NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Failure of the Imagination

Quick blog post since I am running behind...

Stellarcon 35 was this weekend in High Point, NC.  Yours truly was a science guest, and had a chance to talk about the good and bad with respect to the science that gets written into Science Fiction.

However, I am proudest of the panel I moderated in which I (hopefully) spoke the least:  It was Science vs. Story, and featured Toni Weisskopf, Publisher of Baen Books; Gray Rinehart, engineer, writer and "Slushmaster General" of Baen Books; and Christina Ellis, writer and chemical engineer.  We talked about the Science in SF, how for many people, the very appeal of SF is the way it incorporated *real* science into a story and fired the imagination.

Questions and discussion started with how and whether a scientific "infodump" enhances or detracts from a story - does it add credibility?  Or does it jar the reader loose from the story?  Toni Weisskopf and the panel felt that scientific detail which *advances* a story is a good thing, and harkens back to the works of Campbell, Asimov, de Camp, Heinlein, Clements - who never shied from including the real science in their stories.   Audience members concurred, including those with no scientific background who affirm that reading about something in a good story is often a good way to increase knowledge.  Toni continued that SF really doesn't have *enough* of the hard science adventure that it once did.

Up next, we discussed the difference in writing mindset and style between scientific/technical writing and writing fiction.  The best fiction is written in an active voice that draws the reader in, precise technical writing is passive, dry and often in past tense.  The two styles have their place, but rare is the writer who can do *both* at the same time.  Notably, I myself find that I can write science, or fiction, but cannot intermix the two - writing fiction requires that I stop all scientific writing and write only the fiction until complete, then resume the science.  [Here's hoping this blog will prove me wrong.]  Gray Rinehart concurred that there are different mindsets, but there*are* authors who can both entertain with precision, and it is a hallmark of *good* writing that it can be hard to find the difference when reading a good writer.

I next asked Christiana Ellis how she applies her engineering/scientific background in writing fantasy.  Her great answer - even magic has rules.  A good engineer knows that consistency is important, and a good writer knows that inconsistency in the details - whether science or magic - will lose a reader. Discussion continued with ways SF/F gets its science right and wrong, and whether the science even needs to be stated, as long as the author has it worked out and applies it consistently throughout the story.  For a reader, sometimes *not* knowing the science is more fun, as long as the reader knows the science is there and has clues to figure it out.  (Star Trek communicators, anyone?)

We included questions from the audience throughout the panel, but set aside enough time for people to ask specific questions.  I was most struck by the following:  At the time of the Apollo Lunar Landing in 1969, an SF writer was asked "What they would now write?" (Since space travel had been accomplished).  The questioner asked whether we were limiting our writers with all of Science's modern findings - after all, we now know there are no jungles on Venus or canals on Mars!   Among much great discussion, it was stated that it seems much of modern SF has turned inward, but Toni Weisskopf feels that trend is turning around, and we will see more of the "hard" SF and faithful science which brought many of us to the fields of both science and writing.

I was struck by both the direction of conversation, and the parallel with the Apollo program.  I recalled the testimony of Astronaut Frank Borman to the U.S. Congress regarding the fire in the Apollo 1 capsule which took the lives of astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee.  I closed the panel with Borman's words when asked what had caused the tragedy.  Borman simply answered:

"Failure of the Imagination."

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