#IWSG: Putting Science Into Science Fiction

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop created by Alex J. Cavanaugh and co-hosted this month by Joylene Nowell Butler, Chemist Ken, Natalie Aguirre, Nancy Gideon, and Cathrina Constantine.  If you’re a writer and if you feel insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this amazingly supportive group!

I write science fiction.  That’s the only genre I’ve ever wanted to write, and I doubt that will ever change.  But when I was younger, I kind of hoped I could get away with writing Sci-Fi without really understanding science.  And you know what?  Maybe I could have.  I’ve read plenty of good Sci-Fi stories that went a little wishy-washy on the science.

At some point, though, I made the decision to do my research.  I made a commitment to learn the sciency stuff so that I could write better Sci-Fi.  Doing that research has helped me in more ways than I anticipated.

Suspending the Reader’s Disbelief with Science

I have a touch-and-go attitude about putting science in science fiction.  Sci-Fi doesn’t need to be 100% scientifically correct about everything all the time, but if you touch on a scientific fact now and then, it adds credibility to your story, and it makes it easier for the reader to suspend their disbelief when you start making stuff up.

Alternatively, if you make a laughably unscientific mistake, like describing the sound of an explosion in outer space or having a character see a laser blast coming straight toward her before it hits her, this will break the reader’s suspension of disbelief real quick.

Over the years, a few fellow writers have told me not to worry so much about scientific accuracy.  The average reader, they claim, won’t know if I get a science fact wrong.  And maybe they’re right, but science fiction readers are not the average reader.  It’s important to know your audience, and if you write science fiction, your audience includes a lot of people who are more scientifically literate than the general population.

Science if Full of Writing Prompts

I think I have a pretty active and vivid imagination.  I asked my muse, and she agrees with me about that.  But as imaginative as I may be, the universe out there, as science currently understands it, is far weirder and wilder than anything I could have dreamed up on my own.

Did you know birds recognize the constellations and use them to navigate?  Because they do.  Did you know there was a seventy year period of time when all the sunspots mysteriously vanished from the surface of the Sun?  Because that happened.  Did you know there are naturally occurring nuclear reactors on this planet?  Because there are!  Could any or all of these random science facts be used as writing prompts?  Yes.  Yes, they could.

Just about every time I do my science research, I find new ideas for stories.  Or, if I don’t find a totally new story idea, I find something new I can add to a story I’m already working on.

Using Science Role Models as Writing Role Models

If you ask most writers who their role models are, they’d probably point to people like Hemingway or King.  Those are perfectly fine role models, of course, but as I’ve fallen deeper and deeper down the science research rabbit hole, I’ve discovered curious parallels between the life of a writer and the life of a scientist.

The way Albert Einstein solved complex scientific problems with his imagination (for example, by imagining what might happen as trains and elevators accelerated to the speed of light), or the way Marie Curie kept doubling down on her research into X-rays, “uranium rays,” and other forms of radiation (which ultimately killed her, of course, but I still admire her relentless dedication to science)—these people are my role models now, in addition to people like Tolkien, Asimov, or Roddenberry.

Whenever I’ve struggling to write, whenever I’m stuck on some story problem that seems unsolvable, I think about people like Einstein or Curie.  I think about how they kept plugging away at the problems in front of them until they found solutions.

I’m not going to tell you that if you write science fiction, you must do your research.  I hate that “if X, then you must do Y” kind of writing advice.  Every writer is unique.  Every writer has their own approach to writing.  Do whatever feels right to you.  It is absolutely okay to make yourself the exception to the rule.

But doing my research has helped me in ways I never expected.  So if you’re not already doing research for your stories (Sci-Fi or otherwise), then I’d say its worthy giving research a try.

Thanks for reading, friends!  I look forward to chatting with you in the comments!

23 thoughts on “#IWSG: Putting Science Into Science Fiction

  1. Great post. I love science as a writing prompt! But (apparently) beware. Even if something is a true fact, if readers won’t buy it, they’ll get knocked out of the story. Funny, isn’t it, since “truth is stranger than fiction.” (I get to use cliches in comments, don’t I?)

    I once gave a character a portable XRF analytical unit, and “he pressed the barrel tip against the meteorite. A light flipped on, warning that x-rays were bombarding the surface” and he got an elemental analysis. I received a reader comment telling me such an instrument is impossible. Ha! I actually picked up the idea from a web page that sells the things. I never let one comment worry me… my character still has his instrument.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Some Sci-Fi fans think they know more about science than they actually do. I’m not familiar with the device your talking about, specifically, but there are lots of techniques like that for getting the spectrum of an element. That’s a very believable concept.

      I sometimes worry about leaning too heavily on general relativity and/or quantum mechanics in a story. Most of my readers are already familiar with these things, I think, but some aren’t; and to the uninitiated, relativistic and/or quantum effects can sound way too weird to be real.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Yeah, I agree entirely.
    While there is a place for “soft” SciFi, there is also a lot of value in “hard” scifi. One thing you didn’t mention but I think is worth mentioning is that SciFi is one of the most beneficial genres to society as a whole because of it’s unique ability to generate inspiration for new inventions and to tackle philosophical and ethical questions before we have to deal with them in real life. I fear that robots probably won’t be great for us, but could you imagine how much worse we would handle them if we didn’t have Isaac Asimov and friends to start the conversation decades in advance? Also, Star Trek arguably inspired the idea of cell phones with their communicator badges.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While not specifically about scifi, the short short story “The Zebra Storyteller” by Spencer Hoist illustrates this idea a lot better and is a genuinely good read. Human society would crumble without story tellers, that’s why we evolved to tell stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love that. Just read the story, and it makes a really good point. You know, there are many stupid mistakes I’ve made in my life, but there are also many mistakes I’ve avoided because I read a story and learned a valuable lesson from it.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I certainly was. The reason I pursued a career in science was because I idolized mad scientists/tony stark who could be at the same level as superhumans just by using science. Also I thought I could cure cancer or something. Still working on that one.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Science is a limitless source of inspiration. Too much, some may say. A lot of times after learning a cool new science fact I am possessed by inspiration hyper focus and stay up until 3am writing. My google drive has thousands of pages of rough drafts and messy world building I’ve never gotten around to publishing. It’s great.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As I recall, your Sci-Fi felt plenty realistic. Maybe more on the Star Wars side of things rather than 2001: A Space Odyssey. But you put touches of realism in there where you needed to.

      Basically, I’m saying don’t sell yourself short. Whatever research you do, or whatever knowledge base you draw from when you write, it’s obviously working for you.


  4. How accurate to be scientifically is, I think, always a judgment call. You’ve probably heard about the “rule of cool”. You might still decide to include it in the story if it’s just cool.

    But I do think that’s a choice that ideally should be made deliberately, not through ignorance. For example, Andy Weir in The Martian has Watney get trapped on Mars due to a dust storm. Weir admitted he knew full well that dust storms don’t have the physical force he described, but he needed a mechanism for stranding Watney and decided the compromise was worth it.

    In any case, literary sci-fi readers are more sophisticated than casual sci-fi TV and movie watchers, something that has to be kept in mind when weighing these options. What Star Trek gets away with won’t fly in most written sci-fi. Definitely know your audience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree: making the choice deliberately, rather than out of ignorance, is key. And sometimes you can find ways to acknowledge that you’re breaking the science and still do what you want to do anyway. The Heisenberg compensator on Star Trek is my favorite example of this. Most viewers wouldn’t know the transporter violates the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, but for anyone who does know that, the writers included just enough in dialogue to hand wave the issue away.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a time when I didn’t feel like I knew enough either. I still feel that way sometimes. It’s like a very special flavor of imposter syndrome that’s just for Sci-Fi writers.

      But Sci-Fi is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to write. When you want to do something that badly, you learn whatever you need to learn in the hope that you can do it well.


  5. In the past, I’ve asked my friendly neighbourhood scientist about the veracity or likelihood of stuff in science fiction. It tends not to happen until after I finish the book so it has no impact on my enjoyment (or otherwise) of the read. But I really do like it when he nods and says “yes” or “entirely sound”. I’m a non-scientist, indeed a total science duffer, but I really like it when science fiction isn’t ALL fiction and there’s a kernel of fact or potential fact running through it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t mention this in the post, but I think one of the roles science fiction can play is to help educate people about science. If I write a story about Earth bacteria contaminating water reservoirs on Mars, part of me hopes readers will go to their friendly neighborhood scientist and find out that that is, in fact, a real concern.


  6. I believe a common one is blown out the airlock or into space. Riker said this to be corrected by Data in Star Trek TNG, thats pushed out into space – explains The android. Thanks Data – A common mistake sir, now James I expect you can explain the science.

    Liked by 1 person

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