Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Do you have to be a scientist?

Do you have to be a scientist to write science fiction?

No, not really, but do you need more than a passing familiarity with science. As we have discussed in previous columns, one to the major types of science fiction story (and the kind that Analog editor Stanley Schmidt says he is most likely to buy) is the idea story. An idea story explores the consequences of the classic "what if" supposition. What if, for example, the Neanderthals had become the dominant species on Earth instead of Homo sapiens? What if a girl snuck on board a spaceship that had a limited amount of fuel? In order to write either of these stories, by definition, you need to know enough science to be able to actually follow those ideas to their conclusions.

"But I'm not interested in writing idea stories," you might reply. "I want to write good ol' fashioned space opera, like Star Wars or Star Trek!" The fact is, you still need to know science, although for a different reason. Even if you are writing stories that are not realistic, hard SF stories, you still have to avoid making a "howler." A howler is a writing mistake that blatently shows you don't have any understanding of science at all. The original Star Wars movie (my favorite movie of all time, by the way) has a classic one. Han Solo, boasting of the speed of the Millenium Falcon says, "You've never heard of the Falcon? It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in under three parsecs. She's fast enough for you, old man." Um, Han old buddy, a parsec is a measure of distance, not speed. Later Star Wars authors tried (not very successfully) to come up with a way for Han's boast to make sense (for the curious, the explanation was that a faster ship could take a shorter path through the black hole-infested Kessel system), but if Lucas had taken the time to learn the meaning of the jargon he was using, he could have avoided this howler altogether. Star Trek, particularly Star Trek: Voyager was the absolute worst offender. In one episode, Voyager is trapped inside a black hole, so they use their phasers to cut their way through the event horizon.

Say what?

The event horizon of a black hole isn't anything physical, it's just the point at which the escape velocity of the hole exceeds the speed of light. Trying to cut through this is like trying to cut through the Maricopa County line. The boundary is there, but we'd laugh at anyone who tried to actually cut through it.

Readers (and viewers) of science fiction are willing to accept the impossible, especially for things like faster-than-light travel. So long as you follow your own internal set of rules for your technology, they'll happily go along with you. But the first time you make a mistake that shows you don't understand science in the Real World (tm), you will lose them completely (and, on a more pragmatic level, the editor will stop reading). The only way to ensure you won't make this kind of mistake is to understand science, at least at the novice level. Taking a community college course in astronomy (yes, I teach a community college course in astronomy) is one of the best ways. Unlike physics classes, astronomy courses are generally survey courses, covering a broad range of topics over the course of one or usually two semesters. You'll get the terminology and the basic physics you need to avoid most mistakes. You might just find out it's a pretty cool class, too!

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