Why I Hate Science Fiction

I don’t have a very healthy relationship with works of fiction. This especially goes for science fiction. This broken relationship is at least as much a function of my personal defects as it is of poor effort on the part of other writers. My internal critic has a rapacious appetite and is an insomniac. It’s always there, weighing and judging. As I gain a more in-depth understanding of a subject or field, it becomes worse. Not only does the critic become engaged when I notice something is wrong, but also when something appears to maybe be wrong. The critic demands satisfaction, and spoiled by the relatively easy answers of the internet, an interruption and short search usually brings enough information to verify or allay suspicion. When it comes to technical subjects, the suspicion is almost always supported and the critic wonders why the writer didn’t do a little research.

This isn’t a story about a writer haunted by his inner critic. In that endeavor, the two of us get along quite well thank you very much. I don’t write quickly, but it isn’t because I sit paralyzed by fear of writing the wrong thing. I know what I’m writing is not going to be good enough and will need a lot of work. That acceptance makes it easy to push on when I don’t have the energy to sweat the details and fix the problems later when I’ve figured out how. It also gives me confidence that I know when I’m completely lost and digging in, doing research and figuring things out is the better than blindly continuing on.

Where the critic and I don’t get along is when we consume other people’s content. It gets the worst with science fiction, because quite frankly, writers don’t understand science or engineering. Even the few that have technical backgrounds don’t have a very broad educational base. As a result, there will be a glaring error in something fundamental to their story. It might be that they don’t consider the impact of a technology to more than one scientific discipline. If there’s a setting with meaningful technological divergence from the real world, I invariably find what I consider to be a glaring hole well before page 50 or a half hour of viewing or whatever.

I appreciate that an airtight story and implementation of theoretical technology is not possible. I also understand that our models of how the physical universe functions aren’t facts, but interpretations of reality based upon observations from a limited perspective. My critic usually doesn’t go too crazy until someone gets the science wrong in a way that obviously violates well-established observational data. I also understand that some science fiction writers don’t care about the science at all and that they’re interested in exploring the impact of a specific change on people. My problem with such a point of view is that one small change in a system never results in an isolated upset. The change, especially a dramatic change in a single parameter, will ripple through the societal ecosystem and have a wide range of effects.

There is the notion of the multiverse where there are an infinite number of possible universes. This notion is seriously debated by physicists, and many of them and I agree that there is a strong possibility that such a circumstance actually exists. This gets interpreted by many that anything is possible in those infinite universes. Not if all of those universes are predicated upon an environmental system with limited properties. What I’m getting at is that something can’t exist without support for it’s existence from the environment it sits in. A universe of floating human brains isn’t possible. One with floating objects that resemble human brains might be possible, depending upon the supporting elements and interactions present. The bottom line is that there might be an infinite number of possible universes, but they are a very small proportion of all of the conceivable universes. I like to think of it in a different way; there are an infinite number of possible universes, but for each possible universe there are an infinite number of impossible universes. Anything someone dreams up is going to be impossible. The question is how close to being possible is it?

I mostly deal with my problem by consuming as little science fiction as possible, thinking about how I’d fix what has been produced and by complaining to the unfortunate woman whose judgement lapsed enough to marry me. I appreciate that no story is perfect, so I’ve taken a stance of not demonstrating what my critic would do to another author’s story. PHYSIC is nowhere near perfect. I realize that. I made trade-offs between realism and what I wanted to do with the story or was otherwise expedient for finishing the project. I also made choices in story telling style to provide a very specific and unusual perspective on the world. Then I tried to let technology dictate the plot. Amazingly, it worked out, probably better than arbitrary dramatic decisions on my part would have. Of course, it’s possible that my dramatic sense may have led to a complete disaster. Maybe PHYSIC is a disaster as currently written.

The kind of science fiction I have the least patience for is space opera. Too much evidence suggests that robots will be far better space explorers than humans. AI is improving much more quickly than our ability to build artificial ecosystems to support human life. Humans will at best be cargo, or something to be built upon arrival at the destination. The majority probably won’t let go of the dream of spam in a can in space until costs and fatal accidents spiral out of control.

It would seem that I would be the perfect audience for The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s a story about a mission to Mars going horribly wrong and places significant focus on the technical aspects of survival in such a situation. Against my better judgement, I decided to give it a look. I wasn’t pleasantly surprised to say the least. Normally, I would vent about how poorly thought out it was to poor Katherine over an indeterminate period of time, possibly years, who knows. This is why I avoid science fiction, even though I like speculating about the future a lot. My dissatisfaction with science fiction is probably why I felt compelled to write PHYSIC.

I’ve decided that The Martian is in many ways attempting to be what PHYSIC is, though it’s probably more fair to say that PHYSIC is a different attempt at what The Martian failed at being. As Katherine said the first time she read all of the way through PHYSIC, there’s a lot of science. I wrote what I’d like to read; one part popular science, one part science fiction. Maybe I’m not qualified to write either, so I’m trying to pretend to write both and neither. What I am qualified to do is to patch some of the faulty science in The Martian, so that’s what I’m going to try and do. I won’t be just pointing out what’s wrong. I will explain the specifics of fixing what’s broken, though I won’t be plagiarizing the text and fixing it. I often complain that Hollywood spends hundreds of millions of dollars on science fiction movies and little to nothing on science consultants that are either incompetent or ignored. I’m going to put my CV out there by coming up with undisruptive fixes for The Martian for free. I’m not sure how much patience I’ll have for the exercise, though. I’m nearing the end of the first full draft of PHYSICa, the sequel to PHYSIC. We’ll see what happens. At the very least, I’ll fix some fundamental science mistakes Weir makes early in the text.

4 thoughts on “Why I Hate Science Fiction

  1. Mike

    “There is the notion of the multiverse where there are an infinite number of possible universes. This notion is seriously debated by physicists, and many of them and I agree that there is a strong possibility that such a circumstance actually exists.”

    The “multiverse” is a completely absurd idea. It’s faith-based fantasy dressed up in sciencese. To use “the multiverse”–a completely untestable idea–as an explanation for the mysteries of our universe is comparable to saying “God did it.”

  2. James

    What you’re really saying is that you hate Soft Sci-fi and prefer Hard Sci-fi. The latter focuses on the technology and scientific accuracy, rather than the story, whereas Soft Sci-fi, like any action, adventure, fantasy movie you care to name, is focused solely on the story and characters.

  3. enabity Post author


    Sorry that I missed your post.

    Even from the perspective that there is one and only one universe in all of existence and we’re in it, the fundamental behavior of our universe as we have measured it suggests that there are effectively random events occurring because of the limited precision of our reality and nonlinear systems that require more precision to be predictable than our reality seems to contain. This strongly suggests that while we may be in a deterministic system, it is not possible to know the outcome ahead of time without running the system.

    From this, it is reasonable to suggest, at the very minimum, that a universe that started in the same state as our universe did could have turned out in this moment to be in any one of an infinite number of states. This doesn’t require more than one universe. Only one universe that behaves like ours appears to. Some might over-assert this reasonable speculation as fact, but it is an interesting and reasonable speculation. Also, there is nothing wrong about hypothesizing what is outside our universe, because we may very well figure out how to test such a hypothesis at some point going forward, or it might help us to conceive of a model that better fits our universe than a model explicitly drawn from observation. The theory of relativity was conceived based upon speculation. It was not a product of observation, but it did predict yet unobserved phenomena.

    My actual point was that even though there are potentially an infinite number of states that our universe could have arrived at in this moment, that does not mean that any randomly selected outcome could have occurred. There are more impossible outcomes than possible outcomes for a non-linear system that is governed by significant physical limitations. Yet, people regularly take license with the unknowability of the universe to assert fanciful nonsense.

  4. enabity Post author


    No. I’m asserting that my overactive mind doesn’t get along with science fiction. There are limits to what any one given person can know about a subject, and most who write fiction know very little about any subject.

    I will poke at a hard science fiction title (other than The Martian, which is full of problems) as another example. I had serious problems with Rainbow’s End, because while Verner Vinge, a physicist, may have consulted someone with expertise in the physiology and genetics of viruses, he still demonstrated a complete lack of understanding about what would make a good vector for his preposterous mind control virus.

    There are cases in nature of parasites guiding host behavior, but then we would be talking about mold and ants. Using a simpler organism to attack a much more complex host with more complex behavior is not going to work well unless you’re super crafty, which Vernor was not. He chose a foreign virus that infects protozoa, I’m not sure which species off-hand. This is where he truly screwed up.

    He wanted a large virus, and I’m quite sure it was a retrovirus, which writes its way into the host’s DNA. This is actually a tool that is used for genetic engineering, and makes sense for this scenario. However, by choosing a virus from a foreign organism as his capsule, he almost guaranteed that if it were successful, it would be virulently deadly. His ignorance on this angle is very clear when he suggested that a “successful” virus kills its host. This is patently not true.

    The most successful human residing virus is Human Cyto-Megalo Virus. Your chance of contracting it by age 80 as a human is nearly 100%. It is a very large retrovirus, and it doesn’t usually make its host sick at all, though some people suffer from mononucleosis when they have this virus and their immune system gets a little bit behind. HCMV is the definition of a successful parasite. It has evolved to coexist with the host (unlike a protist virus inhabiting a human), and HCMV or a similar virus would have been a better choice as the vector in Rainbow’s End. He quite literally made one of the worst choices possible, though HCMV would have challenges as well. There would be issues with hosts already having antigens to fight the virus because they had normal HCMV or were already exposed to it. However, most young people in technologically advanced countries haven’t been exposed and are susceptible.

    The point is, this is what I do. I’m by no means perfect, but I find problems like this constantly. It happens as I’m envisioning the situation in my head. Usually, it’s a writer that’s completely out of their depth (non-science fiction writers get all kinds of everyday things wrong, especially with weapons technology). In some cases, I might have a difference of opinion and an interesting conversation could be had about the science or technology. It might be interesting to know if Vernor got consulting for Rainbow’s End, how much and from whom.


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