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.

Red Gold: a unique book (in a very minor way)?

A claim to be unique requires some extraordinary evidence, but I think I can back that up. Red Gold is a futuristic novel about the colonization of Mars, and there is nothing extraordinary about that, indeed there are many others out there.  No, the claim for uniqueness is based on something far more unusual. The backstory in the novel was in the near future when I wrote it, and in the event, what I wrote came to pass, with me as the “player”, and it was not what I intended. Let me explain.

Red Gold was written in the early to mid 1990s, and was set in 2075-76. The setting was the colonization of Mars, but the story was more about the disintegration of a relationship between two nominal business partners when one learns that the other is creating a massive stock-market bubble on Earth with fraudulent Martian stock (or shares, depending on where in the world you are). To expose the fraud, I needed “a totally unexpected discovery”. Further to my concept of putting science in fiction, I had explained that the “soil” on Mars is very deficient in nitrogen, and there is very little in the atmosphere as well. Accordingly, feeding people in the long term might be difficult. This gave me the inspiration for the “unexpected discovery”: One of the protagonists could find the nitrogen fertilizer needed to make Martian settlement viable in the long term. So I wrote in that the main character took drilling equipment to the very bottom of Hellas Planitia, which happened to be owned by the protagonist, and many of the drill samples found urea.

Why was it a surprise? Well, standard scientific theory said the required ammonia in the early atmosphere could not have been present. My solution was to invent a minor scientist, Pavel Marchenko, who had predicted a reduced atmosphere in the early 21st century, but his papers were variously rejected by the mainstream scientific journals, and eventually the theory was published in an extremely obscure place and promptly forgotten.

Red Gold eventually made it to an editor’s desk in a serious publishing house, but it was rejected as too implausible (actually by another editor who was clearing a desk, after the first one died). I got somewhat irritated to have my science trashed by a literary editor, even if it was originally presented “tongue in cheek”, so I became involved. The more I looked into the nature of Mars, the more certain I was that my argument was sound. Furthermore, it made predictions, one of which was, of course, that the early lakes on Mars may have accumulated ammonia, which would react with carbon dioxide to form urea. The ammonia solved the major problem of how water can flow on Mars when the temperatures never reached the melting point of ice. So, I worked away at this and eventually formed a proper theory. It was then that I fulfilled the destiny: the papers were rejected as either not being compelling, or, in one case, because I did not do computer modeling.

To be fair, there was a fundamental problem; scientific papers are rather brief, and usually establish one point. Unfortunately, this analysis is based on the intersection of sets of data, and no single point is compelling. To gradually build up the case you need a book, not a paper. There was a further problem. Carl Sagan showed that, because of sunlight, ammonia in the atmosphere only lasts decades, although he noted that screening chemicals could prolong that. The problem with that is, ammonia will largely be dissolved in water, where it is more protected. Irrespective of what various scientists believe, one sample of seawater has been found on Earth containing water from when the Earth was 1.3 billion years old, and this sample had sufficient ammonia in it that about 10% of all nitrogen on Earth was in that form. If that can happen on Earth, surely it could happen on Mars as well.

I eventually tired of the rejections and self-published the theory as my ebook “Planetary formation and biogenesis”, which the scientific community would definitely consider to be obscure. There is one minor point I did not fulfill: after various pointless rejections (I could not resist throwing the odd barb) Marchenko published in Armenian. That I could not do! My guess is, I shall further fulfill the backstory: my theory will be thoroughly ignored.

I think that is unique, but I could be wrong. Let me know if you think I am. Meanwhile, if this piques your interest, there is a free download at Amazon for November 16-18.

Why explain how devices work in fiction.

One reason to explain is when the addition adds to the story. The problem then is deciding what is worth explaining, and if it is, how to do it? An explanation is different from a description, which involves “what it is”, while an explanation involves “why it is like that”. Somewhere intermediate are the answers to the “how” questions. “What it is” may be necessary to follow the story, but “how it works” is different. In my opinion, it only matters when something else follows. If this can be pulled off, a far more enriched texture follows.

In my latest ebook, Red Gold, the background involves the colonization of Mars, which requires large-scale space ships to get there, since the plot also requires starting on Earth. To get artificial gravity, these are giant rotating disks. Now, we could merely have rotating disks, but look what happens if you think about how they rotate. First, there must be a means by which they can rotate while having motors that direct the direction of travel. That is most easily achieved (in fiction, if not in reality) if the motors are separate from the disk and joined in some way to something that does not rotate. These requirements give rise to a description that, while quite speculative and open to a lot of criticism, at least has the virtue of painting a more detailed picture that I hope makes the written section more plausible. How to do this? I had the disk spinning about the non-rotating support, and within this there is a massive inner hub that spun at extreme velocity in the other direction. For those in the know, when spinning something up, somehow you have to conserve angular momentum. It would be easier in some ways to have the counter-spinning part external to the disk, but that would make the stabilization of the motor mount near impossible. What I hoped to achieve with this detail that is not needed for the story is to give the reader a better feeling of “being there”.

However, the real point is that having reached this “design” more detail can be added. The disks carry plants so it is important that they travel through space “face-on” so as to maximize the collection of sunlight, but they have to land “edge-on” or “bottom down” so the motors have to be able to be re-oriented. Finally, the motors have a mass of about 25,000 tonne, so there has to be a means of separating them from the disk prior to landing, otherwise the supports would collapse and the motors would crush the ship. That means the disks have to land essentially unpowered.

Once that is done, I felt it was important to use those descriptions to aid the plot. Thus the danger of the landing permits one protagonist to get down before anybody else, and this allows the build-up of tension between two men who are falling out. The structure also permitted the invention of a ball game that is rather difficult to play. There are two major protagonists who start off as business partners (more or less). This game was used to bring to the open that one was sexually involved with the other’s wife, and it was also used to have a game between the two protagonists, and when one is shown to be a bad loser, the rift between them starts to open, which is a major advance to the plot. The design gives a great excuse to get the ship to land in the “wrong” place, at least as far as one protagonist is concerned, and it forces several other things to happen that otherwise should not have. So, while it may seem unnecessary to have such a detailed discussion of ship design, I hope it gives a clear picture to the reader, and as the book continues, the specific design permits several pieces of plot development. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that when the plot depends on the descriptions, then everything hangs together better. What do you think? If you wish to form your own opinion, the ebook has a free download from Amazon on November 16-18.

. 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?