How Realistic Should Sci-Fi Be?

Illustration for article titled How Realistic Should Sci-Fi Be?

Should science fiction make more of an effort to keep up-to-date with science fact? As part of the UK's National Science and Engineering Week, that's the question that the BBC asked four well-known SF authors.

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Unsurprisingly, none of the writers involved - Paul Cornell, Iain (M.) Banks, Ken MacLeod and Ian Watson - feel constrained by real-world science, but all acknowledge that it's worth being somewhat aware of what's happening. Cornell sees it as a war between factions within the SF community... for good reason:

The mundane movement is challenging writers to drop ideas that once promised to be scientific ones, but are now considered as fantasy - faster than light travel, telepathy etc - and to concentrate on the problems of the human race being confined to an Earth it is using up. But this is as much an artistic movement as an ethical one. The existence of such a movement, though, suggests that science fiction feels a sense of mission. Unlike its cousin, fantasy, it wants to be talking about the real world in ways other than metaphorical.

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Watson has problems with the mundane school of thought:

A recent, undoubtedly short-lived school of thought, mundane science fiction, wishes to stick to the facts and eschew any flights of fancy such as starships or aliens. How very boring of them, say I. What, no zany thought experiments? Zaniness is an important part of science fiction, as well as operating within a certain framework of rationality.

Banks has the best response, however:

My new book is a mainstream novel that borrows science fiction tropes. It plays with the idea that there are an infinite number of different worlds. So it's using speculative hard science. And it's important to the book that there's a degree of respectability about the idea of the multiverse, or the many-worlds theory. But in my science fiction, I merrily break as many laws as I can get my hands on. Especially faster than light travel - I have my starships going at unfeasibly high speeds. Sometimes I pay no attention whatsoever to what's possible and realistic. It really depends on the novel.

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How sci-fi moves with the times [BBC News]

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DISCUSSION

I don't like modern scifi that has interstellar travel that doesn't take decades or centuries. I just don't think it possible and it strains my ability to enjoy it if the book has things like traveling between solar systems in hours or days or, even more annoying to me, the ability to communicate across light years in real time.

Similarly, I hate telepathy in modern scifi.

I can forgive those things in older stuff like stuff from the 50s by telling myself, "oh they didn't know any better."

On some level it is also just boredom with the cliches. "Oh great, another scifi novel set in a galaxy spanning empire" or something like that.

I find that the scifi novels I like the most are set on earth and have few if any outer space elements whether it be the cyber-punk-ish stuff or the stuff by authors who did write some very quick interstellar travels stuff but did write some stuff without it.