Guidelines for good sci-fi: The misconceptions we too often believe.

I have been working on my next post in my Scientific Analysis series (which will feature Halo for the record, so watch for it coming sometime this week) but it is taking a while to write because of the sheer volume of stuff I have to look through, re-research (because I know a lot about the subject already usually), and then analyze based on my own knowledge of real world physics as well as other guidelines I use. So until then, I thought I’d bridge the gap with a more general post that lets you get an idea of how I analyze stuff in a science fiction franchise.

Now I explained in my Mass Effect analysis why I do these things, it isn’t because I am some grumpy person who wants to ruin the fun by pointing out what is possible or not, it is because I want to put these stories I and many people love to the test and see which are plausible. In my mind the ones that are more in tune with reality are the more fascinating since you know they could actually happen. There is another part to this too, Hollywood and TV plays fast and loose with science very often, and while it can sometimes make a story more entertaining even if I think it could be just a fun or more with accurate science, there is a downside. The more and more movies and TV just make up stuff for dramatic effect the more and more the general audience, that is everyday people who might not be as well versed in science, start believing the stuff they are seeing.

What is the harm in that you ask? Surely people don’t believe everything they see in films or on TV… It would be nice to think that is true, but sadly it is not, and at best it just means you might get shown up in a discussion about something by the guy who did research on real stuff, at worst it could affect your life. Now that is a general statement, not necessarily related to the use of science in science fiction, but it is something worth considering anytime you see something in a show or movie and think “Would that really happen?” One group of people who do magnificently well at showing what is or isn’t true in that sense are the Mythbusters, I love that show because they are the best skeptical thinkers in the modern media.

In the future I may post on other topics where misuse of science, or belief in various pseudosciences can lead to serious troubles, but that is for another day. Today it is worth asking, why should it matter if science fiction is scientifically accurate? It is just fiction after all right? Well you could say that, but then what is the point of branding it as a separate genre in the first place? Imagine you are reading a mystery novel, or watching one of the many police drama TV shows on right now (there are certainly more of them than sci-fi shows). Do you think it would be more fun if the cops on the show followed a realistic police procedure in trying to find the perpetrator to a murder or if they just ignored how real police and detectives do their jobs and had the main characters do whatever they wanted? Part of the fun is that detectives really do stuff like this, even if it isn’t always shooting bad guys in high stakes gun fights. Apply that to almost any fiction, except fantasy fiction, and you get the same result. Fantasy fiction exists for those out there tales we know can’t happen but allow us our imagination fun time.

The sad truth is that many people don’t find real science a necessity in science fiction often for two reasons. One is they do not understand enough of real science to appreciate it, and therefore cannot enjoy it when something is done right. The other is they feel real science is too limiting and takes the fun away. I will argue against the second reason to my death. Science has a really bad reputation and it doesn’t deserve it, not one bit. The first reason is understandable, science is not something everyone is an expert at, and it is hard stuff to understand sometimes. Keep in mind my entire life resolved around science and even I know it is an intimidating subject.. but oh it is so rewarding when you get to know it. You also don’t need to understand everything to enjoy proper use in fiction, just enough.

Now for the second reason, the one which I stated I will argue to the death, there is a reason for that. You see I was not always in the camp that thought realistic science in science fiction was better. I arrived there over time, but back in my younger days I loved the flashy stuff of Star Trek and Star Wars. I would be the guy who read up on how warp drive worked in the Trek universe and try to defend that it made sense and could work because of that. The reality was though, I just hated anyone telling me that warp drive didn’t make sense according to real science, or as it sounded to my ears, “it isn’t possible.” Now leaving alone any real world hypothetical FTL concepts which are similar to a warp drive (and yes there are some, note the hypothetical though), I couldn’t bear to think that the imaginary stuff I’d been enjoying was just fantasy because I didn’t know how to imagine a sci-fi future with proper science. It always just ended up looking like the present. The stale, boring present. By the way, we have done some pretty fantastic stuff with science to date that make it worth its weight in platinum. I just couldn’t see it yet because I hadn’t yet been shown the wonders of the real world, just the wonders of made up worlds. Anytime I imagined futuristic stories it had unlikely faster than light travel, crazy energy weapons, artificial gravity with no explanation, and unnecessary sound in space.

So how did I go from hating the idea of a science fiction story where FTL didn’t exist because the author didn’t want to assume anything to later enjoying how the author worked around that impediment? In short… I learned stuff. The biggest change came from me entering college and around half way through my degree program, which if you don’t recall for me was Aerospace Engineering (basically rocket science in my case, but it also applied to airplanes), I started to stop dreading learning all the stuff in the classes and started to find it interesting. This happened most when I got to my later classes where I was able to directly apply the math and physics I had learned to actual stuff related to planes, rockets, and planetary orbits. Suddenly it became real to me, this was a thing that actually is done in the real world and it was fantastic! Shortly after that I found myself seeing something on TV; may have been Star Wars or something but I had that light bulb moment where I saw something happen in the show and thought, “It wouldn’t actually work like that… but I know how it might be similar and still work.” Ever since then it was a total shift. I started enjoying hard science fiction stories more since they took the time to respect reality but still made it entertaining. I still like the flashy non-realistic stuff though, just not in the same way anymore. Now that stuff is more like fantasy, but with a technological or space twist (as opposed to swords and magic, but since we are on that, I did read all the Harry Potter books and I do in fact like them a lot so I do enjoy made up stuff too).

The above sounds like at first that the only way to enjoy realistic science fiction is to learn a lot about science. Well there is some truth to that, but I know not everyone is going to get degrees in the sciences (though I think more should). The laymen can learn to love this stuff too, all it takes is a crash course, knowing some basics. You can do that on the internet, you don’t need to know the math of it all, just some information. Even a Google search or an hour on Wikipedia (of course not everything may be 100% true, it is the internet after all). If you really can’t be bothered to try to expand your mind a little then you are not looking for the same thing I am, you are just looking for a fun tale regardless of whether it is possible. The suspended disbelief as they call it, or the escape from the real world. I used to do that a lot. I no longer wish to escape the real world, I wish to advance it to new horizons.

So I’ve gone this far now and I think I’ve outlined pretty well why I try so hard. So how do I go about analyzing some of the stuff in sci-fi stories anyway? What do I look for, and is it all based on stuff I learned whilst getting my engineering degree? The answer to the last one is no. I learned tons of stuff when I was in college and a lot of it helped me to learn to love the real universe we live in and the science that helps us understand it, but a lot of that isn’t limited to aerospace engineering. I actually have a bunch of sources for my knowledge base, a good majority of them from internet websites I know aren’t just making up stuff, and sometimes Wikipedia articles that I am relatively sure haven’t been messed with (always good to check the sources on the page for that). Basically, I do research, which for me can be fun depending on the topic. If you read my review of Lincoln it was clear I did a lot of reading about Abraham Lincoln and his life beyond just watching that movie, I needed an informed opinion of whether the movie did well or not and that requires some effort. Even Ken’s most recent post where he rants about Prometheus shows you can’t take everything at face value.

One of my favorite ways to put science fiction to the test is to use the Atomic Rockets criteria. Atomic Rockets is actually a website, part of Project Rho created by a guy going by the name Nyrath (or Winchell Chung in real life) who wanted to create a guide for science fiction authors (specifically space science fiction) for people who wanted “a little scientific accuracy” in their stories. He provides a lot of information, and even details on how to do basic mathematical calculations for stuff. A lot of this goes far beyond what may be needed for a plausibly realistic space story, but the fun thing is he is giving you all the options. The calculations he goes into, while daunting at first glance, are actually pretty simple. He even states: “It is assumed that the reader has enough knowledge to know the difference between a star and a planet, high school mathematics, and enough skill to use a pocket calculator.” So you don’t have to be a rocket scientist from the get go (though speaking from experience, it doesn’t hurt), and none of the math he touches gets any higher than high school algebra (I did a lot of this kind of stuff with advanced calculus and computer programming so trust me what he has is the easy stuff).

I implore you if you are interested to go look around his site. I have spent hours reading individual pages on singular topics ranging from one aspect of space warfare, to how to do a faster than light drive respectably (since it is not technically scientifically feasible right now), to even just what type of rocket engine works for what you are doing with a space ship. A lot of information I learned from there will be going into my eventual science fiction novel, which is a long way from being finished and I do intend to give him much credit for it whenever that gets done.

One of his more interesting pages which unlike most others is a simple and short page is a list of common misconceptions people pick up from the less accurate TV shows and movies. You can read about them on his page but I will go through a few and discuss why I think they are important in a science fiction story.

Things space isn’t: Space is not an ocean, is not two-dimensional, has no substance or friction, is nearly impossible to hide in, and is dead silent. Some shows or movies tend to try to make space seem like something more familiar, like the air planes fly in or the ocean boats and submarines travel through. This is done because the average person understands that easier without needed explanation. Thing is though, why bother setting a story in space if you aren’t going to even do space like it really is? I look at shows where space ships treat it like a large ocean and only movie forward, back, and left or right and am left thinking not only is that not how it is, but if that is what they wanted why not set the story on some ocean and use a fictional world if they didn’t want an Earth story? Also a lot of stories show space ships running their engines constantly, which is based on how aircraft need to do that to keep moving. In space it is really different due to the lack of friction, which comes from no atmosphere or any sort of medium. The same is why you can’t really hide in space, even if you can’t be visually seen, you give off heat, and in the cold black of space, any heat source sticks out if you look at it the right way (an if you were there, you would be looking that way). Also the biggest one is that there is no sound because of the lack of atmosphere or any other medium. Sound exists due to vibrations in matter like air or even water, but with nothing, you hear nothing.

Things space ships are not: They are not boats, nor fighter planes, and they can move in any orientation due to not needing to be aerodynamic or constantly running their engines. At its simplest and most realistic, what space ships are best described as are rockets. Today we think of rockets as long tall pointy things we shoot up into space but at some point we make a disconnection between that vehicle and what ends up there. As long as it has some sort of functioning engine that expels mass to accelerate though, it is always a rocket, it just doesn’t need to be straight and pointy in a vacuum anymore.

Things about space ships you might not know include: They can have wings, but they aren’t wings like airplanes which are useless in a vacuum. They are actually heat radiators which are needed since in a vacuum it is a lot harder to expel waste heat and any power source on a ship makes a lot of heat, even people. Radiators actually add fun drama to space battles since they are huge weak points too. Space ships shouldn’t have windows because windows are structurally unsafe and overall unnecessary. There isn’t really much to see, and a good camera and TV screen can give you all the visual data you need. Talk about transparent metals to use for this is just an excuse for having a nice visual (though not a horrible excuse really). Space battles between ships will also be nothing like ships battling on the ocean or submarines under the sea for the same reasons space itself is not an ocean as stated above. Realistic space combat is tricky and all hypothetical since it has never actually happened but with science we have a good idea of how it would likely go down. Atomic Rockets has a lot of pages covering that, once you get it, it is pretty entertaining to think about.

See to me the above stuff doesn’t restrict the story because you are seeing space for what it really is, and not what people expect it to be like based on experience of other things. You might be thinking, what about science fiction that isn’t about space stuff? Well that is a valid point I kind of glossed over, real science can make that interesting too but I am using space sci-fi as my  example because it is the most common.

So now if you are like me you are thinking this is all really cool and you might read more on Atomic Rockets or do some research next time you are curious if something in a movie is realistic. If you are looking for a story that does things well though you have to learn how to sift through what is out there, my scientific analysis series will help with some of that for sure though. I can however give you a few book recommendations.

Two of my favorite space sci-fi books are called Hegemony by a fellow named Mark Kalina, and another is Through Struggle, the Stars by John Lumpkin. I provided links to their amazon pages if you are interested. Hegemony is only available as an e-book on things like Kindle, but if you have a way to read those (even if just on a PC) it is worth it. The second one is available as an e-book or a paperback. Both stories are very well written and are an excellent showcase of how realistic space science fiction can be entertaining even without all the fancy and flashy stuff often seen on TV (though a lot of stuff in both stories is pretty flashy in a certain respect).

I will end the post now before you all die of over exposure to my writing, which by now you’ve noticed is very long-winded but for good purpose. I hope you enjoyed my explanation of things beyond what I said initially in my Mass Effect article and I hope you look forward to my next Analysis article on the Halo series. As always please click like if you do, and hit share if you think it worthy of such. Also if you want to say anything or ask me any questions please do not hesitate to leave a comment, I will try to respond to everyone I can.

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