Science in fiction II

In my previous post, I tried to show that science is a way of thinking, but that left the main issue of the title, “Science in fiction” more or less free of comment. On television, at least, there has been a glut of programs showing forensic science, with various level of realism, but the general rules of cause and effect are generally followed, and given that most of the audience would know nothing of forensic science before these programs started, and given their apparent popularity, I think this shows that if properly done, there is no reason to suspect that readers would be put off by science. The important point of such forensic science programs is that there is usually someone present, like the policeman, who knows nothing about it, and hence can be told what is going to happen. I think the concept of “No surprises!” is important. If the reader is told in advance what is going to happen, and why, the reader accepts it, provided the explanations are reasonably clear.

However, you cannot do that with a surprising discovery, and sometimes the story needs just that to drive the plot along. Thus in my novel Red Gold, which was about fraud during the colonization of Mars, I needed a very big surprise of considerable economic significance to expose the fraud. Up until the critical point, it was believed that colonization of Mars might be very difficult because the soil, or more specifically, the regolith, is rather nitrogen deficient. At the same time, the atmosphere of Mars has very little nitrogen in it. These are standard facts and are correct, as far as we have been able to find out. Rather remarkably, we have found very few nitrates, which is something of a surprise since we have found perchlorates, and it would be something of a surprise if chloride in the regolith was oxidized to perchlorate, and nitrogen did not convert to nitrates. The obvious conclusion is that there has always been very little nitrogen in the Martian soil, although there is a reason why that reasoning might be superficial.

Accordingly, one question is, did Mars accrete with almost no nitrogen, or did it have some, and that nitrogen has disappeared. This is important, because unless nitrogen is plentiful in what is called a reduced form, life is very unlikely to evolve. Suppose the nitrogen was there in the reduced form: that means there was a lot of ammonia around. If it were, as the atmosphere oxidized and carbon species turned into carbon dioxide, the ammonia would be slowly turned into urea, which would then be carried more deeply below the surface by water. Any urea or ammonia left on the surface would be oxidised to nitrogen, and would contribute to the residue in the atmosphere. The surprise could therefore be simply the discovery of urea, which would act as he fertilizer and make the settlement viable. The important point of this, at least for me, was that the story could have the settlement declared viable at a point where the fraudsters were building up a case to cash in on compensation when the settlement failed.

A feature of a genuine scientific discovery is that once you make it, in most cases it also explains a number of other problems that had been a puzzle. In this case, the problem is, where did Martian rivers come from, Mars is too cold for water to flow now, and when these rivers did flow, the sun was only about 2/3 as strong as now. There is significant evidence that Mars has never been above – 60  for any reasonable length of time. Had there been ammonia around, water can flow down to -80,  so the story can be given more credibility. This, admittedly, is something of a special case, but I think there are other options if we do not need to know too many genuine facts. Thus, if something ‘amazing’ only applies to one thing, it looks suspiciously like the proverbial ‘magic wand’, designed to do nothing more than get the author out of a plot hole.

For interested readers, on December 13, and will have promotional specials of both Red Gold and Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, the latter of which gives far more details of this theory.

Science in fiction

I write futuristic novels that I describe as “science in fiction”. This is partly to make it easier for me to write the story, partly because it is easier for me to construct more intricate plots, but it is also to try to show what science is about. I think this is important, because I believe that in the future society will have to make a number of decisions that will greatly affect how society progresses, and if many of these decisions involve something related to science, would it not be preferable that such decisions were made in a reasoned fashion, rather than through sheer ignorance?

 Arguably, this might be a difficult goal, as shown by the following quote from Carl Sagan: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology”  – a somewhat depressing quote. What I find more depressing is that on the whole, most people do not care that they know next to nothing about it. Does it matter if nobody understands anything about science? While as a scientist I am biased, I still think it does. So, what can we do about it? The approach I am following is to try and introduce the concepts through my books. But what is science?

There are many TV programs about science, but many of those are of the “gosh” nature: they show a number of extraordinary things, and they are extremely attractive to watch, but I am unsure what lasting impact they make. There are a number of so-called “hard” SF books, and again they entertain, but only a few of them show what science is. Science is NOT about the collection of facts, although observations of facts are necessary for science to proceed, and most scientists spend most of their time collecting and archiving such facts. Science is also not about making great new gadgets; that is invention. Nevertheless, while scientists might spend most of their time doing that, that is not what science is about. Science is really a way of thinking, and that, more than anything else, is what society needs.

The scientific method proceeds through conditional propositions. Thus a scientist might say, “If theory A is correct, and if I do B, then I shall see X.”  He then does the experiment, and if he sees X he is happy. If he does not, then there is a problem. He might check to see if there are any other theories that might predict what he sees, but more likely is that he will check his apparatus, because the usual reason for failure to see what theory predicts is there has been a mistake. The relevance to current society is that we will have to say, “If we wish to get to X, we shall have to do B, as defined by A.” If we do not choose a desirable destination, we can be reasonably sure we shall not get to it because it is an unfortunate fact of life that achieving desirable goals tends to take more effort than drifting into undesirable ones. There is a small subgenre called lablit that portrays science in action, by involving the lab in the plot, but again, that is usually about scientists, and not so much science.

Of course you cannot write fiction like propositional logic, but you can show that sort of thing. Rather than the hero prevails through sheer dumb luck, or total incompetence on the part of others, what I try to do is to have the protagonist work out the answer through a logical approach, by thinking out a solution. That procedure involves the protagonist making observation throughout the book, then drawing conclusions from them, then acting on them.

Clues, and misleading facts!

The most important thing in a mystery story is that when everything is resolved, some clues as to why the protagonist sorted it out are given. The real masters (Agatha Christie comes to mind but I draw the line at mistresses!) leave some clues in the story that the reader could pick up, but usually in a way that the reader is most unlikely to pick them up. The aim should be to tidy up the story, but a further objective might be to reward the perceptive reader. Perhaps the hope is the reader will think how clever the protagonist was, but of course having the writer directing gives the protagonist something of an advantage. There are different sorts of clues, but the one I am picking on here are the lies. The point of a mystery story, of course, is that the guilty parties may always lie, and catching out the lies is part of detection, although that method is complicated by those innocent of the specific crime also lying to cover up something else. The problem comes when the author accidentally makes some just plain mistakes.

A number of stories have the elements of mystery about them, even if they are not really mysteries, and a book that led me to write this blog is Frank Luna’s Red Storm. It is nominally a SciFi thriller set on Mars, but it has the elements of a mystery embedded in it. There were a number of statements that were incorrect; some could have been intended as critical clues, and if so they were really good ones, but their value was reduced for me through the odd mistake. I mentioned this in a review, and maybe I was a little hard on Frank because the “facts” about Mars change. Maybe in another couple of decades someone will do the same for my Mars novels. In this sense, if you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books, there is quite a bit there that is almost certainly wrong, BUT these books should not be read as what Mars is like, but rather an archive of what Mars was believed in the early 1990s to be like. Since Frank’s errors were similar, perhaps he was merely out of date.

Back to the issue of clues: how do you introduce deliberate clues to identify the guilty? Here are my views. One thing that must not be done is to present it with a flag, effectively saying, “Hey reader, big clue here!” On the other hand, if it is so obscure that nobody could possibly see it, it is really a waste of time. Good clues are to test the reader, not to demonstrate some sort of superiority on the part of the author. One guideline is not to tell the clue if you can help it – try to make the guilty party say it. Failing that, get someone else to say that (s)he had heard that . .  and try to say who originated it, unless that is part of the further puzzle. Try to avoid showing lies as observations, and try not to present told descriptions that are untrue.

There is one further point. The author, particularly in scifi, may wish to introduce something that may or may not be true, but is believed by most not to be. How do you introduce that? In my Red Gold, I put forward a different theory of the origin of the Martian atmosphere. The reason was, the story is about fraud, and I needed a totally unexpected discovery to expose it. This was introduced as a discovery, and to elaborate, I put a more complete discussion as an appendix, so as to give those interested something deeper to consider (I actually believe the discovery will be made, so up to a point I have falsified my own plot!).

Anybody else have any ideas on how to do this? Finally, since I have picked on a specific author, I should add that I enjoyed the book, and if you like reading Scifi on Mars, Red Storm is well worth considering.

How would uncontrolled growth affect society?

In the previous blog, I mentioned Paul Ehrlich’s dystopian view of the future, based on the argument, which is indisputably true, that you cannot have exponential growth on a fixed area. That is straightforward mathematics, and there is no way around it. Once upon a time, apparent limits were dealt with by emigration, thus many from Europe that could not make out went to America, but that was only available because we could expand the area. There is, of course, the rest of the Universe, essentially an unlimited volume, but there are problems, the most obvious one of which is that we have no way of getting there right now.

So, what do we do? Many will argue that we can put off the decisions. Thus the resource shortage is not imminent. Oil is obviously going to run out eventually, but eventually should be a long way away. We can make out and deal with that when it turns up, right? In my view, wrong. As illustrated in the futuristic ebook novels that I am writing to illustrate my argument, I think there is a worse problem: economics. What has happened is that governments have tended to leverage themselves. The idea is simple enough: if you borrow now, then grow nicely, it is far easier to pay back in the future. Much of the infrastructure built in the early twentieth century was constructed this way. That is fine while the economy is growing, but less so when it begins to contract. Think of owning a home. As your salary increases, mortgage repayments are progressively easier, but if your salary decreases or ends, or if interest rates rise, an overcommitted home-owner faces insolvency. And with fixed resources, certain types of growth go on indefinitely. We cannot know when opportunities will cease to arise, but we know they will.

In my ebook Puppeteer, I suggested a future where the cost of filling a car, admittedly with a big tank, cost $1,000. Because of the cost of oil, only too many people could not get to work so employment dropped, tax takes dropped, consumption dropped dramatically hence businesses collapsed and governments became insolvent. The problem then is, everybody still has to live, they have to eat, they have to keep out of the rain. At first, people try to get by and the wealthier ones succeed, but what happens to those who cannot? How many of those who are not wealthy but who are in a position of power or authority will not try to use that position for personal benefit? My guess was that lawlessness and corruption would obviously increase. Not everybody will become lawless, but enough will to make a country ungovernable at which point society starts to fall to pieces. If the choice is between robbery and starving, what would you do? Of course this will not happen overnight, and Puppeteer is set as the decay is commencing, and the plot involves one person’s scheme to avoid collapse by organizing the greatest piece of terrorism with the goal of bringing everyone to their senses.

Why write such a novel? Apart from the fact it gave an environment to write a thriller, I am hoping that some of the thoughts expressed might make people think. If we go back to Ehrlich’s equation, the outcome is not inevitable. There is no reason why we cannot use our brains and work out a way to avoid these desperate outcomes. But if we are going to do that, there is no time better to start than now. And that will start with working out what we have to do and how we are going to pay for it. Of course you would not approve of the terror methodology in Puppeteer (and neither do I), but what do you think could bring governments to act for the long-term benefit of society?