The Fictional Facts

Back in the 1960’s, when I was growing up and my best friend was the local library, I spent a lot of time reading.  Since I began reading at a fairly early age, a lot of the fare I enjoyed was adult–and most of these books were science fiction.

I admit I’m a Child of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  At the time I began reading the era was dying out, but some of those writers were still around, and some would remain with me for decades to come, though they would have written their last stories, for the most part, by the 1980’s and 90’s.  It was a glorious era, filed with inhabited planets in the far corners of the galaxy, robots insane and otherwise, huge fleets of spaceships preparing to do battle . . .

Sure, it was all wild as hell, with writers coming up with faster than light drives, and hand weapons that could turn a man into vapor, shields of energy, dark aliens waiting to eat us alive:  if they could dream it, they would write it.  The majority of the writers had little in the way of a scientific background,  but there were authors who knew their math and engineering, and would often bring that knowledge into play when writing a story.

One of the most famous example of this was Edward E. Smith, aka “Doc” Smith of Lensman and Skylark fame.  Smith had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and worked in the food industry before becoming a writer.  Robert Heinlein wrote about how he and his wife once spent three days calculating a orbit change so they could get one one line in a story right.  (When later asked by someone why he simply didn’t use a computer, his reply was, “My dear boy, it was 1948.”)  Issac Asimov had a BS and MA in chemistry, and a Ph.D. in biochemistry.  They weren’t the only ones, but what they knew tended to show up in their work.

With science fiction, it’s important to create your world and set your rules.  E. E. Smith knew that a lot of the stuff he wrote was too incredible to ever be real, but he wanted to create incredible stories, and didn’t care that the science was pure Handwavium.  (Look up the trope “Lensman Arms Race” and you’ll see some of the stuff the Doc pulled out.)

Back in the Golden Age, writers could do just about anything and get away with it.  These days, we know more about the universe around us; we know there are certain kinds of space drives that just won’t work as we’d like (I’m looking at you, Bussard Ramjet); we know how genetics works; we understand evolution better; we have a better knowledge of engineering.  There are some things that we know just won’t work the way we want them to work if we write about them in a story.

Does this take away from a story?  Or does it even prevent us from writing them in the first place?  Has technology and a greater interest in science mean there are stories we can no longer write?

This was true even one hundred years ago.  Certain things that had been accepted as fact in the early 1800’s was known to be bullshit by the 1920’s.  The trick here is not to throw a lot of stuff into your story that is just going to be crap science; the trick is to keep things tight with science that’s a good as it gets when we’re dealing with real things, and for the stuff you gotta handwave, keep the rules constant.  The Mote in God’s Eye was a good example of this:  the world was extremely real, with only a couple of things that were pure fantasy.  But, the rules for those items were kept consistent, and there was no instances where something that couldn’t have happened did.

In my own stories I have things that are pretty much handwavium, that likely can’t ever happen in real life.  But, for those things I keep the rules consistent.  I try not to pull things out of my butt that will violate my universe to the point where it implodes, and, at the same time, concentrate on the characters who are the real stars.

After all, if I wanna make my television the star of my story, I’ll rewrite Videodrome.