The Big ‘So What?’ of Science Fiction

The Big 'So What?' of Science FictionReading this article about ‘The Fact and Fiction of Martian Dust Storms,’ I couldn’t help thinking, as I read the ensuing discussion on /r/scifi: “So What?” Part of me is very glad right now that there are no trees on Mars. If there were, many Redditors would be missing the forest for them.

I’m not sure what the deal is, but it’s a common theme in science fiction – the purity test. There’s this recurring logical fallacy that science fiction cannot truly be appreciated unless its science is 100% accurate, or the story is 100% canon, or the plot is logically consistent end-to-end. It’s a pointless, counterproductive exercise and unless the scifi community exercises some self-awareness and self-restraint, it’s bound to end up in utter irrelevance.

Don’t believe me? Look what’s happening to the RWA community right now. That should be a canary in the coalmine for the SFWA and other organizations; you literally can become the villain by trying to be the hero too often. There’s no such thing as institutional immunity. There’s no such thing as institutional infallibility. Sooner or later, we all pull a foul, stub our toe. To err is human.

The Real Questions

So by squawking about the science of The Martian, you’re doing a disservice to scifi everywhere. Here are the real questions sci-fi fans should be asking themselves:

I say all of this to remind you of one simple thing: It’s science FICTION. You’re supposed to have fun. It’s not supposed to be 100% accurate. If it was, we’d never have cell phones because we couldn’t stop saying “Hey, those flip communicators on Star Trek can never work.” Somebody at Motorola saw those and said “Hey, what if they did exist?” The rest, of course, is history.

The Martian deserves every bit of credit it gets for one simple reason: It’s an emotionally consistent story. It helped renew people’s sense of adventure and space exploration, tapping into our own imagination and enterprise. If it sacrificed some of the details to connect with more people, that’s a small price to pay.

So to all of you that got your panties in a twist about the science in The Martian, there’s one simple question you need to tack onto the end of the discussion:

So What?

I bounced these ideas off of /r/scifi and they had some interesting insights. For example, Mobyhead1 hit the nail on the head: “All these attempts at retroactive continuity from the fans is bad enough when attempting to explain a simple plot hole; attempting to ‘fix’ a funny little flaw that the writer straight-up mea culpa’ed is pecksniffery in the first degree.”

I actually had to look that up – pecksniffery is a real word and it comes from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. It means ‘A hypocritical display of benevolence,’ and I can go along with that. Mobyhead1 expands on this by saying: “I’m going out on a limb, here, but I don’t think the pecksniffs have a great many science degrees amongst them. I think they’re regurgitating criticisms they’ve heard elsewhere simply to piss in someone else’s cornflakes.” I can go along with that, too.

TheDevilsAdvokaat added: “It depends on the reader. For example, I’m a programmer and have been for 40 years. Often when I read sci fi where programming is integral to the plot the writer’s lack of knowledge about how it really works diminishes my involvement…because to me it’s not a ‘tiny niggle’ it’s a huge glaring flaw.” I agree. That’s also a good point.

GregHullender put it this way: “A story can be really good and yet still have flaws. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story with no flaws. Being human, we like to talk about the flaws. We just need to be sure we don’t leave the impression that we thought the flaws ruined a work we actually thought was great.”

Finally, Mobyhead1 wrapped it all up again by saying: “My pet peeve isn’t the prevalence of soft or hard elements in a science fiction story (I like some fantasy stories, too); it’s whether the writer makes his intentions clear and plays fair with the audience.” I can’t make it more clear than that.

Wrapping Up

Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste – I find myself allied with scifi readers / experiencers that like hard science fiction but understand it’s not going to be 100% hard. They can live with the apparent inconsistency if they feel the author is playing fair with the audience. I hope that they find Mesh to be ‘fair’ in that way, because these are the kind of people I really want to win over with the stories I tell. If I can reach them, then I can reach their next generation.