Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Does science fiction have to be realistic?

What follows is an excerpt from Stem, a science fiction book that I hope to soon have published.

A bit of setup. The characters are discussing the assembly of a robot. The artificial intelligence system of the robot holds brain patterns gleaned from the DNA of several prominent leaders and artists in history. Behold:

“So what happens when the batteries go dead on this thing?” Matt asked.
“Never happen as long as it eats sugar,” Jenna answered.
“Come again?” Don asked.
“The robot’s battery is powered by microbes,” Jenna furthered.  “They eat sugar and they shit electricity.  As long as the battery is fed just every so often, it will never die.”
“This is truly frightening,” Matt said.
“More like fucking nuts,” Aldo added.  “Don’t you see this makes no fucking sense?  Do you even know how DNA works?  Just because you got the fucking DNA…old and mighty fuckin’ dusty DNA I might add…of all those stiffs, that in no way means you’re going to bring back their personalities and memories.  What the fuck are you thinking?”

“Hey!” Jenna, a full three heads shorter than Aldo, strode over to confront him.  “Drop those questions.  You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about."

And indeed the questions over the robot and the DNA end right there. Why? Well, I suspect that you already know the reason. What I am describing is scientifically impossible. I know that and since this is a work of satirical science fiction, I'm having the characters poke a bit of fun at that fact.

This does lend itself to a larger issue about science fiction, however. Must science fiction be realistic?

I read an article about that very subject by Steven Lyle Jordan just recently at the web site, SciFiIdeas. Jordan begins by describing a book where the plot involves Earth after "global cooling." The writer of the book took his ideas from an organization called Space and Science Research Center that is very much against the concept of human-made climate change. One Facebook poster commented on the matter thusly: “I suspect your book will be much better fiction than anything peddled by the SSRC. Science does not have to be believable, as long as your characters are.”

That may be the crux of things when looking at through the prism of composing literature. Should facts ever get in the way of a good story? If so, how much?

Jordan points out an interesting dichotomy. Consumers appear to delight in heading straight to their computers and lodging their online complaints about how scientifically inaccurate Interstellar was (fair warning: I haven't seen it.) By the same token, many of those said individuals will glow and delight about the new Star Wars trailer. As much as I adore Star Wars, it's obviously not very scientific. Other examples of this contradiction are big breadwinners such as Guardians of the Galaxy (represented by Groot above).

The upshot of Jordan's thesis seems to be that we (writers, readers, fans, etc.) neglect the "science" half of "science fiction" at our peril. To wit:

"I (apparently) represent a dwindling number of science fiction authors who believe that the science in science fiction is important enough to take every effort to make it not only believable, but as far as we can determine, possible.  We put considerable effort into researching our science and technology, crafting our stories around as plausible a series of scientific details as we can work out."

I get that.

For a long time the genre has suffered from near terminal dilution. Sped along by the popularity of Star Wars, a new "brand" was ushered in called "Sci Fi." It's fast, glossy, poppy, and essentially an action movie in space. Any "science" occurs by happenstance. Guardians of the Galaxy sure seems to fit this mold...or maybe I'm just bitter because they're not my Guardians. Harlan Ellison will write and speak at length about his particular disdain for "Sci Fi" and its fans.

It appears this is may be a variation on similar themes: art vs. commerce. Literary vs. genre.

I see both sides of the argument as I'm a fan of texts on both sides. Therefore, I suppose I can really only speak to what my motivations were in writing Stem.

I infused a fair amount of research on how a robot such as the one in my book might be constructed. However, I chose to eschew scientific accuracy when it came to what can realistically be done with DNA. I did that because I wanted to make a larger point. I wanted to make a statement about society. I wanted to write about higher education, specifically the crazy trials, tribulations, and honestly the faculty that currently make up the field.

Vonnegut would do similar things to make his satiric points. I certainly do not claim to be anywhere near his level of talent, instead I'm saying I'm merely employing a similar tactic. While his writing, especially Slaughterhouse Five, fits squarely in the literary canon, it has its obvious science fiction tropes as well. Are they scientifically accurate? Hardly. But I would argue that was never his intention. He had bigger fish to fry.

Like us.

H.G. Wells was somewhat in the same camp. While he was interested and knowledgeable about scientific progress, he was far more interested in where it was taking us and what it was doing to us. Was War of the Worlds scientifically accurate?

In the end, does it matter?

Guess it's your intent that decides that.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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