Let’s Keep the Science in Science Fiction!


Recently I’ve been reading YA Science Fiction in preparation for writing my own. I’ve also been researching all the science I will probably abuse profusely once I start writing that novel. For some reason, I feel like I owe it to my reader to actually know what is required for a spacewalk or blast off or how radiation actually affects organic life before I decide to make up a whole bunch of crazy shit about it.

But this has drawn my attention to something I haven’t thought about a lot before. To be honest, I haven’t read a lot of Science Fiction, and what I have read seemed pretty convincing to me. I’ve seen plenty of movies and TV shows: Star Trek, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Independence Day and I could go on, but I won’t. What never occurred to me was the science behind it all. Because I had zero clue about science. I learned just enough to pass the tests in school and promptly forgot all of it. I hated science. It was boring. What would I ever need this crap for anyway?

Uh, yeah, who knew I would someday write a Sci-fi story and need some of that info I so blatantly discarded as a kid. So, I started researching. Turns out, space travel and exploration is actually pretty cool. The how and the why of things is interesting. No, I’m no expert and I couldn’t care less about the chemical composition of a star, but there were some very basic pieces of knowledge I learned during my research. My husband said, “You’re going to know every possible way the world can end by the time you’re done.” Yes, Honey, I will, and it doesn’t help me sleep at night!

But doing all this research has made me wonder, do other authors do this much research? And if they do, why do they completely ignore what they’ve learned? There’s a particular series I read recently that I’ll be picking on anonymously through out this post. If you’ve read it, you’ll recognize it. If not, don’t worry, it will all make sense. And trust me, I get that writers have to take license with actual facts for a variety of reasons: 1) It’s good story telling. No one wants a science lesson when they pick up a YA 2) We don’t know what the future holds for scientific advancement, so making it up is all part of the job. 3) Most people don’t know the difference anyway.

Still, I’d like to at least acknowledge the facts, even if I bend the future a little bit. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are some fallacies I’ve experienced in Sci-fi novels that I felt could have been handled better.

1) Space Walk: Your characters need to go on a space walk to escape the bad guys or fix their ship or save their companion who’s in danger outside. Often, and this is fairly common in Science Fiction whether movies or books, the character throws on an annoying suit that takes them a few minutes to fit together, grumbling all the time, then pop into an airlock and immediately exit the craft into space. Let’s talk about how this goes in the real world. It takes an astronaut 6 hours to prepare for a space walk. 6 hours! They have to get the oxygen level in their blood higher, and the nitrogen level lower, in order to avoid getting the bends. It’s just like in deep sea diving. This process takes some time, and they also have to get their bodies acclimated to a different pressure. Then of course, there’s that suit, which takes a lot more than just a few minutes to don. 6 hours, did I mention that? So yeah, yeah, this is one of those, “But science in the future will develop a way that a suit which is far less cumbersome than current models will regulate your temperature perfectly, create the perfect pressure environment for our bodies and make that silly nitrogen in the blood system a thing of the past.” Maybe. And I know this is the premise most authors work with, but is it just lazy writing? Why can’t the time factor and all the steps you need to take be part of the story? Agonizing every second as your chances of saving the world/boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend slip away while you’re waiting. Honestly, I’d probably abuse this one too, but can we just acknowledge it? “Boy, Bob, this situation would be a lot worse if we lived 500 years ago back in the early 2000’s. We’d never get out there in time!” Okay, maybe not like that, but still. Science people. Real science.

2) Space Travel: Your characters are preparing to blast off into space, or maybe re-enter earth’s atmosphere. They take a seat in their space shuttle in their everyday clothes and head out into space. Why is this odd? Well, I’m not positive about re-entry, but the blast off requires astronauts to wear a full space suit. They’re locked in place and have cooling systems to ward off the intense heat from the lift off. Okay, so here’s another one that can be explained away (except they never explain it) and I will most definitely abuse this one in my novel. I already have the scene played out, but it’s re-entry, not lift off. Anyway, it’s easy to say that future technology will find a way to make space travel more like an airplane ride. Heat shields will be so advanced we’ll never notice the change, and our shuttles will have the ability to gently coast in and out of our atmosphere as if you’re simply taking a trip to Tahiti. So while this is probably pretty unrealistic, it’s one of those Sci-fi tropes we’ll probably never abandon. Space travel has to be easy, or chances are good our characters won’t get to use it.

3) Back on earth where nuclear war raged 300 years earlier, we find a two-headed deer. Of course, the radiation triggered genetic mutation, but don’t worry, you’ll be fine. The radiation dissipated ages ago and this is just evolution. This one is just blatantly wrong as far as I can figure out. First, radiation will trigger genetic mutation, but it’s on a case-by-case basis. Radiation will make people sick, cause cancer, or possibly genetically alter a fetus, but it isn’t an actual change to the DNA they pass along. Meaning, their children won’t be genetically mutated if they remove themselves from the radiation. And if that deer was mutated by radiation, not genetic evolution, then it is not safe for humans to be traipsing around the same woods. Plus, while mutation doesn’t necessarily follow the “survival of the fittest” scenario, evolution generally does. Mutations happen all the time (think cancer), and we do pass some of them down to our children. The idea behind evolution is that mutations that make us stronger and more able to survive are passed down more often, thereby creating an evolutionary change. For example, around the time we started domesticating animals and drinking their milk, only a small percentage of humans could digest the lactose in milk. The ability to do this was passed down to more people because people who were not lactose intolerant lived longer and had more children. People who were lactose intolerant died more often and had a less healthy life because they couldn’t digest one of their major food sources. So that two-headed deer? Even if it was a genetic mutation that could be passed down from mother to baby, I would think giving birth to a two-headed baby would be difficult. So difficult that many babies and mothers would die in the process, thereby eliminating that gene from the gene pool. I’m no scientist, but these are the observations I’ve come up with. If you’re going to have your animals be evolutionarily changed, there has to be a case for why, not just because it’s cool. Oh, and one last thing, the fastest known case of human evolution (maybe evolution in general) is 3000 years. It took people living in Nepal 3000 years for their bodies to change (they produce fewer red blood cells) so they were better adapted to live in high altitudes. Evolution happens, but it doesn’t happen fast.
* NOTE:* Since writing this, I have come across further research that indicates evolution in some plants and animals has been observed at a markedly increased rate due to climate change. I’m talking birds laying eggs earlier to coincide with the earlier hatching of worms, squirrels who give birth earlier in spring, drought resistant mustard plants in California and a few other examples, all happening over 30-40 years. To look at them, they are the same as their counterparts, but they each contain genes that allow them to survive better than others. Still no two-headed deer, but evolution can take place on a small scale over a quicker time-frame and in response to extreme situations of outside pressure. But such mutations only become an evolutionary change if they help the species to better adapt to their environment and become the norm instead of an exception.

4) It’s 300 years in the future (yup, same novel) after a nuclear war has ravaged the planet and people live in space. We don’t know how much radiation will kill a person so we’re going to test it on orphan children, because hey, no one will notice, right? Um, I call bullshit on this one. We know right now how much radiation will kill a person. We know what it will do. This, in my opinion, was just to make the “government” evil and for shock factor. After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Cherynobl and other disasters, we have the data, and since they have knowledge of so many other things on their space ships, why wouldn’t they know this? This story doesn’t take place 300 years into our future, but 300 years past the time they had space ships big enough to fit thousands of people and launch them into space for safety. So the idea that they would have no idea how much radiation it would take to kill a person and what it would do to the human body is ludicrous.

5) Your space ships are failing and you need to know now whether the planet is safe after 300 years on its own. Let’s send a bunch of criminals with monitoring bracelets. If they die, then we know it’s not safe. Okay, so we have space ships that have held thousands of people for 300 years in space, we have monitoring bracelets that send data back to the mother ship about vital signs, and there’s countless other instances of body scan technology, the aforementioned space walk abilities, the aforementioned space travel abilities, but we don’t have a geiger counter? Or anything else that detects levels of radiation? How is this even possible? If you had these big ships that were shipping off into space to save humanity, but you knew wouldn’t last forever, wouldn’t you take the equipment you needed to some day return? Or make it? They make everything else. And as for those monitoring bracelets, they can transmit data, but the people dropped off on earth have no way to communicate with the ship. What kind of an ass-backwards way is this to re-colonize the planet? It’s like they’re trying to fail!

6) We are losing oxygen in our space station, so we must shut down a huge section, let those people die, and prepare to evacuate and return to earth. This one was a little confusing to me. I wasn’t sure if these were space ships that were docked together, or a space station with different huge sections, or what exactly. But let me tell you why I think this whole scenario was ridiculous. First, currently space shuttles and stations are built in manageable sections. If there is a breech or problem in one section, the astronauts can shut that section and hopefully fix the problem, or at least isolate themselves from the problem. It is unrealistic to me that this would change. Space is a hostile environment and humans must take every precaution to survive. Those stations or ships or whatever they were, would have been built so a problem could be isolated, and I don’t mean allowing thousands of people to die in a huge section. There would be smaller sections. Second, it would have been built in a way that allowed them to isolate the problem and determine where the problem was so they could fix it. They wouldn’t just say, “Oh damn, we have a leak. Too bad we can’t fix it.” Plus, and this I’m not really sure of, I have to believe the space stations we currently have must produce or recycle oxygen in some way. I don’ think it would be feasible to send up oxygen to them. Like I said, not sure about this one, but I would think a future space ship has to have a way of providing oxygen to it’s inhabitants.

7) When people die, we will place them in metal coffins and shoot them off into space. So here’s why this one is a problem. Space junk. The sticker off a space shuttle part that says MADE IN CHINA can rip a hole through a space suit, ultimately causing death. Anything “floating” in space is going so fast a small piece could take your head off. Just imagine what a metal coffin could do! I’ve seen this in a number of Science Fiction mediums, but I just don’t see it happening. Everything we eject into space becomes another projectile that could cause catastrophic damage to us or the ship/station protecting our life. Writers need to come up with a more realistic, less poetic, way of sending off our dead.

So that’s it for my rant today. I’m considering a post about stupid things characters do and why they make no sense, but I need a little more fodder, so we’ll see. Basically, I think it’s okay for authors to change or disregard science for the sake of a work of fiction, but keeping within reasonable parameters or at least acknowledging science in some way will make our work more believable. Weigh the science you wish to break with why you want to break it and how you can explain (at least to yourself if not your audience) why it’s viable. And don’t be afraid to allow science to give you realistic parameters to work with. Sometimes having to deal with reality and how to solve a problem in our books brings out a much better thought out plot with more engaging action. At the very least, learn the rules and laws you want to break. It’s kind of like the rules of writing. You can break them, but you have to learn them first.

For more insight into this topic, please visit Dan Koboldt’s blog and his Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. I haven’t read all of these, though I plan to. He uses real experts to de-bunk myths and shed some light on topics we writers don’t always know a lot about. Definitely worth the read!

And look for a future post on all the rules of science I plan on breaking myself. Yes, I am a hypocrite!