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Science
by Jerry Oltion

Net Up or Net Down?

 

In both the book and the movie The Martian, a fierce windstorm nearly blows over a Mars expedition's landing craft, forcing the crew to evacuate in such a hurry that they have to leave a crewmember behind. Yet Mars's atmosphere is only 1/60th as dense as Earth's, and the highest wind speed ever recorded there is 67 miles/hour. Doing a little math shows that the worst wind on Mars pushes with the same force as a 7.7 mile/hour breeze here on Earth (a perfect kite wind).

So the lander would never have been in danger, and The Martian is predicated on total bunk.

But wait! Mars's gravity is only 38% of Earth's, so things would tip over more easily there.

Alas, they would only tip over 2.6 times more easily. That means the worst Martian wind ever recorded would have about the same tipping effect on Mars as a 20 mile/hour wind here.

But wait! Wind pressure depends on the square of the velocity, so that 20 mph figure is too high. It would actually only take a 12 mph wind here to equal the tipping force of the worst wind ever recorded on Mars. That lander still isn't going over.

If you're still reading this, you have more tolerance for math than most people, and even then you're probably asking, "Who cares about all this?"

Welcome to the world of the science fiction writer.

 

How Hard Is Hard?

 

How scientifically accurate does a story have to be? Ever since Jules Verne, and probably before that, people have been arguing about that very question. Some people feel that the writer has to get every scientific detail correct or the story is flawed, while others feel that a writer can fudge a little for the sake of the story. A common rule of thumb is that the author gets one porcupine—i.e. the reader will swallow a porcupine for the sake of a good story, but they won't swallow two.

Thus we get stories with faster-than-light travel, even though Einstein pretty definitively ruled that out. We're willing to accept that science has figured out how to make an end-run around relativity so we can get stories where travel between stars takes less than a lifetime. But everything else in the story has to be rigorously scientific.

Or not. Star Wars has faster than light travel, a mysterious Force akin to magic, death rays that can blow up planets, and dozens more porcupines, but it's one of the most successful science fiction stories of all time.

Purists say that Star Wars is science fantasy, or space opera, not science fiction, but it's a losing battle. It's like trying to get people to stop saying "sci fi." It just marks you as a pedant. Star Wars is science fiction. Get over it.

Yet I can't deny being a little unhappy with Star Wars's surplussage of Erethizontidae, and a little let down by the windstorm blowing the lander over in The Martian. I wish Andy Weir had come up with a better way to strand his astronaut on Mars. In the same breath, though, I will say that I enjoyed The Martian like no book since, oh, maybe even Ringworld, which is one of my all-time favorites. I was right there with poor Mark Watney, trying to figure out how he was going to solve his next problem, all the way through the book.

 

Oh Say Can You See?

 

The problem of scientific rigor isn't restricted to hard sf. In William Golding's classic novel Lord of the Flies, a major plot element revolves around the eyeglasses worn by the character named Piggy. He's so myopic (nearsighted) that he's nearly blind without them, yet the characters use these eyeglasses to start fires.

Wrong.

As anybody who is both nearsighted and curious about optics will tell you, you can't start a fire with a reducing lens, which is what you're wearing if you're nearsighted. Glasses for myopia spread light out; they don't concentrate it. Now if Piggy were farsighted, his glasses could maybe start a fire, but Golding clearly stated that he was nearsighted.

It doesn't take glasses to see how much damage that did to the overall reception of the book. It's taught as a classic in schools to this day. I read it in high school and again in college, and in neither class did the subject even come up. That's because the book isn't about eyeglasses; it's about human behavior and politics, and the eyeglasses are a metaphor for lack of foresight. Piggy, with his glasses, is the only character who can see the inevitable outcome of the boys' behavior. In that context, who really gives a rodentia patootie whether or not the glasses can set a leaf on fire?

Speaking of eyeglasses, in the classic Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last," Burgess Meredith's character, Henry Bemis, the last man alive on Earth, looks forward to spending the rest of his life reading...until he breaks his glasses. The writers were careful to make sure that Bemis was far-sighted, which does indeed make reading without glasses nearly impossible (a nearsighted person could simply hold the book close to his face) but they conveniently ignored the fact that he could look through a pinhole and see a crisp image that way.

Did the Twilight Zone writers screw up? Some would say "yes," but they would be in a distinct minority. "Time Enough at Last" was voted the favorite episode of all the Twilight Zones.

 

Tennis, Anyone?

 

So are we free to ignore the science if it serves the story to do so? It depends on the game you want to play. If your goal is to write the most scientifically accurate story you can, then no. Truly hard sf should follow the laws of physics as we know them. Writers should do their homework and get it right. Greg Benford famously said that anything else is like playing tennis with the net down.1

Well, racquetball is like playing tennis with the net down, too, but a lot of people like racquetball.

Me, I'm not a sports fan. I'll read anything that hangs together internally, unless some wild howler knocks me out of the story. But sometimes the howlers are so egregious that I simply can't go on, as in the case of the movie Armageddon. When I was a guest lecturer at Launchpad, the University of Wyoming's week-long astronomy workshop for writers, one of our assignments was to spot all the howlers in Armageddon, which is the only way I could get through it. I was designated secretary, writing down all the scientific mistakes as the other workshoppers (about a dozen of us) called them out. I could not write fast enough to keep up! I'm not kidding. There were so many things wrong with that movie that I couldn't write them all down without hitting the pause button.

And people can argue that Armageddon was a successful movie, too. Maybe not as successful as Star Wars or The Martian, but it turned a hefty profit (nearly half a billion dollars to date) and most likely you saw it. You may have even enjoyed it. Yet I will argue that the sheer number of mistakes makes that success irrelevant. It crossed the line. Even racquetball has rules, and Armageddon double foot faulted while simultaneously three-walling the serve.

 

Internal Consistency

 

So what's the difference? Why was it okay to bend the rules in Star Wars or The Martian but not in Armageddon? Is it simply the magnitude of the errors?

I think it's something more subtle than that. Star Wars and The Martian are classics in other ways. They broke new ground, told gripping stories, and were internally consistent, whereas Armageddon broke the laws of physics without seeming to care. Or perhaps more to the point, without seeming to even know.

When Andy Weir imperiled his lander with a Martian wind gust, even though I knew that was impossible, I also knew that Weir knew it was impossible. He proved throughout the rest of the book that he knew what he was talking about, and that he had chosen the windstorm deliberately. That was his porcupine. (And that particular porcupine helped deflect another one: the lack of radiation danger. Well, if Mars's atmospher was thicker, there would be less radiation danger. So maybe Weir chose to give Mars a thick atmosphere so his astronaut didn't have to walk around in a lead-lined suit, and that allowed him to have a windstorm threaten to knock over the lander.)

The producers of Armageddon never earned that degree of confidence. I never got the impression that they knew what would really happen on a space mission, nor that any deviations from true science would be at least internally consistent. Instead, stuff happened the way it did simply because they wanted it to.

Internal consistency is my standard. Does it hang together? If so, you can get away with pretty much anything. But if it's not internally consistent...

...well, to be honest, you can still get away with pretty much anything. But should you?

Not long ago I gave an example of bad storytelling to my writer's workshop. Imagine, I said, you're writing about a character who's commuting to work, but their car is a giant butterfly. You describe the iridescent wings and the antennae and the fuzzy body and the spindly legs in great detail, but your character climbs in, shuts the door, starts the engine, and drives to work on surface streets as if it were a normal car. Nobody notices that it's a butterfly except the reader. That would be a mistake, I said.

Nearly unanimously, my workshop said no, it wouldn't. One person said she would prefer the butterfly story to one with a regular car in it, even if it was just a gratuitious story detail.

I was sorely disappointed. Did nobody care about internal consistency? Apparently not. And when I look at the movies being released these days, and how popular they are, clearly not.

That leads me to the conclusion that internal consistency is just as fickle a standard as scientific rigor. You can write anything you want as long as you can pull it off with enough panache to satisfy your readers. If your protagonist commutes to work in an unexplained butterfly, then your readers are going to be a different set than if your protagonist gets there by jetpack, but your story will likely find an audience either way. It just might be a smaller audience if the science is iffy. More and more readers will drop away the less believable (and the less in control) the story seems.

Bear in mind that you have to convince one reader in particular: the editor of the magazine you submit the story to. That editor has his or her own standards, and those standards will be reflected in the type of story they select for their magazine. Their choices will influence the readership of the magazine, who will flock toward the ones that publish the kind of stories they like.

So as readers, and as writers, decide what kind of story you like and plan accordingly.

 


 

1  He borrowed that metaphor from Robert Frost, who used it to describe free verse.
 

__________________________________

Jerry Oltion has been a science nut since he was old enough to spell "curious." He has written science fiction almost as long, and has done astronomy somewhat less. He writes a regular column on amateur telescope making for Sky & Telescope magazine, and spends many, many nights a year out under the stars.
 

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