Writing my Novel: Teching the Tech

A long while ago, John Scalzi wrote a blog called “Teching the Tech” that dealt with Ron Moore’s lack of scientific know-how when scripting Star Trek: The Next Generation and how that as he works on Stargate Universe, getting the science to be remotely plausible is a priority.  He says,

I’m not going to say every bit of science or tech in SG:U is brilliantI’ve mentioned before that the goal is to get the audience through the episode, not to rigorously test scientific hypotheses — or that we’re going to get it right in every case. What I am going to say is that when we do get it wrong, we fail honestly, and not because we just teched the tech. It’s not that difficult to make an effort in that direction.

Purple Laptop Which brings me to my point.  I’m writing a science fiction novel.  Or at least planning out a science fiction novel.  And despite my interest in an undergrad physics minor, I’m an English guy.  I love words and how they interact.  I love science, too, but I have more in common with languagesmith Tolkien than I do SF prophet Arthur C. Clarke.

So when I came up with a very high concept piece of technology to work as a cornerstone for my novel’s story, I ran into a few problems.  The most prominent of which was that what I had in mind was directly antithetical to Einstein’s Laws of Relativity or something silly like that.  If I went forward with the idea I had, I could have “teched the tech,” but it would have been obvious I had no place writing science fiction, even at the YA level.

But I was smart enough to Tweet about my conundrum, and a kind SF editor (@davidahilljr) talked me through my problems.

First, we tinkered with the relativity aspect and realized that there was just no way what I had in mind could work.  It goes directly against relativity.  In order to get it to work with relativity, everything would have to be inverted and happening in different locations, and that will not work for the narrative.

So scratch that.

Then we go another direction and realize that our new direction is actually worse than the original because even though it’s theoretically possible (a step forward, at least!), the whole use of that particular explanation has become a science fiction cliché.  And while I’m fine with the use of a good cliché now and again—they are, after all, clichés for a reason—my first novel needs to be as jam-packed with originality as possible.

So falling back on a tried-and-true trope won’t win me an agent or publishing contract.

Black Hole SRON But then we hit on something.  It was a relatively new idea, and I recall hearing something about it from theoretical physicist Michio Kaku at some point or another.  I’ve only run across a single novel that’s ever used this device.

It was perfect.

The problem was getting the science accessible to the reader.  It is such a high concept piece of science that trucking through the actual mechanics behind it might have been more trouble than it was worth at best, and required a Ph.D. in astrophysics at worst.

Fortunately, my contact eased my mind.

Because I am writing for a Young Adult audience, I was told that I can go soft on the science and hard on the concept.  I don’t want to say that was music to my ears, but at least now I have some validation that because my ideas are sound, I can make them work in the narrative.  I won’t be teching the tech because my story will have its very foundation in science; I just won’t be explaining how particles interact on a quantum level.

I can play around with it because it’s not hard SF (it’s a SF/Fantasy hybrid that doesn’t go quite so far as space opera, actually), but still rest easy that I’m not just teching the tech.

That means a lot to me.  I want to be taken seriously because I care about this sort of thing, but I don’t want to get bogged down in the details so much that they detract from the narrative flow—which was my main problem with works like the legendary Ringworld: Niven focused too much on that he figured out how a ringworld would be mathematically possible, but not on making the characters terribly interesting.

Creepy Typing Fingers To me, when the science is too heavy (albeit interesting), the narrative suffers.  But the narrative also suffers when a SF writer tries to make the laws of the universe bend themselves to his/her will.

There’s a fine line there, and I intend to walk it.  Based on my rudimentary understanding of theoretical physics, my love of language, and my appreciation of the importance of a strong narrative in literature (be it YA, mainstream, romance, or whatever), I intend to saturate my novel with as much quality storytelling as I can while avoiding the nasty pitfall of trying to use fantastic yet inaccurate science.  I want to find that happy medium between A Wrinkle in Time and Ringworld.

I think I can do that now, and I will not be teching the tech.

And a big thanks to David Hill, who took the time to Tweet back and forth with me for a while as we worked through my clichés and just plain old bad ideas.  It was the first time I’ve ever been able to really hash things out with a professional, so I’m grateful for that.  I certainly hope I get to work with him professionally sometime.

Comments

  1. Nick

    Yeah, I’ve always strayed away from writing anything sci-fi. Mainly because I’ve read some, and like you, I am afraid that I would completely botch the science portion, even with my physics and math undergrad degrees. So, I generally just end up writing weird shit along the lines of Lovecraft/King, and then I can bend reality any way I like!

    Good luck on the book, though, looking forward to it!

  2. Now I am really intrigued. Would it be really “spoilerish” to share the concept? I understand this is a public blog and of course a writer wants to keep his secrets, but I just had to ask.

    I understand if you don’t want to give me an answer, it’s just… I am interested in astrophysics, and the new theories (is it about strings theory?) so I guess I like your idea already.

    In any case, I love good SF. (SF that has at least some “science”!) and I really hope you will write your story. I’d love to read it.

  3. I tend to have this problem as well since a lot of my scripts are dialogue-driven stories with a fantasy/sci-fi back drop. Although, since you are writing a novel, I think you have more room to add in the details.

    Still, I think you are fine in having this problem in the first place, since sci-fi is all about balancing the story with the science. Struggling with juggling the two would definitely help your novel in the long haul.

    Based on your general descriptions, I would definitely expect the science aspect to be compelling and believable since it goes into the realm of physics. As long as the explanation of things don’t get in the way of the characters/pacing, I think you will be fine.

    By the way, that multi-hand picture gives me the creeps.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..Writers and Their Environment =-.

  4. A fun part of science fiction is exploring the entailments of a particular scientific theory or technological breakthrough. Dollhouse is a great case in point: What would happen if the brain could be thoroughly mapped onto a computer, and if various mappings could be imprinted back into the brain? In this case, all you need to really research is neurobiology, in order to sound like you know what you’re talking about.

    John Irving, while not a science fiction writer per se, often includes sciency stuffs in his writing. He’ll consult various experts on the subjects he wants to bring into his fiction, and have them double-check how he applies the materials.

    It does behoove you to really grok the sciences you intend to employ, even if you find yourself straying towards magical realism rather than hard SF. If you’re going to get all literary and use your premise as a metaphor that’s threaded through your book, you still need to know the ins and outs of it to fully paint the picture of all the resonances you want to ring in your readers’ ears.
    .-= jane´s last blog ..Briar Rose Learns to Read =-.