Science fiction authors walk a fine line between fact and imagination. Sam Bleicher discusses how to navigate this tricky territory and ensure readers are left satisifed.
Writing science-based fiction or even science-based fantasy raises especially challenging “fact” problems for the author. If the text misstates, twists, or ignores an obvious scientific reality––like the behavior of mass in a gravitational field or the physiology of death––is the author clever and imaginative, or just ignorant?
The credibility of the entire story may depend on avoiding an apparent factual mistake. Or the reader may lose interest in the narrative because the departures from reality are too frequent, too convenient or too extreme.
Careful planning is desirable to avoid undermining the appeal of the story. Here are some factors to think about.
1. Get verifiable facts right
Writing fiction always makes demands for accuracy and plausibility of the facts asserted in the text. Even the most trivial, unintentional errors can undermine the plausibility of the story or the knowledge level of the author.
- A reader of a novel about the Supreme Court told the author he almost stopped reading when the text said a Justice’s mistress drove south on US Interstate 66, a highway that runs east-west, as every Washingtonian knows.
- An author was chastised for saying a 2006 Congressional candidate was distressed to see an abandoned Dunkin’ Donuts cup rolling down the gutter in his neighborhood. “There was never a Dunkin’ Donuts at that location,” said the eagle-eyed reader.
If an author can’t get some simple facts straight, the reader might think: how reliable are their descriptions of the inner workings of the Supreme Court or the science of climate change?
2. Be wary of scientific conflicts
Unless you intentionally wish to wade into disputed territory, be careful of politically or emotionally charged assumptions.
In my new cli-fi novel, The Plot to Cool the Planet, I found myself working to cope with controversies about solar geoengineering at technical, political and philosophical levels. I steered around them (I hope) by ascribing differing views to various characters without championing a particular perspective as the narrator’s or author’s view.
3. Distort scientific reality in as few respects as possible
To the extent the plot depends on a whole series of unreal “facts” or violates scientific principles wholesale, it is likely to lose an acceptable degree of plausibility. The characters’ behavior or the outcome of crucial events can become so unpredictable or implausible that the reader loses any sense of connection to them.
Ideally, the reader can still identify with the protagonist and understand the antagonist’s motivations, despite the need to suspend disbelief about a few crucial features of the hypothesized universe.
Science fiction, and even magical fantasy, often minimize this danger by building around one or a few non-scientific constructs, like anti-gravity or time travel. They allow a whole range of actions and events that would otherwise be impossible while preserving completely realistic descriptions of everything else––the effect of a sword cutting a person’s arm, for example, or the ability (or inability) of humans to hear the sounds made by an alien.
4. Flag the ‘unscientific' assumptions
Explicitly flagging the altered scientific fact or principle before it is used in the story invites the reader to imagine an alternative reality. If the author’s intention is not clear, their credibility may be compromised, or the reader may be confused.
Is a particular set of events a flashback, a dream or a real series of events in another time or universe? Is the behavior built around some pre-established non-human quirk, like Dr. Spock’s non-emotional thinking in Star Trek?
5. Don't let the format undermine your writing
Jeffrey Lewis’ novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, is an impressive speculative fiction about an awful possible near-future set of events. Unfortunately, the format of the book is a government commission report, which constrains the writer from dramatizing the psychology behind the North Korean government decisions or from presenting US government decisions in anything but the most antiseptic prose.
Except for a few contrived digressions, it rules out nearly all irony, humor and psychological analysis. Unlike John Hershey’s Hiroshima, it only sketches the suffering of US victims in a “special section” giving a few first-hand accounts, and North Korean victims of the US retaliation are essentially disregarded.
The book is a compelling reminder of dangers mostly forgotten since the end of the Cold War that I hope Washington bureaucrats and political readers will contemplate carefully. But the chosen format deprives it of much of the suspense, impact, and drama necessary for a widely popular novel.
If you write science fiction (or even historical fiction) how do you deal with the mix of fact and fantasy in your writing? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Sam Bleicher is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. From June 2014 to November 2018, he was a member and vice-chair of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board. He is an active Member of the League of Conservation Voters and its Climate Victory Council.
He holds a J.D. degree from Harvard Law School and B.A. degree from Northwestern University, Phi Beta Kappa with honors in economics. His novel, The Plot to Cool the Planet draws on his experience as a senior official in the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Department of State; a law firm partner and lobbyist; and a law professor in the United States, China, and Russia. For more information about the author, visit StrategicPathLLC.com.