Science fiction is the literature of discovery — and there are tons of great ways to come up with stories worth telling. But a lot of the most compelling stories are based on actual cutting-edge science. But how do you turn real science into science fiction? To find out, we asked hard SF writers and scientists.
Here's what they told us!
Images via NASA.
Is there a particular journal that you should make sure to read? Should you actually try to talk to scientists? And how do you find a story that hasn't been done before?
Read science journalism. "We really do live in a Golden Age of science outreach, journalism and commentary," says Paul McAuley, author of the Quiet War series. From magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American to science news websites, to journalists like Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong and the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla, there are tons of resources out there on the latest science discoveries. Plus Nature and Science magazines run good general-interest articles on their sites, and so do NASA and the Smithsonian.
"Much of the stuff you can find in these places is published with, or just before, important and interesting papers, and unless you have been trained as a scientist [they] are your best bet for keeping current," says McAuley.
Check out abstracts. You may not want to read scientific papers, which are "formal" and "condensed," says McAuley. "Most research is of interest primarily to specialists in the field," adds physicist Sean Carroll. But you can read abstracts online — and those usually give "a quick overview of what the researchers were trying to find out, how well they succeeded, and a bit of the context," says McAuley.
Read specialized science sites. For example, says McAuley, "when I was writing the Quiet War series, I haunted the Cassini spacecraft web site, an invaluable resource on images and research on the Saturn system."
Just read tons of stuff without a particular story in mind. " What works for me is simply to read a lot of stuff throughout the year, not with a particular story or theme in mind, but just because you never know what might be useful or interesting in the long run," says Alastair Reynolds, author of On the Steel Breeze. "I much prefer to just absorb a lot of stuff and let the old unconscious chew down on it over time."
Today, for instance, I read a piece on the ethics of sports medicine and doping, and another on the backlash against pop neuroscience literature. I've no idea whether either article will serve as the basis for an idea, but that's the point, really - just to read widely and not discriminatively. Most of the time, when I get an idea that hinges on some science "thing", it will have been because of something I read or encountered months or years earlier, rather than in the last few days. The main thing is to maintain a lifelong interest in science for its own sake.
Yes, it's okay to talk to scientists. There's no harm in contacting a scientist directly to ask about his or her research, says Tiffany Trent, author of The Unnaturalists. "Many of them are happy to talk to you, because they really want you to get the science right."
But when you talk to a scientist, do your homework first — asking vague questions like "So what's new in your field?" is a waste of time all around, says McAuley. "But I've usually found that researchers are open to serious enquiries. I was once given a fantastic tour of the British Museum store when I was writing about Neolithic culture in Mind's Eye."
Go to lectures and conferences. If you're lucky enough to live near a university, check the calendar of events, advises Trent, and see which scientists are coming to speak. " Then, you get to hear the scientist explain in his or her own words, and you might even get to ask them questions."
"In a world of infinite resources, the best thing would be to actually go to conferences, hear what people are interested in, and talk to them about it," says Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology who blogs at Preposterous Universe. "In a finite-resource world, the next best thing is to follow blogs and Twitter feeds of working scientists."
Or just try collaborating with a scientist. Actually, the very best option would be if you can find a scientist who's interested in working with you directly, says Carroll. That way you can "bring them into the creative process and come up with ideas together."
Look at transdisciplinary science. Says Trent, "That’s where you’ll find teams of scientists from many different fields coming together to work on a particular problem from many angles. That’s where science is fresh, interesting, and cutting-edge."
Spark your imagination. "What you’re looking for is the concept or innovation that sparks your individual imagination, suggesting characters that can be involved in the idea," says Nancy Kress, author of Beggars in Spain.
"Good science and good science fiction proceed from the same point: start with what you confidently know, and extrapolate from there," adds Jim Kakalios, professor of physics and astronomy at University of Minnesota and author of The Physics of Superheroes. "This was, after all, how Jules Verne did it."
So you've found a neat scientific discovery, that opens up all sorts of story possibilities — how do you actually jump off from the science into fiction? How do you turn scientific research into a story about characters doing something?
"Three questions are helpful in turning an idea into a story," says Kress:
1. Who will be affected by this? Usually it’s not the scientist. For example, if there is an interesting advance in genetics, who might be affected by resulting gene therapy, or crop engineering, or whatever. 2. What do these characters want? People in successful fiction are not passive; they want something and they want it bad. A cure for a child? A profit to be made? Fame? Truth to prevail? 3. What can go wrong? Something has to, because all fiction is about things that get screwed up.
Carroll says that turning an idea into a story is "infinitely harder" than finding an idea in the first place. One tip he offers: take a particular type of story (romance, murder mystery, etc.) and see how it would be changed by this scientific development.
Follow the Characters. McAuley says he sticks pretty close to the point of view of his characters. "How does something hurt them, change them, offer something they need or want? How, to borrow a phrase, would the street find uses for a new technology?" He adds: "A lot of stuff is in the background or as texture — squid proteins in camoflague clothing for instance. And science writing is full of found poetry, as well as ideas."
Work backwards from the story. Reynolds says he never starts with a scientific premise and then builds it into a story. Instead, he might get an idea for a story and then realize that "a bit of science might fit into it somewhere."
For example, there's Reynolds' story "At Budokan," about a genetically engineered T-Rex. "Halfway through the story, but with the shape of the thing already defined, I remembered that I'd read about the role of homeobox genes on the development of limbs and digits in different animals, which would be just the thing you needed to tweak if you wanted to make a T-Rex that could play electric guitar," says Reynolds. But he didn't start out by thinking that he knew some cool stuff about homeobox genes, that he wanted to build a story around.
Adds Reynolds: "I'd only come across the homeobox stuff as a side-product of realising I knew next to nothing about recent ideas of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) and realised I needed to read a good pop science book to get up to speed. It shouldn't ever feel like a chore, to learn new science."
Reach for a metaphor. "There's no algorithm, but the trick is to find the right resonance between the possibilities opened up by the new idea and the human story driving it," says Carroll. For example, there are tons of stories about interstellar travel and time dilation — but Joe Haldeman managed to turn this idea into a metaphor for the experiences of soldiers coming home from Vietnam, and this became The Forever War.
How far can you go in fictionalizing real science, before you're no longer writing "hard science fiction"? How do you tell the difference between "extrapolating" and "spinning real facts into ludicrous nonsense"?
"It's fiction, not science journalism, so you can break any rule you like — as long as you are aware of breaking them, and what the implications are," says McCauley. The truth is, science is "often weirder than much science fiction, these days," he adds. For example, "cosmologists speculating that the Universe is spume blown off from the collapse of four-dimensional star into a hyper-black hole."
Reynolds concurs that there's "no such line" that must not be crossed. At the same time, though, it's up to the writer to "plant some kind of narrative flag on the 'real science,' and another on the extrapolated or wildly wacky stuff, to make it clear where one starts and another begins." You can do this pretty unobtrusively, he says.
Adds Reynolds, "It's really no different in kind than the challenges faced by historical novelists, when they move from the historical record into fictional speculation, or when they bend facts to suit the narrative."
"There should only be one criterion: is it a good story?" says Carroll. "The reason to try to get the science as right as possible is that, all else being equal, it makes the story better, not because you're secretly making a science documentary." He adds that the problem with "red matter" in 2009's Star Trek "wasn't that it violated the laws of physics, it was that they didn't even try to have it make scientific sense, and as a result there was no real tension or engagement with the audience's imagination."
"There’s a point where the suspension of disbelief can be broken, and then you’ve really lost your reader," says Trent.
It can be very dangerous to emphasize one thing to the exclusion of everything else in the story, to the point where it’s no longer a story but a ridiculous conceit. Genetic engineering is one of those research areas where people really don’t quite understand how it works, and therefore often misrepresent the consequences. It isn’t just that we’ve engineered a virus to do something, it’s that it does it too well and that causes problems and then it starts evolving and then we try to fight it with another engineered fungus… and so on. Genes do not operate in a vacuum and neither do stories!
Finally, we asked our experts: What's the biggest mistake you see people making, when they try to turn real science into science fiction?
In a nutshell, there's a failure to extrapolate fully. Says Kress:
A big mistake is not understanding all the implications of the scientific innovation. Really cheap energy doesn’t just mean your electric bill is lower; it would fundamentally change the entire economy. Another mistake is assuming that any new technology will immediately be available to everyone. There are parts of the world that still don’t have basic electricity. So consider: Who will have access to this information, tech, or scientific advancement? Who will not? What will the cost be? Who will try to regulate it (someone will) will they succeed? And who will pay for it? All that should yield a lot of story possibilities.
McCauley says the biggest problem he sees is authors buying into the scientist stereotype of the "megalomaniac, or [the] lone misunderstood genius." McCauley worked in the biological sciences and never met anyone like that. "Research science is a vocation with a long apprenticeship, and it's also a very human and social affair," says McCauley. "The triumph of science is, after all, its culture of open source: research papers are written to the principle that others can replicate the experiments they describe."
And most scientists rarely experience "eureka" moments or immediately prove that their vague hunches are correct, McCauley adds.
The biggest mistake people make, says Reynolds, is not drawing on real science enough. "There is so little SF drawn from modern scientific thinking, in any discipline, that I'm much more cheered by the successes than the failures, most of which are forgivable."
The biggest pitfall of using real science might actually be "trying to explain the details too much," says Craig J. Rodger, a physics professor with the University of Otago in New Zealand. "Most of us don't want to know the detailed orbital mechanics at every point, or the finer workings of a technology that's clearly under-pinning the societal changes which drive the story. Just get on with it!"
Another pitfall that Rodger notices: Sometimes authors tie their stories too much to real science — and then the science changes. Larry Niven has run into this problem a few times in his Known Space universe, relying on a theory of micro black holes that's been disproved, and also giving Mars an atmosphere we now know it can't possibly have, due to some initial chemical measurements from the first Mars probes.
This must be frustrating, says Rodger: "You are trying to write hard science-fiction, and the scientists change the game rules on you midway, and then get pissy about how wrong you are!"
In any case, this is a two-way street, says Rodger: "A lot of scientists I know are inspired and excited by science fiction, and a certain amount of imagination is a core part of moving science forward."