*By the time I went to bed last night, I was over this… I thought. I had dinner with no ill effects. Except I spent the whole night feeling as though I were either seasick or drunk — a disconcerting sensation when neither of those conditions apply. I am also running a fever. So, having managed to crawl off my bed to put this up, I’m going to crawl back into it. Meanwhile, the incomparable Sabrina Chase is your guide for the day.*
Hi, I’m Sabrina and I’ll be your Science Guide today. I am a gen-u-wine Mad Scientist with a PhD in experimental physics. I’ve only electrocuted myself a few times and the scars have healed over nicely. For your own safety, please keep your manipulative appendages inside the tram at all times and do not touch the blinkenlights.
OK, Science Fiction. There are a few crucial categories, and I’ve set up my own view and how to write about each of them. I love science, and science fiction is lots of fun to read–but can be intimidating to the non-specialist when it comes to writing. Not to worry! There is hope.
1) “Diamond-hard” sf (Andy Weir’s The Martian, Asimov, etc) OK, maybe this one you should worry about. You do need a really thorough grounding in whatever field you want to base your story on. This type is very rare, and even more rare if you insist on a good story too. Scientists who know their stuff may not be able to write themselves out of a wet paper bag. (A non-fiction example of someone who can is Ignition!. Hilariously funny history of rockets and the guys who blew them up.) Also, the things scientists think are fascinating tend to bore nonspecialists to tears. (“They found five-fold symmetry in a real crystal! Woohoo!”) Now if you *do* have specialized technical knowledge, *and* a good story idea that makes central use of this knowledge, knock yourself out. Just make sure your mother/mailman/parole officer can understand it too.
2) “Soup of the Day”. It’s not cheating, it’s specializing! Pick *one* topic to specialize in accurately, and wave hands in an artistic frenzy for everything else. (SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes features heavy emphasis on correct sublight intrastellar ship mechanics, effects of thrust and momentum, and a truly spectacular accident when a ship’s rotational gravity stops rotating, but goes completely to town with quasi-sentient proteins and vomit zombies). Or try solar physics, and a ship that could possibly enter the outer surface of the sun (David Brin’s Sundiver). Again, focus on *one bit of science*. Then add some handwavium, talking silicon trees, and hot monkey sex and nobody notices the duct tape. Read up on your chosen topic, and if you feel that is still not enough, contact researchers in that topic with specific questions. Especially if you have done your homework and ask reasonable questions (don’t mention chemtrails…) researchers will at the least point you to some useful papers or books. They may even indulge their own speculative fancy to your benefit, if you are lucky. Scientists love sharing information about the things that fascinate them–but remember this is their day job and they might not have a lot of spare time.
3) “Turn the Volume down”. Science is everywhere in this kind of SF, but as a nice background hum rather than the main stirring soundtrack (this is what I try to do in my books). Understand basics like conservation of momentum. Human survival in a vacuum. Basics of radiation. Basics of thermodynamics. The big thing is you DON’T need math. This is not about calculating orbital trajectories–you just need a good feel for what is rational. The rest of your made-up science in the book should be like magic in fantasy–internally consistent, and with some sort of cost. My faster-than-light drive in the Sequoyah series is totally made up. It depends on artificial gravity (which can fail in a badly maintained ship, providing Drama) and is affected by anomalies (I was inspired by supermassive strings speculated to exist in interstellar space) that function much like reefs for sailing ships. Navigation is important, and so is the relative motion of stars in the galaxy (you did know everything is moving around like stirred cake batter, right?) That gave me ways to demonstrate my main character’s skill, problems to overcome, ways to fix them, and so on. Note that I am NOT an expert on superstrings, or galactic dynamics, or gravitational theory. I read a general-level article somewhere, or read Kip Thorne’s book (see sources below).
Read around in some science topics and note down things that make you say “ooh, that’s neat!” Don’t worry about jamming it all in one story–you are developing a Junk Pile of useful stuff for later. I probably don’t have to mention it to hard core Human Wave types, but try and be aware of agendas. We all know about Global Warming, and anti-vaccination nutbars, but there can be some esoteric food fights lurking in the shadows as well. (Herschel senior thought people lived on the surface of the sun, Einstein was famously allergic to probability theory, Pons & Fleischman thought they had created fusion events in a pyrex beaker.) Not that you can’t have fun with controversy, just be aware that There Be Dragons and you will get irate emails.