Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to be Believable?

star-wars-battle-of-hoth-hd

I recently encountered a Facebook post by an author of a science fiction novel based around the idea of global cooling.  He had discovered a website of climate theorists, the Space and Science Research Center, whose opinions roughly matched those of his book, and was proud to point out the connection.

Unfortunately, the SSRC is an avowed anti-warming group, whose theories are not backed by actual scientific data:

“The Space and Science Research Center (SSRC) is (apparently) a for-profit company located in Orlando, FL. They appear to have an anti-global warming agenda, though their arguments have yet to be examined in detail. They present an appearance of scientific grounding, but they do not seem to have any peer-reviewed papers on their theories.” (From Issuepedia)

I politely pointed this out, and added that “although it’s nice to take your SF from the headlines, one should caution whose headlines are being read…”

However, my point was essentially ignored by other posters, including the author, all of whom expressed little or no concern about whether the science in the story was actually correct.  One such poster lauded the author, and added:

“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.”

When I read that, a small part of me died inside.

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.

But it also seems to be true that the majority of science fiction consumers out there will bitch endlessly about the scientific accuracy of Interstellar… but will pee themselves watching the latest Star Wars trailer.  That they don’t care how impossible it is to fly through space faster than light… it’s so cool that they want it anyway.  That Cal-Tech physicists working as scientific advisers don’t have the same cred as talking trees and raccoons.

la_ca_0421_guardians_of_the_galaxy

This is distressing—and not just because it means people aren’t buying my books; it means that growing segments of the public do not know or care about science or how it works.  And as it takes knowledge of science and how it works to actually work in scientific fields (assuming your goal is not to blow yourself up or contaminate the planet), it means that the future of our scientific progress is looking very bleak.

Talk to today’s scientists and rocket experts, and what you hear from them is a list of science fiction television shows and books that inspired them to get into science.  That list includes work by authors who knew a lot about the science they wrote about, and endeavored to not only inspire, but teach their readers about the world around them.  You won’t hear many of them wax enthusiastic about the Shatner-vs-Gremlin episode of The Twilight Zone, or any episode of Lost in Space; you will hear them speak glowingly of the technology presented in Star Trekand 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of authors like Clark, Asimov, Bova and Pohl.

Sure, you can have your entertaining sci-fi with no real science; your Star Wars, Godzillas, ETs and Guardians.  But the real value of science fiction comes in its examination of the possibilities and pitfalls of science and technology, and how it will impact our real lives.

I really don’t care to know that some kid learned defensive light-saber techniques from me… because exactly who is that going to benefit?  But one day, I’d like to know that one of my books was part of the library of works that inspired a future scientist to improve our energy systems, artificial intelligence or off-planet life support systems.  I’d like to know I helped inspire someone to design a better waste management system, a more efficient jet engine, a more intuitive cellphone interface or a longer-lasting battery.

Because that’s the real power of science fiction.  Any genre can entertain; but science fiction can inspire people to learn about real science and technology, and find ways to make life better.

Though I admit I’ve written series of sci-fi novels where scientific accuracy takes a back seat to entertainment, my proudest accomplishments are those stories where the science is as believable and accurate as possible, and still rocks a great story.  It is not an impossible feat; and it’s one that we should be striving to expose more people to, for the sake of our mutual future.

We should not encourage willful ignorance.  We can, and must, do much, much better than that.


Article by Steven Lyle Jordan.

Steven is the author of the successful “The Kestral Voyages” series, “Verdant Skies“, and many other popular works of fiction. This article was originally published on Steven’s blog ‘A Futurist’s Observations‘.

  • Maximilliano Serna

    Steven, it’s ok to write sci-fi just for fun (or entertainment) purposes and not for science and secular inculcation. As to the global climate change issue, there are both pseudo-science and real-science groups pushing both sides of that arguments. It sounds like you are really cherry-picking the argument. I like hard sci-fi, but soft sci-fi can be just as fun, and who’s to say that the stories don’t occur in another brane-dimension-reality-background with different space-time AKA scientific rules?

    • Gonzo Wenkümmerts

      I think you are misunderstanding the difference in hard and soft SciFi.
      While it is true that soft SciFi does not actively deal with technological issues, its depiction of science and technology is often no less precise than in hard SciFi.
      For example just take Luke Skywalker’s artificial Hand from Star Wars. Star Wars is about as far away from being hard SF as you can be. But in the brief moment where you can see it’s inner workings, you see something that is very close to how prosthetics are beginning to look like today, almost 40 years later.
      There are books that explain how exactly blaster guns, tractor beams and lightsabers work, even if that isn’t a part of what you see in the movie, but the background is there nonetheless.

      SciFi isn’t a genre about future technology, it’s a genre about achieving what seems impossible. That is just as true for Star Wars as it was for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster.

      • Wow on that last paragraph, Gonzo. I’m sure I’ll be quoting that next time I have an epic drunken conversation about what sci-fi is and why it’s awesome (which seems to be happening to me every other week) 😀

  • Peter Hanely

    The greenhouse gas models projecting warming have been rather throughly demonstrated to not reflect reality, not only having numerous glaring flaws, but a complete failure when compared against real world data. The solar cycle models projecting cooling are not certain, but so far have a plausible fit. The success of a simple model based on solar input and surface atmospheric pressure, without regard to composition, to account for surface temperatures for every terrestrial body with an atmosphere in our solar system strongly suggests that greenhouse gases don’t have much impact.

  • Paulo R. Mendes

    This is a great article. I worry about the fact that there are so much people that willfully chooses to be ignorant about how science works. Any decent sci-fi writer/fan should know how science works, so this way their works can inspire future generations of scientists and sci-fi writers. I, for example I’m trying to create a sci-fi setting where there are things like FTL drives and artificial gravity, but all these tech is showed as being godtech (ancient alien tech that is so advanced the looks like magic) of unknow origin – but even this tech is based in real science: FTL flight is achieved through the use of wormholes (in a way similar to the Adamist starships from Nights Dawn Trilogy), while artificial gravity is achieved using dark energy to curve the local geometry of time space.

    Unfortunately, there are too much lazy people nowadays without interest in take some time doing some research to their works. 🙁

    P.S: sorry for my bad English. I’m Brazilian and I have a hard time writing long texts and/or trying to communicate in English.

  • Dan

    I think you are running into a phenomenon which was described in the science fiction novel Canticle for Leibowitz, the retreat from rationality by an advenced civilization. Many sci fi writers have dealt with the ugly possibility that the average human is ultimately fearful of scientific enlightenment and will retreat under stress to the darkness of religion and superstition. Selfish demagogues understand this flaw in humans and use distortion and flat out lies from bought and paid for think tanks to inflame public distrust and fear of the scientific community, thereby increasing their political power. It’s tied to the anxiety people feel when jobs, family, and security seem to be dissolving around them. Things like authoritarian ideology, religious extremism and ethnic intolerance provide a comforting though false sense of security to people like that. Unknown to many we are now in a political and cultural war for the preservation of science and the victor is still in doubt.

  • I try to put a lot of thought into my web comics scifi technologies even if it’s something that may sound ridiculous like a flying car in space XD

    but then again who knows, someday in the far future we may live in orbit and drive personal space crafts “like cars” from station city to station city! so is my rediculuous unbelievable idea of flying cars in space really that unbelievable D:

    ouch my brain…

  • There have been ice ages periodically, to assume the current climate change will divert the next natural ice age is a baseless assumption. It may merely make it a stormy, messy, ****-show before the next ice age comes. So, the whole premise is based on the assumption that because the other guy’s science sources were flawed, there aren’t other sources? Everything else is much ado about nothing. The general public has never ties hard science to entertainment, hence “mythologies”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_age

  • DT Krippene

    A timely article, Steven. I still remember my current real life hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson, critiquing the movie Gravity for a few inaccuracies (though he was gracious, and made sure to state he loved the movie). There was a time when nobody cared about Einstein’s theory of relativity in scifi, because most folks couldn’t understand it (many still don’t). With Hawking’s “Universe in a Nutshell”, complex theoretical physics is still complicated, but more folks are becoming
    enlightened. I for one, am still amazed at the plethora of scifi books that start and end with battles on “space ships”. There’s room for fun and room for the more “realistically” accurate. As for your friend, the subject of global warming is unfortunately filed under sensitive firebrands, like talking about religion, politics, et al. Someone will always take deference, regardless of fictional intent.

  • Could not agree more. Great article!