Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres

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Overview

Science and technology have starring roles in a wide range of genres—science fiction, fantasy, thriller, mystery, and more. Unfortunately, many depictions of technical subjects in literature, film, and television are pure fiction. A basic understanding of biology, physics, engineering, and medicine will help you create more realistic stories that satisfy discerning readers.

This book brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:

  •Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are frequently featured in fiction.
  •Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
  •Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
  •Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, Putting the Science in Fiction will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

Putting the Science in Fiction collects articles from "Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy," Dan Koboldt's popular blog series for authors and fans of speculative fiction (dankoboldt.com/science-in-scifi). Each article discusses an element of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in that field. Scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and others share their insights in order to debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440353383
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/16/2018
Pages: 266
Sales rank: 559,387
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

HOW TO ASK AN EXPERT

By Eric Primm

Stories require a delicate balance between too much and too little world building. Authors must always know more about their fictional setting than the reader, but the story needs only the information necessary to make the reader believe it is real. Authors research and research and research a subject necessary to their stories to increase the verisimilitude. One possible research method is asking an expert, and the following tips will help you ask more efficient questions.

PREPARATION

When seeking information, make sure to contact the correct expert. As the world gets more and more technologically advanced, professions become increasingly specialized. For example, while engineers have general knowledge of other fields, an aerospace engineer probably won't know the answer to a chemical engineering question. Just as no one would go to a doctor to learn why a car engine is rattling, they also wouldn't go to a mechanic for a flu shot. Specialization matters. Therefore, seek an expert with experience and knowledge in the relevant field. If your "go-to" expert can't help, it's acceptable to politely ask if she knows anyone who can, but the author needs to respect the expert's right to say no. Finding the correct source is as important as finding the information itself. Some questions are general enough that the expert may not need graduate-level knowledge to explain some basics, but the author should follow up with an expert who understands both the basics and the complexities of the subject. For example, a doctor may be able to explain how brake systems work, but it's best to verify that information with a mechanic who knows for sure. Just like precision jobs need the correct tool, a smart author needs the correct expert.

How the question is asked matters as much as the information you are looking for. Requirements analysis is one phase of project planning. This is an attempt to clarify what is really needed. In the example question "Would water, telephone lines, and other utilities function in a postapocalyptic world without a major power grid?" the requirement is information about how utilities operate. Information about utilities or the definition of a power grid is unnecessary to fulfill the minimum requirement. You could likely get to the needed information with a more general question — "How would utilities and power grids function in a postapocalyptic world?" — but it's a less efficient use of time and the expert's expertise. By understanding what is really needed, you can create a succinct question that allows the expert to provide the appropriate answer. Only meeting the minimum requirement leaves more questions and more information to wade through.

FILL IN THE BACKGROUND

To avoid a vague answer, provide the expert with a little background information. Details direct the expert toward a response that best fits the story. The example question defines a requirement: utility function. But many different methods of failure will cause nonfunctional utilities. As the question stands, there are too many unknowns for a useful answer. This isn't to say it's a bad question; it's an example showing how laypeople often communicate with experts. While the requirement is how utilities function, the phrase "postapocalyptic world without a major power grid" is vague and needs clarification to determine whether utilities could function. In other words, the cause changes the answer. For the example question, clarification of the following questions changes the story as well:

1. What does "without a major power grid" mean? Does this mean that the power stations are no longer working? Or are the power stations working but the "grid" itself — the wires and transformers — are somehow destroyed?

2. What caused the power grid to go down? For example, a hacker shutting down power generation plants has different physical consequences than if an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is the cause of the apocalypse. Whereas a hacker can shut down the generation of power, an EMP will fry nonshielded circuits in all electronics. Massive tornadoes could tear apart the wires while missing the power generation stations.

A plot synopsis is not necessary to answer the question well. A sentence or two should suffice. The expert doesn't need to know about the terrorists' years of being dosed with LSD by the CIA to understand why they distributed the zombie plague upon the world. But the expert does need to know that the power plant doesn't work because instead of doing their jobs, the uninfected workers chose to hide out in their local Costco to wait out their eventual death. (In this scenario, the power plant would eventually shut down, and the electricity used in the utility plants would shut off at some point. But the grid is not affected, and the wires inside Costco are not harmed. Thus, with a few generators, the last humans in Costco can party like Prince did in 1999.) Be careful of providing too much plot detail because red herrings work well for the story, but not for research.

THE RESPONSE

Expect to receive more information than will end up in the story. An expert is an expert for a reason; he has invested time and effort into his chosen profession. The information provided will contain nuggets that are important for the world building but may not be necessary for the story. Remember that you need to know more than the reader. It's your job to figure out what is and isn't pertinent. If necessary, ask the expert whether she believes a certain piece is necessary to support the story. For example, in the power grid question, you could ask if Faraday cages would shield electrical equipment from an EMP blast. In answering that, the expert might note that the cage is made from copper. Is that really important? Maybe — it depends on how you use it. Ultimately, the author determines what ends up in the story, but more information allows for better, more realistic choices.

You should not expect a one-stop solution. Asking an expert isn't as easy as googling an answer, but it's an opportunity for a more holistic knowledge than just reading a Web page. Follow-up questions might be required to get the answer that works. If so, patience on both sides is the key. Ask for clarification where needed; this may lead to more questions. By asking an expert, a deeper knowledge of the subject is possible.

Depending on how much information is needed, the expert may point you to a different resource. Experts don't know everything and use resources to bolster their own knowledge. Part of becoming an expert is learning how and where to find the correct information. Take advantage of this by asking for books, articles, websites, etc. on which experts rely. Then, the expert can clarify specific questions about information found in the sources. Going to the same sources as an expert is more efficient and allows you to ask specific questions.

If the expert's reply doesn't answer the question, it probably asked a different question than you intended. In this case, it's likely you didn't fully understand your own requirements. Asking the expert why she provided the answer she did lets you see into her process. So, the next time you ask a question, it will be clear enough for the expert to answer.

A BETTER EXAMPLE

Taking into account all of this advice, the example question from earlier should look something like this: "Would utilities function in a postapocalyptic world where major power grids were destroyed by nuclear detonations in the atmosphere? A war between Belgium and Costa Rica escalates to a global conflagration. Nuclear nations set off enough nukes to ensure that the entire surface of the earth is bathed in EMP. Would cell phones still work? Would home faucets have running water?" Another example might be: "Tornados rip through the middle of Kansas, shearing all power lines between Opolis and the Wichita power plant. Would utilities function if all power transmission lines were destroyed?"

To answer the question, utilities require electricity. So, if the power goes down, water will only flow for as long as the pressure in the pipes remains because the pumps will be without power. The electricity required to power switchboards and server farms will eventually run out, leaving phones useless. (For the EMP scenario, all the circuits would be fried by the magnetic blast, thus, nonfunctional.) Either way, if the electricity stops flowing or the paths that the electricity travels are damaged, the ending is the same.

Asking an expert is a powerful, interactive research tool for an author. It can help speed up fictional world building. Talking about ourselves is a universal human trait, and experts are no different. Most enjoy spreading knowledge about where they excel and are willing to help educate others. For fiction, the best use of an expert's knowledge is to make the author think deeply about the story. Because in the end, the more thought-out the author's world, the better the story.

CHAPTER 2

RESEARCHERS GONE WILD

By Gabriel Vidrine

We've read it before: mad scientists, weird science, and horrific experiments. Or maybe it's heroic scientists working in state-of-the-art laboratories who produce miracles in minutes. Both of these portrayals of science are misguided; research just isn't done that way. Here are some common myths about scientists and research.

MYTH #1: EXPERIMENTS TAKE A FEW MINUTES

We're all pretty familiar with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (the books are actually better than the TV show, in my opinion; Max Allan Collins and Jeff Mariotte are fantastic writers). The criminalists collect their samples from the crime scene, get them sent back to the lab, and within pages (or minutes) are getting their results. Of course, to hold a reader's interest, an author can't really say six months go by while Nick, Greg, and Sara work other cases and wait for the lab to work through the backlog to their samples. But that's really what happens.

Science takes time. Even a fairly simple experiment can take days. Gene sequencing? Even with the best, most advanced equipment, it can take hours. And that doesn't include the backlog, which can stretch that time out to months.

MYTH #2: SCIENTISTS ARE GREEDY AND HAVE NO MORALS

I find this one to be personally insulting. How many books have been published that paint scientists as greedy, amoral jerks who run whatever experiment seems likely to gain them the most money? How many books have an apocalypse caused by the release of a deadly virus by a careless or crazy scientist?

Hey, come on people, scientists are just like anyone else. We go to work, do our jobs, and collect our paychecks. Most of us aren't in it for the fame (haha!), riches (HAHA!), or the power to destroy the human race. We do it for the science. News flash: Science doesn't (usually) pay that well.

MYTH #3: SCIENTISTS DO RIDICULOUS, ILLOGICAL EXPERIMENTS FOR FUN

Ever wonder why scientists are putting human genes into plants and animals? No, it's not for fun, or because we're amoral, weird, or evil. The reasons depend on what gene we're talking about, but there's almost always a logical reason, like trying to understand cancer or improving the food supply. "Frankenanimals" or "Frankenfood" are not "part-human" or "part-animal," though some mice are considered "humanized" (due to the expression of human-like genes in some tissues).

This does not mean that the strawberry you are eating is part fish. DNA is DNA, and a "fish" gene is not inherently "fishy" any more than any of your genes are fundamentally "human." There are many gene sequences, called conserved, that are extremely similar across multiple species, so the DNA itself is not human or animal.

So while that strawberry is expressing a protein normally found in fish, it is not "part fish." It's not ridiculous to put some gene into an animal or plant it normally wouldn't be found in; that "fish gene" actually protects that strawberry from a killing frost and has nothing to do with "being a fish." Scientists don't do ridiculous experiments. There's not enough funding for that.

When I read Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking (Harper Voyager, 2008) I nearly threw the book across the room when I realized her apocalypse was caused by an attack of the killer tomato. While it is true that animal and human genes are used in plants or bacteria (and yes, sometimes animals like mice or rabbits), it is not true that a human virus put into a tomato plant can kill the vast majority of humans on the planet.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Putting the Science in Fiction"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Dan Koboldt.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

FOREWORD BY CHUCK WENDIG, 1,
INTRODUCTION BY DAN KOBOLDT, 4,
PART ONE: RESEARCH LABS, HOSPITALS, AND REALLY BAD WAYS TO DIE,
1. HOW TO ASK AN EXPERT by Engineer Eric Primm, 7,
2. RESEARCHERS GONE WILD by Microbiologist Gabriel Vidrine, 11,
3. PROPER LAB TECHNIQUE by Nuclear Chemist Rebecca Enzor, 14,
4. ORGANOGENESIS IN 3D by Toxicologist Megan Cartwright Chaudhuri, 18,
5. MEDICAL MISCONCEPTIONS, PART I by Nurse Karyne Norton, 21,
6. MEDICAL MISCONCEPTIONS, PART II by Nurse Stephanie Sauvinet, 26,
7. THE SCIENCE OF TOXINS AND POISONING by Toxicologist Megan Cartwright Chaudhuri, 30,
8. THE MANY FACES OF DEATH by Science Reporter Bianca Nogrady, 33,
PART TWO: GENOME ENGINEERING: IT NEVER ENDS WELL,
9. A WHIRLWIND TOUR OF THE HUMAN GENOME by Geneticist Dan Koboldt, 37,
10. EYE-BASED PATERNITY TESTING AND OTHER HUMAN GENETICS MYTHS by Geneticist Dan Koboldt, 40,
11. THE NEAR FUTURE OF HUMAN GENOME ENGINEERING by Geneticist Dan Koboldt, 44,
12. THE SCIENCE OF JURASSIC PARK by Microbiologist Mike Hays, 48,
13. ZOMBIE MICROBIOLOGY 101 by Microbiologist Mike Hays, 52,
14. ROGUE VIRUSES AND PATHOGENS by Biomedical Researcher Lee A. Everett, 57,
15. PLAGUES AND PANDEMICS by Microbiologist Gabriel Vidrine, 62,
PART THREE: THE BRAIN IS WIDER THAN THE SKY,
16. WRITING MENTAL HEALTH IN FICTION by Psychiatric Nurse Kathleen S. Allen, 67,
17. BIPOLAR DISORDER by Psychiatrist Jonathan Peeples, 72,
18. SCHIZOPHRENIA by Psychiatrist Jonathan Peeples, 77,
19. MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT MEMORY by Behavioral Neurologist Anne M. Lipton, 82,
20. DEMENTIA MYTHS, PART I by Behavioral Neurologist Anne M. Lipton, 86,
21. DEMENTIA MYTHS, PART II by Behavioral Neurologist Anne M. Lipton, 90,
22. CHILDREN WITH BEHAVIORAL, EMOTIONAL, & SOCIAL DIFFICULTIES by Teacher Rachel Heaps-Page, 94,
23. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT BEYOND PERSONALITY QUIRKS by Educational Psychologist Maria Grace, 98,
24. THE HORIZONS OF NEUROSCIENCE by Neuroscientist Paul Regier, 103,
PART FOUR: FROM ZERO TO SIXTY (LEGS, THAT IS),
25. WILDLIFE BIOLOGY by Wildlife Biologist Rebecca Mowry, 108,
26. WRITING OUTSIDE THE HUMAN BOX by Biology Professor Brie Paddock, 113,
27. WHAT BUGS ME ABOUT INSECTS by Entomologist Robinne Weiss, 116,
28. PORTRAYING WOLVES FAIRLY AND ACCURATELY by Environmentalist William Huggins, 120,
29. GENDER DETERMINATION IN ANIMALS by Entomologist Robinne Weiss, 124,
30. OUT IN THE COLD: POLAR ANIMALS by Biology Professor Brie Paddock, 128,
31. TENTACLES: FROM OCTOPUS TO ALIEN by Marine Biologist Danna Staaf, 132,
PART FIVE: THINGS TO KNOW FOR WHEN SKYNET TAKES OVER,
32. DEBUNKING MYTHS ABOUT COMPUTERS AND THE INTERNET by Programmer Matt Perkins, 137,
33. YOUR SCIENCE FICTION CELL PHONE ISN'T COOL ENOUGH by Tech Consultant Effie Seiberg, 141,
34. CGI IS NOT MADE BY COMPUTERS by Video Game Developer Abby Goldsmith, 145,
35. WHAT'S POSSIBLE WITH CYBORGS AND CYBERNETICS by Neuroscientist Benjamin C. Kinney, 149,
36. BELIEVABLE NANOTECHNOLOGY by Physicist Dan Allen, 154,
37. CRAFTING HOLOGRAMS by Engineer Judy L. Mohr, 159,
38. INFORMATION THEORY: DEEP THOUGHTS ON BUILDING HAL by Decision Scientist A.R. Lucas, 162,
PART SIX: EARTH AND OTHER PLANETS. YES, PLUTO COUNTS!,
39. NEAR-FUTURE SCENARIOS FOR HUMANS AND PLANET EARTH by Science Reporter Bianca Nogrady, 168,
40. THE FUTURE OF ENERGY by Geophysicist K.E. Lanning, 172,
41. EARTHQUAKES: FACT VS. FICTION by Structural Engineer Amy Mills, 176,
42. IMAGINING CLIMATE CHANGE by Geophysicist K.E. Lanning, 180,
43. HOW THE OCEAN WILL KILL YOU by Marine Biologist Danna Staaf, 183,
44. HABITABLE ATMOSPHERES by Atmospheric Scientist Lynn Forrest, 186,
45. AGING PROPERTIES PUTTING THE SCIENCE IN FICTION by Chemist Gwen C. Katz, 190,
46. GRAVITY BASICS by Physicist Dan Allen, 193,
PART SEVEN: SOMETIMES, IT REALLY IS ROCKET SCIENCE,
47. REALISTIC ASTRONOMY by Astronomer Tom Benedict, 198,
48. IMAGING OVER LONG DISTANCES by Engineer Judy L. Mohr, 203,
49. RELATIVITY AND SPACE-TIME by Physicist Dan Allen, 207,
50. MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SPACE by Aerospace Engineer Jamie Krakover, 212,
51. REALISTIC SPACE FLIGHT by Pilot and Aviation Journalist Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, 217,
52. WASTE MANAGEMENT by Environmental Scientist Gareth D. Jones, 221,
53. ENCLOSED ECOSYSTEMS AND LIFE-SUPPORT SYSTEMS by Biomedical Scientist Philip A. Kramer, 225,
PART EIGHT: STAR WARS AND THE FAR FUTURE,
54. FASTER-THAN-LIGHT TRAVEL by Physicist Jim Gotaas, 231,
55. CRYOPRESERVATION by Research Biologist Terry Newman, 235,
56. THE WEAPONS OF STAR WARS by Engineer Judy L. Mohr, 240,
57. HOW TO DESIGN A PRACTICAL SPACESHIP by Engineer Eric Primm, 244,
58. EXOPLANETS AND HABITABILITY by Physicist Jim Gotaas, 248,
59. PRINTING THE FAR FUTURE by Aerospace Engineer Jamie Krakover, 252,
ABOUT THE EXPERTS, 255,

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