Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Writing Science Fiction

Every Wednesday, I post an essay or two that relates to anything from reading/writing to gaming to anime to life in general.

Some would argue that what makes writing science fiction intimidating is the science. There is this preconception that science fiction must be chock full of scientific terms, jargon, and formulas. I do think writing science fiction is difficult but not because of the science involved. Science fiction that must incorporate science--or at least the science we have come to believe--I think is a misconception. When I speak of science, there are usually four ideas that springs to people's minds: mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology (basically high school science). But as an avid reader of science fiction, let me tell you a secret: your story doesn't need any of those elements. In fact, I'm surprised that many science fiction readers consider those sciences to be vital elements of the science fiction story.

That is not to say you can't write a science fiction wherein mathematics, physics, chemistry, or biology is integral. These kinds of works, fans usually classify as hard science fiction, because they rely on actual scientific theory. The heart of the science fiction story however, in my opinion, is the idea. One doesn't need to be a rocket scientist in order to have an idea. This idea can be a simple speculation or an intricate, interwoven hypothesis. For example, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 can be summed up in a simple sentence: what if we lived in a world where books are burned and the world has lost its interest in reading? Orson Scott Card's novella Ender's Game can similarly be paraphrased as what if war was placed in the hands of a child who merely thought he was playing a game? In the case of Fahrenheit 451, there was really no mention of either biology, mathematics, physics, or chemistry, with the exception that Fahrenheit 451 was the temperature at which books burned. Ender's Game had a semi-futuristic setting but they are all window dressings and Card doesn't really explain how we managed to travel at the speed of light or how the space stations worked or how we managed to program artificial intelligence into a computer. The germ of those stories is a simple idea.

And then let us not forget the politics in science fiction. Politics for the most part is a social science and many science fiction works have tackled the subject yet it's seldom I hear that people talk about science fiction in light of the social sciences. George Orwell's 1984 for example is clearly agenda driven and the science fiction present in the story is assumption that Big Brother watches you. Ursula K. le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, as much as they are tales of aliens and far-flung star systems, at the heart of it is the human condition and how we establish factions and political bodies among ourselves (or at least that's my interpretation). Even William Gibson's Pattern Recognition has something political about it and again, one doesn't need to be well-educated or wealthy or even talented to have political leanings. Whether rich or poor, we all have an opinion when it comes to politics. The question I think is whether we care to write about it and in what mode do we choose to deliver it.

Lastly, I'll enter one of my favorite topics: philosophy. And when I speak of philosophy, you can throw in as well the question of the existence of a demiurge. In fact, one would argue that every science fiction piece written isn't philosophical in one way or another. But I want to bring up philosophy because professors and teachers on the subject agree on one thing--that every sentient being engages in philosophy. The only difference perhaps between those who take up philosophy from those who don't is perhaps the self-awareness and the ability to elucidate and explain their ideas better. And if you look at it, many science fiction stories deal with philosophical ideas. Isaac Asimov's I, Robot explores robotic sentience or at the heart of it, the hierarchy of values (human life/lives are at the top of the totem pole). And Arthur C. Clarke's short story of The Star isn't so much disproving God's existence but how we react when everything we believed in proves to be false (and this is a recurring motif in many stories, science fiction or not).

For Dean and some of the Lit Critters, a good science fiction story is where science is integral. Personally, I beg to differ. Certainly the science part is important but some writers use science fiction and fantasy not because of the limits imposed by realist fiction but rather to disassociate readers from topics they wouldn't otherwise tackle such as sexuality and discrimination. Aliens and robots for example can easily be a metaphor for people of another race and nationality (and did the Nazis not consider Jews to be sub-human?). In my opinion, the science fiction aspect of Robert Heinlen's Starship Troopers can be stripped away and instead converted into a modern military story and it'll still work. The science in the novel I think is superficial and merely a vehicle for telling the story Heinlein wanted (and take note the political climate at the time). One interesting social theory however that Heinlein pushes in the book is that we'd all be better citizens if we volunteer for military service. Nonetheless, I still think that the science in science fiction doesn't have to be earth-shattering or too tightly-woven around the story (although it would be nice if it did).

And then there's the science fiction shows and film. While as much as they do get some of the actual science right, science fiction in other media has also propagated a lot of science myths. However, as a storyteller, I also understand that sometimes, it's best to go not with what's realistic but what's best for the story or what's cinematic. That's not an excuse, however, to write a pseudo-science fiction story. If you want to write a faithful and hard science fiction story, do your research. If you want to write something like Star Wars or Dr. Who (or even something comedic like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), we're more likely to forgive you if you don't get everything right.

Having said that, if you really want to write that "science" science fiction story, go ahead. I mean what really inspired this post was reading Ted Chiang's short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others. I mean stories like Understand or What is Expected of Us (not in the collection) are idea-driven, but Division by Zero has a certain charm as it revolves around the formula e^(pi*i) + 1 = 0. Story of Your Life, on the other hand, combines philosophy, the Sapire-Whorf hypothesis, Fermat's Principle of Least Time, and even a sprinkle of Borges as Chiang gives us an alien that is truly alien and the implications of such an encounter. I enjoyed it and it's grounded on scientific principles and left me reading the book way past my bedtime, but it's not the only way of writing science fiction.

Let us also not forget that at the end of the day, a science fiction story is a story--one that needs character, plot, and setting to some degree. I think rather than ponder on the mysteries of science, one should ask the question how will I narrate my story? What elements will I be needing? If it is of the speculative nature then go ahead and write it. Some might label it fantasy (if the reader doesn't think it's possible), others science (if it is the realm of "reality"). If you really want to write that story full of scientific jargon and theory, go ahead and let the critics label it as hard science fiction. But honestly, before a story can be called science fiction, it honestly doesn't need math, physics, chemistry, or biology (and don't feel guilty for writing that "science fiction" story that has nothing to do with either of those subjects). In fact, I'd also be impressed if you can include the other neglected sciences such as social science, psychology, alternate history, or as Dean jokes, library science. While several science fiction authors do have backgrounds in science and the like, not all of them decide, hey, I should be an expert in this field of science before I can write my story. The science aspect should enable, not hinder, the writer.


Anton said...

Your argument, that a science fiction work does not need "need any of those elements" but should contain things aspects concerning reading (or a similar topic), politics, and philosophy is illogical because you can refer to almost any type of fiction.

Dean and the Lit Critters are right: science is integral for a work to be considered part of science fiction. Consider your points: for example, you argue that you can strip away the science fiction in *Starship Troopers* and then argue that it would still work as a "modern military story" (perhaps something like the book *Short-Timers,* which is set in the Vietnam conflict), but notice that you never argued that the stripped-down version is still part of science fiction. There's a difference between claiming that "it'll still work" and that it's still part of science fiction.

The way I see it, you were not able to disprove the claim made about science being integral to works that are part of sci-fi.

Charles said...

No offense to you Anton, and I'm glad you're giving feedback, but one problem I have with how you mention your points is that you do not expound on them and that you assume yours is the only logical way, when there are several ways to logically talk about a certain subject matter yet arrive at entirely different conclusions. (Thankfully, your second paragraph is well expounded upon.)

To answer your first paragraph, re-read my essay. I have pointed out works which are "classified" as science fiction even when they lack lack your classification of "science fiction" elements but talk about philosophy, politics, etc. Are said elements exclusive to science fiction? No. But then again, that's also like saying no story can't have romance because if it did so, it would belong to the romance genre.

As for Starship Troopers, it can go either way. And you misunderstand Dean's points: if you strip down the science fiction element, then there is no story. In this case, there is still a story. As for whether it can be classified as science fiction or not, it depends on how hypothetical story is narrated. There can be no aliens or power armor yet still be classified as science fiction.

Feel free to disagree with what I've written. But my essay still stands.