Science fiction & science

Chad has a post up discussing the crappiness of physics in science fiction. Rob has more. This was all prompted by a post titled R-E-S-P-E-C-T; which makes the case that biology gets no respect in science fiction (e.g., notice the abundance of dangerous and large predators stalking deserts with no sign of plant life or herbivores). Chad & Rob focused on science fiction films as opposed to print. I'm not a big fan of science fiction films or television in general, but, back in the day I was a voracious consumer of novels and short stories within the genre.

First, I have to say that in general I agree with Chad & Rob when they point out that physics in science fiction is crap. This goes for print as well as film. Though obviously the motion of space craft is a pretty clear example in visual media, print science fiction has faux physics such as "hyperdrive" and or "FTL" (faster than light). Even "hard science fiction" authors such as Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven emulate the look & feel of physics & engineering quite often as opposed to reality. Pournelle's CoDominium future history features the Alderson Drive, which serves as a fictional constraint and scaffold for the faster than light propulsion. Though it isn't as "magical" as hyperdrive, it is of course based on made up scientific and engineering principles.

Second, the detail often attended toward physical science in hard science fiction is almost certainly due in part to the backgrounds of many authors within those fields. Robert Heinlein was an engineer, Arthur C. Clarke is trained as a mathematician and physicist, Poul Anderson was a physicist, and so forth. Of the current hard science fiction writers many also come from physical science backgrounds. Greg Benford and David Brin are both physicists, Stephen Baxter is a mathematician with a background in engineering, and so on. As a kid reading the book jackets you would note which area that a hard science fiction author came out of (this is not a sub-genre where sales are large enough to allow one to live on writing income in most cases), and very few of the biographies listed a life science background. So though the physics is science fiction is really, really, fallacious, just as the biology is, the tiny subset focused very precisely on scientific verisimilitude tend to flesh out the domains of physical reality far more than biological reality. And I hold that that is simply a function of the professional background of such authors.

Third, even authors who did come form life science backgrounds such as Isaac Asimov did not integrate or suffuse their work with their field. I suspect this is simply due to the fact that science fiction is painted upon a vast astronomical canvas, and so physical science naturally looms larger in the narrative. In Prelude to the Foundation Asimov did seem to use some of his biochemical background in constructing the biotech economic basis of the Mycogen society on Trantor. But again, this was a relatively small part of the plot, Asimov's novels in general feature robotics as well as the idea of "psychohistory," a form of social science which makes the leap toward prediction due to the principle of mass action which derives from physical analogies (e.g., the motion of gases within a space and so on). Today he might use more evolutionary principles, but life science wasn't as detailed in its model of the universe during the active period of Asimov's scientific career.

Fourth, finally complexity and contingency of biology poses a problem in both the appearance of verisimilitude and maintenance of fidelity to reality. By appearance, I mean for example the "common sense" understanding that if a planet is large and massive it will have a higher gravity than a smaller and less dense planet. The obvious idiocy by the author will be clear to most readers with a basic education because the physical principles are elegant and deterministic. In contrast, biology is a messier science filled with exceptions, variation and local contingencies. Expectation in biology is charactered by a large proportion of variance (this is obviously true in many areas of physics, but not the ones that the lay person is most familiar with). Biological characteristics that derive from obvious physical principles are of course easy to infer. For example, the stereotype of the short and squat physique of the inhabitants of massive high gravity planets grounded is in probable inferences. On the other hand, particularities of metabolism or the plausibility of evolutionary diversification based on particular ecological constraints are generally beyond the ken of a typical reader's conception. At some point the narrative needs to step forward and the relatively lack of salience of many biological facts is a reality one has to accept and brush aside (aside from common sense ones such as that large organisms eat more). In regards to the maintenance of fidelity toward biological science as we know it, the enormous cloud of facts which are loosely related in comparison to physics is ap roblem. This means that the very act of scaffolding narrative via biology is much more difficult than it is in physical science. The late science fiction author Hal Clement was a chemist who allowed physical science to "tell the story." That is, he began from a scientific template and worked the narrative and plot around and from these principles. This is I believe a relatively simple task in physical science, in particular because many of the clear and deterministic inferences are salient to the reader (e.g., heavy planets and squat aliens). In contrast, complex ecological relationships are often difficult for scientists to understand, so the author's attempt to recapitulate and weave it into a narrative can often be impossible. Frank Herbert's Dune series often gets kudos for its ecological awareness, but that is due to the normative values and attention to faux detail as much as reconstruction and creation of a genuine ecology. There is a reason that the Blue Whale is the largest organism in the history of the earth. It can feed upon abundant prey (krill) and immersion in water results in the relaxation of size constraints. The massive sand worms in Herbert's universe are a little inexplicable when considering what we know about basic biological probabilities. But of course we wouldn't have a story without them.

In short, the badness of biology in science fiction is real. But, it isn't really that much worse than physics. And when it is worse than the situation in physics there are a host of reasons. It isn't because biology doesn't get any respect. My post has focused on print hard science fiction, but I think basic issues here percolate to all areas of the genre in all its mediums. Space opera, whether print or visual, takes its scientific cues from hard science fiction (e.g., fake faster than light propulsion as opposed to just pretending that you can continue to increase velocity in a standard Newtonian fashion), so the problems should be replicated and amplified.


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My attitude towards SF:

All film, both TV and cinema, is entertainment and fantasy. The only SF film that has any relation to reality was "2001", which is a fil depiction of the Von Braun scenario.

Books: I read about 3-5 SF novels per year. Only 5 or so have made any lasting impression on my mind, usually relating to one or more themes in the story. Outside of these themes, I tend to ignore the actuall technology presented in the stories. I am more interested in the socialogical effects rather than the technology itself. Examples are:

Voyage from Yesteryear - the anarcho/libertarian society of Chiron

Schixmatrix - the techno/economics of city-states

Queen of Angels - human neurological enhancement

Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained - extrapolation of the lonely-planet, back-pack slacker culture into an intersteller commonwealth.

It is the societies and characters, not the specific technologies, presented in these stories that interest me.

Greg Bear ("Queen of Angels" and "Moving Mars") tends to do a decent job with the biology and nanotech in his stories. "Moving Mars" has, what I think, the most realistic portrayal of medium future technology I have read in a novel (except for the physics where they move the plant - this is far fetched).

What, no love for Greg Egan? He goes out of his way to include plausible extensions of hard science into his works.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 02 Jul 2007 #permalink

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold. Her biologically oriented books include:

_Ethan of Athos_ (how might the availability of uterine replicators change society)

_Falling Free_ engineering of a new human subspecies optimized for zero-gee. (The quaddies show up in many other books as well, notably _Diplomatic Immunity_, which also has a wealth of bioengineered characters)

_Cetaganda_ A society actively engaged in genetically transforming itself into...?

_Shards of Honor_ is a stroll (wounded and with a head-damaged companion) through an unfamiliar planetary ecosystem

_A Civil Campaign_ harnesses the power of genetically engineered, food-producing communal insects to further a (human) romantic comedy

...and I could mention many other parts of her universe (the free-wheeling bio-commerce in clones, pharmaceuticals and other contraband biology on Jackson's Whole springs to mind).

In my (layperson's) opinion, the biology in these books is pretty good, given the constraints of story-telling.

By Shira Coffee (not verified) on 03 Jul 2007 #permalink

My problem with Greg Egan is that his stuff is too far out. I like "near-future" (next 100 years or so) SF, where people are not that much different from today. I also like stuff that reflects my personal life. As an expat in Asia, I really liked Schixmatrix (Bruce Sterling) because the city-states in this story have kind of the same "feel" as living in major Asian cities like Tokyo and HK. I liked Peter Hamilton's "Commonwealth" novels (Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained) because I think Peter has done the "back-pack" thing in SE Asia and liked it. This atmosphere comes through in his commonwealth stories (as well as Fallen Dragon).

I'm not much of a singulatarian. So, I don't relate much to the far out stuff (Charlie Stross, Greg Egan).

An excerpt from my:
based on real science & engineering

The definition of "Hard Science Fiction" is important. The analogy is
between the "Hard Sciences" such as Astronomy, Physics, and Chemistry,
ruled by mathematics and repeatable laboratory experiment on the one hand, and "Soft Sciences" -- fuzzy subjective fields such as Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology where no two humans are identical the way two electrons are, and yet we still try to apply empirical methods.

It is partly a matter of attitude. The Bible tells us:

"Who seeks hard things, to him is the way hard."

Indeed, the disciplined author who attempts to capture the rigor of Hard Science in fiction, in terms of plausible setting and mechanism, and in the skeptical yet pragmatically quantitative attitude of the scientist, the writing is itself quite difficult to achieve.

Many writers and critics point to one specific novel as being the very model of this genre:
Clement's "Mission of Gravity"

"Mission of Gravity" [Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement, Garden City NJ: Doubleday, 1954] has one of the most vividly rendered alien planets with ETs ever written. Set on the planet Mesklin, where gravity is some 300 times as intense as Earth at the poles, and yet only 3 times
Earth-strength at the equator (due to centrifugal force on the very-rapidly spinning planet), the methane-chemistry ETs (Mesklinites) explore weird parts of their world while being in constant radio communication with human beings in orbit whom they have already met face-to-face aboard the human spaceship.

This is one of the first great "Hard Science Fiction" novels, dealing with meticulously accurate astronomy, chemistry, and physics, and also clearly presents us with intriguing aliens. Author Hal Clement (pseudonym for the high school chemistry teacher Harry Stubbs) even defines "Hard science fiction" for us in a related essay ["Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies", Hal Clement, in The Craft of Science Fiction, ed. Reginald Bretnor, New York: Harper & Row, 1976, p.51]:

"Hard" science fiction is a recognizable field within a field; it is enjoyed largely by people who take their own scientific knowledge seriously; writing it therefore demands on the part of the author a fair amount of scientific knowledge and ability (partially replaceable by good research facilities and informed friends whose brains can be picked); and the worst mistake a hard science fiction writer can make, aside from failing to tell an entertaining story, is to write something that makes him look ignorant. He can disagree with accepted science, but he'd better have an impressive-sounding excuse.

Look elsewhere on this same page for examples of Science Fiction about Ecology...


David Gerrold in his War Against the Chtorr series does an alien invasion either spearheaded by the ecology or consisting only of an ecology without any intelligent aliens.

I'm just a lay reader, but I think the biology and ecology is fairly reasonable.

Rob - I got pissed off at Gerrold's "Chtorr" books as soon as I realized his explanation for the success of the invading ecosystem was absolute crap. (His 'scientists' theorize that it's because the invading system is older. Seriously.)

The stuff he modeled on Starship Troopers was just as bad or worse. The protagonist was obviously modeled on Johnny Rico and Gerrold provided a Werner Erhard clone for Colonel DuBois (while protesting in the afterword that this 'training' was not modeled on est or its successors and spinoffs).


I wasn't commenting on the quality of characters. Quite a few things about Gerrold's writing really annoy me. Especially the heterosexual male characters constantly struggling with their homosexual desires.

I haven't read em in maybe ten years, possibly the scientists' hypothesis was wrong in the books. Plus, it's not much of an invading ecology if it isn't successful.


as it happens there is a blog called Biology in Science Fiction :)

What does a Martian look like? also is, among other things, about biology in SF. It is a book by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, authors of the 'Science of the Discworld' series, together with Terry Pratchet. Besides biology and possible evolutionary paths on alien planets they deal with issues of astrobiology versus xenoscience (astrobiology commonly is pursued by physicists whose knowledge of biology is decades out of date), as well as such old chestnuts like the 'habitable zone' around a star or SF stereotypes about lifeforms (felinoids always being predatory, reptiloids emotionless etc, etc).

I am more impressed with recent science fiction [as opposed to fantasy] incorporation of discoveries in biology than the writers of previous posts.

I am a retired microbiologist, now studying salt pond microcommunities in San Francisco Bay salt marshes.

My bias is not that science fiction should exactly mirror science, but that science fiction should explore the extrapolation from, and human implications of, scientific discovery. I have seen this in many novels extrapolating from recent discoveries in DNA sequencing, aging, stem cell research, neurophysiology, and various medical advances. Peter Hamilton explores storing human memories and rejuvenation in "Pandora's Star". Richard Morgan takes a very different view of the same subjects in "Altered Carbon". Morgan even considers religious objectors, who insist that the "soul" is lost when memories are stored in "artificial" media. Both consider the problem of "identity" when stored memories are implanted in a grown clone.

I got my PhD in 1966, writing my dissertation on the first recombination deficient mutants. This was simply a problem in microbial genetics, we did not foresee genetic engineering. All of biology was then poised at the first moments of an explosion in discovery, the product of late 1950s molecular biology. Practical applications of genetics were in the far future, the notion of the Genome Project unthinkable. Cancer was a total mystery. Aging was not even a subject. Exploration of microbes in extreme environments was just beginning. Neurophysiology still meant figuring out simple nerve transmission. Fruit fly genetics was considered old fashioned, with little inkling of the new unifying concepts of development later pioneered in flies. What a difference between the view of biology then and the view now...!

Earlier remarks in this post thread are more of that 1966 view than the common view today. Biology was not just complex, there were still then many who believed biology could never become the predictive science that physics was then thought to be [note that most of modern cosmology has been developed since 1960 and there is still no quantum theory of gravity].

What I look forward to is science fiction incorporating new discoveries in development, evolution, extreme environments, and DNA-based taxonomy. Appreciation of these discoveries will shape extrapolative science fiction in many ways. 88% of the earth's ~4-billion year history consisted of the age of Cyanobacteria. It may well be that life is a precondition for an oxygen atmosphere and that an oxygen atmosphere is a precondition for multicellular life, itself a precondition for intelligence. The earth's carbon evolution may be a predictor for other planets. Earlier speculation of silicon-based life may be wrong. All of this places new constraints on possible "Aliens" and what our chances may be of meeting or even learning of intelligent critters out there.

Science fiction and science are intertwined. The space opera of today could not have been written in 1907, astronomy just was not up to it [Hubble's interpretation of galaxies was still in the future, then]. Speculative fiction may run ahead of science, but science fiction is most interesting when it interprets discovery. And, discovery is coming thick and fast, these days.

By Wayne Lanier, PhD (not verified) on 10 Jul 2007 #permalink