Friday, April 15, 2016

Easy Hard Science Fiction

In a recent post about hard science fiction, there was a lot of pontificating about how hard it is to write hard science fiction. Recall we use the term hard science fiction to mean science fiction written by an author who eschews all unrealistic novelties in portraying the science of the future or the science of an alien planet or civilization. It's hard to do because, while reasonable projections of the future of science can be done, they don't lend themselves to the construction of a plot, characters, events and a resolution that will turn readers on and sell lots of copies of the author's works.

So the author is left with two alternatives, spend lots of time trying to get the science right and then create a story to match it, boring as it may be, or write a much easier-to-write story with excitement, challenges, clashes, characters rising above their obstacles, heroes overcoming villains, and so on that sells very well and makes the author well-off. Hard choice, to be sure.

If there is an author who has somehow gotten totally motivated to write hard science fiction, there is a way out, an exception, a back door. Take a baby step.

It's not hard at all to figure out what science is going to be next year, or five years from now. There are many scientists and science writers who are already writing that. They are doing the science, hands-on, and can see where things are going, or they specialize in talking to those who are, and are good at integrating scientific partial pictures into some big picture. Even popular Internet pages and blogs are full of these short-scale projections. News aggregators don't leave out science tidbits. Major science research organizations all have their own websites crammed full of what is going on now, and many of what is going to be done next year or soon. A flood of information is available for anyone who wants to write hard science fiction set in a time frame very close to the present. The usual problem of partial coverage, doing genetics not robotics, or medicine not materials, can easily crop up due to the background of the author, but this can be managed by someone who is diligent about the craft of writing hard science fiction.

Maybe even ten years out can be done in this projection of the present style. Things would be chancier, but a projection of current trends, done with some care, might get that far. Further than ten years, and the second derivatives get you. The change in the change gets to be too severe. What this means is that projections don't cover breakthroughs, nor do they typically cover the interaction of science change and the rest of the world. Individual actions are not predictable, and while they can occur in a day, accumulating the probability of significant individual events over more than ten years across the entire domain of science gets to be far too high to be trusted. Trends change for many reasons, not just scientific ones, and projections get to be outdated and nonuseful.

If the approach taken is going to be going short-term, then there is plenty of opportunity to make connections with the audience or readership. They are right here, experiencing the present, and pushing that a bit toward the future is easy for them. Remember that audiences like mostly familiar stuff with a few surprises. Writing about the present plus a year or two or three or five means there are countless details that can be thrown into the story for the purpose of familiarity connection, which is of course just pulsing those neural associations we all have that allow us to live in the world.

Self-driving cars are being tested and someone keeping up with projections would know that a future world, five years out, might have plenty of them driving around, integrated with the old style of humans at the wheel. If this particular piece of science appealed to someone, they could write a story about a car that got too intelligent, or about how accidents were being covered up to sell cars, or about individuals using the cars for nefarious purposes, or about cars adopting some familiar human characteristic like having friends, or on and on. These would all be safe hard science fiction. A really good writer would have some other, non-automotive advances in society to titillate the readers with his/her view of the future, and lots of familiar interactions that reader would recognize or even see themselves as having. I don't know of any stories with this theme, but I don't know hardly any contemporary fiction at all, so that's no clue if there are any.

Other science trends that have caught public imagination involve omnipresent surveillance, cures for common or uncommon ailments, space stuff, robots and lots more. All of these are easy to find trends in and to make projections for some not-too-distant future where the trend reaches some culmination.

Writers who take the baby-step strategy of predicting the future can certainly do well for themselves, as well as avoid having a conflict with some known science. If there isn't much interest in a long sales period, having the projections get outdated and shown to be too optimistic or too pessimistic or completely off-the-mark wouldn't affect the primary goal of writing fiction, which is to sell one's own efforts. But there should be no confusion whatsoever between this type of writing and the difficult task of making predictions using all available methods for our own civilization or an alien civilization. Some of the tools that can be used were described in another post and don't need to be repeated here, but they require much more time and effort than translating projections into a plot. They require strong attention be given to consistency. There are many ways a projection beyond a few years can be inconsistent, including the one mentioned above of partial coverage, where science is projected to advance a lot in one area and hardly at all in the other fifty areas which it should have advanced in. Partial coverage is not the only source of inconsistency. Inconsistency can also spring up between assumptions made about the society and assumptions made about the technology. There can even be poorly thought out society projections which don't fit together into a consistent whole.

To summarize, if people want to use hard science fiction to help them imagine the future, they should stick to plots only a few years from the present. Of course, this short a projection term means that the projections are going to be very useful. The fact that there can be hard science fiction does not at all change the claim in yet another post that science fiction is not future projection, at least not any useful future projection.

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