Fiction to Future: The Science of Science Fiction

To meet one noted science fiction author and share their wisdom and insight is always a privilege. To have three gathered together is a rare honour. Please join GeekChocolate as we meet Iain M Banks, creator of the wildly successful Culture sequence, Ken Macleod, author of the Fall Revolution and Engines of Light series, and Charles Stross, writer of The Atrocity Archives and Saturn’s Children in an event organised by the Edinburgh International Science Festival and Blackwells Bookshop.


In the relaxed atmosphere of the Edinburgh’s Pleasance Theatre, the panel were happy to discuss their adherences and diversions from established science, how it informs their writing, and sometimes hampers them. Having warmed up with a drink at the bar, the three writers and their host moved upstairs to begin the discussion.

Ken Macleod began, responding to the topic of how important it is to get science right in science fiction, and the difficulty of maintaining consistency even in his own writing.

“I think it’s important to get science that readers can check right, but beyond that you just have to be plausible. I once set up a situation in The Cassini Division in which there was a wormhole, essentially for interstellar travel, and as some plot point I had established that you have to be under acceleration to pass through this wormhole, but later in the novel the protagonist’s space capsule passes through quite clearly in free fall, and nobody noticed that.”

Iain M Banks admitted that he avoided many such issues “I think one of the advantages of writing something set in the far future is that you’re never going to live long enough to be told you’re wrong. Because the Culture novels are set in what is effectively a far future, it is uncheckable science,” but went on to say there are those that do not appreciate his enjoyment of this liberty.

“I think this is a sin I have committed with having faster than light travel. You’re kind of throwing Einstein out the window, you’re kind of abandoning the pretence of veracity. I’ve actually used at least three different types of FTL. You talk to proper physicists and they look like they’re trying to stop themselves from smacking you in the teeth.”

Reflecting Macleod’s admission, he also pointed out a more basic error in the first edition of his most recent novel, Surface Detail, though did say it had been corrected for the recent paperback edition.

“There was a bit where the chief bad guy is sitting in a boat in a lake of mercury, and he’s got an ingot of gold and he drops it overboard to watch it sink, and eventually it comes back up again, and a chemist wrote to me and said it would actually react with the mercury, so I had to change it to copper.”

Charlie Stross was on hand to offer reassurance to his friends that their revisons were not unique. “I’d like to cite the embarrassing case of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. You have a world in which people have teleportation, from phone booth sized teleport booths, and it opens with our protagonist Louis Wu having extended his 200th birthday by teleporting around the world ahead of the terminator so he can have a forty eight hour birthday… and he got the Earth revolving the wrong way.” His advice on avoiding such pitfalls was simple: “Wikipedia is your friend.”

Moving on, Stross spoke of different approaches to writing science fiction. “You’ve got to make a choice at the outset: are you going to go for absolute realism, what is sometimes called the mundane SF approach, you’re going to play by the rules of physics and chemistry as known today, or are you going to presuppose a couple of impossible things before breakfast, faster than light travel and a time machine? If so, at the very least what you owe your readers is to work out what your ground rules are and then play by them consistently. Anything else is cheating.”

The authors were all well aware of the scrutiny their published work will be subjected to. Stross observed that “Once you’ve finished your book, it is going to be pounced upon with shrieks of glee by between five and fifty thousand anal retentive nitpickers,” with Banks adding “Readers, as they’re sometimes called.”

Turning to the subject of the origins of science fiction as a genre, and how it has fed back to the real world, Ken Macleod showed deep knowledge of his specialist subject.

“One of the critical theories of science fiction that I’ve found very plausible is Gary Westfahl’s book The Mechanics of Wonder in which he makes the case that science fiction emerged not in deep antiquity, but actually with Hugo Gernsback, the serial entrepreneur who went through radio magazines and engineering magazines, before he eventually came to a science fiction magazine, and basically invented the genre by saying Send me some of that H G Wells/Jules Verne stuff.

“But one of Gernsback’s aims was to use science fiction to put across scientific ideas and to an astonishing extent it actually still does that, certainly Anglo-American SF. And so in the sense of influencing the readers, making them become scientists, you can see that in at least two big historical moments. One is rocketry which was quite clearly motivated in the 1920s and 1930s by people who were enthusiastic about reaching extreme altitudes because they had read science fiction, and the other is the development of the Internet. If you read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it’s actually hard to realise it was written before the Internet really existed on any mass consumer level, and the people who developed the Internet had read Neuromancer and lots of other Cyberpunk books, and so they had a vision of what the world could be.”

Charlie Stross followed that observation up with his own personal experience of the phenomenon in 1996, while attending the fourth international conference of the world wide web organisation in Boston, where he stumbled on “A panel, not unlike this, with various luminaries of the web world, and they were having a very intense argument over whether the correct paradigm for the future of the world wide web should be based on Snow Crash or Neuromancer.”

Iain M Banks was aware of another indication of the positive feedback relationship between the two in the 1970s. “The universities asked graduates who were moving into science what their influence had been, and a lot of them mentioned Mr Spock from the original Star Trek, this iconic figure. When you think about it that was actually quite a genius idea of Roddenberry’s, to have a science officer, not just a first officer or a weapons officer, or engineering or whatever, and it generally did have an influence on a entire generation. I imagine that played out here and anywhere else Star Trek was particularly popular, and it certainly had an effect in America.”

Ken Macleod offered his own wistful reminiscence of that time. “I thought all ships had science officers. I wanted to be a science officer on a trawler.” Stross went on from that disappointment to talk on how, as science had advanced, it had come up against limitations the imagination did not, and how science fiction was in some ways a misnomer.

“Most of what we call science fiction is not fiction about or involving science, it’s about engineering and technology. If you’re trying to do science fiction based on plausible science, it’s difficult. You are fighting with one hand tied behind your back because an awful lot of the scenery you expect in science fiction such as faster than light drives or time machines can’t be made to work plausibly and consistently with existing physics as known.

“Technology is another matter. It is actually looking as if we’re going to develop materials capable of supporting a space elevator. Unfortunately the closer we get, the more people are actuall
y beginning to look at the concept as an engineering proposition and discovering some unfortunate drawbacks. Getting an elevator cage that can climb 36,000 kilometres up a cable fast enough that passengers aren’t fried by the radiation in the Van Allen belts is non-trivial. And what happens when a piece of random space debris from a dead Chinese comsat hits the cable? You really wouldn’t want to be in that elevator car if that happens.”

Macleod acknowledged the problem in his own work, but felt it didn’t detract from the enjoyment of good writing. “I did find when I was writing my first novel that by the time I had finished I was working on more advanced technology than the characters had in the first chapters. Things really are moving ahead. But you can still read Robert Heinlein’s stories set in a solar system where there are canals on Mars and jungles on Venus, because in the fifties when he wrote them, that was the best guesses available more or less, or at least it was an extrapolation, a reasonable inference.”

Inevitably, talk turned to the current state of the most accessible avenue of science fiction to the masses, the cinema, and why Hollywood, once keen on the science fiction blockbuster, has become much more resistant in recent years, preferring safe bet comedies and action films, or remakes and sequels. Charlie Stross had an immediate response.

“I’ll tell you why in a nutshell. It’s because if you make a major Hollywood production today, you’re gambling between fifty and two hundred and fifty million dollars of studio money on it being a success, therefore they’re going to go with something that has a track record of being a prior successful movie. It’s all to do with the money and the cost accounting rather than the creative stuff when you get to that stage.”

Banks was swift to agree. “The only reason you go with something that isn’t a literary adaptation is when it’s already incredibly successful, so Lord of the Rings, it was worth gambling the farm on that, because it’s so incredibly well known throughout the world, and the same with Harry Potter. It’s almost guaranteed if you didn’t completely make an utter mess of it, it would make lots of money, potentially be a fully fledged series, whereas His Dark Materials was always a dodgier proposition. The films have to work in America, so anti-religious themes are going to be problematic at the least. Anything that any of us guys write, it’s an awful lot to gamble on something you’re just not sure about. “

Stross furthered the point of the impracticality of screen adaptations of their work. “There is a fundamental problem, and that is the natural length of a feature movie is one hundred and twenty minutes, so about twenty to thirty thousand words of dialogue. It’s a novella. Most novels are so bloody long you’ve got to cut fifty to seventy percent of them before they’ll fit into a movie. As a result you have to lose a lot of the complexity. I’d say if anything, the way science fiction novels have been getting longer for commercial reasons since the 1970s have made them more unwieldy and less suitable to film at this time. I think novellas will work better, and when you have to shed a lot of complexity of a novel to get it into a movie, you have to make up for it somehow. Hey, I know what, let’s increase the special effects budget and hire Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Looking on the reverse process, Banks spoke of the influences television had on him as a child, and so his writing. “We were the first family on our street, in our village, to have a television, not because we were very rich, but because my dad was an able seaman, he was away quite a lot, and so my mum insisted on this new fangled televisual device. Definitely it had an influence on me, whether it was science fiction or not, wasn’t literature, it was old Marx Brothers movies, and Goons and Python, and all that stuff, Play For Today, like what we used to get, The Wednesday Play on BBC2.

“There’s always been a real sense of feedback between science fiction writers, trying to keep up with what’s going on, in terms of prose, and what you see at the cinema and what’s being done on television, and you’re bound to take that into account. You don’t want to write stuff that’s already dated in a sense, stuff that in a sense has already been made to look old fashioned. I think generally it’s a good effect. It’s the competition that keeps you on your toes, producing better stuff.”

Ken Macleod had a different perspective. “I suppose my visual and other media influences certainly came a bit later. We were probably the only family on the street that didn’t have television, not because we were poor, but because we were Presbyterian. But of course I watched Doctor Who and Star Trek at my friend’s house, and they must have influenced me somehow. The big science fiction movies that had an impact on me were certainly 2001, Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner.”

“I think any modern science fiction writer since Blade Runner came out that says it hasn’t influenced him or her has either not seen it or is lying. It is so powerful and so clever. Seeing Blade Runner was the first time I actually realised that the infrastructure of the present would survive into the future. I remember going around and saying to people, Do you realise the buildings on this street will still be here in the year 2000? That concept of a layer built on the future just the same as the past, just like the first Alien movie, brought in the idea that if the future is going to be capitalist, it’s going to have workers and companies, and the companies are going to rip the workers off and put them in danger, and lie to them.”

The final word went to Charlie Stross, who summed up very succinctly his opinion of the current media output of science fiction.

“I’ve got a secret to share. I’ve seen one movie in the past twelve months. It was the original 1960’s version of Casino Royale. The one starring Woody Allen. And I watch very little television indeed. In fact the only science fiction TV series I’ve seen in the last decade and liked is Futurama.”

The Edinburgh International Science Festival has finished, but the 2012 festival is already in the planning stages.

Special thanks to Frances Sutton and Jen Wood on the Science Festival media team for their kind assistance, and Blackwells Bookshop for organising the event.

Ken Macleod’s The Restoration Game is currently available; Iain M Banks’ Surface Detail will be released in paperback in late May, and Charlie Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum will be released in July.

Surface Detail and Iain Banks’ earlier novel Transition are both reviewed in GeekChocolate’s book section, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld is covered in Geek School.



Show Buttons
Hide Buttons