The SF Signal Mind Meld asks several SF writer how important plausible science is for science fiction. The consensus is: Yes, plausible science is somewhat important, but characters, plot and storytelling are more important.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever tried to read really badly written hard-SF. And there’s quite a bit of that out there, some of it even gaining nominations and winning awards.
On the other hand, we’ve also come across SF with science that was so laughably bad or implausible that it completely destroyed the story. The first example that always comes to my mind is the 1979 films The Black Hole, particularly the scene where a meteor hits the spaceship, punctures the hull and none of the people inside experience any ill effects, even though none of them are wearing spacesuits at the time. Even worse, they also move around outside the spaceship – without spacesuits or any kind of protection. Even at the age of 14 or however old I was when I saw it, that film made me scream at the screen in frustration, “But that’s all wrong. It doesn’t work that way.”
Remembering The Black Hole as a cautionary tale, the budding science fiction writer in me (I began to bud around the same time I saw The Black Hole) decided that I’d better make damn sure to get the science right in my own works. After all, I did not want people laughing and pointing at me like I was laughing and pointing at those who made The Black Hole. Considering that my first surviving attempt at SF writing opened with two teenaged girls being kidnapped via tractor beam by a villain in a flying red sportscar which then proceeded to fly out over San Francisco Bay (Why there? I have no idea)*, I guess I did apply the idea of plausible and realistic science a bit liberally.
Still, I decided that as a budding SF writer, I ought to read every relevant** science article I could get my hand on. In fact, I had actually heard or read somewhere (probably Starlog, since that was about my only source of SF-related non-fiction at the time) that this was what real SF writers did to get ideas (not that I was lacking in ideas) and to make sure they didn’t mess up and accidentally create The Black Hole. There was only one problem or rather two. Those science articles never sparked any ideas. In fact, they were often so mindnumbingly boring that my mind would begin drift before I ever reached the end. Even worse, instead of sparking ideas those articles frequently wrecked the ideas I already had. FTL travel? Impossible. Hyperspace? Doesn’t exist. I even had to relocate my alien base on one of the Jupiter moons from Io (which I had picked purely because I knew my Greek mythology and Io was the most likable character among the Galilean Jupiter moons) to Europa, because Io was inconveniently covered by vulcanoes, while Europa was an iceball with water underneath and the perfect place for a secret alien base.
After bouncing off way too many science articles*** and having too many of my ideas ruined by science, I decided that I probably wasn’t destined to be an SF writer after all. Because if I was a real SF writer, surely I would gobble up all of those science articles instead of persisting in writing space opera about young people opposing evil regimes. Besides, once I started reading “proper” hard SF, I realized that I didn’t even like much of that stuff.
It took me years to realize that I had it all wrong. For even though the science is important and there really is no excuse for howlers like the unprotected spacewalk in The Black Hole, the story and the characters are more important. Because let’s face it, even if the cast of The Black Hole had not broken the laws of physics and worn spacesuits all through the film, The Black Hole would still be a shitty film. It’s a dull and ponderous mix of Maximilian Schell pontificating about the meaning of life and the universe, an evil robot who is inexplicably name Maximilian (which makes the film really confusing) and a crew of manly men, cute robots and a woman with an ugly hairstyle (beautiful hairstyles on the female leads notch even dreadful SF films up by a few points) trying and failing to escape the mad Maximilians’ (both of them) madness. Plausible science could not have polished that turd into a diamond.
Meanwhile, the science in Star Wars is not much better than that in The Black Hole. And indeed, I was aware of the scientific weaknesses and shortcomings of the Star Wars films even as a teenager, to the point that I came up with “fixes” for the most obvious examples of bad science. But I will happily watch Star Wars any time, while I will never ever voluntarily sit through The Black Hole again. Meanwhile, the 1936 Flash Gordon serial features a scientific blunder that’s every bit as ridiculous as the unprotected spacewalk of The Black Hole, namely the slaves shoveling radium into an atomic furnace. Yet while I had issues with Flash Gordon (mainly that Flash has about as many braincells as a slice of toast and Dale Arden in the serial has to be one of the most useless female characters ever devised**** And that’s not even mentioning the racist implications), I never disliked it with the same intensity as The Black Hole. Because Flash Gordon still managed to entertain for all its shortcomings. The Black Hole didn’t.
The lesson here echoes what most participants in that SF Signal Mind Meld said. Scientific plausibility is a good thing, but in the end story trumps science every time.
Another thing that I also realized much later was that I had gone about my SF research all wrong. Reading articles that did not interest me did not spark any fiction ideas, because my attempts at SF writing usually grew from either characters or settings or social premises, not from cool bits of science and tech. And for me, first coming up with the idea and then researching the scientific background to the point that I can convincingly fake it is the better way to go about it. Going back to my example of the Jupiter moons, if I wanted to write about a base on one of the Jupiter moons, I would first come up with the idea and then research the Jupiter moons to find the best setting. And yes, I would probably still go with Europa.
*The same story also featured a bride gunned down at the altar by a jealous rival and some humanoid aliens painting the walls of their super secret lair on Earth blue while making gooey eyes at each other. I don’t remember what those totally disparate plotlines had to do with each other, though I’m sure it all made perfect sense at the time.
**Relevant in this case meant anything that seemed like it could yield useful background material for the sort of space opera I preferred to read and write.
***I am not actually scientifically illiterate. Chemistry was my favourite subject in school along with English, I was good at biology and math, too. It was simply that I received neither joy nor ideas from reading those articles.
****Dale Arden in the comics is actually pretty good for a female character of the era, as is Dale Arden in the cartoon adaptions and the 1980 film. But Dale Arden in the serial is insufferable.