Mar
20
2014

The Stories of My People; Or, Why Scientists Write the Best Science Fiction

A Guest Post by Nicole Larsen

My name is Nicole Larsen. I am a particle physicist at a well-known university and a voracious fiction reader and writer in my spare time. In other words, I straddle two different worlds – I study reality during the day, and I explore imaginary universes at night. Without further ado, I will discuss the intersection of these worlds, and in particular, why scientists are the best at writing speculative fiction.

As a rule, scientists love thought experiments. We are very good at asking questions – after all, it's our job. But more than this, our field tends to reward breadth over depth. I speak from years of scholarship and grant applications when I say the scientists who are most successful are the ones who can articulate the big-picture implications of their work. Can you exploit your idea to create any new marketable technologies? Can you apply it to other fields? Will it have a meaningful impact on society? If you can't answer these questions, funding agencies won't give you money. Period.

The most successful science fiction authors use the same techniques. If they present a new technology or scientific theory, they exploit the heck out of it. They examine its ramifications for culture, for art, for government, for philosophy, for trade and economics, what it means for humanity, and what it means for the everyman in his day-to-day life. You don't have to include all of these in your writing, but if you chase down some of the more far-reaching consequences of your ideas, it will make your world-building that much more vibrant.

A wonderful illustration of this is Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, in which a new branch of statistics uses the Law of Large Numbers to yield accurate predictions for the future of humanity. Asimov, who has a background in biochemistry, is a master at exploring an idea's implications. He takes one very dry mathematical premise and uses it as a backdrop to explore themes as rich as predestination and free will; the evolution of cultures; and the rise and fall of empires.

Another example is astrophysicist Gregory Benford's novel, Cosm. Benford's physics background is evident in his choice of subject. His heroine is a scientist at a national laboratory whose particle collider creates a wormhole that provides a window into another universe. This story delves into issues ranging from social (gender, race, and bureaucracy in science) to philosophical (what it means to play God), and it puts forth an extremely feasible theory for the origin of life in the universe. The best part is that Cosm is deep but not heavy... all this is couched in the guise of a lively sci-fi adventure.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with a few real-world examples. Consider the Internet... or the atomic bomb. These technologies have left an indelible mark on our society. As a scientist or as a science fiction writer, you have a duty to think about the inventions you create and the marks they will leave on your universe and the characters who inhabit it.

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Nicole Larsen is a physics PhD student at Yale University, an aspiring fantasy novelist, an incurable and unabashed bookworm who is singlehandedly keeping the Amazon Kindle Store in business, and a Southern belle who divides her time between Connecticut and South Dakota but longs to get back to warmer climes.

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