Science fiction & science

Chad has a post up discussing the crappiness of physics in science fiction. Rob has more. This was all prompted by a post titled R-E-S-P-E-C-T; which makes the case that biology gets no respect in science fiction (e.g., notice the abundance of dangerous and large predators stalking deserts with no sign of plant life or herbivores). Chad & Rob focused on science fiction films as opposed to print. I’m not a big fan of science fiction films or television in general, but, back in the day I was a voracious consumer of novels and short stories within the genre.


First, I have to say that in general I agree with Chad & Rob when they point out that physics in science fiction is crap. This goes for print as well as film. Though obviously the motion of space craft is a pretty clear example in visual media, print science fiction has faux physics such as “hyperdrive” and or “FTL” (faster than light). Even “hard science fiction” authors such as Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven emulate the look & feel of physics & engineering quite often as opposed to reality. Pournelle’s CoDominium future history features the Alderson Drive, which serves as a fictional constraint and scaffold for the faster than light propulsion. Though it isn’t as “magical” as hyperdrive, it is of course based on made up scientific and engineering principles.
Second, the detail often attended toward physical science in hard science fiction is almost certainly due in part to the backgrounds of many authors within those fields. Robert Heinlein was an engineer, Arthur C. Clarke is trained as a mathematician and physicist, Poul Anderson was a physicist, and so forth. Of the current hard science fiction writers many also come from physical science backgrounds. Greg Benford and David Brin are both physicists, Stephen Baxter is a mathematician with a background in engineering, and so on. As a kid reading the book jackets you would note which area that a hard science fiction author came out of (this is not a sub-genre where sales are large enough to allow one to live on writing income in most cases), and very few of the biographies listed a life science background. So though the physics is science fiction is really, really, fallacious, just as the biology is, the tiny subset focused very precisely on scientific verisimilitude tend to flesh out the domains of physical reality far more than biological reality. And I hold that that is simply a function of the professional background of such authors.
Third, even authors who did come form life science backgrounds such as Isaac Asimov did not integrate or suffuse their work with their field. I suspect this is simply due to the fact that science fiction is painted upon a vast astronomical canvas, and so physical science naturally looms larger in the narrative. In Prelude to the Foundation Asimov did seem to use some of his biochemical background in constructing the biotech economic basis of the Mycogen society on Trantor. But again, this was a relatively small part of the plot, Asimov’s novels in general feature robotics as well as the idea of “psychohistory,” a form of social science which makes the leap toward prediction due to the principle of mass action which derives from physical analogies (e.g., the motion of gases within a space and so on). Today he might use more evolutionary principles, but life science wasn’t as detailed in its model of the universe during the active period of Asimov’s scientific career.
Fourth, finally complexity and contingency of biology poses a problem in both the appearance of verisimilitude and maintenance of fidelity to reality. By appearance, I mean for example the “common sense” understanding that if a planet is large and massive it will have a higher gravity than a smaller and less dense planet. The obvious idiocy by the author will be clear to most readers with a basic education because the physical principles are elegant and deterministic. In contrast, biology is a messier science filled with exceptions, variation and local contingencies. Expectation in biology is charactered by a large proportion of variance (this is obviously true in many areas of physics, but not the ones that the lay person is most familiar with). Biological characteristics that derive from obvious physical principles are of course easy to infer. For example, the stereotype of the short and squat physique of the inhabitants of massive high gravity planets grounded is in probable inferences. On the other hand, particularities of metabolism or the plausibility of evolutionary diversification based on particular ecological constraints are generally beyond the ken of a typical reader’s conception. At some point the narrative needs to step forward and the relatively lack of salience of many biological facts is a reality one has to accept and brush aside (aside from common sense ones such as that large organisms eat more). In regards to the maintenance of fidelity toward biological science as we know it, the enormous cloud of facts which are loosely related in comparison to physics is ap roblem. This means that the very act of scaffolding narrative via biology is much more difficult than it is in physical science. The late science fiction author Hal Clement was a chemist who allowed physical science to “tell the story.” That is, he began from a scientific template and worked the narrative and plot around and from these principles. This is I believe a relatively simple task in physical science, in particular because many of the clear and deterministic inferences are salient to the reader (e.g., heavy planets and squat aliens). In contrast, complex ecological relationships are often difficult for scientists to understand, so the author’s attempt to recapitulate and weave it into a narrative can often be impossible. Frank Herbert’s Dune series often gets kudos for its ecological awareness, but that is due to the normative values and attention to faux detail as much as reconstruction and creation of a genuine ecology. There is a reason that the Blue Whale is the largest organism in the history of the earth. It can feed upon abundant prey (krill) and immersion in water results in the relaxation of size constraints. The massive sand worms in Herbert’s universe are a little inexplicable when considering what we know about basic biological probabilities. But of course we wouldn’t have a story without them.
In short, the badness of biology in science fiction is real. But, it isn’t really that much worse than physics. And when it is worse than the situation in physics there are a host of reasons. It isn’t because biology doesn’t get any respect. My post has focused on print hard science fiction, but I think basic issues here percolate to all areas of the genre in all its mediums. Space opera, whether print or visual, takes its scientific cues from hard science fiction (e.g., fake faster than light propulsion as opposed to just pretending that you can continue to increase velocity in a standard Newtonian fashion), so the problems should be replicated and amplified.

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