An answer: the relevance of invisibility to you!

Why put something scientific into a story? If it is merely to impress, in my opinion the effort is wasted. Putting in something necessary to make the story work is much better, however in my writing I would also like to show something about the scientific approach. I feel rather strongly about this latter purpose because we now have so much dependence on technology that we are beginning to create new problems arising from it (such as the dependency on oil, which must run out sooner or later) so we need to know how to address them. An important point about science is that collecting facts and doing mathematics are not the goals; rather the goals are to understand, and to make use of that understanding. Now, let’s reconsider The Invisible Man. In my previous blog, I asked the question, can you think of anything very important relating to invisibility that is relevant to your life? My guess is that most people would shake their heads in despair at that question. How can invisibility have practical use? You simply cannot make people invisible. 

The scientific approach looks at problems in a different way. The most common way is to ask and attempt to answer questions. So, why do we see things? Light comes from somewhere, strikes the surface of the object, and is reflected. We then ask, why is it reflected? Because the surface represents a change of refractive index. In The Invisible Man, Griffin became invisible by changing the refractive index of his body to that of air. Assuming that could be done, Griffin would truly be invisible, although there is a subtle price.

Changing a refractive index of an object is generally speaking impossible, but it is possible to immerse it in a medium with the same refractive index, in which case it will disappear, provided it is transparent. So now we ask, what is the difference between transparent and opaque objects? The answer is that opaque things have lots of internal surfaces (such as fractures between crystals) where light is reflected or scattered. We now see the price for Griffin: separate cells have surfaces, which perforce define changes of refractive index, so for Griffin to be invisible, he had to have no cells! That would make life somewhat difficult to maintain. Anyway, now we see we can make transparent objects become invisible by immersing them in a suitable fluid. That still leaves the question, why is this important for the average citizen? The answer is simple. Suppose you put a liquid on the surface of the skin that closely matches the refractive index of skin (about 1.5)? That makes all the roughness of the surface of the skin, which is quite effective at scattering light, invisible, which means that light passes deeper into the body. Now do you see the relevance? Think sunburn and skin cancer!

A number of oils have refractive indices around 1.47. Simply apply oils like coconut oil and you will baste in the sun! Get the skin wet with water (refractive index about 1.33) and your natural protection drops by about 50%. With close matching, very little reflection occurs. This becomes relevant when you apply sunscreens, because the carrying medium provides such matching, and removes almost all the natural reflectivity of the skin. The sunscreen, of course, stops the UV radiation while it is working, but if your sunscreen does not offer UVA protection, putting such screen on your skin may stop you burning, but it may pump the UVA into the lower dermis. Also, while a very high SPF may offer prolonged protection against UVB (which burns) the UVA screen usually decays more quickly. The SPF says nothing about UVA protection, and UVA is presumed to be capable of inducing a cancer. The remedy, of course, is to re-apply frequently, and I also recommend not rubbing it in, but merely smoothly spreading it and letting it dry.

The point I am trying to make is that a little bit of scientific reasoning, together with some necessary information, can lead to a much improved lifestyle. In my opinion, inserting some of these facts into stories, and showing how the reasoning works, is of some value. What do you think? In the meantime, next week I shall provide the answer to the other question that seems to be somewhat troublesome.

When to introduce “scientific” devices critical to a plot into a story

If your writing includes “science in fiction” through to wild SF, one question that has to be faced is how and when to introduce the “stuff”? A lot of writers seem to think that the time to introduce it is when it is needed. I do not think so. One criticism that I have heard of some SF is that the protagonists get themselves into some horrible situation, then everything is resolved by some “magic” that just appears right then. The problem is, either the protagonists knew about it previously, and it is only the reader that did not, or they did not. If they did, the story is a little like someone leaving the house to get the newspaper with the reader having been told that the protagonist has to avoid packs of rabid wolves while doing so, only when he comes back, he cheerfully announces there never were any wolves. Trying the wolves trick to make an “exciting story” out of getting the newspaper is just crass. Had the protagonists not known about it, then it is no better than the magic wand, or deus ex machina. One reason some people get turned off SF is that it is sometimes ill-disciplined fantasy with liberal use of deus ex machina. Something quite incomprehensible turns up and saves the day, and that is simply tedious.

To avoid this, my advice is to introduce the causes and devices as early as possible, so that they become well-established. That means that the story has to revolve around the characters, but that is what good story-telling is all about. Some examples, again, using the cloaking device as an example, are as follows.

One good example of what I am saying comes in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings”. The invisibility is introduced as a party trick very early, which gives an excuse to explain the backstory of the ring, and, of course, it sets the whole point of the story. The story might seem to be about how to destroy this ring, but the real story is about how the hobbits go about trying to do it.

Another interesting method lies in H. G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man”. The story starts when a man (Griffin), who is almost completely wrapped up, comes to an inn at Iping, takes a room, and stays in it, almost in total seclusion, only coming out still totally wrapped up. This is, of course, a mystery to the locals, but surely not to the reader who has presumably read the title. This is an important point of such devices; the story is not about the device, but rather how it affects the characters. In “The Invisible Man”, what we see is Griffin’s frustration at being unable to reverse the effect of what he has done to himself. First he has a fit of pique and shows himself, then he resorts to burglary to pay his rent, and when he feels betrayed, he seeks revenge. As the story proceeds, Griffin’s actions become increasingly violent and destructive. The important point is that the story is about Griffin’s character, and the invisibility is merely a tool to bring out the worst aspects of it.

SF should also say something about people’s lives. Now, invisibility as a concept seems to say very little of relevance to modern people’s lives, but can you, reading this blog (assuming someone is) think of anything very important relating to invisibility that is relevant to your life? Meanwhile, nobody has responded to my last quiz question: can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? As a clue, think revenge.

. Science in fiction (2). The role of “devices” in SF, and a readers’ quiz on the cloaking device.

Comments on my previous blog made the excellent point that science fiction should not be about “stuff”, but that nevertheless, “stuff” should contribute to the plot in some way. I would now like to take this a bit further, and consider some well-known TV programs, specifically “Star Trek” and “Blake’s Seven”. These are  two classics, and before I go further, I must emphasize that I really enjoyed these, and I regard the reason they are classics is because they had good script writers, and good actors who could show character. But let me consider whether “stuff” is relevant to the plots, and to do that, I ask, could the story, with a change of “stuff”, fit some other genre?

 Space ships get between stars/planets while weapons like phasers were simply weapons. At this point, the stories could be simply pirate stories and while the “stuff” made the settings, it did not critically alter the story.  Teleportation was more interesting. The reason for that was that the programs were of forty-five minutes duration, and getting to the surface of a planet in a shuttle, then concealing the shuttle is both time-consuming and repetitive. In such a short time, you do not wish to waste ten minutes boring the audience in the same way every episode. Warp speed had no function whatsoever, other than to return to a place and meet the same people.

 More interesting was the Klingon “cloaking device”. The cloaking device is one of the oldest devices in literature, but the question is, what is to be done with it? Star Trek did not seem to know what to do with it. Klingon ships could appear from nowhere, but they had to appear to do anything. It could have involved plots to steal this technology, but I do not recall that being done, and in much later series when there was peace, the cloaking device seems to have been forgotten. Don’t get me wrong. Star Trek was somewhat unique in its early days by having some of its scripts written by well-established guest authors, and generally the scripts were of high quality, which suggests that stories that critically depend on “stuff” are somewhat hard to write. Authors can dream up these wonderful magic devices, but they still have to do something with them, and that is harder.

 Now, a little question for readers. Can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? If so, let us know and award yourself an imaginary chocolate fish. The one I am thinking of is extremely well-known, although probably very few have actually read it, which is something of a pity. I shall leave this question open for a while to give readers a chance.


Science in fiction (1)

One of the more depressing aspects for someone who writes what he calls “science in fiction” is that when the time comes to start seeking an agent, so many potential agents have warnings: “anything but science fiction”. Then I get reminded that there are a large number of readers who say they refuse to read science fiction. I should write something else! Actually, I tried writing “something else”, but somehow or other it morphed into the type of story I seem to always end up with. Worse, when I compare what I write with other SF, I am forced to conclude I am already writing something else. What to do?

As a scientist, the logical approach is to first try to work out why SF is a turn-off for some, what it is that turns them off, and to do this I intend to write a small series of blogs in which I shall try to illustrate what I think the problems are, and I invite comments from anyone who is interested in commenting. What I write in these blogs is simply my opinion, and it may or may not be right, although it includes what I feel has moulded my writing. Maybe I am on a totally wrong track. Maybe there is not even a track on which to be. I need more opinions, so anyone out there: help me!

The first problem is to define what I mean by “science in fiction”. I certainly do not mean that people sit down and carry out convoluted mathematics. Science is a discipline that tries to establish what is by the application of logic to observation. In fiction, “what is” is usually some device that does something unusual, and while in reality “it is not”, that does not matter. I should add that I think that is somewhat too restrictive. I call the Sherlock Holmes stories “science in fiction”; in this case the science is forensic science. In my opinion, Holmes’ use of logic and analysis has not put off his audience; indeed it is almost certainly the key factor that will make Sherlock Holmes immortal. Yes, he has character, as does Watson, but those character drawings are by themselves far from sufficient to explain his success.

So, why is it that Conan Doyle’s writings may well be immortal, while only too much of SF is scorned? I have my own ideas on this, some of which shall appear in further blogs, but have you (assuming there are any “you” actually reading this) have any ideas?