Using Science in Science Fiction: How Not to Annoy Your Readers, in Three Simple Steps by Edward Ashton – Guest Blog and Giveaway


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Using Science in Science Fiction: How Not to Annoy Your Readers, in Three Simple Steps

There was a time, believe it or not, when many of the folks who wrote science fiction were, you know, scientists. Guys like Isaac Asimov, David Brin, and Robert L. Forward didn’t need to worry about getting things ridiculously wrong when they were writing about space travel or alien biology or robotics. They knew their stuff, and if they didn’t, they knew other people who did. If you have a Ph.D. in astrophysics, you probably do too.

What if you don’t, though? What if you’re an MFA grad, or a philosophy major, or just somebody lacking a crazy beard and tweedy jacket? Do you need to forever forego writing stories about alien invasions, post-human cyborg family life, and genetically modified apes? Absolutely not! Everyone deserves to write at least one genetically modified cyborg ape invasion book! It’s good to remember, though, that many of the folks who like to read those types of stories are scientists, or are at least very science savvy—and if you get something glaringly wrong in your writing, your readers are unlikely to be merciful.
With that in mind, here a few simple guidelines for using science in science fiction, no Ph.D. required.

1. If you’re using known technology, do a tiny bit of research and get it right.

A while back, I read a story in one of my favorite semi-pro zines. It was a good story. The characters were fleshed-out, well-rounded people. The plot was fun. The writing was solid. But…

A big chunk of the plot of this story involved things in orbit, and it was clear after two sentences that the author had no idea whatsoever how orbiting something works. To be clear—all I know about how orbiting something works is what I’ve picked up from the zeitgeist over the years. Still, I knew enough to know that the things the author was describing were so far from right that it almost seemed deliberate. I scrolled down to the comments section, and sure enough, nobody was talking about the fun plot or the awesome characters. They were talking about the fact that five minutes of googling could have saved the author from embarrassing himself.

The key point here is that we don’t need to earn a doctorate in astrophysics these days to find out that you don’t strap a big rock to your spaceship in order to give it more thrust. The internet is a wonderful thing. Use it.

2. If you’re writing hard sci-fi, you still need to make it believable.

You’re not writing a journal paper, right? This is fiction. It’s totally okay to make stuff up. However (and this is important) the stuff you make up has to, on some level, make sense. Want to send your characters to Alpha Centauri using an antimatter rocket? You should probably know that those things have a theoretical top speed of about 0.3c, which means that your trip is going to take a minimum of twelve or thirteen years. Want to genetically engineer your post-humans so that they live by photosynthesis and never have to eat? Please be aware that the energy density of sunlight at sea level is about 1.4 kW/m2, your body has a total surface area of less than 2 square meters, the conversion efficiency of photosynthesis is about 5%, and you need about 8.4MJ of energy per day to live. That means that if your photosynthesizing post-human spends twelve hours a day naked and spread-eagled in the desert, she can absorb enough energy to replace one pop tart, give or take. Apparently, there’s a reason that plants don’t move around much.

3. It’s okay to use imaginary future tech, but please keep it internally consistent.

Plenty of classic science fiction uses tech that isn’t just unknown—it’s almost certainly never going to be known. Warp drives and transporter rays and mental telepathy and whatnot are tons of fun, and I’ve read and enjoyed a million books that feature them. The keys to making these things believable are simple. There have to be rules. You have to know what they are. You have to follow them to a T. This is true even if you’re writing about straight-up magic—and yeah, I’m looking at you right now, Mr. Paolini.

The bottom line to all of this is pretty straightforward. Science fiction is all about imagination—but it’s better if your imagination is grounded in some level of truth. Make friends with the googles. Your readers will appreciate it.

Drew Bergen is an Engineer. He builds living things, one gene at a time. He’s also kind of a doofus. Six years after the Stupid War — a bloody, inconclusive clash between the Engineered and the UnAltered — that’s a dangerous combination. Hannah is Drew’s greatest project, modified in utero to be just a bit better at running than most humans. She’s also his daughter. Her plan for high school is simple: lay low and run fast. Unfortunately for Hannah, her cross-country team has other plans.

Jordan is just an ordinary Homo-Sap. But don’t let that fool you — he’s also one of the richest kids at Briarwood, and even though there isn’t a single part of him that’s been engineered, someone has it out for him.

Drew thinks he’s working to develop a spiffy new strain of corn, but Hannah and her classmates disagree. They think he’s cooking up the end of the world. When one of Drew’s team members disappears, he begins to suspect that they might be right. Soon they’re all in far over their heads, with corporate goons and government operatives hunting them, and millions of lives in the balance.

Enjoy an Excerpt

“So,” I said when I’d picked the last bit of rind out of my teeth. “What now?”

Nathan shrugged.

“Wait for death, I guess.”

“Huh,” I said. “I see where you’re going with that, but I was actually hoping you’d have some kind of last-minute escape plan to present now.”

“Escape plan?”

“Yeah. If this were a vid, this is where you’d suggest a super-complicated scheme to get out of here. I’d say ‘that’s crazy!’ and you’d say ‘do we have a choice?’ and then we’d do it and it would work somehow and you would totally be my hero.”

He stared at me, downed the last of his bathtub water, and stared at me some more.

“So,” I said finally. “Do you, uh… have a plan?”

“No,” he said. “Unless ‘wait for death’ counts as a plan, I do not have one.”

“Huh.”

I looked down at the lantern, and found myself wondering if the battery would give out before we did. A shiver ran from the base of my spine to the back of my neck and down again.

“Hannah?” Nathan said. “Are you, uh…”

I groaned.

“Am I what, Nathan?”

“Are you really gonna eat me?”

I stared at him.

“Seriously?”

He looked away.

“Well, yeah. I don’t mean now. Just… you know… eventually?”

I dropped my head into my hands.

“No, Nathan. I am not going to eat you.”

“Are you sure? I mean, you might have to, right?”

I stood up, and picked up the lantern.

“You are an odd duck, Nathan. I’m going for a run.”

About the Author: Edward Ashton lives with his adorably mopey dog, his inordinately patient wife, and a steadily diminishing number of daughters in Rochester, New York, where he studies new cancer therapies by day, and writes about the awful things his research may lead to by night. He is the author of Three Days in April, as well as several dozen short stories which have appeared in venues ranging from the newsletter of an Italian sausage company to Louisiana Literature and Escape Pod.

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