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Weird Science? Or just badly-written?
“Engage tractor beam.” “Launch photon torpedoes.” “Warp factor four, Mr Sulu.” As an adolescent watching the original Star Trek, the science behind the futuristic technology was of little or no consequence to either the action or the pleasure of watching. It was only as I aged, and learnt more about science, that I encountered the conflict between real science and science fiction. I’d read many of Arthur C Clarke’s short stories, including The Sentinel, and, though unaware of the inner delineations in the genre, was familiar with the concept of hard science fiction, even if not the label. Later still I became familiar with the arguments over realism in my favoured genre, especially in regard to the science and pseudo-science it often utilises. But does it truly matter if the science is wrong?
I’ve always been a firm believer that a story, however remote from reality, requires its own ‘inner logic’; if your world runs on steam, then do a little research on steam engines and keep your descriptions within the boundaries you set yourself – pistons, governors, push-rods, firebox. If you prefer magic, does it draw its power from the elements that comprise your world, or is it necromantic in nature? Are they wizards, sorcerers, witches, cunning-folk? Do the peasants and the gentry use magic or mundane methods in their everyday lives – how commonplace is it? Do the guns your heroes wield fire lead slugs, coherent light or hypersonic darts? Are their vehicles wheeled, tracked, anti-grav or aerofan?
The worst issues for me tend to be those settings where the author wants to include every interesting concept they’ve ever stumbled across or thought-up; their world becomes a jumble of conflicting technologies, with no coherent (or logical) development. I’ll admit to that fault myself when I first started writing as a teenager, the frantic need to cram as many ideas into a story as possible. I think I’ve mastered the urge – mostly. Hang the logic, I want my wizards to ride anti-grav cycles and draw their power from little-black boxes containing quantum-entangled, left-handed Bosons… But can a technological society arrive at lightsabres without first inventing Light Amplification by means of the Stimulated Emission of Radiation, and the required knowledge of radioactive elements and the differing wavelengths contained within the colour spectrum? Let’s be honest, do we really care when the story is enjoyable? A little inconsistency doesn’t really matter, and in the case of a multi-species science fiction story, perhaps one species mastered radiation before inventing the wheel and never considered domesticating ungulates – voila! nuclear-powered ploughs…
Some writers, such as Michael Moorcock and M John Harrison use this clash as a way of drawing the setting in deeper hues. They include technology that dates from a disappeared past - the bane power blade in The Pastel City, the ornithopters and flame lances of Gran Bretan in the Runestaff Chronicles – in worlds that barely understand the concept of the artefacts they utilise. These technologies are described, when necessary, but not explained. But then, I don't remember the inner-workings of Han Solo's DL-44 Blaster being mentioned either. Though it is based upon the Mauser C96 (known as the ‘Broomhandle’, originally chambered for the 7.63x25mm Mauser round, then re-serviced for the 9mm Parabellum cartridge). The Imperial Stormtrooper weaponry is based upon WWII submachine- and full machine guns (the E11 uses the British Sterling as it’s chassis; the long-barrelled RT-97C heavy blaster rifle use the German MG15).
In the Grainger stories, by Brian Stableford, one method of fast-than-light travel is via ‘mass-relaxation’, a vaguely described process of reducing a starships’ mass-to-energy ratio. I’ve read all of those slim novels a number of times and still fail to grasp the concept. That I re-read the books once every few years should be an indication that I don’t care. The concept doesn’t bother me, I’m too immersed in the stories I’m reading. Other authors eschew any descriptions and opt to have their space-worthy vessels drop in-and-out of wormholes, either naturally-occurring or created by an unexplained warp-drive. Hard science fiction like its ships to reach .9C through constant acceleration, but stick within Einstein’s barrier. If it suits the setting and mood of the story, that’s OK with me. We don’t always have to be racing-off to distant galaxies; we can amble around our own solar system, which is still an impressive volume of dust and gas (over 285 billion km in diameter and we’ll ignore all that dark-matter business until someone comes up with a decent description) and have lots of adventures. It’s taken Voyager 1 about forty-years to reach interstellar space, no light-speed drive in sight. Perhaps someone could write a story about weird happenings on Saturn's moons...
So, what of magic? I won't paraphrase the old adage of “any significantly advanced science is indistinguishable from magic” as, like Asimov's Laws of Robotics, it's a concept ubiquitous throughout both written and visual science fiction/fantasy. Wand-waving, book-reading, sucking the essence out of others; whatever you want, you can have. It's not that magic (or any associated enchantment-process) need have boundaries or make any actual sense. But, as a personal choice, I prefer stories where magic isn't too free-and-easy. Having a cost, be that drawing its energy from the caster or ripping holes in the fabric of the universe, makes the concept more dramatic. “OK, cast the damn fireball – but don’t forget about the conservation of energy – that’s another chunk of permafrost you’ve created…”
Would adapting quantum field theory make your magic more 'realistic'. Is noting the collapsing wave function, within the eigenstate of your quantum-entangled wand, a requirement for stabilising the non-zero vector of a fireball as it melts a horde of orcs? In a footnote to the Silmarillion, I'm sure I recall the data that Gandalf the Grey became Gandalf the White after he gained his PhD in Applied Physics. Though I might have been asleep at the time.
Again, various authors have tackled time travel, though few have set out any ‘realistic’ science to explain how their temporal travellers leap about. HG Wells used the Fourth Dimension as his means of egress into the time stream, others use ‘chronometric particles’ and/or hitch a lift in someone else’s slipstream. Doesn’t matter, they get where they’re going, let the story commence. I read the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Caspak (or Caprona) novels, where dinosaurs still exist and the island’s humanoids are more evolved the closer to the island’s centre they happen to live. Mad idea, but I did enjoy the stories.
So, writers of the weird and wonderful, do we need to explain it all? Do we really need to explain any of it? If bogging-down in technical or scientific explanation take the reader away from your story, cast a shadow on the plot or make ridiculous your setting, then why bother with it. The story’s the thing. Try for consistency, it may enhance your narrative, but don’t sweat all the technicalities.
The glowing orb on the tip of the villain’s staff turns dark energy into plasma bolts. How? It just does and the heroes would still have to avoid being hit whether the physics was real or imaginary. If you have to stop and explain the process, you might find your heroes have slunk off to be in someone else’s story.
© John Henson Webb 2018
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