Science fiction – how it works

I have recently returned from a ski holiday.  We’d just boarded the plane taxied out when they announced the need to have something checked.  We taxied back and then were told there would be a twenty minute delay.  A groan echoed around the aircraft.  The fact that we were all sitting in a metal tube that in a short space of time would fly us a distance that a few generations ago would have taken weeks to complete was irrelevant.  Also, that it would be at an altitude that is inconsistent with life in normal circumstances, while sipping our drinks and watching moving pictures on hand held devices was forgotten.  All this had me thinking of our relationship with science and technology and the science of science fiction.

Our experience on that plane is an example of that relationship – we take it for granted.  We only notice it when something goes wrong.  The science, technology, organisation and manufacturing that allow us to do this and view that minor delay with irritation is ignored.  More than that, the vast majority of it might as well be magic to most of us.   I know the basics behind flight and the lift generated by an aircraft wing, maybe something of how a jet engine works.  As for my tablet, not really.

So when it comes to science fiction and words such as ‘that could never happen’, forget it.  As far as I’m concerned it might.  If I and others can imagine it then it’s got a chance.  That’s how progress works.  First someone has to imagine it and then, however long it takes it is a possibility waiting for someone(s), to come up with the answer that makes it happen.

Einstein’s theory of relativity says (and excuse my short hand here) that nothing can travel faster that the speed of light, because at the speed of light an object would have infinite mass, which is impossible.  However, that’s the world as we know it now.  I’m not saying I believe Einstein is wrong, only that no one has found a way around the problem yet.  I’m sure they will at some point in the future.

As for science fiction I get upset and bored when writers go out of their way to try and explain the technology in detail.  I don’t want that.  The more detail they use the more likely that they’re wrong.  After all they’re basing it on what we know now.   Also, as with me and the others on that flight anyone using that technology will take it for granted.  It will whisk them between the stars in days, or however long, but they won’t think of the miracle that makes it work, they’ll simply moan at an hours delay, or when their bags don’t show up on time.  Like me they might understand some of the basics, but as for the detail, they won’t care.

Someone commented on my book Bleak – The story of a shapeshifter, that it was impossible.  Nonsense, I’ve imagined it, therefore it’s possible.  I even explain a little as to how it might happen.  Only a little of course, as for the rest, that’s what our imagination is for.  So use terms like positronic brain, farspace, wormholes, neural nets, ion drives, whatever suits the story.  As for the rest it doesn’t matter.  That to me is the point of science fiction.  It’s up to the reader to fill in the gaps, to put him or herself in the middle of all those wonderful ideas and experience the magic.  If you’re still wondering, try Ben Bova’s book on space travel (also mentioned on my resources page).  He explains why most of what we can dream up today, in terms of a detailed propulsion systems wouldn’t work.  He also states that shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

As always comments are welcome

Ian Martyn


Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

2 thoughts on “Science fiction – how it works”

  1. FTL is a double-edged sword when it comes to narrative. In a fantasy-romance like Star Wars, the entire story could be transposed to 16th century Bohemia and lose nothing. The real implications of space travel (e.g. Kzin Wars or even the Passengers movie) are a lot more diverting.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I know what you mean. I guess in something like Star Wars its an excuse for all those special affects. Don’t know Kzin wars, however I always thought the Joe Haldeman Forever War was a brave and interesting approach with the time dilation aspect. Ken McLeod does something similar in some of his books if I remember correctly.

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