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Is a lack of realism good for science fiction?


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.


16 thoughts on “Is a lack of realism good for science fiction?

  1. I agree almost totally, my sole reservation being that there might be degrees of realism, and along several axes at that: say, explicit use of science, and world-building success. As an example of how to be realistic and as scientifically accurate as is consistent with the plot, I’d take Paul Mc Auley’s “The Quiet War.” I have defended its first fifty pages against claims that they form one boring infodump. As an example of how to build a world while adhering reasonably closely to scientific thought and results, I’d take “Anathem.” That book has three explanatory appendices (and Stephenson’s website supplies more science and sources), and its scientific content is a thoughtful extension of current speculative physics. I would rate both high on the two axes, with Mc Auley’s book higher than Stephenson’s on both (since “Anathem” veers off into New Age gibberish at a crucial point).

    • I think different areas of a story require different levels of realism. Obviously, FTL is about as unrealistic as you can get, but that doesn’t mean everything in a story featuring it needs to be equally magical. But I think there’s a danger is ignoring realism which leads to ever-increasing special effects and a loss of the things that make story’s good – compelling characters, drama, insight, etc. If it’s all gosh-wow, where’s the story?

  2. I much prefer realistic characters to realistic science. It bothers me when a plot is based on unrealistic behaviour by a character or any other random nonsense. I just finished Reality 36 which is a good book for how to avoid info dumping. Information about the setting is portioned out carefully throughout the book, thus dropping us straight into the plot which moves forward quickly. A timeline of important events are given at the end of the book, by no means necessary to understand the book, but good to have for people who are interested.

    Being an adolescent, at the tender age of 33, I prefer extraordinary people. For me that usually results in a more realistic plot that can rely on the abilities of the character to deal with antagonists, without relying on luck, one shot items or just being saved by his/her more competent friends. Hard Spell is a good example where an ordinary character is unrealistically given a job to deal with things he is not actually qualified to. Not good. Did not like it.


    • Having a character who is qualified for the role they play in a story does not make them extraordinary. Having said that, I’m not convinced the galaxy needs to be in peril in every sf story, or that special snowflake powers are always necessary to save it. Dakota Merrick does a pretty good job of saving the Milky Way in Gary Gibson’s Shoal trilogy, and she’s not some super-powered super-brainy super-competent woman.

  3. I must say that for me, a lack of realism in SF is not something that I worry about. I can’t remember the last book I read that I throught it’s lack of realism let it down.

    I also doubt whether a lack of realism and rigour is damaging for the genre’s reputation. Scientists, or those with an interest in the sciences may well be put off by a lack of realism in SF but I doubt that most others will even be aware of a lack of realism, nor be that bothered if they are.

    • But if sf becomes nothing but space adventure, isn’t that damaging to the genre? I’m not saying all sf has to be realistic, just that a move towards less and less realism will just turn sf into fantasy. Besides, it’s not just the science – some of the genre’s tropes, like FTL, AIs or time travel – may be unrealistic, but they’re accepted literary devices. But the refusal to info-dump sometimes results in sf stories which present ideas that no understandable underpinning – a lot of so-called “Sci-fi Strange” (or whatever it’s called) is like that. Stories like that don’t appeal to me.

      There are other also areas where sf often fails the realism test – implausible characters behaving implausibly, for example. The genre is full of examples. Sometimes it works; often it doesn’t. The world is not full of geniuses or experts, or unkillable special forces commandos.

      • Well, it doesn’t have to relegate SF to mere pulp adventure just because they take liberties with realism. Sometimes it can be quite interesting and thought provoking to imagine the implications and consequences if some law of nature were changed or worked around some how. Surely the author could be forgiven for bending the rules of realism on how this came about if they provide an interesting and intelligent examination of the implications?

        I guess it depends on the focus of the story. Sometimes authors take liberties with the laws of nature, not always only to tell an entertaining yarn, but sometimes because their interest (and expertise) lies elsewhere and that’s what they want to concentrate on.

        • Yes, changing a law of nature and then considering its ramifications – as Steve Baxter does in Raft – can be effective. I don’t think doing that is necessarily unrealistic because the change is usually treated rigorously. OTOH, authors who blithely gloss over areas which don’t that match their interests or expertise could be introducing errors and a lack of realism which will spoil their story – cf the British reaction to Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear

  4. Well, there’s info dumping and there’s info dumping… and SF is more or less impossible without some.
    Having said that, one of the things that bugged me about the first in Robinson’s Mars trilogy was he had one of his characters go off on a trip across Mars. I could see no good plot reason for it; to me that episode was there purely to show off his research, which he did, at length. Crucially, it interrupted the story. When info dumping does that and not much else, do we need it?
    It’s also telling, not showing, and can be a bugger to read.

    • KSR’s view is an extreme one, I admit. The idea of a short story using info-dumps as part of the narrative could be an interesting experiment, but it’s not a technique I’d use all the time.

      My current bugbear is the “ooh this idea I’ve just thought of is cool so I’ll stick it into my story right now” technique, in which the writer dreams up something they think is neat and bungs it straight in… and then has to follow it up with an info-dump to explain it because it wasn’t foreshadowed or built into the setting from beginning. Just because you’re writing science fiction, as I always say, it doesn’t mean you can make it up as you go along…

  5. My own thought is that if you setting out to write a story that is based on the science with the plot and characters wrapped around it then yes you should be more factual/realistic in your approach. However, you already know that info-dumping is not good story telling no matter how realistic you are trying to be.

    I find KSRs style difficult because of all the info-dumping and research showing off. I would also say the same of Dan Simmons who is not a ‘hard’ SF writer but he still likes to show off all his historical and literary knowledge and dumps it in huge sections into many of his works. This is just not necessary and it’s a pain in the arse, as well as the brain, to read for most people.

    In my novel that is set in space I wanted to use a transport system that is not FTL in the usual sense e.g. no space ships. I wanted to be more realistic and use excepted theories about what is possible or could be possible under certain conditions. I don’t plan to explain it to the n’th degree though. None of my characters is an expert on how the system works therefore it is explained simply and from their POV like most things in real life. I bet most people know all the complexities behind how an aeroplane works. They just know that they do.

    I do believe that FTL and other tropes as you mentioned are overused and as we advance in science and in fiction writers should look toward doing some research about the possibilities of the science they want to use. As someone else stated above consistency is also important. You have to decide how your technology works and set its limitations and work within its boundaries. Limitations are always important in fiction because it sets tension and obstacles for the characters to overcome. Otherwise you are correct in saying that SF is in danger of turning into fantasy.

    • I suppose the biggest problem I have with most sf is that it makes things look unrealistically easy. I’m not advocating explaining in detail all the science present in a story (though I do quite like KSR’s fiction when he’s in didactic mode), just that the treatent of ideas, and characters, should be done with realism. Yes, you can just walk onto an airliner and it will carry you across the Atlantic in seven hours, and you don’t need to explain the aeronautics or the workings of the turbojet. But that’s a real world object. If you’re going to have a character step onto a spaceship and get carried across space to another world in a handful of hours… well, that’s an entirely different thing. Everything involved is orders of magnitude greater, so to pretend it is n’t is, I think, missing much of the appeal of sf.

  6. Interesting food for thought. Thank you!

    Heather Massey

    […]In Is a lack of realism good for science fiction?, Ian Sales wrote[…]

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  9. Literally the least important part of literature, just as bad as “world building”.

    Give me characters and themes that I care about and write it well. If I wanted to read a technical manual I would.

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