Going Soft on Science Fiction

Alec Merta Science Fiction, Writing Leave a Comment

Writing science fiction is an odd task. Never mind that you already have to come up with incidental details like story and character. Those represent the fiction, and they are difficult enough to manage. On top of that comes the science, and science is arguably more difficult to come to terms with than narrative.

A science fiction writer has some options, and these can be illustrated by their extremes.  In the first, the writer can simply ignore or neglect considerations of how science actually dictates that the universe works. That might sound lazy, but is really isn’t. Consider a science fiction masterpiece like Dune. Frank Herbert wrote a lasting example of powerful and compelling science fiction, but does it really care about science? Some may reasonably disagree with me about this, but I say that it does not. Instead, science becomes a useful tool that Herbert employees to build a universe that is different and, more importantly, useful to the writer. By virtue of that useful world with equally useful laws and rules, Herbert’s universe becomes a framework upon which his story can be hung. Do we really care how the spice warped spacetime? Do we truly want to get into the biological realism of the sandworm or its ecosystem? Do they use formatted as a solvent? These may interesting tangents, I’ll grant you, but they can’t lay a glove on character and story.

Dune by Frank Herbert

What do sandworms use as a solvent?

On the other extreme, a writer can devote significant amounts of time and energy to creating and describing the science of a fictional universe. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing so, but it  can become slavish to the point of overwhelming the soul of a fictional work.  When that happens, science takes on the role of artificial heart. It might be good, but it isn’t the same as the real thing.

A mild example of this (I admit there are others more apt) is The Great North Road by the distinguished (for very good reasons) Peter F. Hamilton. In the novel, science and technology are intelligently crafted and lovingly described. In both respects, however, this creates a problem. Hamilton’s science is robust, but his characters are less so. The human heart of the story is not absent, but it feels subordinate to the technology. This really isn’t a criticism, mind you, rather an expression of personal taste. The Great North Road is an excellent book, and please don’t think I feel otherwise. It’s just a little cold.  

My point is that, for me as a writer, I feel that humanity is a critical component of the process of audience connection.  Regardless of whether that humanity is embodied by an actual Homo sapien is irrelevant. Whether it is an alien, artificial intelligence, or red-blooded human being; it’s all about the characters. Those characters take actions that move the story forward. If they and the story are compelling, the audience will forgive a writer on the science. (Parenthetically, a great article on a related line of thinking can be found over at io9.)

I feel that I may have lost you, so let’s look at it from another angle. Remember when you loved Star Wars? It’s been a while, I’ll grant you, but the memory is there. How do the beloved original movies stack up in the world of science fiction? Are those very special movies representative of hard science fiction or soft?

It’s a trick question. Star Wars is neither.     

Let me be clear: ante-prequel Star Wars was not science fiction at all. It was fantasy. How can I say so? Well, ask yourself how important any theoretical or applied science was to the franchise. Now consider just how much more important was magic. Remember, we are talking about a more innocent world where midichlorians did not exist. Without them, the Force was magic. Heck, it was even described in religious terms.

So where does that leave us? Well, here’s how Wikipedia describes fantasy:

Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common.

And here is how it describes science fiction:

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life. It often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a ‘literature of ideas.’

The Force was magic, and that magic was more important than any piece of technology.  Even the important technology (viz. the light sabers) were magic props masquerading as artifices of science fiction.  Star Wars was fantasy, not science fiction.

I won’t labor the point because it’s not terribly important. What is important is that Star Wars truly was beloved and, before the prequels, a franchise that occupied special places in the hearts of many people. With the advent of the prequels, however, something changed. The Force changed. It stopped being mystical and started being a by-product of microscopic lifeforms. With that one change, the heart of the franchise became dependent on science. Poorly thought-out science, yes, but science nonetheless. Instantly, the franchise lost its soul. Without it, audiences began judging the franchise in the way they judge all works of science fiction, even if they did not realize they were doing so. Suddenly science was a central element. Accordingly, the science had to be good.  It wasn’t.  It stank.  Still, the movies could have been saved with excellent characters living out an excellent story. We all know how that turned out. 

In the end, it comes down to taste. Except with the prequels which have been objectively demonstrated to be crap. Considerations of taste aside, I feel that writers should keep one thing in mind when penning a novel or screenplay.  You can spend years working on the science and might create a universe as realistic as the one we actually occupy, but it will all be lacking if you don’t spend as much energy on the heart of your work: character and story. Focus on those, and you will succeed.  

And who cares about genre labels anyway?