Guest Post: Aliette de Bodard On Scientific Plausibility

In this week’s guest post, my fellow Shine author Aliette de Bodard takes a look at the science in science fiction.

Science in science fiction, or how realistic should and can we be?
By Aliette de Bodard

A large subset of science fiction concerns itself with extrapolating the future, and most particularly with imagining where science could take us [1]. A question that naturally follows is: how realistic should the science be in those stories/novels?

A common answer (and indeed, the first that comes to my mind) is that, if you want to be rigorous, it should be realistic: after all, science fiction is a prediction of what futures might come to pass, and there doesn’t seem to be much point in having something we know can’t possibly exist–say, spaceships that violate the laws of physics or of thermodynamics.

So far, so good. Or is it? The problem here is the “we know can’t possibly exist”. I have deliberately forgotten a very important word in my argument: it’s not that the faster-than-light spaceships would violate the laws of physics–but that they would violate the known laws of physics.

Fine–but that doesn’t seem like a big difference. The basic laws of, say, thermodynamics, are immovable. Unfortunately, that is far from the case. Science is not etched in stone once and for all, but it keeps being updated as we make new discoveries. To give you an idea: the last significant time when humanity thought it understood everything about the world; that we’d hammered into stone the limits of the possible was near the end of the 19th Century, right after we tied Maxwell’s laws to optical phenomena. It seemed that we’d achieved total comprehension of the universe with electromagnetics and mechanics. There remained just two-three niggling little experiments that no one could explain, surely blips on the radar…

Or perhaps not. Within a couple decades, those two-three niggling doubts had given rise to quantum physics, and then general relativity, which pretty much turned upside-down our perception of the universe. Before that, it seemed impossible to have a dual wave-particle nature; and preposterous to think systems could be in several states at the same time. After quantum physics, it was not only possible, but natural–at least within the scientific community.

So science is not a monolithic bloc: it keeps evolving and contradicting itself, and it’s possible (actually, highly probable) that the laws we take as unbreakable today will end up being inaccurate tomorrow. With that in mind, when we write science fiction set more than 20-30 years in future, what we’re writing is not realistic–rather, it’s what is plausible based on today’s corpus of research. And I’m being optimistic here, as not every SF writer will be able to keep abreast of research in every field (though some are really impressive at it). So at best we’re plausible, but not really accurate.

Does that matter? To me, not really. The main value of SF is not scientific prediction, or we would all be writing research articles for Nature, Science or Physical Review Letters, and working in labs. SF can be entertainment; it can be a warning about the effect of some technologies; it can be amazing feats of worldbuilding that impress us and transport us to another kind of reality; it can and has been a thousand things, and realistic science is ultimately a very small part of it.

What matters is writing plausible stories about the future; and “plausible” matters very much indeed. “Plausible” determines resonance with the audience. “Plausible” is what gives meaning and context to SF stories.

And, even supposing we could predict future science perfectly, it likely would be so alien after a few decades that explaining it to the reader would be as hard as explaining quantum physics to a 19th-Century scientist (God knows it’s enough trouble explaining it to undergraduate students). So we fake it.

But then again, isn’t that what all writers do?

[1] I’ll leave aside the subgenres of SF where scientific extrapolation isn’t a big part, like alternate history or science fantasy. There’s lots of good things in Ann McCaffrey’s Pern stories, but they’re not exactly scientifically accurate.

Aliette de Bodard is a French computer engineer who moonlights as a writer, with short fiction forthcoming or published in markets such as Asimov’sInterzone and Realms of Fantasy. She’s a Campbell Award finalist and a Writers of the Future winner. Watch out for her debut novel, the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot.

Author: Gareth L Powell


6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Aliette de Bodard On Scientific Plausibility”

  1. I used to be very concerned with extrapolating a scientifically accurate–or at least plausible–future. Then I started looking back over sci-fi from decades ago. Science fiction does an amazing job of exploring the science we have around us, but a terrible job of predicting it. Ray Bradbury had colonies on Mars but no hint of the Internet. Asimov had computers in the distant future still powered by vacuum tubes.

    Science fiction, at least for me, isn’t about predicting science as it’s about examining the science we have around us. We can extrapolate a theoretical future to explore a present question. Do we have the right to breed children to harvest their organs, and so extend our own lives? So create a future where that happens, and see how things play out. For me, fiction is the argument I have to work out an answer to things like that.

  2. Having worked in science, I think people don’t always realise that science itself can be biased.

    OK, good science is rigorous and objective as far as this is possible, but even those rigorous and supposedly objective experiments are (often repeatedly) designed with an outcome in mind. Because it is impossible to measure anything for every single measurement character, a scientist has to make practical choices: which characteristics are more likely to be influenced by the effect you are imposing on the (carefully selected) situations. Just the act of eliminating outside influences can influence the very thing you are trying to measure.

    It gets very complicated, but the bottom line is: science isn’t *quite* as objective as people often think. OK, it’s a lot more objective than some alternatives, but human interpretation is part of science. A large part in fact.

    This is, I feel, one of the reasons why science sometimes needs to do an about-face regarding something that was long considered to be set in stone. Because something, a little overlooked fact, came from left of field and took everyone by surprise.

    I think the extrapolation we do in the more rigorous branches of Science Fiction goes hand-in-hand with true-to-life science. You often hear media stating that ‘science follows science fiction’. Crudely-put, the human brain conceives a possibility, expresses it in fiction, and then goes looking for a way to make it real. Sometimes, that can be done.

    I think the outer margins of exploratory science and hard science fiction are extremes of the speculative mindset, and could have more in common than people might think.

  3. As with everything in fiction, science should always take second stage to characters and story. Predicting future science is fun, but if it isn’t rooted in a compelling narrative, all the effort that went into creating it will have been for naught. Unless you’re George Lucas. Then people will watch whatever you produce regardless of the quality.

  4. Thanks a lot for these thoughts! A very fascinating topic indeed…

    Tatiana Chernyshova, in « Science Fiction and Myth Creation in our Age » (Science Fiction Studies, volume 31, 2004), made an interesting comment on the subject. She pointed out that most science, for people who don’t have a specifically scientific background, is the object of a kin of blind faith. Most people take it for granted that e=mc². Only a fraction, however, is actually able to explain what e=mc² stand for; and even fewer can understand the theory and explain precisely why it makes sense. The rest of us simply accept scientific facts in the same way as uneducated people in the 19th century accepted the idea that God existed: because competent authorities have said so, but this knowledge still relies on faith, not proof, in spite of the fact that science is supposed to be about proof, not faith.

    So I was wondering: isn’t it problematic to talk about « realism » when it comes to extremely advanced areas of science? Realism, for me, is something writers did in the 19th century and afterwards. When Emile Zola wrote about the daily life of miners, his aim was to describe a reality that was ignored by most of his contemporaries, but that was still there (in a way, at least). Anyone could go and see for themselves what life in a mining town was like. But today’s readers of hard SF can’t really go and check that what is described in the book actually exists, can they? And most of them can’t even check that it could exist at all, since they don’t have the scientific background. It seems to me that it is not possible to be realistic in the strictest meaning of the word; it is only possible for writers to use common archetypes and figures that will correspond to what the readers imagine that scientific truths are like. We would then be talking about science fiction being realistic in regard to another type of fiction…

    That probably rules out the possibility of being strictly realistic in SF. Besides, one might wonder: would realism be a good thing at all? After all, SF is not only about science, but also about its applications, ie. technology. The thing that strikes me most when I read some Golden Age SF is how much more advanced, and how much duller, our technology seems to be. We have genetic engineering, the Internet, nanotechnology, mobile phones (I can only remember one book in which the writer imagined portable phones; is it very rare or it’s just that I haven’t read them?), GPS, etc. And we’re not a bit closer to the stars than we used to be. It must be much more complicated than that, but it seems that, technology being expensive, it was used to produce commodities that people would buy; not necessarily useful things, but things that companies could convince the public were indispensable. It’s all very well in real life; but can you imagine just how dull a SF novel would be if it only described a future where people have a whole bunch of brand new gadgets that they can use to buy something from the other end of the world without moving from their armchair? I’m being overly simplistic on purpose, of course 🙂 I just mean to say that the actual future might be much less exciting than we could imagine, just as our own future is less exciting than 2001, A Space Odyssey. Things happen, of course; there still are problems, and God knows there are things worth talking about in today’s world. I just don’t think that today’s technology is so exciting that it would have been worth inventing a literary genre to describe it, if writers in the 40’s had been able to guess what it was going to be about. And I don’t imagine there will be any drastic change in direction in the future. If we’re alone with our word processor and can invent anything we want, at least, let’s make it exciting, even if it’s not likely to happen! 🙂

    Personally, though, I still believe in the importance of trying to be as realistic as possible. It’s just that my reasons have to do with literature, not with accuracy. When we write a story, the first images that come to mind are likely to be overused tropes, clichés and simplistic figures. I’m not only talking about the clichés of SF (space opera, bug-like aliens, mad scientists…) but also about everything that has to do with prejudice, generalisations, over-simplifications of a complex realities. We all have them, even the most open-minded and educated people, if only because, as Borges wrote, you cannot think without simplifying and generalising. And it’s terribly hard to tell whether that great idea you just had seems great because it’s personal, or because it’s such a gross commonplace that it seems true to you. I’m convinced that it’s even harder when you’ve read little, and when you don’t know much about how the world works, than when you’re moderately educated about a topic or two.

    Trying to be as accurate as possible, for me, is not so much a matter of telling something true, because we don’t know if we ever will, as trying to learn more, surprise yourself with facts you hadn’t suspected, open your mind. That applies o every kind of science, hard and soft. I found it just as stimulating to learn a little bit about the theories of wormholes in the universe that to read about the social structures of the Australian Aborigines. Every fact opens a new range of possibilities. And I’m absolutely convinced that it’s not possible to make up those possibilities when you’re simply dreaming up some new plots. On the contrary, if you merely rely on your imagination, you’re likely to fall back on the tropes that represent the reality of the world in the mind of people with no specific knowledge in that area.

    It’s not a matter of teaching science to the reader. I think it’s all a matter of refining concepts, getting a new look at familiar tropes, exploring areas you wouldn’t have thought about, because, say, you didn’t even know that there could be a place on Earth where people used a binary counting system, or that dolphins have a use for grammar, or that our familiar constellations won’t be visible anymore in 10,000 years. You could even take the idea further and say that refinement of tropes is all that matters, because even the most realistic writers only use shortcuts and symbols to convey their view of what reality is. Zola didn’t write Nana as a random prostitute, but as the epitome of the prostitute (which is why she sounds like such a pathetic caricature today). SF writers don’t write about science itself, but about science as meaning, science as fiction. Otherwise, what would be the use of writing fiction at all.

    Is anybody still reading, or I’ve just bored everyone to death?…

    PS: Patty: I don’t have a real scientific background, but I was taught in school that the basic workings of scientific research consisted in emitting a hypothesis, and then trying to confirm or refute it. That’s probably along the lines of what you said about science not being objective: isn’t the very fact of emitting a hypothesis imposing a bias on your research? For example, I recently read about some scientists « discovering » that homosexuality probably has a biological, not psychological, origin. But isn’t the very fact of asking the question showing a cultural bias? The question would probably have had no meaning for the ancient Greeks, among others. And after all, sexuality itself doesn’t have a unified definition (some gestures that are overtly sexual in some cultures, like stroking the genitals, are commonplace in others). But you’re probably in a better position than me to talk about it 🙂 (and that’s it, I stop talking now :D)

  5. Dylan: yup, my feelings exactly. SF is more a way to explore the choices that might offer themselves to us, and how we’d deal with them if they came up.
    Patty: definitely. There’s a big part of science that goes into the design of your experiments, and this is also a big part of what can make you draw links from cause to effect that might not exist in practice. Also, there’s competing theories of science, especially on the cutting edge, that make it hard to have just one answer for everything.
    Mark: I think every book has a different focus. You do need a plot, characters and science in an SF story, but the balance isn’t always the same. A riproaring adventure doesn’t need as much character as a quiet study; conversely, some hard SF novels are primarily about the science, and not so much about the characters or the plot (I find them boring personally, but I can understand the work that goes into stuff like this–as long as we’re not pretending they’re accurate, but rather constructs around science and the plausible, then I have no objection at all).
    Cécile: we were discussing this with my fiancé the other day, how science has in many ways taken the place of religion, as something people believe in and trust blindly, but seldom investigate deeper.
    I think it goes even further (but that’s where not everyone might agree): like religion, science is a way of explaining the world. It just happens to be the best way we’ve found, and so far it appears to work just fine. That’s not to say it will always be efficient when it comes to making sense of what’s around us–we might well end up with some other system in the future…

  6. Fascinating comments, everyone. I always try to make the science as plausible as possible, as long as it supports the needs of the characters and narrative.

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