Keeping the lie plausible

9 03 2018

All fiction writing, on one level, is concerned with making the lie plausible. (On another level, for the most part, it’s concerned with making the lie interesting, but that’s another matter.) But the art of lying takes many different forms across the different genres, and each genre has its own set of requirements for what constitutes a believable untruth.

Much of what I write, when I’m not in thrall to my inclinations towards humour, falls into the category of hard SF. Now, ask ten people what hard SF is and six of them will say they’ve never heard of the term, while the other four will argue vehemently about its boundaries and principal characteristics. Which, obviously, is as it should be. But I think it’s fair to say that what distinguishes hard SF from other forms of science fiction is its greater attention to, and attempted adherence to, the laws of nature. (This, I hope, is uncontroversial. The contentiousness generally concerns whether hard SF’s focus is limited only to a subset of those laws—most often, those that fit within the confines of physics and chemistry, at a stretch also including biology—or whether a broader range is appropriate, extending out to psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Personally, I take a broad view for definition purposes, though my own hard SF writing most usually concerns itself with the physical and natural sciences.)

Even within the limits of hard SF—whatever they might be—there are different limitations and different dangers for particular styles of story, depending on what is known at the time of writing versus what is known at the time of reading.

If your story’s setting is Earth, twenty million years into the future, or some vaguely-terrestrial planet orbiting a broadly Sun-like star eight thousand parsecs towards the Galaxy’s centre, then you have a considerable degree of what I’ll call ‘safe lassitude’ in your fiction: so long as you adhere to the known laws of physics, chemistry, biology and whatever else your story depends on (tempered respectively, perhaps, with sensible speculation on the far-future biospheric, climatologic, and tectonic evolution of the Earth, or on the implications of higher heavy-element abundances towards the Galactic centre for your setting’s planetology and biology), there’s not a lot of danger of your story suddenly becoming in breach of new knowledge.

If, in contrast, you set your story on Sedna, or on one of the planets of Gliese 581 or TRAPPIST-1, your safe lassitude is distinctly smaller. These are objects about which comparatively little is currently known, implying considerable scope for intriguing speculation, but at the cost—or the risk—of near-future astronomical observations which might be expected to yield new knowledge of your chosen system, some of which will almost inevitably falsify elements of your story. (Suddenly, that planet you insisted was face-locked, a feature which allowed you to extrapolate an entire alien biology adapted to such conditions, doesn’t look so face-locked anymore.) This is a clear occupational hazard, perhaps best typified by Larry Niven’s early story ‘The Coldest Place’ set on face-locked Mercury, a planetary detail universally accepted as correct at the time of the story’s writing, but proven wrong before its publication … and think, too, of how few of the mid-twentieth-century stories set on Mars, or the Moon, or (especially) Venus, still hold the form of plausibility. Their artistry as fiction may well be more-or-less uncorrupted, but their status as hard SF is, inevitably, tarnished.


The image above is Chesley Bonestell’s classic artwork Saturn as seen from Titan, painted in the 1940s shortly after Gerard Kuiper’s discovery that Titan possessed a methane-containing atmosphere (hence the sky’s non-black coloration in Bonestell’s painting). It’s a wonderful (and justly celebrated) image, but there are several details that would now be regarded as unrealistic: the white ‘snow’ (which in actuality would be coated with orange-brown tholins), the apparent rocky obtrusions (almost certainly tholin-crusted ice on Titan as we would understand it today), the relatively clear blue sky (which should be shrouded with nearly-opaque orange-brown haze, particularly close to the horizon). One comparatively subtle error in detail (and this is something you’ll see time and time again in renditions of Titan’s landscape, often to a more exaggerated degree than in Bonestell’s painting) is that we’re given a partial view of the upper face of Saturn’s rings. The rings are thin, Titan and the rings orbit within the same plane (within a very small rounding error), and Titan’s radius (2576 km) is only around 0.2% of its distance from Saturn (1 222 000 km), ensuring that whenever Saturn is visible from Titan—and it won’t always be, with that atmospheric haze—those rings will appear as a razor-sharp line across Saturn’s equator, and will never be seen in an oblique view such as this. Such are the perils of depicting extraterrestrial landscapes.

I focus quite a lot, in my fiction, on Titan. I’ve set eleven completed short stories and one novella there, and I have more than that again in false starts and work awaiting completion. We currently know much more about some characteristics of Titan—its detailed atmospheric composition and structure, its topography, its mean surface temperature etc—than we did, seventy years ago, about Mars or Venus, and this provides some useful constraints on the types of stories that can be set there. On the other hand, there is a staggering amount we do not yet know. Much of Titan’s surface has only been radar-mapped at very low resolution, so there are likely to be significant surface features of which we’re currently ignorant. The detailed composition of its surface material, sampled (briefly) in one location by the short-lived Huygens probe, is not well established; the depths, and in some cases the boundaries, of its hydrocarbon lakes remain somewhat uncertain; the composition of its long belts of hydrocarbon sand dunes is ill-defined. Such details are unlikely to be well nailed down within the next decade, but may well be exhaustively addressed within the next two (contingent on outer-planet mission funding and the like), meaning that my Titan stories very probably have an intrinsic shelf life. Does this concern me? I can’t honestly say. I think it’s true to say I’d rather my Titan stories were accurate rather than fanciful, but I also know that there is something about Titan and its current status as an imperfectly-characterised world that I find intriguing in a fashion not offered by other settings. Maybe it’s that slow-burning falsifiability, meshing with my training as a research scientist: for, just as I have the opportunity to get wrong things about Titan that are not yet known, I also have the opportunity to get some of them right. I suppose we shall see.




2 responses

9 03 2018
Sue Bursztynski (@SueBursztynski)

Nobody can ever be sure that things that seemed like science when you wrote them won’t be proven wrong some time. You can only go with what you know now – and make sure that your readers care about your characters so that if your idea turns out to be wrong, your readers won’t care. Mary Shelley went with the science she knew. Okay, these days more people think of her as a horror novelist than the mother of SF, but they still read Frankenstein. I’ve recently reread some classic SF which had secretaries and typewriters in distant futures. Doesn’t matter to me. Be like Stephen Baxter. You care about his characters, you really do! Well, I do. If his fiction turns out to be wrong, I son’t Care.

9 03 2018

Well, yes. Obviously, the further into the future you’re trying to peer, the more certainly you’re going to get details wrong: eg 1950s far-future SF with monolithic tape-drive computers and not even the vaguest hint of the internet.

And of course all stories live or die by their characterisation. In that regard, Baxter isn’t a particularly good example from my perspective: I’m much more impressed by the characterisation of writers like Alastair Reynolds, Greg Egan, and Nancy Kress, who seem much better able to match memorable characterisation with inventive hard-SF speculation.

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