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Science in Fiction

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to be on The Edge with Cassandre Dayne, a blog talk radio show. One of my friends asked a question, and while I answered it on Facebook, I’ve been thinking about it ever since and wanted to expand my response.

Here was the question:

“Question for Pembroke: How important is science education (like the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers) to science fiction writers? And how can good science make an impact in the horror genre as well?”

My response, in a nutshell, was that I think science education for both horror and science fiction is incredibly important. In our work, we authors have a chance to portray science in a fun and entertaining fashion, as well as being educational. By having correct science in a work of fiction, it could possibly get rid of some of the misinformation that exists in the real world.

However, I don’t think that authors are obligated to have correct science in their fiction. First and foremost, we are storytellers, and we should tell our stories in whatever fashion and form we want using whatever type of science (real or imaginary) we want. There should be a responsibility on the part of the reader to be informed about what is real science and what is fantasy.

There are authors who already incorporate real or plausible science into their stories, so this isn’t a new, groundbreaking area of writing, and I don’t want to make it sound like it is. But at the same time, I think that more can be done.

As I thought about this question, I thought about how to most people, science is incredibly boring. More often than not, it’s a scientist in a lab working on math equations or running samples through some machine and recording the results. Or it’s an astronomer looking at a computer screen and recording numbers of what they are looking at in space (rarely do they actually look through the eye piece at what is in the universe). Or it’s an anthropologist observing and recording the daily lives of another culture and how they survive.

The list goes on. The point is that science is pretty routine. It’s exciting for the people conducting it, but for the vast majority of the rest of us, it’s uneventful. Unless something goes wrong. When a creature is created or something comes from outer space or an ancient ritual threatens to destroy the world, that’s when science become exciting. That’s when it becomes sexy.

And that’s when it becomes the bad guy.

Honestly, I never really thought about how important the portrayal of science was in books and film until I attended the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers. And it was fascinating. In one week, I learned so many amazing and wonderful things about space that I hadn’t known before. I wanted to attend other workshops, including one about biology. I thought that would be amazing, and it would allow me to put real science into my zombie stories.

Even though I didn’t have a chance to attend any other workshops, I have the ability to do research and talk with professionals to make sure the science in my book is correct or at least plausible, and I try to do that more often in my stories. But this wasn’t always the case.

Coming from Nowhere, my science fiction book that was published in 2009, has no real science in it. But it was done several years before I attended the workshop. I knew that if something traveled faster than light all you would see was blackness outside the window, but that’s about where the real science ends. It’s been a little disconcerting for me, but I don’t think it distracts from the story. And my goal was to make the story entertaining.

My point is that as authors, we are in a unique position to enlighten readers with real science in our work. We have an opportunity to rid the world of scientific ignorance in a fun way. Again, I’m not saying we have to, but we can, and I think we should at least try.

While science can influence our stories, fiction can also influence science. Jules Verne was writing about scientific breakthroughs long before they came out. He predicted electric submarines, newscasts, solar sails, lunar modules, skywriting, videoconferencing, tasers, and a splashdown spaceship—and he was writing in the 1800s!

The Predator’s camouflage suit inspired invisibility cloaks to be made.

The hover bikes from Star Wars are being developed by the military.

When watching CSI, I am always amazed at some of the stuff they do in the lab to solve a crime. While it’s not realistic to think it would happen that fast, it’s amazing to think how things have advanced in forensic science. The use of DNA to solve crimes started in 1986, but has advanced since. Perhaps one day what we see on this TV show will happen in real forensic labs around the world.

Science is this incredibly amazing thing that influences are lives on a daily basis, but it is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. And a lot of that is because of how it is portrayed in fiction—both in the movies and in books. An opportunity exists to right these wrongs and make science cool again. I believe that we as authors should take it.

The what ifs are what make watching movies and reading books fun. They are also what makes writing books fun. Being able to escape is really what audiences are looking to do, and media gives us the ability to do that. A film/book doesn’t have to be scientifically correct to be entertaining (any of the Jurassic Park films, for example), but they also don’t have to perpetuate stereotypes either.

Science and fiction could work together. Together, they could influence the types of breakthroughs we have, and it could make people excited about learning. But to make it happen, we as authors have to be conscience about how we portray science and scientists in our work.