Feb 26, 2010

Speculative Science in Science Fiction

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I'm comfortable with thinking about science fiction as a type of fantastic story in which we are not forced to deal with the supernatural. If a story says that something happened because of a magic spell then I'll call that fantasy. However, I accept the idea that advanced science and technology can seem like magic.

Science fiction stories often include plot elements that seem magical and never get explained. For example, Asimov's "positronic brain" sounds cool and Asimov never tried to explain how it works or how it might make telepathy possible. Science fiction writers need not explain their faster-than-light spaceship engines, how their time travel machines work or details about any imagined technology. However, sometimes it is fun to constrain the scientific account of an imagined scientific advance or technology. For example, if Asimov says that a positronic brain contains platinum, then we start to feel that he has not tried to slip something magical past us, the damned thing is a physical device, we just do not know the technical details.

I was recently looking at Frankenstein. Shelley wrote, "I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be". We were provided no details on how to create life, but Shelly went out of her way to indicate that there was a scientific way to animate non-living matter. When writing science fiction, is it best to simply avoid all detailed explanations of speculative science and technology?

Charlie Jane Anders seemed to advocate such a "less is more" approach for science fiction in the context of "the force" in Star Wars (see: The Real Problem With Midichlorians). However, I like some constraints on science fiction plot devices. Go ahead, mention that there is platinum in positronic brains, stress the importance of dilithium crystals, mention the fact that Luke has many midichlorians and so can be expected to learn how to tap into "the force". Such imagined technological details make the story richer and remind us that we are playing around inside a science fiction "what if" game, not a fantasy scenario. This is a matter of taste: some people would rather not hear about platinum, dilithium and midichlorians. I can live with variation in individual taste with respect to detail in stories that include speculative science.

While collaborating to write The Search for Kalid, I wanted to write about people who were coming to understand how telepathy is possible. I wanted there to be a speculative science account for how telepathy works. By imposing some constraints it becomes possible to make a richer story. I suppose that I was influenced in my thinking about telepathy by the idea of "midichlorians". You could say that I took the seed idea, that of a small body component that is important for "mental powers", and I ran with it. How might a biological structure (I called mine "telastids") produce a form of communications signal that might be used for telepathy?

Diagram for the roll of telastids in telepathy.

This diagram (above) is meant to summarize key parts of a "science of telepathy". Readers who are not interested in technical details can read The Search for Kalid without worrying about the technical details. If you have a taste for constraints and a few details concerning speculative science then those details are available for your enjoyment.

You might feel that "midichlorians" were "not an explanation you can build on", but I don't feel that way and I think the "telastids" are a fun direction in which to build. Science has a way of revealing that the universe is built on all sorts of things that might at first strike us as crazy or impossible. Funny how science can be dismissed as "hand waving" by people who do not want to hear the truth (example), usually people who imagine that a supernatural "explanation" is best. Sorry, but a supernatural "explanation" is the true hand waving. The speculative science "midichlorian" is the kind of plot element should be in a science fiction story.

Similarly, for The Start of Eternity I started with Asimov's suggestion and invented a reason for using platinum in positronic circuits. My main motivation for including details concerning speculative science is that it helps me make richer imagined worlds where human actions are constrained in "logical" ways. Another motivation is that by including such details the characters in stories can be shown struggling to understand their world in the way that scientists and engineers do. I think it is great when science fiction stories include people who are making scientific discoveries and developing new technologies. In my mind, throwing in a few details makes for a more satisfying account of speculative science than Shelley's "I could tell you the details, but I won't" or Obi-Wan Kenobi's techno babble account: "The force is an energy field."

Charlie Jane Anders prefers the content-free (energy field) "explanation" of "the force" because it allows for the possibility that there is no science involved, it could be that "the force" is "mystical and soul-related". Well, okay, if that floats your boat, but, um, there's a reason why it is called science fiction. Anders claims that "midichlorians actually contradict" the original content-free explanation, but I do not see how. Midichlorians were an elaboration of the original idea, a way of linking "the force" to physical reality. Sure, that will offend you if you imagine that "the force" is non-physical magic, but that's your problem, a problem that you created for yourself. I'm willing to follow Lucas in the direction he took the story rather than complain about it. I'm in the market for more platinum, midichlorians and telastids. I'm happy to find such details in my science fiction, particularly when they make clear that I did not fall into some fantasy story where supernatural forces "explain" things.

Related reading: my blog post on science fiction as a literary genre.

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