Science fiction and science: believability in storytelling

So the other day I was at aerials – that’s aerial silks, where I go to work out my stress in a way that is simultaneously beautiful and brutal – and the subject of science fiction came up. Not in the way you might think, either. Everyone in the class technically knows that I like spec fic a lot, but they must have all forgotten because we started talking about bad science in science fiction.

Now, I have a decent science background as compared to the modern American public, or at least I like to think I do. So I understand how it can be frustrating to be reading or watching a story and suddenly get thrown out of it by something not being accurate to science, especially in a genre that is supposedly playing with possible futures like science fiction. I mean, my partner is a nurse and so was my mom, and yet somehow I manage to watch people deal with near fatal trauma and get up and keep walking on television all the time. But my position on science fiction – and the broader action, fantasy, and other genres that also sometimes fall into this trap – is more nuanced. I can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, because I really like the baby. 

(I apologize for that metaphor, but I’m not taking it back.)

Some of the best science fiction is believable not because the science is solid, but because we want to believe it. Because it posits something about humankind and what we can be – what makes us both hopeful and despairing about ourselves. This is the case for all types of fiction, but especially for genre fiction. 

Take The Light Brigade, which I reviewed a week ago on this site. One of the key ideas in this book is that it is technologically possible to turn a human being into light and then condense them back into matter. Let’s sit with that a minute. You are converting matter to energy and then back to matter and somehow managing to arrange all of the atoms in question into their respective parts and have a working human at the end of it. There is nothing in our science as it stands today that says it is possible, and a lot of information that argues the opposite. But this technological innovation is not the point of the story. It’s a backdrop, a lens through which we can see something new. This is a story about following versus leading and the institutional nature of evil. It’s about making change – about literally being the light, but also about metaphorically being the light. 

The important aspect of science fiction is always internal consistency. But there are also questions about what constitutes science. Sure, turning matter into light is definitely something you could explore through physics. But physics is not the only science – biology and neurology come to mind. There are also “hard” and “soft” sciences worth considering. Psychology, economics, and anthropology come to mind as great disciplines that feed a lot into certain science fiction novels.

Consider, as an example, the movie Arrival, which is in turn based off of a novella called Story of Your LifeThe movie is based off of a linguistic theory, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This is a hotly debated theory, as unpacked in a Smithsonian article linked here, and the film and story largely seem to take this concept beyond one that is plausible in the field. Yet the Smithsonian article contains this beautiful final paragraph:

While the specifics of the Sapir-Whorf theory are still viciously argued today, Goddard says that the film offers a thought-provoking example of how integral language is to our lives—and yet how little we know about how it works, even today. “It’s not really about aliens,” as Goddard puts it. “It’s about us.”

It’s possible that all science fiction merely flirts with the idea of science. All science fiction writers use new discoveries and technologies as a mirror to explore the human condition. It’s not about the innovation. It’s about the people who made it.


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