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Posit your Sorceries, Oh Human, and Unfurl Thy Universe

I came across a post on the Facebook Page of Stupefying Stories the other day that got me thinking. The editor, Bruce Bethke, made the following statement:

Why it’s so hard to sell me computer-related SF:
We see a lot of stories that revolve around human/computer|AI interactions and that seem to have fallen out of time warps from the early 1950s, or else about “the Net” that seem to have fallen through similar time warps from the 1980s.
My old college roommate went on to do post-doc work in A.I. and his subroutines are now on the surface of Mars inside Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Meanwhile, the linked article is the sort of thing I deal with every day in my day job.
If you want to sell me a computer-related SF story, forget Clarke’s computers and Asimov’s robots, try to become conversant enough with the current state of the art to write something at least slightly ahead of it, and for Deep Thought’s sake, no more rewrites of Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC.”
The article he linked to is here.
Damn...where's that owner's manual...

Damn…where’s that owner’s manual…

Mr. Bethke makes an important point. Science Fiction is a moving genre, ever-changing. As technology marches ‘forward’ (though we must be careful in discussions of technological development as linear), the fiction that explores the reaches of our scientific potentials must keep pace. This is something of a challenge, as you might imagine, particularly if you are not a scientist or engineer by trade (such as I am not). I, personally, have the advantage of a robust liberal arts education, and thus am conversant (though not necessarily fluent) in most fields. Still, research and legwork must be done to achieve technical authenticity in works of science fiction.


Well, I’m going to put forward a ‘yes and no’ answer here. In the first case, if you want to write any kind of fiction and do it well, you need to read widely in your genre (and beyond) to see what has been done and be able to take it a new direction. That’s fairly obvious and not really under discussion here. Let’s focus, instead, on the idea of technical authenticity within the context of science fiction.


Authenticity is important, certainly. The mantra “write what you know” (as horrible a mantra as that can be for the creative process) is important in that it forces you to explore and even inhabit alien territory before you can efficiently write about it. Nothing rings more false than somebody writing about the government who has never met nor spoken with anybody in any government, and the same goes for the military, or for college, or what-have-you. Computers, technology, engineering, and so on are not exceptions to this rule. You have to talk the talk before you can walk the walk, if you follow my reworked metaphor. So, yeah, if you’re going to write about AIs and computers you better damned well do a little bit of AI and computer related homework.
But not too much, mind you.
The scifi author is Neo, not the Architect.

The scifi author is Neo, not the Architect.

There is a danger in reading and evaluating scifi where you wind up saying to yourself ‘that’s totally unrealistic’ and it knocks you out of the story. The more you know about a topic, the more particular you become in an area of scientific and engineering lore, the smaller and smaller the scope of the science fiction you will tolerate becomes. What ‘can be done’ in science becomes the shackles which bind your own writing. Science fiction, though, exists in the peculiar position of needing to look past the ‘write what you know’ thing and voyage into the totally unknown. Granted, science is our only guideline in those wide, unexplored places, but we cannot let known science (or even theoretical science) wholly dictate our dreams. There is a point where ignoring or bending the rules becomes ridiculous, but there’s a lot of leeway before that happens.

On a further note (and this is probably a topic for another day, but still), we ought to be wary of a world in which our scientific achievements are mystifying and incomprehensible to the common public. We, in our technological wonders, are drifting further and further towards Arthur C. Clarke’s imagined division between technology and magic. Technology is a tool, but magic is seen as fearful and wicked. As science fiction authors, part of our duty is to take the bizarre and esoterically technical and make it wonderful and accessible. If we wish ourselves to be a species supported and driven forward by science, the storytellers are at the forefront of that task. The further we go down the technobabble rabbit hole, the further we get from being able to attract the masses that made science fiction the popular storytelling genre it began as.
Still, though, remember to do your homework. Just don’t forget that you aren’t just a student of theoretical science, but also a kind of teacher.
Edit: In a sort of cosmic irony, the formatting in this piece is being atrociously idiotic, hence the weird font stuff. My apologies.