Writers Create Fiction, They Don’t Prove Facts (redux)

I’m still wondering about the expectations and priorities of writers in general, and of science-fiction writers in particular. My sincere apologies if this seems repetitive, but I need to set a few things straight before I move on, otherwise this thingum will gnaw at me and suck much needed neuronal capacity away from my revision.

You see, I believe that the first priority of a writer is to create compelling and entertaining stories and to share them with as many people as possible (maybe even enough to afford a living). The second priority is to be original and achieve excellence, so as to outshine, or at least impress the competition and entities that judge and reward quality in fiction. Everything else falls further down this list, in my opinion, like proving a point or converting people, or dissing the teachers who belittled us and making our moms proud, or the other way around.

In the case of science-fiction writers, the expectation of originality is great. Not only a mastery of storytelling and the writing craft is expected, but also a mastery in wielding ideas. We are expected to create complex characters, riveting plots, and also explore potential developments in science and technology, and showcase their dangers and benefits, preferably in an intriguing and memorable way. Nowhere is it demanded of us that we create accurate demonstrations of scientific theories and hypotheses, only that we respect known facts in our fictional extrapolations and inventions. We must respect the proven laws of physics, chemistry, quantum mechanics and astronomy, regardless of our personal convictions and religous beliefs, if we want our work to be considered science-fiction, and not science-fantasy or just fantasy.

Despite common misconception, mathematical demonstrations and logical deductions are not the same thing as empiric proof. Anyone aware of what a scientific method is—aware of the necessity of reproducible experimental results, coupled with the ability to generate accurate predictions of observable events, before a theory is considered a valid principle of physics, a set of physical laws—can easily recognize the difference between theory and proven law. The current theory of cosmology is a theoretical construct, not a proven law. As a theory, it can be plausible and popular as much as it likes, that doesn’t make it accurate in a scientific sense.

Today’s cosmology is still chiefly speculative, despite the predilection of the media to claim that we know things for sure. Until we venture out of our solar system and explore celestial phenomenons directly (and long enough), or are able to reproduce them with scaled down models here on Earth, we cannot be certain about their dynamics, we can only speculate. We have been observing the sky with scientific instruments only for the past four centuries, and have become aware that we exist in a galaxy among countless other galaxies only since the 1920′s. Our current cosmological model is just half a century old. On a universal timescale, this is ridiculous. To believe that this one special theory of the universe is a proven law and is the summit of our knowledge, is rather naive in my opinion.

The relevance of all this to writing science-fiction is the following:

As writers, we are by definition creating fictional representations of reality, in which we explore theories and hypotheses. We are not expected to deliver scientific papers that withstand empiric test—if we were, Asimov, Clarke, Lem, Anderson, Pohl, Niven, Vinge, Haldeman, Baxter,… would all be considered laughable frauds, which they most certainly aren’t.

Creating science-fiction has nothing to do with creating empirically valid science, and everything to do with exploring interesting theories. And since all we have in today’s cosmology are theories, one is as good a premise for science-fiction as any other, as long as it’s derived from known basic laws and principles (and there are quite a few wild theories out there, who are nonetheless derived from the same facts as the popular theories). Given that a writer’s second most important priority is originality and intrigue, what good arguments can possibly be given against the use of less popular theories as grounds for fictional worlds? You know, arguments other than conformity and the safety of a well tread road.

I am not a scientist, and I don’t have the slightest illusion about how limited my knowledge and my understanding is. I’m not interested in convincing anyone of my beliefs and curiosities, or in educating people about the workings of the universe. I’m a writer, and as such my loyalty lies entirely with the human imagination, not with a dogma or another, not with a religion or political orientation. I’m neither an avid supporter nor a raging demolisher of scientific theories. Maybe next year I’ll be fascinated with quantum dynamics, or androids and retroviruses, but right now I’m digging into alternative cosmology theories, and relishing the variety and the freedom to pick the most interesting and daring ones for my work—something that scientists unfortunately can’t do. That was the point of my previous post, not (anti-)propaganda, and I’m sorry if my typical enthusiasm gave the wrong impression.

I love this liberty to create alternative realities that entertain and make people think, it’s what makes writing the most awesome thing I can imagine doing. I’m dealing with intriguing fiction, not fact, and I’m very very satisfied with that.

Phew.

Don’t worry, I’ve exhausted this subject for now. I’m really not that eager to debate whether the glass is half full, or twice as big as necessary. ;)

Next week I’ll write about POV in science-fiction, and hopefully get some Ks of revision wordcount hammered in as well. How are all of your projects coming along, including all of you NaNo’s out there on the battlefield? I’ve got 46K so far, and hopefully 50 by the end of November. Who knows, maybe next year I’ll even participate officially.

 

Comments

  1. Renee Miller says:

    I don’t think you have any reason to apologize. You opened a great discussion for folks to share theories, beliefs and to (most importantly) question the answers given thus far. Isn’t that what fiction is about, whether it’s sci-fi or any other type of fiction?

    Personally, I think anyone who gets their panties in a bunch over a simple discussion or an opinion needs to get over themselves. It’s not like you’re attempting world domination or trying to oppress a civilization. You’re saying “hey, this doesn’t add up for me. What about this idea?”

    And for anyone who is offended or angry that you’d dare consider one theory over another, well you’re writing fiction. You aren’t curing cancer or building time machines or cloning shit. You’re allowed to tell your story whatever way you choose, based on whatever theories interest you and your readers. While facts are important in this genre, sci-fi writers aren’t scientists (well some are, but most are definitely not), and that’s the bottom line here.

    • Vero says:

      Thanks, Renee. That’s really the whole point, that we’re writers and our bread and butter is made of fiction. That means we have a lot of liberties that we can take advantage of. If more people would do so, there would be a greater variety in the genre, and no damage done to anyone whatsoever. :)

    • Adam Gaylord says:

      I agree with Renee. You have to be open to discussion.

      Looking back on your previous post, I seem to be the only one who commented with anything but glowing praise (which you deserve, of course) so I’m left to wonder if I’m the one with my panties in a bunch. That happens some times. I think it’s all the lace.

      But I’ve got no beef with your point or your enthusiasm. I just think you were a little heavy handed with your critique of the scientific process.

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go change my panties.

      • Vero says:

        You’re awesome, Adam. I really appreciate the fact that you say what you mean, and mean what you say. *fist-bump*

        No, it was not your comment that I was talking about, but others who were relayed to me on the side, not up front on the blog. I ended up feeling like I got the completely wrong point across, and it irks me when things trail behind me that I never intended to. Hence this post.

        I’m passionate about theoretical physics, but I’m most definitely not a firm believer in any theory over another. If anything, I’m interested in drawing attention to things that I feel are worth considering and using in fiction. :D

        Thank you for your comments. I really appreciate them, and you totally got my point. :P

  2. Peter says:

    Yep… science is science… fiction is fiction… they’re entirely different and yet somehow they come together in a thoroughly entertaining fashion in science fiction. As you say, it’s all about making people think

    • Vero says:

      Science-fiction is the hardest genre to thrive in, and the most rewarding, in my opinion. It’s worth all the effort and patience we can muster. :)

      Thanks for commenting, Peter.

  3. Loud applause, heck, some jumping up and down. Writing science fiction is about taking ideas and expanding the mind and stretching the imagination so that science may follow. If we dare dream of going to Mars, ala Robinson and Bradbury, then maybe we will in the future.

    Boos to the science nitpickers who criticize because its not their latest theory, which they have made a law. I’m with you on this one, Veronica. My soapbox too. Too much out there in the wide universe/universes to yet discover.

    • Vero says:

      Thanks for the enthusiastic support, Sheron! :D I’m just glad that we have such a variety of great scientific ideas to work with, there’s really no reason to play safe in science-fiction!

  4. Jay Noel says:

    I thought is was a fantastic post – the idea that science is firmly rooted in so much truth needs to be blown up. How many times just in the last few years have you read headlines showing scientists are having to reevaluate or revise something that was supposedly found to be scientific fact? How about a drug that is discovered to do more harm than good, despite a company spending millions on testing and getting governmental approval?

    Here’s a fact: science is awesome. I love science. I blogged about science for a good five years because I enjoyed it and worked in that field. But for all of its rigorous testing, science is still conducted by human beings. Imperfect human beings.

    • Vero says:

      “But for all of its rigorous testing, science is still conducted by human beings. Imperfect human beings.”
      Perfectly said, Jay! Science brought us the greatest, most amazing discoveries and inventions, and without it we’d still be living in mud huts. But having blind faith in science and scientists simply because they are sometimes right and sometimes awesome, isn’t a healthy attitude. It isn’t a rational attitude. :)

      Thank you very much for the comment!

  5. Jelena says:

    I was worried about being scientifically accurate once. I wanted to write HARD sci-fi.
    I don’t care anymore. I love science, I love scientific method, I love numerical stuff.
    But I still hate fantasy/paranormal genres (nothing personal, just a baggage from the old times.)

    So my ‘manifesto’ is shorter, but it goes like this:

    I’m well-informed about current state of things in some scientific fields while in others I’m just a regular cavewoman. I’m not even embarrassed to admit the lack of my knowledge — I read as much as I can, but no way I will catch up with a professional in any field, especially the one unrelated to my ed. I know that well, but I’m writing fiction. If I decide to publish a science paper, I will worry about peer reviews, but not in fiction. I try not to break any currently known physical laws ON PURPOSE (tho I might forget something, my memory is not a computer drive), but I’m ALLOWED to do crazy shit of epic proportions. Because in MY version of the Universe it works; I made it that way.

    I’m writing fiction.

    Maybe even hard science fiction.

    I don’t know anymore.

    It doesn’t matter.

    What matters are BELIEVABLE characters and story. :-)

    • Vero says:

      You hit the nail on the head, Jelena. In fiction, it only matters if it’s internally consistent and respects the rules of the story, while keeping the basics within logical parameters. All the extrapolations need not be accurate in a scientific sense, and they need not be conform to a known theory (or the popular theory). All that matters is good storytelling.

      Thanks for the comment! :)

  6. So well said Vero, as usual. I love that you’ve written about this because the same thing happens in historical fiction. Historical fiction writers are often taken to task for “deviating from history.” However, we can’t know anything about history. We have written stories and archeology–and the stories written down are all biased, and often intentionally skewed. Even fellow historical fiction writers fall into this line of thinking, that if we’re not relating the story exactly as it occurred we’re not serious about writing or our passion for history. But we are writers first, and historians second–if at all. It’s not my job to be accurate about what happened. In fact, it’s impossible for me (and in most cases, anyone) to do so. It’s my job to tell you a story inspired by where we’ve come from.

    Jelena’s comment was right on :)

    • Vero says:

      Wow, Leslie, you’re absolutely right, historical fiction writers are experiencing the exact same thing when it comes to accuracy! Thank you so much for this awesome comment!

  7. SusyS says:

    I understand where you’re coming from in this post, and I can appreciate what you’re saying and how it applies to making good fiction. Because, when it comes down to it, that’s what a sci-fi writer’s job is: make good fiction. And with that expectation comes certain allowances from the audience. Just like we cannot make unrealistic characters, the world must be tied to our own experiences in a way that allows for the suspension of disbelief.

    Unfortunately, I think you’ve fallen into the trap of the science-writer rhetoric. “Theories,” as the word is used today, is meant as an explanation for effects that are seen. Theories have nothing to do with the actual effects. You’ll hear phrases like the “theory of gravity,” referring to, of course, Einstein’s relativity. His theory is an explanation of the things we see, objects falling, etc., as curvature in space-time. There’s no way to prove one way or another that “curvature” is the correct explanation. All we know is that the picture that Einstein’s field equations give us is remarkably accurate to the effects we see. Atomic clocks do run faster or slower depending on how close they are to a source of gravity. No new theory we ever come up with can ever subvert that, because it is a fact of life – without those calculations, your GPS would be rendered useless after a few hours. So even if we come up with a new theory, or picture, that better explains other effects, it must still include the effects (such as time dilation) that Einstein correctly predicted.

    You mention cosmology – one of the most open questions in physics today. We do not have a good theory for the expansion of the universe (including the Big Bang). Dark Energy is the goto buzzword for the cause of metric expansion. But we have no idea what it is. The thing is that, while we don’t have a good explanation for it, we still know that it does happen. The mountain of evidence is overwhelming. The Microwave Background, standard candle measurements of supernovae, it all adds up to a picture of constant expansion.

    And here comes sci-fi. When you play on this bleeding edge of science, there are two possibilities. You make up something correct by sheer chance, or you get it wrong. Of course, it’s far more likely that we’re wrong, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Authors like Jules Verne are classics, despite giving us an almost comically wrong depiction of things like the center of the Earth.

    But you don’t have to play on the unknowns of science. Subverting known limits like the speed of light is fun and sparks the imagination. No one put down Harry Potter because it was being too unrealistic. Science fiction has no more duty to stick to the real than Fantasy.

    What truly pains me to read is how you view current scientific understanding. You’re essentially invalidating many scientists’ life work without the knowledge of how they came to the conclusions they did. It’s offensively brash. Inflation and the Big Bang are such highly touted models because of how miraculously well they fit the evidence.

    • Vero says:

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment, Susy. I understand your points, and you are right that science-fiction writers can get things right by chance, or not, but it would mean preciously little to the quality of their work or the fascination of their ideas.

      However, I do not share your conviction that today’s cosmological model is accurate. It is the most popular ideology, but not the only one, and it is riddled with flaws and contradictions. It wasn’t my intention to offend the scientists who have spent their lives working to validate this model, just as I find it rash of others to dismiss the other scientific ideologies and their proponents on the basis of less popularity. (I couldn’t possibly hope my opinion is capable of invalidating anyone’s work). I want to encourage critical thinking wherever it is possible, and science-fiction writer have a lot more freedom than many of them acknowledge and use.

      What I’m basically saying is that I am skeptic about many aspects of the Big Bang Theory, and believe my doubts to be justified. And that as a science-fiction writer, I do not feel any obligation to use the current ideology as a base for my fiction. :)

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate that.

      • SusyS says:

        You’re falling into the logical trap that inspires conspiracy theorists. This is probably the fault of an overactive imagination, which I don’t fault you for, but please keep your fiction and your beliefs separate!

        A small inconsistency or flaw does not invalidate an entire body of work. That is, just because you can find minor glitches in the lunar landing footage, does not make the whole thing a hoax. Similarly, you can’t dismiss the entire BBT on small tidbits, when in fact, the large picture fits so well.

        I’m getting so up in arms because I feel like you have formed your opinion without fully understanding the issue at hand, which is one of my personal pet peeves. As for the BBT, some guys pointed radio-telescopes at the sky and saw some background static. The BBT predicted that a hot, dense early universe would emit light (like a glowing hot iron). The BBT allowed for a prediction for this temperature that is accurate to the HUNDRED-THOUSANDTH of a degree Kelvin. This prediction is based solely on two assumptions: A hot, dense early universe, and expansion ever since. I don’t there has been many closer matches of theory and experimental verification in the history of science, and that 2.72548 K is only the tip of the iceberg of evidence…

        There may be small chinks in the BBT’s armor, but you cannot throw it out because of that. Like I said in my original post, the BBT is not well explained; it is simply a description of what we observe. I have no problems with new explanations – “Dark Energy” is hardly an explanation anyways. But it is simply ignorant to discount the observations of the BBT.

        • Vero says:

          I am far from being a conspiracy theorist just because I don’t believe the Big Bang Theory is a fully accurate model of the universe. I am not a supporter of any other cosmological model, I am simply questioning the necessity for writers to adhere to mainstream sciences.

          Every rational person reserves some doubt, because there are only few things which we can say for absolute certain. Even scientists who have supported BBT their whole lives admit that we are only just beginning to understand the universe. The little we have come to know over the past 60 years is far from forming a complete and functional model. We have taken a peek out the window and seen a forest, and assume the whole world is a forest. It’s a good point to start, but we have a LOT of exploring left to do before we are truly certain—not of isolated readings, but of how they work together, of the picture they form.

          • SusyS says:

            > Every rational person reserves some doubt, because there are only few things which we can say for absolute certain.

            Do you doubt that galaxies exist? You must certainly accept that light has a finite speed, which means that the further away something is, the more back in time we look at it. There is an opaque wall of light (if not from a dense early universe, what else?) every direction we look, consistently at the same distance/time… there’s just nothing that can ever contradict this FACT. Something was there, 13.7 billion years ago, that was opaque and surrounding us everywhere. I must stress, this is irrefutable. It’s light, and it’s out there. Ignoring it is equivalent to shutting your eyes and claiming that your computer monitor doesn’t exist.

            I’m uncertain why you remain so adamant about your doubt! Isn’t it so much more amazing to imagine that we live in a universe where it could be so dense at a point in time that ordinary matter couldn’t even exist? And that it is expanding in such a way that in billions of years, it will be impossible to see any galaxies beyond our local cluster?

            There’s a reason people who don’t agree with the BBT are shunned by the scientific community. It’s not because the system is keeping them down (conspiracy!), it’s because they’re legitimately crackpots. Science works, despite the other flaws in the system.

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