At the back of mainstream novels, you will sometimes find a list of “sources”, i.e., the books the author used as research for the novel. This has never been common practice in science fiction, though you’ld think the genre requires so much more research than mainstream fiction. It’s not just the science, but also that the real world the readers know and understand is rarely used as a setting. So there’s a wealth of additional information the writer needs to get across. And few sf authors are working scientists, astronauts or, well, aliens.
In fact, the only astronauts to write sf set in space were Edward Gibson (Reach, 1989; In the Wrong Hands, 1992) and Buzz Aldrin (Encounter with Tiber, 1996; The Return, 2000; both with John Barnes). Scott Carpenter’s two novels (Steel Albatross, 1991; Deep Flight, 1994) are underwater techno-thrillers, and are based upon Carpenter’s post-NASA oceanographic career. Also relevant is Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, who wrote a sf novel (First Landing, 2001) about the first colony on Mars.
This doesn’t mean there are no sf authors who research, or no sf authors who list sources at the backs of their novels. However, I suspect the general aversion to info-dumping in sf also extends to authors demonstrating – or proving – that they have performed any research. Perhaps they consider the presence of its “fruits” in the story evidence enough – certainly, there’s a level of authority and realism evident in prose that contains proper research. Kim Stanley Robinson considers “exposition just another form of narrative” – and is one of the few sf authors to list sources, or give a bibliography, at the end of his novels. He also writes very realistic science fiction. His Mars trilogy is considered one of the best hard sf series of all time, and notable for its realistic depiction of the initial colonisation of Mars. In his words,
And in science fiction, you need some science sometimes; and science is expository; and so science fiction without exposition is like science fiction without science, and we have a lot of that, but it’s not good. So the word “infodump” is like a red flag to me, it’s a Thought Police command saying “Dumb it down, quit talking about the world, people don’t have attention spans, blah blah blah.” No. I say, go read Moby Dick, Dostoevsky Garcia Marquez, Jameson, Bakhtin, Joyce, Sterne — learn a little bit about what fiction can do and come back to me when you’re done. (From Outspoken Authors: The Lucky Strike)
While it’s true that some subgenres of sf demand more research than others that doesn’t mean some get a free pass. Space opera is a very unrealistic form of science fiction. It could be argued it doesn’t need to be, but I disagree. The Milky Way is not the Wild West, and any story which treats it as such is doing itself, and its readers, a disservice. Having said that, space opera is a very popular subgenre and, to many non-fans, it is emblematic of all science fiction. As a result, they see sf as an unrealistic mode of fiction, one which fails to address realistic concerns.
I sometimes wonder if sf’s frequent lack of realism is a result of writers during the early decades of the genre failing to recognise – or deliberately rejecting – their own amateurism. They would dream up neat ideas, and write stories about them, without actually bothering to build anything like a realistic or plausible world in which to explore their idea. The central conceit was all; it was the only thing which needed to be phrased plausibly. The writers may have been experts in the real world – or as much as any of us are experts – but the setting of their story was invented so that knowledge was of little use.
Of course, it’s also true that on those days sf writers could blithely make something up and the chances of them being called on it were remote. Perhaps there might be an irate letter in the magazine a month or two later. These days, any reader can look something up online, and make their opinion known on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, etc. There’s no excuse for getting it wrong now – those tools are just as available to the writer as they are the reader (though you would hope the writer would go the extra mile).
Looking at much sf written today, it seems to me it is turning more fantastical. No effort is made to explain the ideas used in a story, no effort is made to make them appear feasible or plausible. Why then are they sf and not fantasy? They may be stories written in a science fiction mode, but they are entirely unrealistic. That may be one way to offset criticism. If everything in a story is entirely made-up – in the purest sense of the term – then readers can’t object to any inaccuracy. But is that tactic necessarily a good thing?
To me, sf is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary settings. Yet the genre has featured a lot of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary settings. You can understand why the latter would appeal to adolescents – they all want to be special snowflake heroes and succeed in changing the world. (High fantasy is also full of protagonists such as these.) But the real world, and most invented worlds, are populated chiefly by ordinary people. Not by super-brainy scientists or manly bullet-chewing marines or super-competent alpha males. Ordinary people, of all genders, races, cultures, religions, sexual identities, etc, etc. When you have the whole universe to play with, why limit diversity? It makes no sense.
But then, sf has never been an observational genre, and has never really known how to meld the quotidian with the fantastic. The opposite, in fact: it deliberately eschews the quotidian, it revels in the fantastic. It lacks realism. I can understand the desire to exclude realism in some subgenres, I can even see how many readers would prefer non-realistic – escapist, immersive – stories. But I don’t think that’s the only way to do it, and I suspect it does little good to the genre’s reputation to produce only those.