In the Sept/Oct 2019 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction science columnist Jerry Oltion wrote a piece called “Net Up or Net Down?” where he asks readers how scientifically accurate should science fiction stories be? For his first example, he uses The Martian by Andy Weir, which many readers consider good hard SF. The trouble is, the opening premise is not scientific at all. The story begins with a Martian lander taking off to avoid being blown over by a dust storm. But Oltion calculations predict the fastest recorded wind on Mars would feel like a 12mph breeze on Earth.
Now here’s the thing, I don’t know enough science in this situation to evaluate Oltion’s science. I wondered if gravity is 1/6th of that on Earth, does it mean things are easier to blow over? But then I remembered a 12mph breeze on Earth can make a kite fly, but not something metal like a garbage can. How many readers just accepted what Weir wrote as fact because it came from a science fiction story? Before science fiction became common, when it was considered trashy, kids would justify reading SF to their parents by claiming they learned science from reading science fiction. Does anyone really learn any kind of science from science fiction?
Oltion then mentions some other famous science fiction stories and their scientific problems. He goes on to say:
How scientifically accurate does a story have to be? Ever since Jules Verne, and probably before that, people have been arguing about that very question. Some people feel that the writer has to get every scientific detail correct or the story is flawed, while others feel that a writer can fudge a little for the sake of the story. A common rule of thumb is that the author gets one porcupine—i.e. the reader will swallow a porcupine for the sake of a good story, but they won’t swallow two.
But why should we have to swallow any porcupines? Why shouldn’t new science fiction stories be scientifically accurate as current scientific knowledge? I’m sure Weir could have found another reason to make Mark Watney a castaway on Mars.
It’s one thing to speculate beyond what science knows, but it’s another thing to ignore what it does.
Oltion also asks how we can love Star Wars which requires fans to swallow a pack of porcupines when we often reject other stories that are less fantastic as being unbelievable. His answer is we accept stories that have internal consistency. But I ask, why call that science fiction? Why not just call it fantasy? If we’re going to put science in the label, shouldn’t it mean something?
There is a story in this same issue, “Erase, Erase, Erase” by Elizabeth Bear that I find wonderful, compelling, and a great example of good writing. But it has neither fantasy or science fiction elements. It could have been published in a mundane literary magazine. I have no complaints that Bear’s story was published in F&SF, but that might not be true for everyone.
It feels like we’re reaching a stage where anything goes. In the SF/F genres, science fiction doesn’t have to be scientific, and fantasy doesn’t require fantasy. Of course, science fiction has never been scientific, even in the old days. Readers have been happily chowing down on porcupines forever and with great relish. Maybe I should just stop worrying about genre labels or literary standards. Stories are whatever we’re willing to read.
However, I think we all have our personal standards, they’re just not shared standards. Writers can write whatever they want and find an audience because readers are so different.
Personally, I want science fiction to be scientifically accurate to current science. That’s why I don’t enjoy space opera anymore, not with FTL ships. And the more I think about it, the more I doubt humans will ever colonize another world with an existing biosphere. As I become more skeptical about the science fiction I’ve consumed in the last 55 years, I’m thrilled when discovering science fiction that does feel realistic. I love it when a writer imagines something I think might be possible.
I guess I’m old and tired and I’ve had my fill of porcupines.
James Wallace Harris, 11/14/19