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Putting the science back in science fiction


Earlier this week, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and US publisher Tor/Forge issued a press release announcing they would work together to develop and publish “NASA-inspired works of fiction”. Or, as the release put it, they would work together on “a series of science based, commercial fiction books … around concepts pertinent to the current and future work of NASA”.

I should be excited about this. I like reading science fiction, I like reading about space exploration. But which is best? There’s only one way to find out…

But, seriously, any sf author worth his or her salt writing on such a topic will do the necessary research anyway. Perhaps they won’t have access to an actual NASA scientist, but they could probably find much of what they need to know on the Internet. And, if not, there’s always that old information-access tech known as “books”.

Of course, this assumes that the Goddard Space Flight Center is merely offering itself as a research resource to Tor/Forge authors, which may not be the case. It could be the reverse: authors acting as ghostwriters for NASA scientists. Or perhaps it’ll be a creative partnership between the two (or however many are involved in the book). The emphasis on “current and future work of NASA” does suggest this is as much a PR exercise for the agency as it is a desire to develop a series of novels which are intended to boost interest in careers in engineering and the sciences.

And yet… Look at science fiction now and its most visible face is that of the escapist space opera. There’s not a lot of science in it, and not much that might cause a reader to think of NASA and its works. While many scientists (and one prominent economist) have pointed to sf as the inspiration for their career choices, and a number of sf writers have been, and are, working scientists… I have to wonder how strong the link between the two is. After all, does historical fiction inspire people to become historians?

So what’s the likely effect of putting the science back in science fiction? It depends, of course, on the books the partnership produces. I suspect that, given the need to produce commercial fiction, we may get something closer to a techno-thriller set on the ISS than Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital, or Mars, trilogies. I certainly hope not. I would dearly love to read authentic near-future high-concept science fiction which, as Wikipedia describes Goddard Space Flight Center’s role, is concerned with “increasing knowledge of the Earth, the Solar System, and the Universe via observations from space” and the “scientific investigation, development and operation of space systems, and development of related technologies”.

I recently read Heaven’s Shadow, a 2011 blockbuster sf novel by movie screenwriter David S Goyer (so, of course, the film rights have already been sold for a humungous sum) and television screenwriter (and genre mid-lister) Michael Cassutt. The novel boasts that it accurately describes a near-future space mission to a comet visiting the Solar System. While there are definitely no pointy rockets of yore, or magical anti-gravity spaceships, in the book, and it makes a better attempt at depicting state-of-the-art spacecraft than sf as a genre usually does… Heaven’s Shadow does initially read more like a techno-thriller set in space than an actual science fiction novel.

But I refuse to be pessimistic. Something good could come of this partnership. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to seeing what it produces.

5 thoughts on “Putting the science back in science fiction

  1. Of course, this all depends on the extent to which you consider techno-thrillers to be a sub-genre of sf as a whole.

    Or it could be that NASA are trying to commission novels that specifically are NOT marketed as sf so they can say “This is an inspiration for real-world readers to get excited by space research that is (or could be, if only we could get the funding) happening now, not some far-future starship fantasy…” Of course, we will know better.

  2. Their hearts are in the right place, getting heads there is a whole different story. I mean that. A whole different story. It’s as tough to write a fresh, original book about a NASA project as it is to write a fresh, original western. NASA is, on a whole, not giving us much that is new. You can’t expect fiction to change that fact AND keep it real. OK, their rockets are faster, their next moon rover puts out more torque. These are not the underpinnings of new, visionary works of science fiction. NASA is mainstream. It’s all mainstream.

  3. There seems to be an editing error in your post, Ian.
    The bit beginning “I should be excited about this” and a few more sentences after that appears twice.

    Fiction about NASA projects? If it doesn’t end as unreadable puffery I’d be surprised.That’s not where the cutting edge of SF is.

  4. Pingback: Geek Media Round-Up: August 29, 2011 – Grasping for the Wind

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