Our second guest post for Sci-Fi month is from Dawn Napier. Dawn is the author of several fantasy books, including the Many Kingdoms series. She has a science fiction book coming out soon, and was happy to contribute to Sci-Fi & Scary. Find out more about Dawn at the end of this post. We present:
The “Science” of Science Fiction
by Dawn Napier
Science fiction is in my opinion the most eclectic and thought-provoking genre in human history. While fantasy shows us monsters and creatures that have never existed outside our imaginations, science fiction shows us things that could happen. Fantasy sings, “What if horses could fly?” Science fiction wonders, “What is the socioeconomic impact of flying horses? What would it mean to Earth’s gravity, our farming industry, to the future of the planet? What does it all mean?” Science fiction is, to borrow a slang term from my parents’ generation, “heavy.” It examines possible futures and asks the child’s eternal question, “And then what happens?”
You would think, then, that science fiction stories with technology that has been thoroughly debunked would be of little or no interest to readers. Why read a story about life on Venus or Mars when science has thoroughly proven that life on these worlds is impossible? What’s the appeal of a story like Journey to the Center of the Earth? We know now what’s down there, and it’s not an ancient civilization. So why are these stories still in print, still being read, even being taught and discussed in schools?
To answer this question, we need to examine each story in its entirety. A human being is more than meat, bones, and water. A science fiction story is more than robots, space ships, and samurai swords made of light. You have to go deep and find the story’s soul. Let’s take a look at what I mean by dissecting a few of my personal favorites.
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells is compelling, thought-provoking, and utterly impossible. There may have once been life forms on Mars, but they were not sentient and did not travel in cylindrical contraptions. Mars’ red color is from the iron oxide in its sandy surface, not a slimy, invasive weed. Furthermore, if such creatures did invade, our modern weapons of war would make short work of them. It’s been a long time since our ultimate weapon was an ironclad warship.
So why is it still such an amazing story? Why is it still being adapted into movies and video games, over a century after its publication? My son read it for literature class last year, and for a week afterwards I found doodles of warships and tripods all over his notebooks. Despite its dated subject matter, it continues to capture and entrance the imagination.
The plot of War of the Worlds may be dated, but its theme is as timeless as Mars itself. A foreign intelligence invades Earth, destroying its population with superior weaponry and metal machines. there is no attempt to communicate or negotiate; the Martians walk in assuming that Earth people are mere animals to be exterminated. “This is ours now,” is the sum of their communication.
Does this sound familiar? It should. Wells was a highly political writer, and he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion of issues like socialism and colonialism in print. Most of what he says about the relationship between Martians and Earthlings can be applied to Europeans and Native Americans. Or Europeans and Indians. Or Europeans and…
(Anyone who’s been following the news knows that this isn’t a dead issue, either. The fight between the US government and the Native tribes over the Dakota Pipeline makes this abundantly clear.)
On a similar technological track but a different theme is Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece, The Martian Chronicles. This is a collection of short stories that paint a beautiful but disturbing picture of life on Mars and how Earthling astronauts discover and interact with them. The Martians are similar to Earthlings but just different enough to create a conflict that proves insurmountable. They are telepathic, but their ability to communicate mind to mind with Earth people does not save them from their own prejudices and misconceptions. The Martians ignore, imprison, and even murder the Earthlings as they arrive: not out of malice or greed but out of expedience. They simply don’t want to be bothered. But their isolation becomes their undoing when the humans accidentally infect them with chicken pox, a simple disease against which they have no natural defense. For the remainder of the book the planet Mars is haunted by the ghosts of the society Earth inadvertently destroyed.
Fascism is like a virus. Even well-meaning people can carry it and spread it if they aren’t sufficiently educated and aware of the symptoms. Could the chicken pox pandemic been prevented if the Martians had been more communicative, if they had tried to learn about the Earth visitors instead of dismissing them as madmen or hallucinations? We’ll never know.
Bradbury’s Martians are a mirror image of Wells’ invaders. Instead of aggressively acquisitive, they are aggressively isolationist, but in both cases they fall prey to creatures they consider beneath their notice. And in both cases the instrument of their destruction is something so insignificant they literally can’t even see it.
If one sets aside the nuts and bolts of the science fiction, it’s easy to see why stories like War of the Worlds and The Martian Chronicles retain such universal appeal. Both types of Martian hold up a mirror to humanity, exposing an unlovely aspect of our own natures.
I venture to suggest that in the world of science fiction, the technology—the space ships, nanomachines, and sentient robots—are merely the vehicle for the story, not the story itself. To say that science fiction is about technology would be like saying that traveling the world is about going on a plane ride. Science is the setting used to move the story; it is not the story itself.
This might explain why some of the most bizarre and scientifically impossible feats of technology are forgiven by so many science fiction fans. Time travel is, as far as we can tell, physically impossible. It might be possible to bend time, such as around the rims of black holes, but simply hopping from century to century with the push of a button and a cool “whoosh-whoosh” noise can’t happen in the real world. But if you point this out to a fan of Doctor Who, Star Trek, or any number of space opera novels, you’ll get a dismissive wave of the hand. “That’s not the point,” they say.
And it’s not. The writer of a Doctor Who episode isn’t trying to deconstruct Einstein. He’s trying to tell you something about the future, or the past. Time travel is the tool used to tell the story, like the hammer one uses to build a shelf or a table. As long as the nails go in and the structure stands up, who cares what the carpenter used to build it?
The Martians of Wells’ hard-eyed social commentary and Bradbury’s colorful imagination are physically impossible. Probes and rovers have crawled all over Mars and have dug up nothing more advanced than permafrost. But if you sit down and crack open one of those books, it won’t matter. Time travel is physically impossible, but HG Wells can still send you back to a world just before the turn of the 19th century, when our neighboring planets were tantalizing mysteries potentially teeming with strange life. Faster than light travel is physically impossible (for now), but Ray Bradbury can still send you whirling into the sky to explore a beautiful, doomed civilization filled with people so like us that it killed them.
Science fiction is a genre that deals with technology, the future, and human progress. But the purpose of every story, regardless of genre, is to tell a good story. One that shows the reader familiar characters in a familiar world, with behaviors that make the reader think, “I know exactly how that feels.” It doesn’t matter if the plot is about one-celled slugs from the center of the sun, if those slugs behave in such a way that makes us think of familiar human foibles—or, alternately, brings out some innate human trait in the Earthlings they interact with. Literary elitists may bemoan “wrong science” or “space magic,” but readers of genre fiction will gobble it up like popcorn.
Do you have a science fiction story in mind that you’re afraid to write, because you think it’s too silly or not realistic? Forget that. Just write. I wrote a novel about werewolves in space, and it took me three years to finish because the self-doubt was murdering my soul. I never thought it would be accepted or published; I only wrote it so that I could say that I had. Long story short: Star Pack is coming out in December.
Write the story you want to write, and make it about people who feel real to you. Keep the technology as realistic as possible, but only as it serves the story. If you stay true to your vision, and put that vision into your characters and story, everything else will fall into place.
Dawn Napier’s Bio:
I am a post-thirties married mother of three. I am a prolific author of horror and dark fantasy, and my first science fiction novel, Star Pack, is coming out December 16, 2016. When I’m not writing or throwing myself at the Internet in search of fame and fortune (mostly fortune) I home school my children, hike with my dogs, and snuggle with my herd of guinea pigs.
Links of Interest
The universe, some say, is so big that anything one can imagine is likely to be true somewhere.
The people of Garou were once cursed with an affliction that warped their minds and tortured their bodies when the full moon rose in the sky. Centuries later that curse has become a blessing; the shape-shifting hunters have learned to get along with the inner wolf rather than battle it to the death. But they remember, and they teach their young to always respect their instincts. The wolf’s power has been harnessed, but it can never be tamed.
The hunters have reached the stars, with the help of a remarkable mineral called the leap gem. Across the galaxy they travel, collecting scientific wisdom and harnessing the natural resources of the worlds they discover. When they discover a distant planet with gravity and oxygen similar to their own, it looks like a world ready-made for conquest. Mirra, the youngest star captain in history and possibly the most ambitious, leads her pack to the surface with the expectation of mastering and owning this new world.
She names it Otsanda, the She-Wolf.
But there are a few surprises waiting for her and her crew. The first is that the world is already inhabited by intelligent creatures, making it unfit for colonization, to Mirra’s bitter disappointment.
The second is that the two-legged inhabitants bear a striking resemblance to the Garou hunters themselves. The resemblance is so close, in fact, that the science officers wonder if the two species could be related. But that’s impossible.
The third surprise is that the natives seem to know all about the hunters. They scare each other with stories about them, about their moonlit curse and their bloodthirsty past.
They call them “werewolves.”