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Obey gravity — It’s the law!

Kim du Toit recently opined the following on the topic of Science Fiction:

The great Bill Whittle once explained to me that he was having enormous problems writing a sci-fi short story. When I asked why (Bill does not suffer writer’s block), he said this: “The problem is that with science fiction, the unspoken rule is that you get to suspend one, and only one law of physics. I can’t do that. I have to write something believable, without that suspension of disbelief, and which obeys all the laws of physics.”

And that, in a nutshell, is my fundamental problem with science fiction: you start with an unreal premise, and go on from there.

While reading the post at the time, I accepted this premise and ran with it to its didactic conclusion — that the allowance of natural law violations such as disobeying physics stems from the same logical deficiency as expecting disobedience of the natural law of man’s ego in a socialist society. In context, the whole point about sci-fi is a rather tangential one and the debatability of the premise is rather immaterial to the topic at hand. And even if it was, I sincerely doubt that Kim himself would be terribly interested in debating it, as he has stated that it’s just not really his forte.

But all of this has done little to assuage the fact that it’s gotten me thinking.

Now, my exposure to various styles of science fiction is admittedly rather limited, but it seems to me that all the sci-fi that has any sort of impact on me does not necessarily violate any rules of physics. (I say not necessarily because time travel may or may not violate any such laws. We really don’t know.)

Casting about for sci-fi books to use for this discussion, the first two that came to mind were Asimov’s Foundation series and Hogan’s The Proteus Operation. Ignoring the aforementioned unresolved issue with time travel as it is treated in The Proteus Operation, both books are firmly rooted in a sense of a real world that is just somewhat more fantastic than ours. I can’t think of a single physical law violated, if one accepts that practical intergalactic travel is possible within the constraints of physics.

In fact, the only story that I can think of off the top of my head that actually violates reality is Asimov’s very first, Marooned Off Vesta. Even there, it is simply a matter that the author at the time misunderstood orbital mechanics and how they work in a rather counter-intuitive way. In the story, the at one point to change an object’s orbit up and down relative to the planet, engines are fired in the desired direction of travel, which seems to make sense: apply force in one direction and you will move that way. But because of the strange ways that gravity and centripetal force come together on an orbiting body, you would actually have to apply the acceleration in the direction of travel (i.e. forwards or backwards) instead of up and down to move radially.

But now is the part where we return to my fundamental caveat: I am by no means well read across the entirety of the sci-fi genre, which is itself a simply massive category. It is entirely possible that the sci-fi I have read is an unrepresentative sample of the style. But if this is true, I can safely shift the blame for that to my father, who has provided nearly my entire literary grounding.

It is also possible that the two books that came most immediately to my mind because they left the strongest impression on me are thus because they are quasi-political and semi-historical and therefore stuck with me because of my interest in these areas. But this too, I can displace onto my father, because he’s the one who’s always ensured my sister and I were well-grounded in these areas.

But that’s hardly fair to a hardworking guy like my dad, so I will gladly take the blame for all of this by accepting that I was the one who signed up for all these computer science classes that have given me so much free time to develop my writing skills.

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Categories: The Internet
  1. Bob
    April 13, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    I can’t agree with Bill Whittle’s definition of science fiction. What you’re really talking about here is the distinction between so-called “hard SF” — which is supposed to be firmly grounded in real science — and more fantastical SF, which isn’t. Of course the line tends to move, but the idea is valid.

    There are plenty of SF stories that, rather than violating any physical laws, are nothing more than speculative extrapolations of physical laws. Much of Asimov’s output falls into that category, but he’s not the only one.

    But the first example that popped into my head is the novel “Dragon’s Egg,” by Robert L. Forward (who, I note, was a physicist). It’s really a novel-length exploration of nuclear physics and gravity (most of it takes place on the surface of a neutron star), and it’s rigorously scientific.

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