Science Fiction and Science

How do authors develop the scientific ideas found in science fiction stories? The science in a SF story should be possible. That is, readers are easily convinced that the hardware (for example, a hyperdrive) could exist and that a described technique for its use (warp speed achieved through use of dilithium crystal) is reasonable. The ways authors find an idea for use in a story is the subject of this article.

In my own case, I began with three story problems. The first was how do I explain that when aliens appear, humans tremble and collapse in their presence? This response in the presence of an alien being is well-documented in literature and modern mythology. In the Hebrew Scriptures humans often collapse in the presence of an angel; for example, in Daniel 8:17-18, when the angel Gabriel approaches him, Daniel writes, I was terrified and fell prostrate. Reports of alien abductions often contain similar mention of paralysis or disorientation. I used this human response in my story and explained it scientifically by suggesting that human incapacitation occurs because of the overlayering of the alien universe with our universe when an alien appears in our space-time. In my story aliens bring their nine dimensions with them when they appear, making three-dimensional beings physically sick.

The second story problem was how can beings fight using thought alone? The idea was that in their own nine-dimensional universe, thoughts are physically potent. Beings from a multi-dimensional universe need only think to make things come to pass. But what science could support such a WYTIWYG (what you think is what you get) universe? The physics of our universe support our life, so it is reasonable to suppose that the physics of a universe of nine dimensions would support the lives of spirit beings living there and the actualization of their thoughts.

However, this solution creates another story problem: if a being living where thoughts became real suddenly had a bad thought (like monsters destroying their civilization), such a thought must come true, being supported as it is by the physics of that universe. Therefore, beings living in such a place must be morally pure so they were not subject to any evil designs or dark thoughts that would change their universe from a heaven into a hell. We’ve seen this idea in literature before. In Milton’s Paradise Lost a good angel (Lucifer) goes bad and is cast out of the heavenly (morally pure) universe.

The third story problem that needed a scientific solution was the need to find a means for human beings to fight aliens who possessed these kinds of powers. The science fiction solution to this problem lay (in my mind) in abstract algebra. Scientific literature I had read mentioned that our dimensions of left=right, back-forth, and up-down have been described in the laws of physics by about 20 constants. (Brian Greene explained this idea in the elegant universe which I read and loved.) If we had a machine that could constantly monitor these fundamental constants of nature in some sort of field around us, we could know if the numbers were changing or new numbers were being introduced. If we could project such a field around us (in which these 20 constants were maintained), then a person inside such a field could stand in the presence of an alien who was warping our space-time with values from his own antithetical universe. In the end my story used bosonic field equations as a means of determining the presence of deformations caused by the introduction of additional dimensions into our space-time.

This personal illustration exemplifies what I believe is the means through which science fiction authors develop fictional science. Exposure to current scientific thought in the dumbed-down literature scientists create for non-scientist is one place to look for ideas. By extrapolating from these ideas, we can speculate on where scientific and social issues may take a society.

What will happen with the fusion between man and machine (cyberpunk), how will warfare be changed (military SF), what might an alternate/parallel universe look like, how might science effect intrigues or quests. In my case I’m interested in the idea of magic and the supernatural. My novel The Beginning of This, The End of That involves the idea that the supernatural is really just the natural world of dimensional beings whose reality is supported by a physics we are only beginning to imagine.

If that were so, if the supernatural were really just something natural to another dimension or another universe, what perspective would it provide when looking back over human mythology or forward to a prophetic future?

Critiquing Fiction: The 10-Point Review

A critique is an appraisal of your story with accompanying suggestions for improvement. In some ways, it’s like an annual review with your boss or a report card from school: you’re told a bit about what you’re doing well and offered some suggestions on how you could do better.

It’s an excellent method to learn if your story is sound, before you submit it to an editor. A good critique can mean the difference between publication and rejection.

Want someone to read your work and tell you how to improve? Trade critiques with someone else. Not only do you get the opinion of another writer, you improve your own skill set. By critically reviewing the work of others you learn what works and what doesn’t, and can apply it to your own writing.

Here are ten things to look for when assessing the work of others:

1 – Hook

The hook is the first line or paragraph of the story: the opening. Is it sufficient to interest the reader? Is there a balance between dialogue, action and narrative to set the hook? What does or doesn’t work? How can it be made better?

2 – Character

Discuss the believability of the characters. Are they well-rounded or only two dimensional? Are they caricatures or stereotypes? Are the characters actions’ consistent? Are their motives understandable? Are the plot and the characters’ motives in sync? Provide solid examples to demonstrate your point of view.

3 – Setting

Creating a believable world is crucial. It also needs to help set the mood. Discuss whether the setting is right or not for the story, and give examples of what works and what doesn’t. Is the description of locale too much or too little? Did it enhance the mood? Can you visualize the setting? Can you picture what the characters are seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling?

4 – Plot

Does the plot make sense? Did events happen in a logical order? Did the story start in the right place? (Maybe not, if there’s no apparent hook, or the story feels as though the author didn’t get to the point right away.) Discuss any rough spots. Did the story have a beginning, middle and an end? If in a particular genre, did it work? Is it appropriate for the chosen audience? Does the pacing work throughout the manuscript?

5 – Theme

Not every author writes a story with an intentional theme in mind. Nonetheless, one usually develops by the end of the story. While critiquing, consider whether the story has an overt theme and what it is. If a theme emerges, does it work? Can you restate the theme in a single sentence? Is the plot of the story or storyline appropriate for this theme?

6 – Conflict and Resolution

Is there enough conflict in the story to create adequate tension? If not, what is stopping the tension from building? What could be changed to increase it? Does the story resolve too easily? If so, is that a reflection on the characters or the plot?

7 – Dialogue

Is the dialogue realistic? Does it forward the plot? Is it obvious who is speaking? Are sufficient dialogue attribution tags used? Are too many tags used? Cross out said bookisms-dialogue attribution which is impossible (he smiled, she hissed, he sniffed) or those which explain the conversation (he demanded, she insisted, etc.).

8 – Viewpoint

Review the characters and their roles in the story. Are there jarring shifts of viewpoint characters within a scene? If a scene isn’t working, is it possible that another character should have the viewpoint to carry the plot forward?

9 – Grammar/Language/Overall Writing

This is a detailed examination of grammar, language and writing. On the manuscript, mark awkward passages, spelling errors, trite or over-used phrases, incorrect grammar, poor transitions, etc. Point out passive verbs and cross out unnecessary adverbs. Look for places the author may have told more than he showed. Were there any metaphors or analogies? Did they work? Was there a balance of narrative and action? Was the sentence pattern varied? Has the author made any Freudian slips or written in any anachronisms?

10 – Summary

Sum up overall impressions of the manuscript. Did you like the story? Why or why not? Did it work as a whole? Did it feel cohesive? What about the title? Does it work for the story? Why or why not? Point out whether you believe the story is marketable or not and provide solid reasoning for the belief, especially if you don’t believe the piece is marketable. If you think it will sell, suggest a market or two for which the manuscript may be relevant.

Even if you’re meeting face-to-face to discuss the stories, always provide the author with a written copy of your remarks. He should do the same for you. It’s helpful in providing a detailed observation for the write and it can be useful in furnishing a cohesive, articulate oral review.

Historical Fiction Brings the Past to Life

Birth of the Historical Novel

One of the earliest examples of historical fiction is China’s 800,000-word Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Written in the 14th century and packed with a thousand characters in 120 chapters, the novel is seventy percent historical fact, with accurate descriptions of social conditions, and thirty percent fiction, encompassing legend, folklore and myth.

The first historical novel in the West was Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), the first of some 30 books-including Rob Roy (1817) and Ivanhoe (1819)-that romanticized and popularized Scottish and English history. He is considered the first historical novelist, the first to view history as a distinct cultural setting with characters locked in social conflict.

Following the French Revolution and Napoleon, when ordinary people entered history and became a vast literate public whose lives provided the subject matter for literature, historical novels reached a peak of popularity throughout Europe in the 19th century.

Honore de Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (1837), Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities (1859), Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865), and Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) and The Three Musketeers (1884) are all classics of high literary quality.

Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales

Inspired by Scott, James Fenimore Cooper was the father of historical fiction in America. His Leatherstocking Tales comprised five historical novels-The Pioneers (1823), Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841)-that dramatized the conflict between the frontier and advancing civilization.

The Pioneers, the first bestseller in the United States, introduced Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo, a frontiersman known as Leatherstocking, the Pathfinder, the Trapper, Deerslayer, or La Longue Carabine. In The Last of the Mohicans, Natty becomes Hawkeye, who is befriended by Chingachgook and Uncas, idealized, noble Indians.

“Chingachgook, Uncas and Leatherstocking are Cooper’s supreme achievement, one of the glories of American literature,” wrote historian Allan Nevins. “Leatherstocking is… one of the great prize men of world fiction… The cumulative effect of the Leatherstocking Tales is tremendous,… the nearest approach yet to an American epic.”

Cooper, who restrained his fertile imagination with history as a body of facts and yet was no slave to facts, was hailed by Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick (1851), a renowned historical novel based on two real events, as “our national novelist,” and Balzac stated that the character of Leatherstocking will live “as long as literature lasts.”

Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine

Honore de Balzac, the “French Dickens,” was the inheritor of Scott’s style of the historical novel in France. His magnum opus, La Comédie Humaine (1829-48), was an interlinked chain of 100 novels and stories unveiling a panorama of life from 1815-1848, after the fall of Napoleon, who once famously said: “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”

Balzac’s vision of society-in which class, money and ambition are the major factors-was embraced by Hugo, Tolstoy and Dumas, and liberals and conservatives alike. Friedrich Engels, a founder of Marxist theory, wrote that he learned more from Balzac “than all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together.”

However, Henry James, the father of the realistic psychological novel, complained: “The artist of the Comédie Humaine is half-smothered by the historian.” In fact, this American considered historical novels “fatally cheap.” But he also admitted that the “novel, far from being make-believe, competes with life since it records the stuff of history.”

The Triumph of Historical Fiction

Notable modern historical novels include Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), James Clavell’s Asian Saga (1962-93), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975). Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (1978) and other books exceed 100 million in worldwide sales.

The Broadway production of the lavish musical Ragtime, based on the bestselling novel, ran for two years, closing in 2000 after 834 performances and a dozen Tony Award nominations. Focusing on a suburban family, a Harlem musician and Eastern European immigrants, the show also included such American historical figures as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford.

And since 1985, Hugo’s Les Misérables-which follows the lives of thirty fictional characters, from prostitutes to workers to student revolutionaries, as they struggle for redemption through revolution-has achieved global acclaim as the world’s second-longest-running musical seen by 60 million people in 21 languages in 43 nations.

Synthesizing Fact and Fiction

Historical novels aim to transport readers back in time to experience characters and events-sometimes ordinary folks in extraordinary times or famous figures at any time. But their authors always confront similar problems in the writing, such as determining how much fact and how much fiction to include, and how to synthesize fact and fiction.

Tolstoy said that War and Peace, one of the great works of world literature, was more than a novel, but “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.”

Mario Vargas Llosa explained that when writing his first historical novel, The War of the End of the World (1981), he felt “free to change, deform and invent situations, using the historical background only as a point of departure to create fiction, that is, literary invention.” A character in one of his stories adds, “I wonder if we ever know what you call History with a capital H. Or if there’s as much make-believe in history as in novels.”

When creating The Feast of the Goat (2000), which portrays the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic from two angles a generation apart, in 1961 and 1996, the Peruvian writer said he “respected the basic facts. I have not exaggerated,” but also conceded: “It’s a novel, not a history book, so I took many, many liberties.”

Historical Fiction and History

One difference between fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and reporting is that the novelist has his characters act out the story, helping readers imagine how they felt, while the historian just relates what happened. An author must also decide whether a story is character-driven, which may retard its pace, or plot-driven, as history may hasten time.

The distinguishing feature between novels and history is that in fiction the reader can venture inside the hearts and minds of the characters. In history, this can only be done if the characters tell the reader in writing (letters, journals, diaries) what they are thinking. Also, fictional characters in novels normally don’t intervene in major historical events.

Fiction offers an account of the romantic life of the characters, while history usually does not. And like movies, novels make sense of the world by tying up a story with an ending, or denouement, in a way the real world does not. The outcome of the story in historical fiction is uncertain until this climax, creating drama only rarely found in history books.

Research and Historical Fiction

Writers of historical fiction must undertake a comprehensive study of the history of the era they portray. Without thorough research, historical novels become escapist romances, which make no pretense of historical accuracy, using a setting in an imagined past only to present improbable adventures and implausible characters found mostly in pure fantasy.

In more than a few novels, such as Alexandre Dumas’s Queen Margot (1845), the accuracy of the historical research has been questioned. “I have raped history,” the author confessed, “but this has produced some beautiful offspring.” And postmodern novelists like Thomas Pynchon, author of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Mason & Dixon (1997), deliberately mix fictional characters not only with actual history-but invented history.

Some historical novels are without fictional characters, like Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934) and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome (1990-2007) series. And some have even had a major impact on history itself: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the bestselling novel of the 19th century, helped bring on the Civil War.

Off-Stage History

In many novels, historical events often take place off-stage. In Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1984), the Civil War remains in the background, without any battle scenes or references to the terrible carnage, while the first family and the cabinet spring to life. Vidal also portrays “Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator” as a common man, and not a saint.

It is part of his Narratives of Empire series of seven historical novels-Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1997), Washington, D.C. (1967) and The Golden Age (2000)-interweaving the private lives of fictional families with the public actions of the famous, chronicling the course of the American Empire from dawn to doom.

Time scales vary in historical novels. While many writers focus on a major event or series of events, James Michener, who had a large research staff, wrote more than 40 books-Hawaii (1959), The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), The Covenant (1982), Poland (1983), Texas (1985), Alaska (1988) and Caribbean (1989) -featuring generations of characters in tales spanning hundreds or thousands of years.

The Family Saga

A subgenre of historical fiction that examines the exploits of a family or several allied families over a period of time is the family saga, which may also render historical events, social changes, and the ebb and flow of family fortunes from multiple perspectives. The typical saga may record generations of family history in a series of novels as well.

Successful examples of popular family sagas of literary note include: The Sagas of Icelanders (930-1030), Dream of the Red Chamber (1868), Buddenbrooks (1901) by Thomas Mann, The Forsyte Saga (1906-21) by John Galsworthy, Brideshead Revisited (1945) by Evelyn Waugh, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) by James Baldwin,…

The Kent Family Chronicles (1974-79), the North and South trilogy (1982-87) and Crown Family Saga (1993-98) by John Jakes, Roots (1976) by Alex Haley, The Immigrants (1977) by Howard Fast, The Thorn Birds (1977) by Colleen McCullough, The House of the Spirits (1982) by Isabelle Allende and One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the universally praised tour de force by Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia.

Epic Historical Films

Many historical novels have been produced as extravagant epic or biographical movies, which are expensive to make because they entail authentic antique costumes, elaborate musical scores, panoramic settings, long action sequences on a grand scale, huge casts of characters, and filming on location. Such spectacles are often called costume dramas.

Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Leopard (1963), Dr. Zhivago (1965), Reds (1981), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Last Emperor (1987), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Scarlet Letter (1995), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Gladiator (2000), Alexander (2004), King Arthur (2004) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) are all epic films that humanize history and bring the past to life.

They leave audiences feeling they have learned the “lessons of history,” but want to learn more. However, in Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon (1999), an historical thriller in which a detective aims to solve a brutal murder, one character fatalistically concludes: “It’s easily forgotten that history is not what you read in books. It’s a personal thing, and people are vengeful creatures, which is why history will never teach us anything.”