How much science is in science fiction?

MayflowerLast time I talked about why I write science fiction and I guess, bottom line, it just feels the most natural thing for me to do.  However, as soon as you start writing science fiction you face the dilemma of just how do you cope with the science that underpins it.  After all, it’s the future, fifty, hundred, even thousands of years ahead and if you look back a thousand, one hundred or even just fifty years (and I can for the last one) people then could never imagine the world we live in now.

OK, fifty years ago, if you really thought about it some of it might have been imagined, and if you took someone from 1966 and put them in the modern world they would probably would recognise most of it and adapt.  Mobile phones, travel, communications etc. all not that far removed and even computers.  But go back a hundred years?

So projecting forward, given that the changes are happening even faster, who knows.  We can probably extrapolate to fifty years, but after that we are really guessing.  One of the best illustrations I can give for this is that recently I recently reread Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation and Empire trilogy.  I read them first as a teenager and they, at least partially are what got me started with science fiction, after Arthur Clarke’s childhood’s end (mind blowing).  If you haven’t read them, do.

The Foundation books were written in the mid to late 1950’s and what strikes you now is that despite all the intergalactic space flight there are no computers.  The calculations for interstellar jumps are done largely by hand with charts etc.  Yes, there were calculating machines, but they were not what we would call computers.  This is simply because when Asimov wrote these stories computers, well they simply didn’t exist so he had no basis on which to imagine them.  Just fifteen to twenty years later when he wrote the sequels to those books computers appear in way we would recognise today i.e. the basics were there on which he could make a logical projection.

So, to me the moral of all this is writer beware.

The other point I would make about getting too deep into whatever technology you invent.  I don’t think you have to.  I can imagine interstellar, faster than light travel, I can give it a name, but trying to have a meaningful stab at the technology behind it?  Now there are authors out there who might be able to give it a plausible go, but does it bother me how it works? No.  For the story I just need to know it’s possible.  Even when it comes to long distance sub light travel it’s not easy.

barge 2For instance in Project Noah I do speculate on how billions of micro machines might be used to build a craft that will carry tens of thousands of people to the stars, but I admit that when it comes to powering such a craft I keep it vague in the area of nuclear fusion.  I’ve read it’s an option, but would it be practical on the scale I’m suggesting? I don’t know.  But then does anyone?  It might not be, based on what we know now.  But then that’s the beauty of writing science fiction, we don’t have to stick to what know now.  Also, I admit that I am equally vague concerning the biggest problem, which if you read anything on the subject, is how do you fuel such a craft for a journey of hundreds of years.

So for those that don’t get science fiction they might cry “that could never work” to which I would shout back “based on what we know now, it might in the future.”  I know that’s the great get out clause for science fiction, the excuse for whatever outlandish technology we need to make our stories work.  But for me that’s the whole point.  As I’ve said before if we dare to dream something then we plant that seed from which future research can grow.  It doesn’t have to make sense now.  If you took someone from a thousand years ago and plonked them in our world they would assume most of what they saw was supernatural, witchcraft and the like.  So in a thousand years from now?  Well, at least let us dare to imagine.

As always comments are welcome.

If you like the idea of Project Noah you can read more in the My Books section and also find it on Amazon

Ian Martyn

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

10 thoughts on “How much science is in science fiction?”

  1. How do you expect to measure and quantify that? I wrote a computer program that counts science fiction and fantasy words and then computes an SF and Fantasy density for the work. There are science words like ‘gravity’ and ‘orbit’ and SF words like ‘hyperspace’ amd ‘phaser’ so I just count those together. Then there are fantasy words like ‘unicorn’ and ‘vampire’. Even though swords and castlesare real they count as fantasy words.

    Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust is my Hard SF reference

    The input file is: ACC.AFalloMndust.txt with 439550 characters.

    It uses 99 SF words 562 times for an SF density of 1.279

    11 Fantasy words used 23 times for a Fantasy density of 0.053

    J K Rowling’s fantasy is very different:

    The input file is: JKR-HP1=7.txt with 6317576 characters.

    It uses 61 SF words 478 times for an SF density of 0.076

    48 Fantasy words used 4454 times for a Fantasy density of 0.706

    Of course the program cannot tell if the science words are used correctly.

    1. Thanks – I guess I don’t expect to measure and quantify it. As long as the story works, then it’s good for me.

  2. Technological advancement has boomed in recent decades but I believe the boom will end soon and the next 100 year span will be equivalent to a 10 year span right now. IMO the invention of the computer is the reason for this. The first 50 years of development and implementation being naturally huge due to how many uses it has, but saturation point coming fast now. Going to need a completely new invention of a similar scale to produce another boom, and that could be centuries away… or never? I expect the technological difference between now and 500 years from now will be less than the past 50 years – and it’s very much within the realms of imagination.

    1. Interesting. Perhaps the advances will be in other areas. You only have to look at medicine which has made phenomenal progress in the last decade or so and every year sees new revelations.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think that reflects how most of us see the science that’s all around us. We know how to use it even if we have a only a basic understanding of how it works

If you have a view on this, let me know: