Monday, November 24, 2008

Role of Science in Science Fiction--Or... Nina Talks to Peggy

A while back, I was asked by Master Blogger, Peggy Kolm of Biology in Science Fiction, if I’d like to participate in an online discussion about the role of science in science fiction. Of course, I said YES! Not just because it was Peggy, but because both topics fascinate me and, considering that I am a scientist (limnologist) and a science fiction writer, I do have a little to say about both {sideways grin}…

Peggy provided some questions for science bloggers and others for science fiction bloggers. Considering that I’m slipstream in almost everything I do and am, she listed questions from both categories for me {giant grin}. Here are the questions followed by my answers:

What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why? I live, breath and even eat it sometimes. I was fascinated with SF from when I was little and read comic books. As a teenager, I discovered Ray Bradbury and it was a “love affair” with not only his metaphoric writing about humanity but with writing itself. I watch SF movies but no TV shows (because I don’t watch TV). My favorite movies are those which ask the deeper questions about us as a species and where we are going and, yes, how science propels us into new territory that forces us to ask even deeper questions about ourselves, God and the universe.

What do you see as SF’s role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science? SF, by its very nature, invokes science. And good SF accurately takes the premise of some real science and explores it to the realm of possibility and consequence. This genre gives us the opportunity to look at what may be, how we get there and what happens to us as a result. I am thinking of the writings of Greg Bear, Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Wilson, Kay Kenyon, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Stanislav Lem, Ray Bradbury…The SF writer is both herald and conscience of science. It is a responsibility that some don’t realize they have when writing in this unique of genres. They are—we are—commentators of the present and reporters of the future. We often provide paradox; not unlike science, itself. Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, for example, was both uplifting and cynical at the same time, accurate and false, dark and light.

Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong? Great question! Yes, I have, particularly to do with my own work. My SF thriller, Darwin’s Paradox, examines—and even challenges— many scientific premises and theories within the context of “what would you do?” SF provides an excellent platform for scientific discussion and the deeper social and ethical questions that follow.

Why are you writing science fiction? What does the science add? I write SF because I am a scientist and science (particularly environmental science) is both familiar to me and fascinates me. I write this because it is one of my passions and I totally believe that a writer should write about something they are passionate about. Science provides the premise and the plot tools to throw characters into the realm of “other” or “unknown”, which is a wonderful way to study human nature. Science fiction, says Robert J. Sawyer, is about ideas that mean something to a society and a people. It is also about how we react and function with the challenges of the unknown. Science grounds the reader in reality while the writer takes them on a fictive journey. It is a little like doing a dry-run to prepare oneself for possibilities. Science fiction often turns into science fact.

How important is it to you that the science is right? What kind of resources do you use for accuracy? A friend of mine once told me that she read science fiction to learn something about science and was often disappointed when it wasn’t clear to her what was indeed fact and what was fiction. Good job for the writer, I thought! But what that brought to mind is the importance of getting the science right, at least for many readers. There is some poetic license, but for the most part, the closer to accurate science you get the more reliable your extrapolations will appear to the reader. If you’re sloppy about your science, then you might be sloppy in your observations about people and your story may suffer as a result. I use a lot of resources: anything from Google and Wikipedia to text books and scientific journals in the local library. I frequently read the popular science magazines to keep abreast of what’s new (e.g., Scientific American, Discover, etc.). I’ve gotten several short story ideas from an article in one of these.

Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers? Besides mine, The Alien Next Door, you mean? LOL! Well, I would recommend this neat site called Biology in Science Fiction. Hugo and Nebula award winning SF writer, Robert J. Sawyer, has a website full of good information on science, futurism and science fiction called SF Writer.

Follow our online discussion of "Science in Science Fiction" on the ScienceOnline09 conference wiki and post a comment, then come back here and post one. I'd love to hear your comments and ideas.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

A very intelligent and informative discussion.

Peggy K said...

Thanks Nina, very interesting answers!

Nina Munteanu said...

I look forward to seeing other people's responses, Peggy. I'll drop by the online conference and see what's going on there... :)

Anonymous said...

You are so deserving of this glass of Lemonade!! Excellent post!

Nina Munteanu said...

LOL! Thanks, Deborah! Much appreciated. I will pass on the glass heartily to other deserving bloggers.