Why Your Science Has to Be Better Than The Science in TV Science Fiction

British writer Paul McAuley wrote an interesting article about the depiction of science in science fiction.

He makes the point that it’s in the nature of fiction to tend towards depicting sudden revelations rather than gradual processes:

You know the kind of thing: lone geniuses who go against the grain of current thinking; oddballs who stumble upon a new paradigm, like a metal-detecting hobbyist lucking out on a hoard of Roman gold; science advanced by epiphanies that explode with the frequency of flashguns at a film premiere (and in films, often require really fast typing to defuse some last-minute knucklebiting threat involving overflux in the intertubes that would otherwise create deadly feedback in everyone’s hypothalami).

But most science is mostly a cooperative, slow, patient accretive process… And an awful lot of science isn’t about the sudden apprehension of a universal truth, but the gainsaying of alternate explanations for an observed phenomenon or fact…

Of course, this kind of science isn’t much use in the construction of stories in which heroes slice through the Gordian knot of some world-threatening problem, or make some world-changing discovery. But it’s the kind of science that serious SF should at least acknowledge – just as any kind of serious fiction should acknowledge the complexity of the happening world, and the knotty and often ambiguous moral choices real people have to make.


Discover magazine recently published a list of examples of bad science from movies.  The entry onTransformers includes this:

A fundamental rule in the universe is that mass cannot be destroyed, so making something smaller doesn’t mean it will be lighter in weight! Any Transformer keeping its mass will therefore become very dense: A 100-foot-tall robot compacting down to a 10-foot car would plunge right through the road and into Earth’s crust.

That would be amusing to watch but would make endless sequels unlikely.

Some beginning writers who are only familiar with science fiction through the movies and TV shows don’t realise that written SF has much higher standards when it comes to scientific accuracy and consistency.

For example, the popular Battlestar Galactica show (the remake) has some interesting ideas about consciousness and downloading.  (Many of these ideas aren’t  new compared to books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Neuromancer).  But other aspects of its science are a confusing and inconsistent mess.  Take the use of nuclear weapons.  Sometimes ships can use nuclear weapons and instantly blow up anything they want.  At other times, it can take ages for a fleet of ships to even damage other ships.

One of the show’s main characters is a TV ScientistTM – not a real scientist.  He’s conveniently an expert in whatever scientific field is biology, computer programming, networks, chemistry, astronomy, astrophysics is required for the purposes of the plot.  It takes a lifetime to specialise in any of these fields.  If you write a SF short story or novel, your depiction of scientists had better be more accurate than this.

Some famous SF novels that include interesting depictions of scientists at work include Timescapeand Spin.

Even in written SF your science doesn’t have to be 100% accurate (it’s debatable whether things like time travel and hyperspace travel are scientifically possible), but you should at the very least avoid obvious errors of terminology.

One of the most famous bad science clunkers comes from Star Wars where Han Solo talks about making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs.  A parsec is a measure of distance, not time.

Other terms that I’ve seen misused a lot recently are uploading and downloading.  Some people simply substitute download for copy, but that’s not right.

For example:

  • I downloaded the data onto the Internet.
  • I uploaded the data onto the Internet.

WikiAnswers has a nice summary of the difference:

It’s all a matter of perspective. If you are loading something to the computer in front of you from another computer it’s called “downloading” If you’re loading something FROM the computer in front of you to another computer, it’s generally called “uploading”.

Another perspective is the SIZE and function of the computer. If you’re loading something from a server or large computer to your computer, it’s downloading. If you’re loading something TO a server or larger computer it’s called uploading.

These days it’s much easier to do research on the Internet.  A good overall guide for helping to make your science more accurate is The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe by George Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier.

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