Science fact or science fiction and the space between
I live between two worlds when I write; a world in academic writing dependent on argument verified by constant referencing of work that has gone before, and fiction writing where the constraints of real life can be thrown off to allow for a more flexible interpretation of known facts. Even so I still feel the need to root some part of my writing in what is possible, which creates the mental wrestling match of how I incorporate the relevant science fact and to what degree.
This is probably why I select books that help me think about this issue, which means I have a varied reading list. The most recent books have ranged from an attempt by one of the giants of theoretical physics, Max Planck, to explain his field and question his world in terms of science, a book exploring the complex subject of human genetics to two science fiction novels.
Max Planck’s Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers provides a brief overview of his career, but more interestingly he attempts to translate some theoretical physics concepts into words. This, I am told by those in the field, can only begin to scratch at the surface of an immensely complex area. But for those of us who cannot follow the mathematical arguments and need to find some way to incorporate the concepts into our writing it is the only access point. There are no diagrams in this book of the kind we have become so used to in TV documentaries with helpful scientists weaving their way through a slick monologue, but lack of them helps to concentrate the mind on what needs to go on the page. In this form physics becomes reminiscent of a philosophical discussion, but maybe this is not surprising because I have long thought that physics is philosophy with mathematics. Planck’s prose is also interesting and worth working through, because it provides some intriguing insights into a man with an agile mind and an insatiable curiosity for the world around him.
Ancestors in Our Genome. The New Science of Human Evolution written by Eugene E Harris, a professor whose field of anthropology crosses over into the molecular aspects of evolution, approaches an equally vast and still developing field. He makes a heroic attempt to explore both the myriad of inventive ways in which scientists are researching the development humankind, while indicating possible implications for its future. Again it is a book that is written in a way that can, with some work, be read by someone with little or no science background. Although, having been written for a modern audience, unlike Planck’s collection of essays, there are helpful diagrams.
Max Planck’s approach is helpful if science fiction writers are considering how they want to incorporate and express substantial chunks of science into their writing and convey the relevant concepts to a reader without detracting from the story. This is not an easy path to take, but is a challenge that Chinese author Cixin Liu (translator Ken Liu) takes on with relish in his novel The Three-Body Problem. The doomed professor’s calm responses to his tormentors at the beginning novel have a certain resonance with Planck’s discussions, as well as those of classical Greek philosophers. This sets the tone for the rest of the book that maintains a tense narrative while managing to incorporate aspects of quantum mechanics, the process of computer hardware and other established scientific principles. Liu utilises some clever methods of exposition that not only provide one of the main protagonists with access to a problem he needs to solve, but also gives the reader the frisson of beginning to grasp some complex scientific principles while enjoying a story that would hold its own with any international thriller. Set between the Cultural Revolution and modern day, with excursions into a brilliantly conceived virtual world, Liu maintains a credible slip from fact to fiction and back again.
Peter F Hamilton, on the other hand, usually writes about a world so far into the future that the current understanding of scientific principles is extrapolated to the point of snapping. His latest novel The Abyss Beyond Dreams alternates between a highly advanced world sometime in the far-flung future and one where the inhabitants of a frontier society are decedents of members of that advanced separated from their own universe by accidental travel through a wormhole. This creates an interesting dynamic whereby there is still some of our current science recognisable, but which Hamilton takes to a whole new level while the reader hangs on with their mental finger nails to keep up with the stream of highly enjoyable technobabble. Welding this blend of advanced technology with the frontier-style life makes for an interesting juxtaposition.
Science has a great deal to offer science fiction in terms of a jumping off point. Indeed if a reader is prepared to put the effort in, even the original and seemingly dry essays do provide some insights into how to convert concepts into highly readable and relevant additions to a plot. Planck’s rhetoric combined with Liu’s competent and seamless incorporation of high level concepts into his novel, have helped me think the tricky problem of science exposition in my fiction. Harris’s genetic intriguing snippets (the fact that it is possible to look at human evolution through identifying the point where certain parasites parted ways from us) have triggered all sorts ideas for stories. Hamilton has provided a template for letting go and creating my own version of science that still sounds credible.
I personally like to see some nod to our modern day understanding of science, but I am quite happy to be pulled along for ride if the writer’s version of science is done well and creates an immersive reading experience.