The dictionary definition of “authentic” is “entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence”. At first glance, this doesn’t seem relevant when discussing science fiction or fantasy. Where are the “known facts or experience” in an invented world? Where is the “unquestionable evidence”?
Authenticity determines how immersive a story’s world is – the more real the world feels, the more immersive it is. Any wrong detail which trips up the reader prevents immersion. And, conversely, any detail which has the ring of authenticity makes immersion more likely. Because for an invented world, the story and its setting has to feel real. It has to convince, from large to small. The world of the story has to seem hermetic, a thing in and of itself. It has to seem as though it would continue to exist independently of the story set in it. (Unless not doing so is a deliberate artistic choice, of course.)
In October 2008, I read We Have Capture, the autobiography of astronaut Thomas Stafford (see my review here). In that book, Stafford describes the death of Soyuz 11 cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov. He writes:
Seeing that the front hatch was still sealed, the crew realized that the leak was probably coming from that ventilation valve, which was located under Dobrovolsky’s seat. They tried to crank it shut – there was a backup master valve, but this unit, like a basic steam valve, was mounted over the crew’s shoulders and took nineteen turns to close.
That “nineteen turns” is authentic. It’s the sort of detail which tells you the author knows what they are writing about. It’s not a commonly-known fact; nor do many people have experience of the Soyuz spacecraft. But by including that one small detail, Stafford’s description is “entitled to acceptance or belief”.
But not all sf or fantasy stories are set in invented worlds. Equally, those invented worlds might well be based upon something real. In such cases, authenticity will to some extent be inherited from the real world. Yes, there’s still room for “nineteen turns”, but the broad strokes of the world are likely to be known by most readers. The little-known details will only add verisimilitude, and the authenticity is a product chiefly of those broad strokes.
But there’s another issue which has to be considered in such cases. Artistic integrity demands that the story’s setting be as close as possible to the real world, or real-world model, for “acceptance or belief”. It should not rely on clichés, myths or misinformation, or pander to prejudices or stereotypes. Bad research is bad research. If a writer is going to appropriate another culture for their world or model, courtesy alone suggests they should do so as accurately and as considerately as possible.
To most sf fans, “hard sf” refers to the branch of science fiction which is rigorous in its use of the “hard sciences” – physics, chemistry, biology, etc. But for genre writing to be authentic, all of it has to be “hard”. Science fiction or fantasy. The selfsame rigour that hard sf authors used with the sciences has to be applied to every element of world-building. A successful story has to convince in every aspect, and if it takes “nineteen turns” to do that… then the author has to go and hunt down that detail.
To do otherwise would not only insult any appropriated culture, but the readers too.