The Secret to Science Fiction

Sunday , 20, April 2014 5 Comments

H. Beam Piper in his Infamous Gunroom

H. Beam Piper — a man so versed in science he could sketch out, on a napkin, an engineering model of Sputnik the day it was announced, and explain it to a table of science enthusiasts — quit near-future science fiction. He did it because the scientific advances of the 1950s were coming so quickly that much of the knowledge he used for his stories felt obsolete to him by the time the magazines went to print. He was fed up with his guesses going bad so quickly like so much produce. That was 60 years ago. Has the world slowed down since then?

Jeff Sutton’s Apollo at Go suffered the opposite fate: because the NASA missions were so heavily engineered, and Sutton an engineer doing work for NASA…his 1965 “science fiction” book about the first moon landing that would happen in real life four years later now reads more like alternate history, and only a slight alternate at that.

Now, I still love climbing into the capsule with Sutton and setting off on my own moon missions, and without Piper’s near-future authorial despair, we wouldn’t have the pleasures of his far-future–and more famous–Paratime concepts.

But the challenge of the near-future accuracy problem persists to this day. Whether it is Hugh Howey’s Dust (whose setting seems–at times–to be a soft satire of early 21st century corporate culture)  or Andy Wier’s The Martian (which relies on a near present-day NASA committed to space colonization. No, it is not a satire.), every sf book that risks foretelling the near future, risks not only getting it wrong, but getting it wrong awfully fast. In fact, an author who doesn’t make at least a few failed predictions probably isn’t trying very hard.

It doesn’t take very long before a new discovery is made or a real-world bureaucracy jukes when a book was expecting it to jive when dealing with near-future science fiction.

But even a child knows that there are no oceans on Venus, and yet hoary old Perelandra outsells the far more accurate attempt to portray the planet in Ben Bova’s Venus (The Grand Tour). The seemingly well-grounded (at the time, at least as far as pop science goes) science of The Grand Tour began to shake apart within months of its publication, when the scientific disputes regarding the Kyoto treaty began to leak into the general culture.

Both books took place in the relative “near” future, but only one endured very well much past its publication date…but it was the one that failed to capture the reality of Venus the most which is considered a classic.

I wonder: the key qualifier of all science fiction may be that the subject matter must have at least one scientific concept that is integral to the plot…but maybe in order to really succeed, the science must also be secondary to the book’s real spirit.

Science is the significant but necessarily expendable second stage rocket of science fiction. Science fiction that endures – that carries significant ideas forward, must have a solid scientific concept for its vehicle…and also must be able to survive beyond the transient scientific knowledge it relies upon for lift. The key to the near-future is not necessarily accuracy, but honesty; not necessarily great guessing, but great nearness.

Additional: A fun little employee newsletter article on H. Beam Piper, security guard and minor railroad celebrity.

  • Jill says:

    And then you have those oddities, such as Phillip K. Dick, who was clearly insane, but had uncanny predictions about the future. Most sci fi writers just plunge ahead and get things wrong or a little off, though. And you’re right–it’s the solidity of a scientific concept combined with greatness of story. Oh, man, this is why I love sci fi. Great article.

  • Mike M. says:

    Reading this, I think of David Feintuch’s Seafort Saga. The science was absolute garbage…but it’s a falsework, around which Feintuch created a character study. And a tale of a man who did terrible deeds out of necessity…and paid a price for it.

  • slamdunks says:

    Interesting topic Daniel.

    I don’t enjoy Bradbury’s “The Long Rain” any less because there are no rain forests on Venus. I don’t dislike “All Summer in a Day” because seeing the sun on Venus for one hour every 7 years is untrue.

    I do like that Bradbury wrote these two stories in the 1950s based on educated guesses of the time.

    He was honest (as you state), then he captured my attention with a great plot and well-developed characters. Even 60 years later, these works are interesting to me.

  • Daniel says:

    I’m glad you brought up Dick, Jill. I’ve been reading his exegesis and will take a first pass at it in a few weeks from now.

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