Science, Science Fiction, and the possible

Some folks say that science fiction should be limited to what is possible according to current scientific theory.  Others (and I count myself among them) are a bit more flexible.

Imagine it’s 1890 and you’re a physical scientist.  Someone approaches you with the following:

“I have here two lumps of a material called Uranium 235.  If you slam them together correctly, they will release energy with the explosive force of more than one hundred million sticks of dynamite.”

You’d laugh at him.  The very idea is preposterous.  First off, what’s this “235” business?  Uranium is Uranium.  It doesn’t come in types.  You’re familiar with the atomic theory of matter, right?  Atomic.  From the Greek atomos.  It means “indivisible.  A Uranium atom is a Uranium Atom is a Uranium atom.  And this ridiculous release of energy?  Energy can neither be created or destroyed.  You’ve can convert from one form to another but that’s about it.  If there was so much energy, whether chemical or mechanical, in Uranium to do as you suggest, it would tend to go off at the slightest provocation–Like, say, sneezing anywhere in the same county.  What you suggest is flat out theoretically impossible.

Now, instead, suppose someone approached you with the following instead:

“You know, if you applied a force to something, like say with a rocket, and continued applying it for long enough, there is no ultimate bar to how fast it could go.  Enough force, for enough time, and one could travel between the stars in weeks, if not days.  Of course that much acceleration would crush most things and the engineering challenges are probably prohibitive, but there’s no theoretical bar to it.”

You’d probably have to agree.  After all speed is simply acceleration over time, and acceleration is simply force divided by mass.  Enough force, applying enough acceleration, for enough time and any speed could be achieved without limit, at least theoretically.  The engineering challenges might be prohibitive but there were no theoretical limits.

Now, instead of 1890 imagine it’s 1990.  Now the possibility/impossibility of those two events have reversed.  We’ve discovered the electron, neutron, and proton and learned that, far from being “indivisible” the atom is actually made up of components.  We’ve discovered that there are differences among atoms–isotopes–of the same element.  And we’ve discovered that matter and energy can be interchanged and very small amounts of matter can, in the right circumstances, be converted to very large amounts of energy.  And we’ve demonstrated the very thing in the first example–slapping two pieces of Uranium 235 together to make whopping big explosions. (And using different materials we’ve made even bigger booms.)  As for the other, we’ve found that force applied to an object will produce different accelerations depending on how fast one sees the object of moving and the faster it is moving–the closer it’s speed is to that of light–the less acceleration a given force will produce, with the result that it can never reach, let alone exceed, the speed of light.

Back in 1890 physical theory would declare certain things to be flat out impossible.  Other things were theoretically possible but perhaps practically impossible (such as, say, focusing light so that it can burn through an inch of steel in the blink of an eye).  Other things were readily achievable.

With the revolution in modern physics that came shortly thereafter, those categories got shuffled.  Some things that were utterly impossible under the old theory were found to be possible and even achievable once you knew how.  Other things that had been theoretically possible but difficult (which was why they had not yet been done) were found to be theoretically impossible.

The one constant was that things that had already been done clearly had to remain possible.  Obviously, whatever has been done is possible. (What was done might not necessarily be what you think was done–ask any stage magician–but what was done remains possible.)

So what about 2090?  Or 2190?  or 9990?  Will the things that the physical theory of that future day considers possible and impossible be the same as today?

I suggest that it is only hubris that would lead one to suggest that they will.  Unless one believes that we have actually achieved the final answer to physical theory, that all our current answers to “how does the universe work” are right, then one must conclude that some things we think are possible will very likely turn out to be impossible.  And some things we think are impossible (theoretically impossible) will turn out to be possible after all.

And nobody knows which things.

As a writer of science fiction set in the future (or in a present with alien cultures more advanced than our own), part of the job is to explore these possibilities.  Now, most people don’t expect a science fiction writer to explore the detailed ramifications of “what if conservation of Baryon number can be violated?” or “what if it’s possible to alter the Pauli Exclusion Principle?” or even “What if Planck’s Constant isn’t actually a constant?” but limiting oneself to what we now “know” is probably the last likely future of all.

Human Wave Science Fiction

This started based on a post over on Sarah Hoyt’s Blog also on Mad Genius Club.

The Human Wave movement is a response that a number of people in the Science Fiction & Fantasy field to the perception that professionally published SF has become circumscribed by “rules” that have little to do with story, that don’t address the needs and wants of readers as readers, and that artificially limit writers can do with their stories if they want to be “accepted” in the field.

The rules of the Human Wave movement are more anti-rules, not so much things you must do, but things you are allowed to do:

  1. You are allowed to write a story for no other purpose but to entertain.  That someone get some enjoyment out of it is all the purpose it needs.  You may even consider someone getting enjoyment from it to be its highest purpose.
  2. You are allowed to write, and publish, as much as you wish and are able.  There are no “only one book per year” or the like limits on your productivity.  We reject the idea that how long it takes to write a story is a necessary indicator of its quality.  That may be true for some people, not for others.  Do what is right for you.
  3. You are allowed to write first person if you wish.  Third person?  Sure.  Second person?  Why not?  Fourth person (if you can figure out how)?  You bet.  Do whatever you believe is right for the story you wish to tell.
  4. You are allowed to write stories that don’t match “accepted” views of the future.  Faster than light is impossible?  Use it anyway if that’s what you want.  People expect the future to be some great socialist utopia?  Have capitalism be the wave of the future if that’s your vision for the story.  So long as your story holds together enough for your readers to accept it, do what you want.  The idea is to explore possibilities, not limit yourself to mundane predictions of what will be.
  5. It’s okay to have a goal to sell books (or short stories).  “To eat, or not to eat” is allowed to be the question.
  6. You are allowed to write whatever heroes you want to write.  You are allowed to write whatever villains you want to write.  Want a white, male, Christian hero? Go for it.  Want a swarthy, pagan villain?  That too is permitted, just as the reverse is also allowed.  Write what your story, and your vision calls for.
  7. Happy endings?  Permitted. Happy for the time being?  That too.  Everybody dies?  If that’s what your story calls for, sure.  Some mixture of good and bad?  Absolutely.  It’s your story.  All that really matters is that the ending derive from the events of the story (“And then a meteor hit the Earth and they all died” is probably not such a good ending unless the story was about that meteor) and that the ending satisfy the readers.
  8. It’s okay to write stories which center on action and plot.
  9. You are allowed to include sex in the story.  You are allowed to not include sex in the story.  You are allowed to have heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or even mechano-sexual sex if that’s what’s appropriate to the story and the characters.  It’s your story and they’re your characters.  You don’t have to avoid sex.  You don’t have to include it.
  10. You can write politics if you want, provided that they’re the politics of your story.  (A story set in ancient Egypt should probably not have a debate between characters on the relative merits of Capitalism vs. Socialism.) You can have a message if you want, again, provided it arises naturally from the story.  But you don’t have to include one.  The story can be its own reward, with no deeper meaning required.

Some general guidelines:

  • You should be entertaining.  People should enjoy your story.  After all, even if you’re including a deep message, more people will get the message if they enjoy reading your story.
  • Your characters should be individuals.  If your character is a bad guy, readers should not need to feel ashamed because they are the same age, race, sex, religion, ethnic background, or what have you as that character.  Virtue or its lack should come from who one is as an individual, not what group to which one belongs.
  • Story first.  Message later.  In any dispute between story and message, story trumps.
  • “Everything is shades of gray” is boring.  Add some black and white, or even color, to spice things up. 
  • People generally prefer positive feeling to stories. This doesn’t necessarily mean “happy endings” or “good guys win” but that even when they lose, they go down fighting and don’t whine themselves to death.
  • Thou shalt not be boring.

Anyway, those are the basics.  Come ride the Human Wave.  The water’s fine.