September 8th, 2008
There are a number of issues that continue to keep coming up in hard science fiction, or any science fiction trying to get the facts right. I just helped my collaborator here a few days ago answer a reporter’s questions on one of these (humans expelled into space without space suits). These things should always be right. There’s no excuse in this day and age. We’ll start with the space expulsion.
1. Human exposure to vacuum. People don’t blow up. And probably most aliens don’t, either. A number of movies/TV shows get this right: 2001, Battlestar Galactica, Event Horizon. Some don’t (e.g. Outland). Get it right.
2. FTL. Faster than light travel. It’s a trope of the field. It should be recognized that this is typically necessary for interstellar and even interplanetary travel if characters are doing it in Vipers or X-wings without bathrooms, or for any short timespan. That’s a start. But it should be acknowledged and some excuse given, at a minimum. In the most rigorous cases, writers should realize that FTL implies time travel or at least non-causal effects and has philosophical implications about free will.
3. Teleportation. It’s not just for Nightcrawler. It may or may not violate light-speed and causality depending on the implementation, but it should be recognized that it needs to be handled carefully. If conservation laws are violated, it could be used to create perpetual motion machines and infinite energy. If not, things get more interesting. How are energy differences made up? Think about it. Get it right, or give some lip service to the problems.
4. The Fermi Paradox. Why aren’t aliens common in the universe and already in abundant evidence here on Earth? There are at least 50 possible reasons. Have one if you’re dealing with aliens in the galaxy and space travel, or if you’ve got humans exploring the galaxy and there are no aliens. It doesn’t have to be a big part of the story, but have a reason.
5. The Singularity. On the short timescale, technology is slower than we expect (a few years or a decade or two). On somewhat longer timescales, it goes fast. Humans think linearly, not exponentially. How far ahead can you really imagine? OK, take that timeframe, and add a few thousand years. Or a million. Where are we then? Can’t imagine it? Neither can anyone else. Don’t worry about it too much. Write your story, but be aware of the issue.
6. The dangers and difficulties of the space environment. Radiation. Lack of gravity. Sex. Getting sick.
7. Alien communication. This isn’t necessarily easy. Acting like it is may move the story along, but it isn’t realistic. Maria Doria Russel wrote a great book in The Sparrow over misunderstanding aliens, as have others, but many have not. Don’t pull a Star Trek on this. You don’t have to create a great story about language exchange like Barry Longyear did with “Enemy Mine,” but again, lip service at a minimum. Dot your “i”s and cross your “t”s.
8. Alien chemistry/biology. Can we eat aliens? Can they eat us? Is DNA the only system for living things? Are our amino acids common to life, or are we just a subset of the possibilities. I’m not saying I know the answers for sure for these questions, although I have ideas, but you better know the answers for your universe and they should be plausible.
9. AI. Artificial intelligence. Strong or weak, we’ll have some version in the future. Which? What can it do? What can’t it do? Note that this is related to the singularity issue, and other things like post-human existence. Is it possible to download humans? Or make simulations that are for all practical purposes alive and independent? I don’t know the answers, but you have to make some decisions if you’re writing sf, because some version of this technology will be with us.
10. Nanotech. Variations on it are coming, or are here already. We’re gaining the ability to manipulate matter on the atomic level to build novel materials and structures. What’s possible? What isn’t? Nanotech isn’t magic, and like teleportation, keep in mind conservation laws regarding mass and energy. Also, as a guide, keep in mind biological systems that are nature’s nanotech. In principle, nanotech can operate very quickly and you can use bacteria as a guide for what’s possible.