October 2022

Science fiction vs science in fiction

by Suw on October 31, 2022

Many years ago at a panel discussion featuring some awesome authors, I asked a question along the lines of, “Is there a difference between science fiction and fiction with science in it?” Unfortunately, the panel didn’t grasp the meaning of my question and it wasn’t addressed the way I had hoped.

Recently, as I finished reading Andy Weir’s The Martian and then Project Hail Mary, the question popped back into my head, still unanswered. When is fiction with science in it science fiction, and when is it… something else?

I saw film version of The Martian a while back and loved it. Then I heard a great interview with Weir (see Word Count 5) which reignited my interest in reading the book, so when I finally unpacked it, it shot straight to the top of my TBR list. And it is, indeed, a great book. Weir has a unique voice and the plot is an absolute classic of the ‘get your protagonist up a tree; throw stones at them; then get them down gracefully’* variety.

Project Hail Mary is very much in the same vein. An astronaut finds himself stranded in space, except this time, he’s not just fighting for his own survival but that of humanity. To up the stakes even more, humans aren’t the only species at risk.

What makes both The Martian and Project Hail Mary so fascinating to me, as a massive nerd, is the science. It’s easy to bludgeon people with technical exposition, but I never felt that from Weir. It’s more, “I need to do/stop this thing, and here’s why that’s tricky/important”. For me, it just adds an extra layer of interest that I really enjoy.

But quite a lot of science fiction doesn’t actually have any real science in it. Lots of it is what science could possibly achieve if we could just learn to bend the laws of physics a bit, and much more requires a different universe with completely different physics. But if it features the right tropes – space, aliens, exoplanets, technology, existential threats, etc – no matter how speculative or fundamentally science-free it is, it will still be seen as science fiction.

Some books with science in, The Martian and Project Hail Mary being good examples, feature enough of the right tropes to definitely be science fiction. Other books lack the tropes of science fiction and yet are dependent on science. How should we categorise them?

I’m thinking of books like Richard Doyle’s Flood, which Wikipedia categorises as a ‘disaster thriller’, but which is chock full of science of the meterological and climate varieties, and technical detail about how a major flood of London would actually play out. I remember back in 2002, when the book came out, Doyle had a website that detailed all of the technical specs and science that he’d based his novel on. He’d really done his research and by any definition that research included science. Indeed, Wikipedia says that Doyle ‘was considered an expert on matters related to climate change and the flooding of London. He was invited to the “London Under Water” lecture from the Royal Geographical Society’s “21st Century Challenges” series in June 2008.’

Doyle’s next book, Volcano, was similarly scientific, although this time the topic was more geological in nature. Now, admittedly, the research upon which he based his plot – the idea that La Palma’s Cumbre Vieja volcano has a crack running through it that will result in half the island one day sliding into the sea to create a megatsunami – has since been shown to be wrong. There is no giant crack and half the island will not slide into the sea. But Doyle didn’t know that when he wrote it, just a few years after the theory was posited in the now widely debunked paper by Steven Ward and Simon Day in 2001. Still, despite being science heavy, Volcano is classed as a thriller.

I’m sure a lot of people would argue that it doesn’t matter. Science can cut across genres and that’s a good thing. There are crime novels that feature lots of forensic science, pandemic novels that feature lots of virology and epidemiology, disaster novels that contain a lot of geohazard science.

But perhaps I care because ‘novels with science in’ are the kind of novels I like reading and writing. Argleton, Queen of the May, Disease X, they all have bits of science and tech in, but perhaps not enough to make them science fiction.

Perhaps I care because seeing ‘science’ and therefore ‘science fiction’ as only physics, engineering, technology, astrophysics, cosmology and extraterrestrial sciences restricts the format to male-dominated sciences, cutting women out of the genre by virtue of the sciences they are more likely to have studied and, therefore, the knowledge they are able to bring to the fictional table.

And perhaps I care because as our collective future unfolds, more and more of it is going to require science, and fiction is an amazing way to share knowledge and expertise. We need people to understand how this world works on a fundamental level and if we’re not putting that into our fiction then we’re missing an important sci-comms opportunity. Worse, we’re ceding ground to the misinformationmongers who are filling up people’s heads with antiscientific nonsense that results in actual misery and death (thanks, antivaxxers and climate deniers).

So I’d like to suggest a new genre, one that a book belongs in if it is based in scientific, technical, engineering, mathematical or medical fact, regardless of whether it’s nominally science fiction, thriller, utopian, crime, romance, chick lit, historic or any other genre.

World, please welcome the new genre of Sciency Fiction. I expect to see Amazon updating their categories forthwith.

* Paraphrased from Anonymous, 1897.

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Hi there,

Whilst Ada Lovelace Day itself is over, I still have some last bits of admin to do to tidy everything up. Soon, one way or another, I’ll be having a change of career. I have no idea what that’s going to look like yet, mind you.

I’ve already started doing basic prep for the short film project that’s heaving into view, but there are still a lot of open questions about what my long term career plan is. I am used to some level of uncertainty – you have to be, when you run your own business – but this is rather more than I usually experience. And I have to admit, it is a bit stressful, so please keep your fingers crossed that it all comes out in the wash!

Suw’s news: The Gates of Balawat update

I finally had time to go to the British Museum last week and get some photographs of the replica Gates of Balawat for the cover of my novelette of the same name. The real gates decomposed a long time ago, leaving behind only the bronze bands that tied the wooden planks together. Some of the bands are preserved at the British Museum, but they are behind glass in a very awkward corner and are difficult to photograph. The replicas look a lot more impressive, so they will be on the cover.

All I need to do now is design the cover, proof-read it all again and remind myself how to make an ebook, and then it will be yours to love and cherish!

Stop, look, listen: Draft Zero, Ep 92 – Insightful recognition in powerful endings

I do love discovering a new (to me) podcast and being blown away by the first episode I listen to. Draft Zero is hosted by screenwriters Chas Fisher and Stuart Willis, and like my other favourite writing podcasts it leans heavily into the how of writing.

In Ep 92, they talk about Aristotle’s concept of anagnorisis, that moment when “a character moves from ignorance to knowledge (particularly of self)”. They focus specifically on anagnorisis in film endings, analysing the final scenes of La La Land, Inception, No Country For Old Men and Turning Red.

I particularly liked their analysis of La La Land, which I absolutely loathed when I saw it (128 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back!). But after listening to Fisher and Willis talk about the way that the two main characters, Mia and Seb, each have their moments of anagnorisis, and how the audience also has their own opportunity to experience revelation, I might be persuaded to think differently. Possibly.

But more than that, this is a new concept that I need to think about within my own writing. Am I providing my key characters with anagnorisis? Do they have any opportunities to move from ignorance to self-knowledge? And, more importantly, can I now say anagnorisis?

Book review: The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

Having Covid a couple of months ago reminded me not just how much joy a good book brings, but how fast I can plough through one. Sometimes I’m temped to pick up a book, but think, “Oh, it’ll take too long”, forgetting that I can read stupidly quickly when motivated.

It’s a measure of how good The Midnight Library is that I sped through it in no time at all.

Nora’s life has been going from bad to worse. Then at the stroke of midnight on her last day on earth she finds herself transported to a library. There she is given the chance to undo her regrets and try out each of the other lives she might have lived. Which raises the ultimate question: with infinite choices, what is the best way to live?

Haig handles what could have been a clumsy premise with delicacy and empathy, exploring the nature of regret and self-forgiveness with genuine emotional depth. It’s a delight to see Nora grow more confident in herself as she confronts her regrets in her quest for a better life. Indeed, she experiences many moments of anagnorisis.

The cast of supporting characters, who could easily have become one-note cameos, develop real depth as we see different aspects of their personalities come to the fore in Nora’s different lives. Rather than being a series of tedious replays, each of Nora’s lives shines a different light on her character and illuminates not just the choices the people around her made, but their impact on her.

There’s a reason this book is a bestseller!

Grabbity in a box Obligatory cat picture

All cats love boxes, big cats and little cats alike. Grabbity adores boxes. She used to love reducing them to a pile of tiny bitesized pieces of cardboard, though she doesn’t bother with such shenanigans anymore. No, sitting in a box is all she needs to make her happy these days.

See you next week,

Suw

 

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Hi there,

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m slightly regretting saying that I’d be back to my normal weekly routine from this week. Ada Lovelace Day went very well last Tuesday and I got all my post-event admin done by lunchtime on Friday at which point I stuck the Out of Office on and kicked back.

Trouble is, I’m still knackered. Worse, I put together a little ‘to do’ list and it rapidly got out of hand and now has more stuff on it than I can feasibly get done in a week, even if I didn’t intend to spend at least a couple of days on the sofa with a good book. I think I might need to prioritise, which doesn’t feel very holiday-like, does it?

Events: Ri Fiction Lab

The Royal Institution has a book club! I’m not sure why this surprises me, but it does. It also looks awesome. November’s book is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which sounds like a fabulous read and is going right on my TBR list.

It’s the early 1960s and Chemist Elizabeth Zott is leading an all-male team at Hastings Research Institute who take a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans, the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with – of all things – her mind. True chemistry results.

Like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later, Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show: Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (‘combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride’) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

The Ri Fiction Lab is hosted by cell biologist Prof Jennifer Rohn of LabLit.com, a website curating lists of books, films, plays and TV shows that depict “realistic scientists as central characters” and portray “fairly realistic scientific practice or concepts, typically taking place in a realistic – as opposed to speculative or future – world”. I don’t think I’m ever going to need to ask friends for a book recommendation ever again.

You can join the Ri Fiction Lab discussion either in person or online at 19:00 on Monday 14 November.

Stop, look, listen: Nick Harkaway on making ideas happen

Ever had the germ of an idea but not quite known how to develop it into a Proper Story? In an extremely brief podcast episode, author Nick Harkawaytalks about The Origins Game, his way of starting to put flesh on the bones of an idea. Give it a listen – it will only take you three minutes.

Nick is one of my favourite authors, so if you like twisty books that rearrange the way you think, try Angelmaker, Tigerman, The Gone-Away World, and especially Gnomon (you’ll never look at sharks the same way again), plus the upcoming Titanium Noir. Honestly, it’s the most fun excerebration has ever been.

BBC Writers’ Room Open Call

The next BBC Writers’ Room submission window will open on Wednesday 9th November and close on Wednesday 7th December 2022 at noon.

I don’t have a new script to submit, so I’ll be skipping this one. I had thought about trying to whip something together, but I don’t think that would do me any good. Better to work on what I’m working on and submit when it’s ready than rushing things, especially as it’s not like I can devote much time over the next two months to a spec script.

Obligatory cat picture

Like, I suspect, many cat servants, I regularly wonder what on earth my cats are trying to tell me. Grabbity frequently yells at me and if I don’t give her what she wants, her Demanding Paw of Attention is deployed to smack me round the face or grab my hand to encourage me to pet her. I did start training her to use buttons to communicate when she wants brushing, but she found a shortcut and now just taps the brush with her paw. She knows what she wants and she’s learning how to get it.

Copurrnicus, on the other hand, is more enigmatic. For one, he doesn’t miaow and he doesn’t really use his voice to communicate with us humans – his various squeaks, meeps and prrps are mostly for Grabbity’s benefit (which is, btw, indicative of his feral background).

When he’s hungry, he doesn’t miaow, but resorts to what one might be tempted to call “naughty behaviour”. He’s not being naughty at all, he’s being very rational: He knows with absolutely certainty that scratching at the speaker fronts, the carpet, or the (very new) sofa will get our attention and attention is a requirement if he’s to then get food. I try not to reward those behaviours, and instead have been trying to work out what his precursors are, so that I can cut him off before he does things he shouldn’t.

It turns out that one of his key communications methods of an evening is to sit in front of the TV when he wants dinner. It’s quite smart when you think about it. He’s realised where the focus of our attention is and he’s worked out that if he positions himself between us and it, he can hijack that attention and let us know he’s peckish.

Hopefully, as he gets older and I get better at interpreting the signs, we’ll be able to entirely short-circuit his more damaging habits!

That’s it for this week.

All the best,

 

Suw

 

 

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Hi there,

Today is Ada Lovelace Day and I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work, so this newsletter is another short one. Back to normal next week though!

Suw’s news 1: Thank you for submitting your script!

Despite the vast amounts of prep required for Ada Lovelace Day, I managed to rewrite my pilot script and add in my B and C stories just in time to submit an application to the 2023 Channel 4 screenwriting course. There are only twelve places available, and they must get thousands of scripts, so my chances are low. They’ve said that if applicants don’t hear by 20 December, then we’re to assume we’ve not got in, so for the sake of managing expectations I’m going to skip straight to that assumption and not bother passing Go.

I’m getting quite good at assuming I’ll get a rejection, actually. So far, I’ve been right 100% of the time!

Suw’s news 2: Does that light… look a little greenish to you?

I’ve been working with a couple of friends on an idea for a short film that I’m really excited about. I’m going to spend some time this winter doing background interviews and working up the best ideas into a script. And, quite excitingly, it looks like we’ve secured a little funding!

This is the bit where I have to confess that I feel really quite uncomfortable talking about something that isn’t totally, completely and immovably nailed to the floor. I’ve always felt that talking about projects in their infancy is the kiss of death, because they would invariably fall over and then I’d look either gullible or delusional.

But there’s another way to view this: Whilst much of what we try, especially creatively, does not work out, there are always lessons to be learnt. And sharing our efforts, not just our successes, is an important way to learn about what works, what does not, and what part luck plays in all this.

So I’m swallowing my nerves and I’m going to talk about this project in more detail as we get going.

Obligatory cat picture

With the cooler nights come cuddlier cats. We’ve been snuggling under our fleecy blanket on the sofa with Grabbity and Copurrnicus, who have been curling up quite contentedly. Such scenes don’t often last long because Copurrnicus gets jealous and chase Grabbity off, but the other night they were both happy to share for the entire evening.

Right, that’s it for now! I look forward to getting back to my regular routine next week and getting this newsletter back up to steam!

All the best,

Suw

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