Is it science in science fiction?

Recently, I have seen a number of discussions on the web on the difference between science fiction and fantasy, and the answers were in the range of science fiction involves science that “could be”, and fantasy, that which could not be. That raises the question, what is science? Where does it draw the line at “could be”? The question will have a number of variant answers, ranging from the collection of facts, to devising mathematics to find a theory of everything. Both have an element of truth, but both are, in my opinion, inherently wrong. Science needs facts, and therefore the collection of them is fundamentally important, but for me, the issue is like mowing the lawn; sharpening the blades is essential, but the grass is yet to be cut. Similarly, mathematics is one of the most important tools in science, but while physics is almost impossible to describe without mathematics, mathematics alone does not lead to physics. Some will not believe me and say, what do I know? A clearer way of saying that can be found in the Feynman Lectures, which are now available for reading online from Caltech. Generally, I hate resorting to authority (the fallacy ad verecundiam) but I am ready to bet that no reader of this will have an understanding of physics vaguely approaching that of Richard Feynman.

So, back to the question: what is science? In my view, the strictest form involves the forming of statements along the lines of, “If proposition A is correct and this is done, then that will happen.” The point of the experiment is to test the statement, which will be found to be false (that does not happen) or it might be true (that did happen.) There is a third category: can’t tell, because while the proposition outlines an experiment that will answer the question one way or another, and you can’t do the experiment, at least yet. You will often see statements along the lines that you cannot prove theories. That actually is not true, although it often comes close to it. You can prove a theory if you can say, “If only proposition A is correct and if this is done, then you will see that.” The problem is to justify the use of the “only”.

However, for the purposes of ascertaining whether what you find in fiction is science, we need a milder form of the definition, which might be that we have a proposition (or premise) and a number of facts should follow from it. In stories, what we are told are the effects, so the question then is, is there a sensible premise that might lead to the observation? This gives rise to what is “sensible”? That, in turn is debatable. Now, as an example, are the premises in Star Trek “sensible”?

The first technology is faster than light travel. According to Einstein’s relativity, that is impossible. So, superficially, that is not science, but was put there for convenience so that people can go away, then come back and report to the same people. In other words, the author tends to be writing a story that could have been on Earth, but it is put on a very much larger canvas. For me, that does not make it fantasy either; something for convenience is merely that, and may reflect more the limitations of the storyteller. Of course in the original Star Trek series, they did not come back, but rather went from planet to planet, so how long they took was actually irrelevant. Further, if they travelled at or near light speed they would not age, so perhaps it also showed a limited appreciation of relativity.

But maybe it did not, as there is something postulated called the Alcubierre warp drive, which is argued to come from the mathematics of General Relativity. This has the unusual property of stretching spacetime behind the vessel and contracting it in front. If you contract the spacetime sufficiently the ship is in a bubble that can effectively move it faster than light, so not so impossible? That depends on whether “spacetime” is a thing or a mathematical construct. By that, I mean you cannot get somewhere quicker by simply adjusting your Cartesian coordinates! On the other hand, even if it is wrong, and you cannot, since you do not know it is impossible because as yet you cannot do any test it remains a valid proposition for fiction at least, so yes, it is clearly science fiction.

The alternative is to write the story based on the fact that you cannot exceed light speed, but you can take advantage of what relativity offers by moving characters into their future. This is what I am doing in my book Scaevola’s Triumph, the third of a trilogy that is being edited now, which has the purpose of explaining how a Roman Legatus could end up on Earth in the 24th century. For me, the use of relativity actually makes the story. As an example, when the Romans were abducted by an alien space ship, a husband and wife were separated. Later, how do you tell a wife that she cannot ever see her husband again, because even if the ship turned around and went back, he would have been dead for 600 years? See the possibilities?

I shall have a little more on this topic next post.

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