Putting The Science In Fiction edited/co-written by Dan Koboldt (book review).

I do think that there should be more books like ‘Putting The Science In Fiction’ about. Not just covering the sciences, but popular mistakes that are compounded in fiction, especially films and TV programmes. Think of elevators/lifts and being able to climb onto the roofs from the inside. Total myth has become a lazy trope in stories because other writers use it. I’ve criticised American films and shows for getting medical knowledge wrong a lot if not most of the time and it’s either the writers or directors not checking if their information is correct. You certainly wouldn’t use their information to save a life.

With ‘Putting The Science In Fiction’, editor/co-writer Dan Koboldt and his fellow scientists from across the world here want to give you the proper science. Although this book is 3 years old, it’s still valid, although I would hope it gets a regular update. If you’re writing Science Fiction, this should be a necessary read and well-worn on your bookshelf. Koboldt also runs a blog on the subject at http://dankoboldt.com/blog/

There are 8 sections, covering medical to other topical science subjects and each looks at all manner of subjects correcting mistakes with the right information and where fiction goes wrong. I wish they gave more bad examples, but that’s a mote point although looking at the mini-biographies, most are SF fans or writers themselves, even if I don’t recognise their names. In the introduction, Chuck Wendig reinforces this, pointing out that writers are told to write what they know and SF clearly extends way beyond that.

I would have to contest that as there are a lot of SF authors who have backgrounds in science. In the Golden Age, it was the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and there are still a few like David Brin and Gregory Benford today, all from science backgrounds. There is an argument that only scientists should write SF but, really, it just means a lot more research in getting the known science right and asking people the right questions, and using the right information known to that date in time.

There are plenty of SF stories that become dated with new scientific knowledge, but that’s par for the course. Even Asimov acknowledged what with some of his short stories. Equally, futuristic tropes are employed to get over obstacles we have today or we would never have faster-than-light travel, although writers like me do juggle with the repercussions and things that can go wrong or not considered when doing such things.

All of this and I haven’t gotten to this book yet. Actually, I have. My introduction above is after reading 60 pages and being in tune with this book and only looking at medical research. There is an emphasis on asking experts for their knowledge on a particular subject by Eric Primm, although not really how. I would be inclined to do the book research first and approach the authors of these science books first with specific questions about things you didn’t understand or want elaboration on.

I’ve always been good at asking probing questions, but I’ve been told I’ve got a good grasp of subjects that I read. If you haven’t got the natural knack, then you have to learn how to do it. No one says it is easy, but it is part of the background of being a writer. You also have to be flexible enough to change your plot based on the proper knowledge you get. Personally, I find it easier to work out from the real knowledge than having the plot first.

I do agree with Primm that the depiction of science being shown on film and TV jumps across the time it takes to get tests and experiments done, which gives a false impression, but there’s always been time shortening needed to get things done. If fictional life followed our reality, you would also have a problem with what do the characters do in the meantime while other things are processed. Story plots like to centre on the particular subject rather than distract the reader.

Let’s pick out nuggets. Karyne Norton looks at medical misconceptions and with resuscitation pointing out heart over mouth-to-mouth as the body should have enough oxygen in it. When I was hospitalised with pneumonia over 20 years ago now, I saw in a split in the curtains a man being given electrical resuscitation and was surprised seeing the electrical flash when they were using their equipment but it explained why they put a metal plate under the patient but rarely shown in medical dramas.

Although this book covers a lot of mental health issues, it moves on to other topics. Interestingly, Robinne Weiss discussing why you can’t have giant insects describes the Square-Cube Law in all but name.

It isn’t until it gets to wolves, that there are mentions of books where mistakes are made. If anything, I wish more examples were given as, if anything, it would be on your list of books to avoid than perpetuate mistakes. I think one reason this happens is the assumption assumption that other writers do the research, not to be lax. If ever there is one lesson you get from this book, learn it. Rely on current research.

I’m less inclined to believe Brie Paddock about Hoth from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ as being the first time there was an ice planet in Science Fiction, simply because of the original ‘Star Trek’ third season episode, ‘All Our Yesterdays’. Even the original 1951 film, ‘The Thing From Another World’, albeit set in the Arctic, must have set a similar impression.

If you want a real stir, Danna Staal points out that octopuses only have two tentacles and six arms. That should have many of you running to your textbooks. Just count the number of suckers on each of them. Again, I think writers fall under the cloud of generalisation than giving a biology class to their readers, more so as I remember some writers using both names but not necessarily what the reader remembers.

We should be on home turf with computer-tech, although it is TV and films that speed through this faster than getting results from a forensics lab. On one level, you want to show the viewer something that you can do on a computer, albeit something illegal, but not enough so they can copy it readily. I think there is a necessity to show from time to time it isn’t always easy and mistakes are made and not make it a perfect world.

For the SF writer, it also becomes a lot tougher to stay way ahead of improvements that happen every 18 months against the two years or more it takes for a novel to be written and published. As with all the information given in this book, you apply the knowledge you learn and the reader will infer that you know what you’re about. Computer science and software are always jumping ahead, so if you come up with advanced, I would say jump further ahead on size and power requirements.

Benjamin C. Kinney’s look at cyborgs centres mostly on making the nerve connection between the brain and robotics than the problems of carrying a potentially heavy prosthesis, let alone making it possible to do superhuman things. If you compare Steve Austin running to some of the disabled sprinters running, it is those blades that give them springiness to bounce along that literally give them the edge (sic). I think I might argue over whether it is possible to cybernetically link a human to a spacecraft to run it, mostly from the point of view of equating function to what it equates to in the human body. Some elements, like navigation, don’t really need a cybernetic link, just a screen and a keyboard as it’s a lot faster and easier to double-check.

Abby Goldsmith’s look at CGI and how the five areas of specialised expertise are divided up should be a salutary reminder that no one can be an expert at everything. I think the endless credit list at the ends of films would be explanation enough on the subject. She also adds that it doesn’t pay as well as it should for the hours put in. I think I would argue that there is still room for the individual computer programmer on non-CGI projects on specialised scientific programs which is what I did for several years although I totally agree that it stays more than a few hours to write and test them.

Judy L. Mohr raises the problems of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck and how you can interact with holograms that are simply 3D light images. Strictly speaking, the name ‘holodeck’ is a bit of a misnomer as it is solid based on transporter technology that can synthesise food and drink on a larger scale and then disassemble it after use than being purely hologram. I think she would have a bigger argument addressing Rimmer’s solidness being hard light in ‘Red Dwarf’.

K.E. Lanning’s look at climate change gives a small list of SF novels focusing on the subject, although the latest was written in 2013. It’s also one of the slimmest chapters. Although I’m looking at the subject in my December article, I should point out for SF it needs more than pointing it out but more a look at the consequences of certain actions just to test the scenario. This is something the scientists do, but they don’t get down to personal levels as a writer does.

Gwen C. Katz looking at how materials age has some validity, although I wish she looked at more materials recording information. I have to confess I have tried none of my cassette tapes lately, but that’s more down to lack of machine. I think the local weather would have some say in the time paper would last, not to mention its acid content. Equally, I would be curious about the durability of CDs, DVDs and hard drives. I would think the traditional hard drive has a longer life than a solid-state version. I’m giving some emphasis on this here because, in the event of a global warming meltdown, these will be the information sources for future generations.

Jamie Krakover goes over 9 myths related to space. One thing that left me pondering is explosions in space in the absence of oxygen in space battles for a change. I think I would contest this as spacecraft contains oxygen in a contained area to keep the crew alive and certainly the rocket fuel must contain oxygen if they are to burn any in manoeuvring. Creating gravity in spacecraft has to come from rotating a segment for the crew. The usual solution offered in shows like ‘Star Trek’ to be economical with wires is to have a heavy mass to draw things downwards than rotation but you have to wonder what the material is and how much of it you need for it to happen or do you have this material under each floor.

Gareth D Jones’ comment on waste in spaceships ignores one thing. Granted, we would encourage recycling but in the likes of ‘Star Wars’, he isn’t considering how much new material is being brought on-board and humans simply don’t change and are wasteful. To be fair to ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ onwards, their replicator technology must ensure recycling, although even Star Fleet officers complained they rarely ate the original food anymore.

Jim Gotaas looks at the various ways to go faster-than-light, acknowledging ‘Babylon 5’s technique as being good. Oddly, he doesn’t look at inertialess drives or whether spacecraft can or should orientate their floors differently, dependent on thrust.

There’s no need to deny I’m an advocate of doing the right research when writing a story. I would think there is a need for a regular update or even more books pointing out not only the mistakes some authors have made but also those who get their science right, let alone history, when dealing with time travel. However, there is also a need to look at what the reader remembers from a story as well. There are ways to put over information so it informs but not insidiously with detailed time-outs, which is a balance for good storytelling.

The length of this review should mark my enthusiasm for this book and I’m commenting on pieces where I am mostly agreeing or adding details or seeing something that I might ask further questions about. As a Science Fiction writer, you have to be prepared to ask the right questions and make sense of the answers. If you can walk away from this book that way and know the current answers to many subjects, then you’ll improve your skill.

GF Willmetts

November 2021

(pub: Writers Digest Books, 2018. 263 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: I pulled my copy for about: £12.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4403-5338-3)

check out website: www.WritersDigest.com

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