I recently encountered a Facebook post by an author of a science fiction novel based around the idea of global cooling. He had discovered a website of climate theorists, the Space and Science Research Center, whose opinions roughly matched those of his book, and was proud to point out the connection.
Unfortunately, the SSRC is an avowed anti-warming group, whose theories are not backed by actual scientific data:
“The Space and Science Research Center (SSRC) is (apparently) a for-profit company located in Orlando, FL. They appear to have an anti-global warming agenda, though their arguments have yet to be examined in detail. They present an appearance of scientific grounding, but they do not seem to have any peer-reviewed papers on their theories.” (From Issuepedia)
I politely pointed this out, and added that “although it’s nice to take your SF from the headlines, one should caution whose headlines are being read…”
However, my point was essentially ignored by other posters, including the author, all of whom expressed little or no concern about whether the science in the story was actually correct. One such poster lauded the author, and added:
“I suspect your book will be much better fiction than anything peddled by the SSRC. Science does not have to be believable, as long as your characters are.”
When I read that, a small part of me died inside.
I (apparently) represent a dwindling number of science fiction authors who believe that the science in science fiction is important enough to take every effort to make it not only believable, but as far as we can determine, possible. We put considerable effort into researching our science and technology, crafting our stories around as plausible a series of scientific details as we can work out.
But it also seems to be true that the majority of science fiction consumers out there will bitch endlessly about the scientific accuracy of Interstellar… but will pee themselves watching the latest Star Wars trailer. That they don’t care how impossible it is to fly through space faster than light… it’s so cool that they want it anyway. That Cal-Tech physicists working as scientific advisers don’t have the same cred as talking trees and raccoons.
This is distressing—and not just because it means people aren’t buying my books; it means that growing segments of the public do not know or care about science or how it works. And as it takes knowledge of science and how it works to actually work in scientific fields (assuming your goal is not to blow yourself up or contaminate the planet), it means that the future of our scientific progress is looking very bleak.
Talk to today’s scientists and rocket experts, and what you hear from them is a list of science fiction television shows and books that inspired them to get into science. That list includes work by authors who knew a lot about the science they wrote about, and endeavored to not only inspire, but teach their readers about the world around them. You won’t hear many of them wax enthusiastic about the Shatner-vs-Gremlin episode of The Twilight Zone, or any episode of Lost in Space; you will hear them speak glowingly of the technology presented in Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of authors like Clark, Asimov, Bova and Pohl.
Sure, you can have your entertaining sci-fi with no real science; your Star Wars, Godzillas, ETs and Guardians. But the real value of science fiction comes in its examination of the possibilities and pitfalls of science and technology, and how it will impact our real lives.
I really don’t care to know that some kid learned defensive light-saber techniques from me… because exactly who is that going to benefit? But one day, I’d like to know that one of my books was part of the library of works that inspired a future scientist to improve our energy systems, artificial intelligence or off-planet life support systems. I’d like to know I helped inspire someone to design a better waste management system, a more efficient jet engine, a more intuitive cellphone interface or a longer-lasting battery.
Because that’s the real power of science fiction. Any genre can entertain; but science fiction can inspire people to learn about real science and technology, and find ways to make life better.
Though I admit I’ve written series of sci-fi novels where scientific accuracy takes a back seat to entertainment… my proudest accomplishments are those stories where the science is as believable and accurate as possible, and still rocks a great story. It is not an impossible feat; and it’s one that we should be striving to expose more people to, for the sake of our mutual future.
We should not encourage willful ignorance. We can, and must, do much, much better than that.