Science in Fiction

[Content warning: You probably won’t learn anything about science from this post. Opinions only this time. Fun ones, I hope!]

Based on my experience of the Internet, there are a lot of people out there already writing about “the science of” various fiction, whether it’s novels, TV, movies, or comics. In a case of art imitating life, science shows up in fiction a lot, whether it’s incidental or central. We all have our opinions, so reactions to the portrayal of science in these stories vary strongly, with some people who couldn’t care less and some who I really can’t imagine could possibly care more. If you’re on that latter end of the spectrum, I imagine it might be hard to enjoy a character-driven (code for non-hard science) time-travel story or space opera, simply because the scientific inaccuracies are too overwhelming.

I’ve been reading fiction since I was too short to reach a lot of bookshelves (thanks, librarian mom!) and honestly, no matter how far I’ve progressed as a scientist, I have never cared very much about the nitpicky accuracy of the science in the stories I read. If the whole plot hangs on a very basic idea that is blatantly wrong, yeah, that’s pretty annoying. Otherwise, my developing concern for detailed accuracy can be charted thus:

fictionalscientificaccuracy

 

There isn’t even a scale on the y-axis! I just drew that line at random instead of trying to quantify my levels of (un)concern!

All of that to say that I’m probably not going to go into what The Expanse gets right (or wrong, I guess, if you’re feeling critical) or why Doctor Who is hand-wavy nonsense (which it is, glorious hand-wavy fantasy nonsense). If that’s what you’re looking for, you should diversify your blog reading, because I’m sure it’s out there. What I’m interested in is fiction that uses science in a way that

1) is integral to the story (not just providing neat details, but actually shaping the themes and essence of the story) and

2) leaves me inspired to find out more about that science.

This often goes hand-in-hand with accuracy, but not always. In any case, it isn’t the accuracy that grabs me in these stories. The most important thing to me is that I put the book down thinking, “I didn’t want that to end, but now that it has, the way it talked about [botany/geology/basket weaving] is SO COOL that researching the actual science will feel like the next best thing to an extension of the story.”

Now that’s good science fiction. If you haven’t felt that way, my humble opinion is that you haven’t been reading the right science fiction, and I’d love to help you find it.

This blog is mostly for real science, but I’d also like to occasionally talk about authors that meet my personal standard of good fictional use of science—not to give an exhaustive list of everything they do right, but to convince you to check them out and see if you get the same sense of wonder and inspiration. Of course, that particular feature isn’t the only thing that makes scifi great, but it never hurts. There’s something magical (if you will) in that seamless blend of science and fiction that makes me say, “I don’t know for sure how much of that was real, but now I have to find out!” I hope that you already have favorites that make you feel that curiosity, and that maybe you’ll find some new ones here.

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My husband and I are nerds. Join us, it’s fun!

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One thought on “Science in Fiction

  1. Pingback: See Luke Read: Star Wars and the Post-Literacy Debate | Something of the Marvelous

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