This is a guest post from Briane Pagel. You can find his blog here.
Writing Science Fiction When You Don’t Know Much About Science Is Like Baking Pizza When You Don’t Know Much About Science (Provided That The Pizza Is Actually A Discussion Of Society’s Use Of Pizza)
Science fiction writing might seem an odd choice for a lawyer whose grasp of scientific concepts can be summed up by pointing out that one of the essays I am most proud of is the one in which I proved velociraptors could never have existed. But in writing about science, or rather using science in my writing about other stuff, I don’t feel I need to know the technical details any more than I need to know what kind of tree pepperonis grow on to make a pizza. (It’s oak trees, right?)
I was never much of a science student in my school days. That failure to learn science as a kid in school continued unabated as an adult, although along the way I grew to like science more as it became less of an obligation for me. Once science was no longer “homework” I was able to just find it interesting without having to know all the math and engineering and etc ad nauseum actual scientists have to know. This made it almost fun to write about science. It’s AMAZING how easy it is to “do” science when you are unbound by the actual rigors of, you know, doing science. Which is why I like to write science fiction – emphasis on the fiction: I don’t need to know science to write about it, and I don’t need to worry about whether my inventions, such as they are, would work.
I am not a researcher. I am not a plotter or world-developer writer with carefully-worked-out societies set in stone before I begin that first chapter. Instead, I just write. I start out with a sort of vague concept and build on that, throwing in everything I can think of, figuring I’ll iron it out later. Among the things I might (or might not) “iron out” are the science-y bits I scatter across a book, like I did in Codes.
I don’t know the first thing about computer programming, or cloning, or the dozen other things that I threw into Codes as the ‘science’ around which the fiction happens. I didn’t, and don’t, need to, because Codes isn’t meant to teach people how to actually make a human being with a computer-programmed personality.
Codes began as a short story about a guy named Robbie discovering he was a clone, an idea I got from a comment left on my blog. That short story kept growing longer because I became fascinated thinking about first, what it might be like to suddenly realize that you are not 26 years old, or whatever, but instead only 90 days old, and that everything you’ve ever thought was just programmed into you. Then, second, while I thought about that (and kept writing about what was happening to Robbie) I began trying to decide what kind of world it would be where such a thing – or things – could exist. What would that look like?
Before long, the first draft was done, and alongside the codes, or cloned people, I had invented a civilization where human life is already being broken apart: there are “Free Girls,” a vaguely-defined category, with some people relegated to living in dorms. There were references to a sort of selection mechanism that lets some have a good life, while others eke out an existence on the fringes. There are, of course, giant corporations, because who else would engage in the type of expansive, expensive, science necessary to create new human beings? Which meant, too, that there would be a profit motive to doing so.
As I went back and revised the book, I tightened up the science a bit, trying to make it sound believable, but I did so solely for the fun of simply making up some science. I threw in some partially-remembered stuff from science class or articles I’d read, things that sounded good. I wasn’t trying to invent a code; I was just having fun while I kept making the story better, and while I more and more grappled with trying to figure out what was so fascinating to me about these code-clones and the world they lived in, a world I’d made up and yet didn’t quite know how to relate to. Drafts 2 and 3 had characters dealing with discrimination as codes and worked out ways the companies would profit from this tech, as well as the beneficial (or at least more benign) uses of such technology.
It was once the basic plot of the story was done that I began adding in the stuff that all great scifi does: asks questions about what kind of society we want, and what kind we have. Golden Fleece came up with the tagline Some questions deserve answers, and I think it’s fitting on so many levels, because really through the whole book I was constantly asking myself more and more questions: what would a person like Robbie think? What would he feel? What kind of a life would that be? What kind of a world? The answers to those questions can be found in Codes, or at least my answers to them – but you may have your own questions, and answers, after reading it and thinking about it.
I don’t have to know much about the hard science behind various advances to think about how they might impact our world. One doesn’t have to know how to gene splice to wonder if it’s a good thing that we can create humans in test tubes, or put spider DNA into tomatoes. Not long before I wrote Codes there was a US Supreme Court case – law meets science! – in which the Court held that you can’t patent a gene, and I read an article not long before that about an artist who was collecting random DNA from found objects and then using the DNA to create 3D portraits of the people whose DNA it was.
I didn’t know, as I was writing Codes, whether I was for or against those things. I’d like to think I own my genes and that any artist or corporation that used them for profit would be breaking some law, I guess. But I didn’t write Codes – or anything I’ve ever written – because I knew a lot about something and wanted to teach other people, or make a point, or anything like that. I wrote Codes because I wanted to tell a story, and it was only as the story evolved that I realized I was also talking about science and how it interacts with us. Even then, I didn’t put in a moral or warning or anything. I just thought about what it all might mean, from as many perspectives as possible.
Because I didn’t set out to make Codes a polemic, it wasn’t necessary that I actually understand how any of the science might work; to argue for or against a specific thing requires that you have a pretty good understanding of that thing; otherwise, you’re just a pulp-novel native arguing that pictures steal your soul. I’m not bogged down by either knowledge or the need to argue that genetic manipulation is a good, or bad, thing – and that’s for the best, as technology is rarely all good or all bad. There is only one thing I can think of that, when used for the only purpose it has, is evil: a gun. Every other piece of technology, from the stone ax on up to the split atom, can be harnessed for good or for evil.
It’s not the job of scientists, or of scifi writers, to condemn the science, but to consider how it might be used and whether we want to use it for those things. Scientists seem rarely to ever consider the latter question; even Oppenheimer didn’t pause to consider what he’d done, really, until after he’d exploded the bomb. Scifi writers are there to bring up the yeah but should we aspect of science.
I think sometimes a greater understanding of the science underpinning scifi hampers a truly creative imagining of how good, or how bad, that science might be. The science fiction that has made me think the most in my life has been that which has the least ‘hard’ science in it. This isn’t to take away from the Larry Nivens of the world; I’ve enjoyed their books. But there’s precious little “real science” in Stranger In A Strange Land, and that book has stuck with me all my life; I remember more of that than any three Niven books. Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep was similarly light on tech, but long on thinking about what it is that makes us human, especially after we have created things that think they are human.
When I first began writing, my creative writing teacher in the only class I ever took on writing said she subscribed to the theory that good writers write about the things they will never understand. That’s how I’ve always tried to do it. Writing about things you know inside and out ends up with a textbook. Writing about things you only imagine, or things you can’t truly comprehend, writing about the monsters and machines and men and women who make you scratch your head and say I’ve got to think about that a bit –that’s where the interesting stuff is. You don’t need to know why pizza is delicious to enjoy it, and knowing too much about it might limit your imagination as to what a pizza is – and limits are the antithesis of good writing.