Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Surprising Cooperation and Competition Between Science and Fiction in Science Fiction

Good science fiction requires good science.  That seems axiomatic.  So I figured my scientific training would expedite my science fiction experiments.  Turns out I was right…or at least as right as I could be as I also discovered I was entirely mistaken. 

I believed making science would prepare me to make fiction, but writing science would hurt me when writing fiction.  I’ve found mostly the opposite.

It turns out that the words I logged writing science, telling evidential stories about the counter-intuitive processes in our world, prepared me to tell stories about other worlds.  But I’ve uncovered cognitive tools, so basic to the scientific enterprise I scarcely notice them humming under the hood, that I had to unlearned before I could write modern fiction. 

More specifically, I’ve learned three things about the symbiosis and conflict between science and fiction in science fiction. 

   1.  Technical writing makes excellent training for creative writing.

I used to think my technical writing and my fiction were both mediocre because they required antagonistic skills.  I thought the subverted each other.  I thought technical parsimony undermined the florid description that populated good fiction.  I believed that the adjectives I piled into my fiction contaminated the linguistic economy of my technical prose, and sparse scientific descriptions, which scorn not only adjectives but even synonyms, built unhelpful habits for fiction. 

This was mistaken. 

My writing wasn’t mediocre because I dabbled in genres with different conventions.  My writing was bad because I couldn’t write.[1] 

Both conventions reward linguistic economy.  Unnecessary adjectives[2] are equally unnecessary whether I’m describing an experiment or a setting.  Adverbs generally beg to be verbs or to simply disappear whether I’ve added them - copiously - to technical reports or novels.  Extra words clutter text about worlds real or imaginary, and artfully crafted sentences are as welcome in a journal as a novel.

Two of the leading contemporary, speculative-short-fiction authors started their careers[3] as technical writers.  This is not a fluke.  Learning to communicate clearly, make verbs work, maintain subject coherence, construct sentences that brains can parse, and make stories flow, are important whether they they describe this universe or another.  

Every hour I spent taking the proverbial sawed-off to zombie nouns, selecting precise, slightly onomatopoeic verbs, simplifying sentences, until the technical prose had something of a cadence, was an investment in my fiction.  And as I learned the art of right branching sentences, considered the psychology of clause storage,[4] and added other tools in the fiction quiver, my technical writing improved.  

Science writing doesn’t have to be Hemingway.

   2.  Science is Generalization but Fiction is Incarnation… and those are, like, really different.

So I started writing fiction with a few of my million words already littering rarely accessed tomes[5] in science libraries and obscure academic journals.  But my science training did ingrain skills I had to unlearn.  One of the most important science making skills stands opposed to one of the most important literature making skills.  In fact, you could say, they are opposite skills.

Science coalesces particular observations into generalizations.

Literature embodies generalizations into particular observations.

Science is generalization, moving from details to system, from observation to hypothesis to theory which may or may not prove resilient under a thousand Poparian assaults. 
Fiction embeds the general in the particular.  It incarnates theory and idea into observation, sense, setting, dialogue, and detail.[6]   It evokes a common sense, a shared human experience, from a unique, novel, detail.

Science moves from detail to paradigm.  Science distills data into organizing principle, or at least heuristic.  So, when a scientist writes fiction, it stings to leave things at the level of observed detail.  I want to interpret.  I want to distill detail to paradigm.[7]  A novel is like a thesis that only includes methods and results, leaving the synthesis of the discussion to the reader.

    3.  Science and Literature both Build With Careful, Novel Observation

But there is at least one way science helps the fiction.  

Both science and fiction are built on formal, rigorous, apprenticeship in careful observation. 

Science requires careful observation, noticing details that escaped generations of better observers.  You cannot do good science without re-examining data, looking at them one more time, for the eighth, ninth, fortieth, or four hundredth time, until you see that one distinctive detail that tells the story anew.  I wall paper my office with huge posters of data, and stare at them, and sometimes swear at them, until they tell me a story that I’ve never heard before.  

If you can apply that skill to social worlds, both contemporary and imagined, the scientific apparatus can help fiction.  The author searches reality for moments, gestures, phrases, and reactions that are such startlingly familiar instances of a general human experience that they will even feel familiar in another world.

Both science and fiction build out of a careful collection of surprising detail. 

Fiction just leaves synthesis on the table, letting readers pull the observations together into their own world and conclusions.

This post was written while listening to the Alexisonfire Pandora Station

[1] A problem I recognize I’ve only partially rectified.  But you’ve got to write abysmal words you edit into bad words before you can write mediocre words you edit into good ones.  And a blog is a good place to practice.  Sorry.
[2] Note: I reject Hemingway.  Adjectives and adverbs are tools, powerful if used well.  The key here is “unnecessary.”
[3] And in Cheng’s case, continued his day job…at least until he sold Stories of Your life for $25 million.  I have so many mixed feelings about that.  I am thrilled to see Chang get paid.  And I like the team associated with this project.  But I also think that the very things that made Stories of Your Life one of the greatest pieces of modern short science fiction, are the things that will make it difficult to convert to film.
[4] Clause storage sounds a little grisly, like a Christmas Saw film.  Saw XII: Clause Storage
[5] The similarity of tomes to tombs is surprisingly apt when considering the black binding gestalt of the shelved thesis.
[6] Fictions instantiate class.  The whole Platonic form thing is passé, replaced by a better metaphor from object oriented software development. 
[7] I have four pieces of paper on the wall and a recurring pay check telling me that’s what I’m supposed to do.  Ok, I don’t have my science diplomas on the wall.  I don’t actually know where they are.  It’s a metaphor…or, um, an allusion.  I’m still bad at this.  Also, I’ve never spelled metaphor correctly on the first try.  It’s like restaurant and colleagues.

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