Scientists and Science Fiction

Yesterday was apparently Gender in Science day here, while the theme for today is Tab Clearance– a couple of shortish posts about things that deserve more than just a Links Dump mention, but don’t really cohere into any kind of grand synthesis of deep thoughts, or whatever.

This particular link was prompted by an item in the SF Signal links dump for today, with the title Writing Science Fiction as a Non-Scientist, by Jamie Todd Rubin. that made me blink a little, because it’s never really seemed like a science degree was a necessary condition for writing SF. Even within so-called “hard SF,” a lot of the best writers don’t actually have degrees in the subject (if I remember correctly, Karl Schoeder never even finished high school), and some truly dreadful novels have been written by people with impeccable scientific credentials. So, you know, I kind of think that writing science fiction and being a scientist are linearly independent.

Rubin’s list of things to do to stay informed about science is fairly reasonable, though I do cringe a little at the idea of relying too heavily on New Scientist for information– they have a well-known (among physicists anyway) bias for things that are a little “out there,” particularly hugely speculative ideas that will overthrow relativity and/or quantum mechanics. They’re probably all right as inspiration for science fiction, but I wouldn’t recommend using them as a primary source for knowledge about the current state of physics.

On a vaguely related note, though, an earlier links dump included a very nice article from Alastair Reynolds, who used to be a professional astronomer, but is now a full-time writer, describing his career trajectory. It’s a good description of what you need to contend with if you really want to be a professional scientist, as well as why you might give that up.


  1. #1 Jamie Todd Rubin
    August 11, 2011

    Hey Chad, thanks for the mention. I’ve learned to take what appears in New Scientist with a grain of salt, having been warned before by physicist friends. Generally, if something seems interesting in the issue, I’ll look up the papers they cite. They are pretty good at citing the underlying research.

    You are right, though, that the articles in NS do make for good speculation for story ideas.

  2. #2 Sue Ann Bowling
    August 11, 2011

    As a retired atmospheric scientist who writes science fiction, I certainly don’t think you have to be a scientist to write science fiction. It does help to have enough science background to recognize when the science is just plain stupid or internally inconsistent. Certainly a life spent in geophysics helps planet building, just as my years of working with dogs and horses helps me portray them realistically. (Yes, my science fiction has both. Animals as recreation are quite viable in non-apocalyptic science fiction.)