Monday, March 25, 2013

More thoughts on the importance of science in science fiction

Today I was directed to a blog post about how important science is in science fiction using the hideous crime against science example of Beth Revis's Across the Universe, which I blogged about here. (From the sound of it, the blog author may have read my post or someone else's similar reaction to the book.) The blog author asks how important is accurate science really, and is there a line? The rest of this post is based on my comment over there.

I think there is definitely a line. Stuff like faster than light travel, teleportation, artificial gravity (in some circumstances) are fair game to use in fiction with no or only hand-wavey explanations. (In fact, sometimes trying to be too specific with them can be detrimental.) Everyone either knows that stuff isn't real or can very easily google it to find out. And it has a distinct plot-based purpose: if everyone wrote relativistically accurate science fiction (no faster than light travel), it would be very boring. When getting from A to B isn't the point of the story, using an accepted trope to speed things up is totally fine. Same with power sources for spaceships. That's an area where there will definitely be heaps of progress in the future that we can't necessarily predict and so hand-waving is fine.

What isn't fine is getting basic and fundamental concepts wrong like the ship slowing down in space that Revis did. Note that she also had a hand-wavey power source in said spaceship and THAT is fine. But thinking there's friction in space? No. It's a popular book for teens and it's actively confounding a concept that's actually quite difficult to teach. Pretty much no one (and certainly no teen) has been in space and so books and movies are all most of us have to base our intuition on when it comes to how stuff in space works. For things on Earth, it's easy to think about our everyday experiences and predict (from a basic physics point of view) what will happen. On Earth, stuff DOES gradually slow down. In space it doesn't and that's a concept that some kids, when learning physics for the first time, find difficult to grasp. It's a disservice to further confuse the issue.

And for the record, usually if an author tries to do their research, it's obvious in the writing.


Now, when I was searching for a link to something Revis said in an interview about her research for this book (or lack there of), I came across the FAQ on her website. One of the questions and responses is:
Q: WAIT A MINUTE. I think I found a scientific error in Across the Universe.
A: Well–there’s a chance I messed up. BUT if you’re one of the ones who noticed the REALLY BIG scientific error…well, I’ll just say that there IS a sequel, and it DOES address this, and maybe it’s not that the book is wrong, but that the characters have the wrong idea…
I can only assume the "REALLY BIG" scientific error is the friction in space thing that's made me so angry. I'm not 100% convinced that it and associated sciencefails are properly addressed. I can think of one scenario that would make it "the characters are wrong but the science isn't", and from the plot of book one and the hints I've seen around the web for the events in books two and three, it doesn't seem likely.

Have any of my readers actually read the second book? Is it worth my time (and money) reading it just so I can blog about the problems in it? So far the answer to the second question has been "no" and picking up the second book in a shop and flicking through it didn't exactly fill be with the desire to jump back into that world.


  1. How interesting! I didn't know that, about space having no friction - I mean, I hadn't actually thought about it. I haven't read Across the Universe (it's sitting on my shelf, waiting for a spare moment), so I didn't want to read your original rant because of spoilers, but I find your point about using valid physics in genre fiction an important one. I know there are plenty of things in books, movies and on TV that are depicted just plain wrong almost all the time (such as labour/childbirth and CPR, to name a couple) that make me mad, so I can totally understand your feelings here.

    It really is a hard concept to grasp, the no-friction-in-space thing. I don't think I really get it - I'm not sure how to visualise it, for a start - but I don't understand how a space ship - of the super-advanced, sci-fi kind - can't slow down. I mean, it's mechanical and computerised and runs on fuel; on Earth anything we build for transportation will slow down especially if there's a mechanical failure etc. I know in space you can't "stop", you'd only drift, right? I'm hoping you can explain this a bit more to me because I really do want to understand!

    1. Hi Shannon! I decided the proper answer to your question was too long to put in the comments, so I wrote a new post about it. You can see it here:

  2. (The more time I have to let this concept dwell in my brain, the more I'm starting to get it. So what does happen when you, in sci-fi, go from "warp speed" or whatever they like to call it, to, well, not?)

  3. Have you heard of the Orion's Arm Universe Project? They're they're trying to create a hard science fiction post-human universe. They try very hard to get space travel right. Really cool.

    1. Thanks for the link. I think I have come across it before. Interesting concept.

  4. I realize I'm over two years late with this, but I stumbled across this and have actually read the entire trilogy. I would be really interested in what the scenario you mention at the end that you think is unlikely is! I will happily spoil you about the trilogy via email if you'd like to know, but if you'd like to go in unspoiled, I might suggest just starting with the sample for book two and seeing how you feel about it. Chapter one addresses much of what you mention.

    Of course, you might already know this or have stopped caring by now. But thought I'd mention anyway just in case! :)

    1. I don't remember which scenario I was talking about, but it was possibly one of the things I got into in my other post on the topic:

      I do remember being very annoyed about the kid who spaced himself and got pulled off to the side instead of just floating next to the ship forever, because there are a limited number of scenarios in which that could possibly happen.

      I am genuinely curious about how any errors are resolved though. I was kind of hoping I'd eventually find the book somewhere cheap, but it was never that widely popularly sold in Australia. Please spoil all the things! I'll check out the ebook sample too when I have time.


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