).
The thing is – and I think this is absolutely missing from both of the linked articles above – you can’t just slap odd or unique or bleeding-edge and experimental science into your story and expect the whole thing to hang together. Part of the underlying reason why verisimilitude and plausible suggestion even works is because you commit to building the foundation for it within your story, just as you commit to exploring the idea to its full limits.
(Side note: there is actually a difference between novel-length scifi and short-story scifi in this. Novel length absolutely needs foundation and that’s where most of the length comes from. In scifi shorts, there’s only really time to run with one idea, so the commitment to the idea becomes the story center.)
Here’s the thing, though, even a very ‘scientifically accurate’ story can fall flat on its face if the narrative, the characters, the world-building and all the rest aren’t committed to support of the science. If there’s no foundation, if there’s no story-support for the fact that this thing is happening and it’s real for the purposes of the world inhabitants, then everything falls apart. It’s a lesson learned when writing the fantasy genre, where world-coherency and whatever fantastic element you’re trying to sell lives or dies by how well you set it up.
Just because a thing is ‘real’ in a scientifically objective sense doesn’t mean you can be any less lazy with the set up. For example, Interstellar’s ending comes to mind. I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen it, but the ending and the events of it are simply not supported by the narrative at all. Things happen, and even if they’re based (possibly vaguely) off of prevailing scientific theory, there’s no hint in the narrative that the science parts are anything but made up whole-cloth. If it were billed as a fantasy story, all of those hard-core into the genre would be vocal about how poorly the setup was executed. As it was, even though the end veered off into the fantastical, there was still talk about how accurate the movie was with respect to the science portrayed.
To be a proper science fiction writer, you don’t need to be an expert in the field, but you do need to be able to fake it for an audience so that even someone relatively well versed in scientific theory would nod along and buy in. (And possibly launch into an in-depth analysis of the science with way more expertise than I could ever muster, which is honestly one of the best things about being a writer. I could listen to people enthuse over their passions all day.) The point is that you’re mocking up a house with painted flats, and you’re using eyebrows to give otherwise blank-faced robots emotion. You have to understand what you’re suggesting enough to convey it, but in the end it’s all about handing your audience their bag of twos and waiting for them to combine them into fours. The twos, however, need to be solid enough–plausible enough–that not only do they support your climactic idea or central conceit, but also that it’s clear to the audience what they’re even for.