For Science!

At Alpha this year I gave a presentation on the intersection of science and writing, with handy tips for how to do science right brilliantly and wrong elegantly.  A significant portion of it was conducted in enthusiastic mime, which is sadly lost with the transition to text, but I hope that with some imagination you too can visualize me hopping up and down in front of a blackboard pretending to have vestigial arms.

It starts with a question.  (Everything starts with a question.)  Why care about science?

Care about science because it explains how the world is put together.  Science isn’t about cool glassware and facts and the names of animals–it’s about a lot of people getting together and asking one question, over and over again in a thousand different ways.  The question is how does the universe work? and it’s one of the more important questions out there.  It’s also still unanswered, despite centuries of effort.  When exactly science stopped being a bunch of guys sitting around a table with a big pitcher of wine explaining to each other how the universe ought to work became Proper Science is up for debate, but it’s been a long time in any case.

This is relevant to you as a writer of science fiction and fantasy because you’re building your own universe.  Even if your alternate world is vastly different from ours, there’s still merit to learning what sorts of questions science asks.  You’re going to be asking them too, even if your answers come out different.

Give science a chance, and try not to hate it because people have a tendency to declare I’m not a science person. Not being a science person is probably a plus.  To be perfectly honest, many science people are unsettlingly mad.  They’ve got a big space in their head itching to prod at things, and that strange dark humor that comes from working every day around things that are extremely dangerous or extremely fragile or extremely expensive or some combination of the three.  By the time they age into half-retired double-PhDs, they radiate eccentricity that comes from being intently interested in one very narrow question for forty-odd years.

You don’t have to be a science person to steal the ideas scientists have had.  You can never know too much about the world.  The most incidental facts will often spin great stories.  Read about how biochemical pathways regulating metabolism work.  Understand evolution and ponder dark energy and learn the several (relatively inane) theories trying to explain why we sneeze when confronted with bright lights.

All of this should go into a story, a beautiful story that works like the real world works and shines like a flawless gem under all scrutiny.

And now stop, and realize that it’s a story, which is going to have a stubborn plot and an impatient reader.  Interesting things like teleportation and faster than light travel turn out to be frustratingly impossible, even though the story might hinge upon having them.

Another question, then, and the second part of this post.  How do I make the impossible story parts work without upsetting the science (and the dear reader)?

When something has to give, there’s the gentle art of handwaving.  Handwaving is being carefully vague, setting off distracting explosions and glossing things over with techno-babble, all to ease the reader around holes in the logic of a world.  Messy handwaving gets you ‘some herbs,’ and adds drag.  Well executed handwaving gives the reader’s suspension of disbelief a boost and saves everyone from long, convoluted workarounds.

Handwaving works because readers, especially readers of science fiction, fantasy and horror, are a generous bunch.  They’ll give writers magic and whizz-bang guns and aliens with wrinkly foreheads as long as it’s earned.

There are a thousand ways to earn your factual stretches in stories.  Humor lets you get away with many evils.  Moody atmospheric pieces can do almost anything.  Simply being aware of the tropes and the trouble spots earns you big points.

People will believe in things with consequences.  People believe in things that have stupid complicated official names and clever nick-names.  People believe in technical difficulties.   Presented with a shiny new neutron-star generator that runs on biomechanical parts and the power of love in the depths of space, come on, please.  If the neutron-star generator worked for two days and promptly broke, meaning that everyone is fighting the crotchety backup generator from three decades ago, okay, fine with that.

The most fantastical element is completely acceptable as long as it operates on the same logic that real things operate upon.  Even without explaining the technical minutiae, something can feel real if it has well thought-out limitations and consequences.

Bear with me a moment and think about your cell phone.  What do you know about it?  It’s small, and you use it to call other people who also have a cell phone.  It runs on batteries that are never stay charged quite as long as you’d like them to.  There’s a tower somewhere out there, that gives you signal, although the signal can’t get into basements or mountain ranges for some reason.

It is a bad idea to drop it in the toilet.

You probably do not know the formulas of the chemicals that give your battery its zip or the name of the software running on your screen.  You could find out by  sitting down to do some research, but you won’t because your understanding of a cell phone is from a user’s perspective, and your phone feels perfectly real to you without picking it apart.

If your characters are looking at their family-friendly time machine from a user’s perspective, they’re not necessarily going to know any more about the gears and gadgets that drive it than you know about the innards of your cell phone.  They are going to know which button to push for central heating and where to park it on a busy day.

For every odd bit of technology introduced to the world there’s a wealth of changes, some subtle and some decidedly not.  Cell phones affect our world.  So do microwaves, and fighter jets, and DNA sequencers.  If your world has whizz-bang guns and nano-tech, sit down and think about everything that’s different because they’re around.  It’s the little consequences, like the signs that warn to turn off cell phones when you enter the theater and the increased cost of tuna during the undead squid epidemic, that make the big ones believable.

Readers want bizarre, impossible things.  As a writer, it’s your job to make them believe in that impossible thing, with science and handwaving to help you.

Remember to love your research.  Remember that science isn’t scary, although it is vast and slightly mad.

Remember that every world has scientists who are asking how the universe works, but remember that your characters are often not those scientists.  Know where it is normal to be vastly ignorant, and where you do have to explain yourself.

Remember that universes have rules, that changing the rules has consequences, and that those consequences stick around.


I’m Allison Jamieson-Lucy, biochemistry/art student at Grinnell College and Alpha attendee in ’09 and ’10.  I write of stories mostly composed of witty banter and foolish hijinks.