S is for Science
Amy rolled her eyes. “Honey, who are you talking to? Little invertebrate insects on gossamer wings are hell and away from a humanoid species weighing an average of just under two hundred pounds, flapping effortlessly through the sky with a wingspan of approximately ten feet. That is complete bullshit. When you factor in that nobody’s ever seen these things despite the fact that they were living less than fifty miles from a good-sized town, and the fact that they are fully sexually compatible with humans, you have a mind-fuck of galactic proportions.”
Olivia opened her mouth to argue, to say what she had no idea, but to argue anyway because that…that just made too much scary sense.
“Don’t,” Amy said. “Do not. Seriously.”
“But just because we don’t know the physics of—”
“Even without factoring in the enormous density of gullan muscle and bone, you’d need wings more than thirty feet long even to glide effectively, let alone fly. But wingspan is not the biggest issue, baby. Let’s talk about how they just happened to grow wings and arms. Or how, attached where they are, off the shoulderblades, their bodies ought to be dangling down like a kitten in its mother’s mouth. To balance a body like that, they’d need a braincase full of friggin’ plutonium and a breastbone that stuck out about four feet. I’m not even going to mention that whole bit where they can drive their claws into solid rock because that’s just too silly. There is no way,” Amy said, very clearly and firmly, “to explain these people without using the word ‘magic’. And magic, real magic, is just not something that everyone can deal with.” – Olivia
* * *
My mother was a huge nerd, and I mean that in the most loving way. Like a lot of nerds, she read voraciously and our house was always full of books. On her shelves are dozens of legendary names—Zelanzy, Ellison, Heinlein, Asimov. When these men said an alien’s blood was orange, it was because it was iridium- rather than iron-based and by God, you were going to read several pages about their incredibly complex respiratory systems. They wrote books where science moved the story, often was the story, and there was a message and a lesson behind all of it.
I don’t write like that. Frankly, I kind of resent being told that I should. (It’s worth noting here that no one is ever going to refer to me as a legendary writer, either. There may be a connection…) I don’t want to think about what cosmic rays and G-forces would do to the people on my starships, I just want them to fly the damn things. On the hardness scale of sci-fi, I am right around tapioca pudding. Is that a bad thing? Does every character in my book have to be an astrophysics major in order to justify flying a starship? I say no. After all, I don’t know how my car works. I know gasoline makes it go and a snapped fan belt makes it stop. All the fiddly little steps in-between, I take entirely on faith and I don’t see why my characters can’t do the same.
However, at the other end of the spectrum are writers of what, on that fabled hardness scale, would be cotton candy. As in, breathe on it and it melts. Here, we find flying creatures the size of aircraft carriers on an otherwise Earthlike planet that carry around not only hundreds of people, but whole cities. Here we have shapeshifters who can change not only their size at will, but also their weight and density. Here are folks who can regenerate whole limbs without having to first absorb extra proteins or minerals, and certainly without leeching it out of the rest of their body. It happens because it happens, because it looks cool, because just because.
Don’t get me wrong, soft sci-fi and sci-fantasy have turned out wonderful stories and I much prefer them to the diamond-hard science-fiction of Arthur C. Clarke or Ben Bova. However, I do want the worlds I create to feel like they belong somewhere in the universe. I want readers to think of my gullan, my Arkes, my dumaqs as if they were real people. I want that real-world feeling in every page and that can be hard to capture in a fantasy setting without a token nod toward reality. You don’t need a complicated codex full of facts, just a kiss of credibility to what is otherwise indisputably magic. My car runs on gasoline and needs unbroken fan belts. Doc Brown’s car runs on a flux capacitor and needed 1.21 gigawatts of power. Both are equally valid within their own context. I once read a story in which the werewolf, ah, voided herself from every orifice during shifts because her organs were being mashed and moved around. Gross, but logical. Another story had a flying human who lost one pound every mile or so that she flew, because of the immense energy it took. She called it the hummingbird effect. Made perfect sense. By all means, break the rules. Just acknowledge that the rules exist.
That’s my opinion, anyway, although you should keep in mind that I have been told what I write is so soft, you could drink it through a straw. In fact, a former roommate read Heat and later told me, after a more or less glowing review of the story, that my “forays into scientific exposition only served to illustrate [my] complete ignorance of real science or the way the real world works.” Wow. Ouch. And what was his objection? The idea of manufacturing drugs from human brains? No, he was fine with that. Faster-than-light travel? Yeah, partly, but he was resigned to it as a staple of ‘soft’ sci-fi. But his biggest problem was (dramatic drum roll) there were aliens in my book about aliens. Aliens that were practically identical to humans, having only minor physical dissimilarities like sharp teeth, fewer digits and taloned toes. Aliens that even kept their genitals in the same place as humans, more or less.
“I write erotica,” I told him. “It’d be kinda tough to write a sex scene if he looked like a floating cloud and had sex via pulses of blue light.”
He told me I’d essentially written thinly disguised Star Trek slash-fiction, at which point my little sister wisely invited us out to pizza and we forgot the whole thing. Or at least he did. I never forgot, Tom.
I. Never. Forget.
But look, when it comes to aliens and other non-human races, I’m a big believer in the theory of universal evolutionary characteristics. The humans in my books need to be able to function in the same environment as the non-humans. That means equivalent gravity, atmosphere and all the other variables that produced the physiology we all enjoy. So although my aliens evolved on different planets, they did so under very similar conditions, so why not share some similar traits? Qualities like bilateral symmetry, forward facing eyes, bony skeletons and limbs have evolved independently on Earth and there’s no reason for me to think they couldn’t evolve on another Earth-like planet. Other features not essential to life—scales, feathers, pointed ears—are more or less decorative and could happen for any number of reasons. The universe allows for infinite diversity in infinite combinations (rest in peace, Gene Roddenberry) as long as you, the writer, take it seriously.
“R Lee, you old stick-in-the-mud,” you say (people still say that, right?). “I want my pixies to leave glowing contrails behind them and I want my starships to be space-whales with people inside them and I want my weresharks to shift effortlessly between water and air breathing and I don’t want to explain any of it!”
Fine. Then don’t. In fact, please don’t. I still say that you should attempt to temper your fantasy with plausibility, but if you’re writing about something so far outside the normal realm that it absolutely cannot be explained, do not explain it! A good story can survive the unexplainable, can even be enriched by it (the horror genre in particular benefits immeasurably from the ‘shit just happens’ theme), but nothing sends disbelief crashing back to the floor like flat-out bullshit masquerading as science. I can list a dozen books or movies right off the top of my head that tried too hard to explain something and ended up turning a pretty good story into a total pisswah. I’m not even talking about faster-than-light travel being impossible because Einstein or how anybody who turns invisible would be blind because their retinas blah blah blah. That I call artistic license (and that attitude is why I will never be taken seriously in the literary world. Well, that and the porn). I’m talking about that moment when the scientist seizes the spunky lady reporter in a tight sweater and says, “Of course! The solar flares are reflecting off the madeupnamite layer of Earth’s atmosphere and causing the cucumbers to grow and attack us! Quickly, get all the rubidium you can! If we can focus its radioactive rays at just the right angle, we can disrupt the atmosphere and reverse the effect!”
Yes, it’s fiction, but come on! With three simple guidelines, you can bring realism into any fantastic setting: Do your research and get the facts right. Where the rules need to be broken, break them sensibly. Treat fantastic elements like a royal Siamese cat—the more you dress it up, the sillier it looks.