Writing the Science Right

From Science & Fantasy Writers Association:

Getting the science right in SF can make the difference between writing cute stories and great science fiction. If you are a non-scientist writing SF and want to know how to do that, then this blog post is for you.

Doing Background Research

If science is critical to the overall plot, research before writing. In the movie Armageddon, a Texas-sized asteroid is discovered eighteen days before it will destroy Earth. The movie’s drama hinges on that time pressure. However, an asteroid that size would have been discovered years earlier. Researching first avoids creating such critically flawed stories.

In most cases, however, the science is not plot-critical, and your research will be more efficient if you write your story first. Now, I understand that sounds crazy, but you are not writing a technical manual. What is important is how the technology is servicing the story. For example, if you want to show your commander is technologically smarter than the captain, when drafting you write:

“Commander, we need INSERT INEFFICIENT OR SLIGHTLY INCORRECT SCIENCE to fix the engines.”

“Captain, Couldn’t we INSERT BETTER SOLUTION?”

It doesn’t matter whether the engine needs rubies or milkshakes. Later, when you figure out what’s plausible, you would re-write this as:

“Commander, scan for diamonds.”

“Our scans won’t detect diamonds, Captain, but I am detecting diatreme volcanic vents. Diamonds often occur in kimberlite deposits at such structures.”

By drafting this way, we create a focused list of science questions to research.

Once you have specific questions, your purpose is to learn key vocabulary and get a broad overview. Given that more accessible information is less precise, you’ll want to do the research in stages. Museum information and online curricula for children are simplified and curated for accuracy. Wikipedia has variable quality but is good for high-level overviews. Avoid googling or using tech company brochures. Though attractive, these sources are often rife with inaccuracies or hyperbole. With your overview, you then have the tools to go deeper using science-journalism sources like PBS and Scientific American.

Beyond this, the best sources are those reviewed by scientists, e.g. public information sites from NASA, the CDC, or national professional organizations, like the American Medical Association. Finally, reviews in professional scientific journals including CellScience, or Nature are usually in-depth and balanced; and more accessible than the original articles. 

If you still have questions, you can attempt to read the original scientific articles. These can be found using specialty search engines like pubmed.gov or georef. However, these are often too technical for laypeople.

If at this stage you still have questions, then you need to speak to a subject matter expert.

Where to find your experts

In addition to authors, SF conference panels often contain well-qualified scientists. These scientists are often open to being approached and will understand what you need. Remember, however, that expertise is field-dependent, and you should target people based on their area of science (also remember this when writing fictional scientists, e.g. don’t have the physician know how to rebuild a nuclear reactor). If your question is not in their field, they may direct you to someone else. 

Alternatively, you can contact experts referenced in the papers you read. While companies may be hesitant to reveal industry secrets, academics are often excited to talk about their science. Being approached by a SF writer is often novel for them, and many will be curious to speak with you. However, it is important to be:

  1. Brief
  2. Professional
  3. Ask for a short time commitment
  4. Offer phone or email so they can choose
  5. Provide succinct questions up-front. The majority should require yes/no or one-word answers. 
  6. State at the end if you offer anything in exchange

If you are a high school student, tell them. Speaking as an educator, that fact alone would almost guarantee a “yes.”

I ask for a phone call, as scientists will often say more than they type, and it gives me an opportunity to clarify things, but never record without asking permission.

Providing the questions shows this is not a big ask and gives them the opportunity to prepare, answer by email, or re-direct you to a better authority. 

Link to the rest at Science & Fantasy Writers Association

3 thoughts on “Writing the Science Right”

  1. I’m afraid that this post made me want to me bang my head on the desk.

    I didn’t because that would be a stupid thing to do.

    There’s so much stupidity in this advice that it burns me. Read some Isaac Asimov explanations on science; yes he’s out of date, but he will provide a basic foundation of where to start.

    Of course, silly me, I forgot that there’s no need to have the following: an understanding of science; cause and effect; or the scientific method etc. Silly, silly me.

    Wasn’t it Greg Egan who was ejected from a convention for saying something similar? I don’t know. Insert rage against the world here.

    • Or an understanding of the genre and its conventions; things like proper extrapolations, acceptable improbabilities, nuts-n-bolts irrelevancies, viable tropes and Dead horse memes, sub-genres, etc. Above all, reader *expectations*.

      Going in blindly will at best result in a fantasy in drag or at worst dreadful SF rejected by the market. Too many writers, wannabes or genre crossers, think SF is just a setting or window dressing instead of an entirely diferent field.

      Most of what the OP focuses on is at best applicable to a tiny niche of the field and useless to the vast majority of stories.

      Total misunderstanding of the market.

  2. Like with “punctuation” as long as you are consistent with your Imaginary “Science” you are fine.

    Hard SF, is simply defining the rules that you are using, The “Nuts and Bolts” that you define is what makes the Story consistent.

    – The same with Hard Fantasy.

    I refer you to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, along with The Forge of God by Greg Bear. Each is Hard “Nuts and Bolts” SF.

    – By the Story’s own “Rules”.

    Consider Arthur C. Clarke. His stories are considered Hard SF, yet virtually everything he wrote about was fantasy science. That does not change the impact of his stories, they still stand up.

Comments are closed.