Sunday, August 7, 2016

The games SF writers play

Readers and writers of science fiction tend to be science nerds of one flavor or another. By definition, SF is fiction, but it is fiction extrapolated from the natural laws and phenomena that scientists have distilled from their experimentation with nature. Thus, writers are constrained knowing that E always equals mc2 and objects in free fall will suffer collisions based on the particulars of mass and gravitational forces. Readers also know about these constraints and delight in discovering that a writer may have failed to do his homework. SF writer Hal Clement, known for works like Mission of Gravity, explained the kind of games SF fans play with each other in an article he wrote in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1950s:
“Writing a science fiction story is fun, not work...The fun...lies in treating the whole thing as a game. I’ve been playing the game since I was a child, so the rules must be quite simple. They are: for the reader of a science-fiction story, they consist of finding as many as possible of the author’s statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them. For the author, the rule is to make as few such slips as he possibly can.”

            The writer makes the first move in this game by telling a story. The reader makes all the other moves in the game, trying to see how the writer may have gotten the science wrong. Clement played his part of the game so well, that readers still devour his work today. Mission of Gravity, along with related fiction and commentary, appeared in 2002 under the title, Heavy Planet.
            Clement was famous for creating believable aliens. In Mission of Gravity aliens subject to the immense gravity of a rapidly spinning Jupiter like planet called Mesklin evolved flattened, centipede-like bodies to accommodate gravity that varied from 3 times Earth normal at the equator to 700 times Earth normal at the poles. He designed a biochemistry for his creatures based on methane as the key solvent rather than water.
            My new book will also feature aliens, although not quite from so exotic a world. Nevertheless, I must fashion the world they come from in a way that is consistent with what scientists know about Earth’s biology and ecology. In particular, I will feature some of the knowledge science is rapidly acquiring about microbiomes: the mostly hidden world of microbes that coexist with the cells of complex organisms like us and provide many of the biochemical services we must have to survive. A key question becomes “Whose in charge?”—us or our microbial infrastructure? Undoubtedly alien worlds will have similar relationships between the first simple life forms that evolved on their planet and any complex ones that developed later.
            The next blog entry will feature some of the specifics of the world of Morticue Ambergrand and his kin. It will be up to you to see if the world I create is plausible. Let the games begin!