At the MileHiCon45 in Denver, five authors got together to discuss with their fans how much science is really required to write science fiction.
The authors in attendance were Dr. Doug Beason (‘Alternitech’), J.A Campbell (‘Sabaska’s Tale’), Aaron Ritchey (‘The Never Prayer’), J Alan Erwine (‘A Problem in Translation’), and Paolo Bacigalupi (‘The Windup Girl’), all of whom ranged from heavily involved in science and science fiction to more fantasy writers.
It’s a common question to be asked at literary panels at science fiction/fantasy conventions and it’s one that should continually be asked. It lets us know the state of science fiction and how we, as humans, are truly interacting with the human condition.
Or maybe I’m being a bit high-minded about the whole thing on account that my business card literally reads “Science Fiction Analyst”. Honestly, the panel was probably just there for a bit of fun and a chance to ponder out-loud how far we’ve come, for better or worse, from hard science fiction.
So what is the difference between good science and bad science, and when should it be used?
The fantasy authors, like J.A Campbell, admitted to using “handwavery” to justify things that aren’t really possible in our world, but what was more interesting was that even in fantasy, the writers did try to base some sort of scientific concept to their work. Got teleporting horses in your story? They teleport because they evolved that way. Boom. Science.
Other writers, like Aaron Ritchey, claimed that if you have the basic knowledge of Wikipedia, you can pretty much elaborate on the point however you want.
In the end, Paolo Bacigalupi mentioned that when it came to science fiction and trying to make plot and science fiction happen, he followed J. Michael Straczynski‘s (creator of ‘Babylon 5’) line of thinking, which is that space ships move at the speed of plot. All the writers agreed.
The question of whether we are living in a science fiction world came up several times, though it was worded in different ways. Bacigalupi marveled at how his friend bought cat ears in Japan using a translator on her phone and playing the voice at everyone until she got what she found. Ritchey joked that with the internet that he didn’t have to think anymore; he can just use Google. They also discussed that planes were really teleporters, because it really should be unthinkable that we can get on a plane and ten hours later be halfway across the world.
Naturally, this makes one wonder, if we do indeed live in a science fiction society, is there really such a thing as science fiction?
Here, Erwine spoke up. “The greatest mystery is what a person is thinking,” insinuating that just because we have smartphones doesn’t mean we don’t have plot fodder. Also, the other authors added, there are always ways to take out a GPS. Phones aren’t water proof, right?
At the end of the panel, the authors were asked if they felt science fiction had a duty. To varying degrees, they admitted that it was a way to put forth opinions and shape the future, though one had to be careful about it. Bacigalupi disagreed with that, saying that he unabashedly used his fiction for propaganda, largely because the stuff he is satirizing or making comment on have a voice, and a loud one at that.
The panel was interesting, even if it didn’t really answer the question that was put forth at the beginning. I think, however, reading between the lines, that each author implicitly understood that science fiction is about capturing the present problems and inspirations, divorce it from us by putting in fiction, so we can really see, understand, and critically analyze what we think, believe, and do.