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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bad Science and Therefore Bad Science Fiction

A few days ago I posted a message where I took fantasy authors to task over their long (and occasionally) boring stories. So now I'm going to attack the Science Fiction types (of which I'm one, so I figure this gives me some reason to do it). So what am I going to beak off about?

How about bad science fiction - hey it even works with the title of this posting, imagine that. So what's my beef?

Why do many science fiction authors seem to make no (or very little) attempt to incorporate science into their stories, and when they do why do they sometimes get it wrong?

Okay, so the first thing you'll say is "well it is fiction!". Okay point taken, but if you ain't gonna have any science you might as well call it a fairytale, and not science fiction.

Various mainstream authors have defined it like this (from

Robert J. Sawyer : "Science fiction is the mainstream literature of a plausible alternative reality."

Barry N. Malzberg : "Science fiction is 'that branch of fiction that deals with the possible effects of an altered technology or social system on mankind in an imagined future, an altered present, or an alternative past'."

Theodore Sturgeon : "A good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content."

Sam Moskowitz : "Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the "willing suspension of disbelief" on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy."

John W. Campbell, Jr. : "The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along... The basic nature of fantasy is "The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!" The basic rule of science fiction is "Set up a basic proposition--then develop its consistent, logical consequences."

Likely the best definition of those above is the one from Campbell, which seems pretty simply to me. Unfortunately it seems to slip the minds of many science fiction authors. Now granted there are various sub-genres of science fiction such as "hard-science fiction" which usually does a very good job of getting it right, but it's not these authors that I'm whining about. Its the author who says "I write science fiction", but who has no idea what science is.

Hollywood is famous for this and maybe this is where these authors get their ideas, but some of the science is so simple as to make the authors essentially look like fools (or worse). Now I don't expect a lot from Hollywood, but Jeez Louise at least try. For example movies like "Them" and "The Fifty Foot Woman" neither the ant's nor the lady's would be able to support them, bone isn't strong enough.

In any case if you want a list of bad science check out Phil Plait's page.

Back to my original point, Hollywood is out to make money and some people simply want to escape. But the written word is different, after all how many times have you read a book, then seen the movie and thought it was crap? That's because the written page can contain so much more detail, and because of that the author has to do that much more research (or they should at least).

Luckily in our group while we have a number of people who write science fiction, we are also gifted with people who do their research (or if they don't they haven't shown that part to the group at least).

I'm going to continue on with this theme next time and give you some illustrations on some of the problems and how to fix them.


  1. Thanks Howard, as a newbie at the beginning of writing science fiction for children I appreciate your article and the clarity it provides through definition.

  2. I like Sturgeon's definition best. Can't wait to see your follow up!

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  4. I'm actually impressed with the levels of good science fiction that are coming out nowadays. When I looked at the list you linked it's fairly small compared to the number of increasingly popular sci-fi flicks and series. And maybe I haven't been reading enough current stuff (I've been told my style is old-fashioned) to comment on writers who do their research, but I do think that they will twist the science a little bit so that it doesn't get in the way of a good story. I think if the message is delivered more powerfully by bending science a little more than hard SF fans would like, power to the writer.

    One pet peeve that I have though, is when people use the word "quantum" to mean "cool sciencey effect we won't try to explain". Quantum mechanics has been philosophically ravaged through inappropriate comparisons and interpretations, my favourite of which is "The uncertainty principle means we don't know ANYTHING anymore!" The movie that's supposed to be a source for knowledge in this regard, "What the Bleep do we know?" is terrible. I couldn't make it through it fully paying attention because of the awful way they twisted the science to try and make an exciting documentary. I have no issues with people twisting science in FICTION, but when they do it in content that is supposed to be truthful or informative, it makes my blood boil.


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