On ‘Hand-waving, Rule Bending and Other Dirty Tricks of Hard SF’

Timescape (S.F. Masterworks)Revelation SpaceThe Fuller MemorandumFoundation's FearDiamond Dogs, Turquoise DaysSaturn's ChildrenWorlds Vast and Various: StoriesThe Sunborn

This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.

A central concern in the discussion for this panel was:

Should the story fit the science, or should the science fit the story, in ‘hard’ science fiction?

Charles Stross said that he aims for internal consistency in his stories, even if the science is inaccurate. He described his stories as each being either scientifically rigorous or treating his characters’ behavior as if their fictional world were scientifically rigorous. This can be contrasted with other stories in which the fictional world is not scientifically rigorous but in which events which are inconsistent with one another in the context of a fictional story world. Sometimes in stories told without a consistent fictional story world the characters can also acknowledge the inconsistencies and make the inconsistencies part of the story.

Gregory Benford recalled a conversation in which Isaac Asimov compared their levels of scientific rigour in their fiction: “If I’d stayed on with the lab, I could have written the kind of stories you do.”, to which Greg replied: “But then you wouldn’t have written as much.” We can talk about aiming for scientifically rigorous writing but once you get to the higher end of scientific rigour at the limits of human knowledge, there can be a significant trade-off needed between taking the time and resources to conduct experiments in order to make the necessary observations to get it right.

So what should the balance be? Or what balance is required to properly call something hard science fiction?

The general opinion of the panelists was that hard science fiction means the science should be rigorously applied to the fictional story world, to the extent that it is known. Gregory Benford made the comparison: “If you write a sonnet without 14 lines, you haven’t written a bad sonnet; you haven’t written a sonnet. The reason sonnets work the way they do is because of their constraints.” The same goes for hard science fiction.

The shelf life of hard science fiction in which the writer has speculated beyond the limits of human knowledge can have a short shelf-life as hard science fiction if the speculation is disproven or is understood to be a less likely possibility than it may have seemed before. However, if a fiction writer speculates and that speculation becomes known to be implausible or less plausible, the story can be considered as speculative fiction or fantasy.

Given that writing with scientific rigour can involve a significant amount of first-hand research, someone in the audience asked: “Is science the enemy of fun?” The panelists, however, pointed out that science is about understanding the world [and it is not about adhering to or ‘challenging’ conventions set by professors in science departments at universities – that’s politics]. As one panelist pointed out, science (in the sense of understanding, to the extent that you can) can be the stuff of ‘sudden revelations which open up the universe’.

The panelists also discussed the point where speculative science fiction crosses into fantasy, arriving at ideas like ‘any extreme science fiction is indistinguishable from fantasy’ and the tongue-in-cheek addition that ‘any technology which does not seem like magic is just not sufficiently advanced’. There was some discussion about how, in stories with multiple civilisations (as in on multiple planets), difference in the level of technology between the civilisations can make the technology of one civilisation seem like magic to members of the other civilisation.

Teleportation was brought up in the discussion and Gregory Benford pointed out that the premise behind explanations of how human teleportation could be achieved is that the person would be disintegrated then another version of that person would be constructed with the same configuration of atoms – meaning that the person to be teleported would be killed but the newly created person would have the physical characteristics and memories of the disintegrated person. This is assuming that such an accurate reconstruction of a person with the kind of subatomic accuracy required could ever be possible. Charles Stross suggested that human identity is an informational pattern coded into atoms, which could be deconstructed and reconstructed given the right technology and that this would not mean a discontinuation of a life and the construction of a new one but the transfer of the same continuing consciousness. Putting aside whether consciousness would continue and transfer or be destroyed and a new one created, the sticking point in developing such technology is that we don’t have any means to make observations and measurements below a certain scale. If your instrument of measurement is a stream of photons fired at something and which then impact with a photoreceptor in a way that judgments can be made about the speed, location and angle at which the photons collide with the receptor, then measurements smaller than a photon cannot be made.

The panelists also discussed a comparative lack of hard science fiction stories set in the near-future (set in the next 10-20 years).

Of course, fiction writers can make up technological solutions to story problems that people will not be able to disprove without access to multi-billion dollar facilities to make the required first-hand observations or simply base fictional technology on things most of their readers won’t know enough about to be able to judge how plausible it would be. Fiction writers can also make one important change, explained in the story by a technological breakthrough, and make everything beyond that change plausible (think Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park). There was discussion of several instances in which the panelists had just made up something that sounds like it might work if you don’t look too closely or if you assume some major obstacles to that technology’s development have been overcome. For example, Alastair Reynolds mentioned the idea of a Bosonic Drive Engine which a lot of people would just accept a story as being advanced technology and which it would be difficult for scientists to rule out as impossible, to which Gregory Benford replied: “When the next book says, “I went past the Reynold’s Bosonic Drive Engine.” you’ll know where it came from.”

NEXT: On ‘The Race to the Red Planet’

Timescape (S.F. Masterworks)Revelation SpaceThe Fuller MemorandumFoundation's FearDiamond Dogs, Turquoise DaysSaturn's ChildrenWorlds Vast and Various: StoriesThe Sunborn

The Australian Literature Review

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