Well, it’s SCIENCE. That’s what it is. And you knew that, but I have kind of an issue about this subject. As I get ready to write again—as, dear WordPress reader, I get ready to finish the Bluehorse trilogy—I find myself thinking about science.
There are really two kinds of science fiction. One is like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, or like Star Wars. It’s not primarily about science; rather, it travels far into the future (or just an extreme distance in time and space, with Star Wars) to distance itself from the present, and put it into what amounts to a fantasy landscape with high technology. I want to make clear that I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not what I want to write, and as I find myself stuck in my writing addiction, and trying to publish, I find myself thinking about why I write, and what I’m trying to do with my writing.
And the thing is, a little self-knowledge is actually helpful.
I write so I can find out what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin.
What would it be like to be like the Doctor? Well, don’t write a Doctor Who fan-fiction; that character’s already created. Write a story of a time-traveling wizard. (So I did: thus, the Jacky Clotilde stories.) What would the actual life of a Dungeons & Dragons character be like? Write a story that treats D&D characters as people with actual lives. (Thus, Daisy in the Dark.) And that’s exactly how I wound up writing The Road to Bluehorse: thinking about what it would be like to be one of the first fighter pilots. Thinking about the real life of a fighter pilot, without the knightly glamor of the Jedi.
I love Star Wars. And I also love Star Trek. But right now, my favorite sci-fi novel has to be Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Why? Because it’s not about amazing heroes doing amazing things at the far end of space-time. It’s about a guy I can totally relate to, doing things that I can totally picture, because they’re just over the edge of what we can already do.
And to make that work, Haldeman had to apply the science of his time. It wasn’t all correct (collapsars are no longer a thing), but it was the speculative science of the late 1970s, and it served the purpose of anchoring the story in a reality that was more rigorous, and therefore deeper and more stable, than someone’s fantasy. (In comparison, actual “fantasy,” in the sense of Tolkien or Terry Pratchett, uses a sort of standardized replacement reality made up of medieval technology and monsters and magicians from the D&D books. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I write fantasy too.)
So to the point: I want to make a quick list of the elements of the space science of our time, in the hope that writers of sci fi will see fit to fit their stories to it as best they can. Trust me: it will make your tales stronger, not weaker.
- You can’t go faster than the speed of light, unless you have some way of harnessing wormholes, which would be more likely to tear you down to your component quarks and leptons. (Haldeman uses tachyons, which were also speculated on in the 1970s but are also no longer a thing.) Fortunately, while it will take thirty years to travel thirty light years at near the speed of light, Dr Einstein is here to help: look up time dilation.
- Every planet has to orbit a star, unless it’s a rogue planet; but rogues would be rare, difficult to find and hard-frozen.
- Stars are VERY FAR APART. The New Horizons mission to Pluto is moving out of the solar system at a speed that is faster than any spacecraft before it ever moved. And it’s going to take around 30,000 years to travel ONE LIGHT YEAR. And the nearest star to the Sun is 4.2 light years away.
- Most planets will not have life. Most planets will not have anything like our atmosphere. Most planets will either be gas giants like Jupiter, with no real surface at all, or cold rocks like Pluto, or hellholes like Venus, or hot rocks like Mercury. The best planet we know of is Earth. The second best is Mars, and you would not survive thirty minutes on Mars without a space suit to protect you, and a good supply of oxygen.
- There is no sound in space. Let me repeat that. There is no sound in space.
- The Empire Strikes Back aside, asteroid belts are not tightly-packed masses of rock. They’re incredibly diffuse. We have sent a number of missions through our asteroid belt (to Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto etc.) and never come close to hitting anything. A tightly-packed belt would not survive long, because the asteroids would clobber each other, and because they would gravitationally influence each other.
- Our own solar system is pretty well-known. In particular, the inner solar system is a done deal. You’re not going to find a planet just past Mercury; the Earth has one moon, Venus has none and Mercury has none. Mars has two, but they’re small.
- The planets of the Solar System are far apart and become farther and farther apart as you go outward. And 99.8% of the mass of the Solar System is the Sun itself. Half the rest is Jupiter, and half of what’s left when you take out the Sun and Jupiter: that’s Saturn. No solar system diagram in a book is correct: you can’t make both the distances and the sizes correct, and fit it all onto a page.
- We now know of lots of planets around other stars, but we can’t see them in any real sense: generally the best we can do is see their tiny gravitational effects on their stars, or possibly, if the geometry is just right, we might see the diminishing of light from the star when a planet transits in front of it.
- Black Holes abound, but they don’t suck things in from far away: you’d have to stray quite close to one to be sucked in, in fact. And they don’t look like anything, because light can’t escape a black hole; what you’d see is just the disk of debris orbiting the black hole, sort of the waiting area for stuff falling in.
- You could never travel fast enough to see stars fly by you, as in Star Trek (or that old Starfield screen saver).
I’m sure you can think of more. I’m sure I can think of more. But my points are:
Your science fiction will be stronger if you know your science. Maybe this is just my personal preference, but it seems axiomatic to me. But then I’m the sort who prefers Harry Potter to superhero stories, and preferred The Martian to Star Wars. And:
In the age of Wikipedia, there’s no excuse not to know your science. There’s no excuse to even be writing a space story if you don’t know how space works.