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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Peggy's Qs and My As (about science fiction)

I'm not sure if Peggy of Biology in Science Fiction wanted professional science fiction writers. If so, then I guess she can ignore my answers. If not, then here are my answers to her questions for science fiction writers (if you're a science person, go check out her questions for science writers):

Why are you writing science fiction in particular? What does the science add?
I think the primary reason I write science fiction first and fantasy second is that science fiction seems to grab at my imagination in a more profound way than fantasy (which isn't meant to be a slight on fantasy). The reasons for this are also my reasons for not clinging to a particular religion, and also being rather critical of religion: I'm a rational/logical/non-pseudo-supernatural-whatsit person. You can argue that I'm not rational or logical, but I do spend more of my time looking at things from a viewpoint born out of what is known and provable, to a certain extent, rather than looking at stuff that is, to put it bluntly, bunk. I find things like quantum computers or astronauts losing $100,000 tool bags in space far more interesting on a more consistent basis than TV shows about ghost hunters or listening to people explain to me how dinosaurs and humans lived together.
So, from this perspective science fiction offers me a way of thinking "realistically" about the future. Science fiction is the literature of the future, whether that future be distant or near. I like being able to write about what the world could be like in 20 years, or 50 years, if one thing were to show up, or a new technology were to become a part of traditional culture, etc. I like how science fiction offers me a lot of ways of dealing with what interests me, such as human reactions to the other (in science fiction this translates to human reactions to aliens, cyborgs, clones, robots, human replicas, etc.).
Perhaps what science adds, when I make an effort to really use it (and I guess I use science all the time in science fiction, but when I talk about really using it I mean actually going out of my own little box to find new concepts to work with or trying to portray a better grasp of something I don't know a lot about), is a sense of reality. The idea that this story I'm writing could actually happen. That's important to science fiction I think: that the science make the stories and imagined futures seem real enough for the reader to actually consider the possibilities. The science makes the fiction stronger. Part of this is my personal distaste for regular fiction. I like things that aren't currently real. I like spaceships and aliens and bizarre future technologies, etc. To me, the science simply makes the fiction stronger by allowing for more complex themes than are present in "traditional" fiction. You could argue with me on this if you wanted to, but "traditional" fiction cannot do what science fiction does. Period. Science fiction is unique because of its ability to do what other fictional forms cannot do.

What is your relationship to science? Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool? Do you have a favorite field?
I consider myself a science enthusiast. I don't claim to know everything about science and am honest enough to say that I probably couldn't explain without flailing my arms around like a moron how basic aspects of science work. I don't remember how to do most of things I learned in chemistry and I couldn't easily tell you the specifics of every step of cell division. But I love science, even when I don't understand it (and that happens a lot, because I have no idea how quantum physics works, or what string theory really means, or how the heck a computer works, etc.). I consider myself relatively knowledgeable, though, regardless of my weaknesses. I'm not Mike Brotherton, who is a scientist, and I would never take up arms against him on any scientific issue, because I would lose horribly.
That said, I have studied bits and pieces of science. I think I know a bit more about biology and evolution than I do about, say, complex subjects such as the eleven dimensions or string theory or quantum theory. I have a lot of sociology-type experience in college primarily because I wanted to be an evolutionary biologist before I decided literature and writing was more up my alley. I really find myself fascinated by primates and how close they are to us (and if you researched you'd be absolutely astonished at how intelligent and "human" they really are). Outside of that, I utilize Google on a regular basis to keep myself as knowledgeable as possible about subjects I don't know very well (such as physics, astronomy, etc.--although these subjects are actually fascinating to me, so I find myself learning more and more as I go along).
If I had to pick a favorite field, I'd have to say astronomy. While evolution and primatology are all hot topics for me, I find the recent news in science regarding exoplanets, asteroids, deep space satellites, supernovas, dark matter, etc. absolutely astonishing. Whoever said we weren't still advancing our at an exponential rate was a complete moron, because the things we're learning from space are mind boggling. Pretty soon someone is going to be able to prove that that whole panspermia thing is real...imagine that day, eh?

How important is it to you that the science be right? What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?
This really depends. First off, I'm willing to make exceptions about certain tropes in science fiction for the sake of a story. Faster-than-light travel is still impossible according to our good friend Einstein. But, if FTL isn't possible and you don't want to be one of those folks who uses wormholes and other loopholes, then you're pretty much screwed if you want to do anything in deep space or with aliens. I was reading somewhere that with the best experimental technology we have right now it would take over 80 years, assuming nothing breaks, to get to the nearest star. I think it's worth the attempt, but if it takes 80 to 500 years to get around, that would pretty much ruin the whole space travel agency, because the only things you could actually do would be limited to the solar system.
Outside of that, I do think it's important to be pretty faithful to science. I don't think you have to be a zealot about it, though. We have to remember how quickly science can change in this world. Not too long ago everyone was telling us that the whole panspermia thing was a load of crap. Now a lot of folks aren't so sure. Same with the exoplanet thing. Science changes, so there's nothing wrong with taking a few liberties here or there as long as they try to keep with the general truth of things. When it comes to the basics, though, I think one should stick with what is accurate. Physics should still work in one's science fiction story.
As for resources, I find that Google is enormously helpful for finding accurate information. But you have to be careful. Wikipedia is a great way to be misinformed. I know this first hand as a student. Wiki is often wrong and the problem with Wiki is that other sites now cite it as if it were a legit source. It's not. The best places to find out things, such as different aspects of science, are university websites or actual science websites. They're easy to find and there are hundreds of them, if not thousands. Another thing to do is to ask people who would know (mainly for things that are a bit complicated and very specific).

Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?
I have Universe Today in my RSS feed, which is a great source for space-based news (if they don't go deep enough into something for you, then you can Google it). I also recommend checking out online versions of major science news magazines, such as New Scientist. The BBC is also really good for science stuff. Peggy's blog is great too, especially if you like biology (or Futurismic for tech stuff). Other than that I use Google for a lot of things.

There you have it. Hope my answers were sufficient.

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  1. We wanted science fiction writers of all stripes, so you definitely qualify.

    Thanks for participating!

  2. Interesting questions and answers.
    Thanks for adding me as a friend, I have added you as well.

  3. Sure thing! Thanks for stopping by.