About Writing on Wednesdays: Can Science Steal the Story?

Ok. Let’s try this again. I accidentally trashed the first try. Sorry.

Tedd Roberts, Toni Weisskopf, Gray Rinehart and Christiana Ellis were on a great panel at Stellarcon called Science Vs Story.

Toni Weisskopf took over Baen Books as publisher after Jim Baen died. She is a hoot. She is in your face and says it how she believes it. I think it’s safe to say you will always know where you stand with her.

Now all through the weekend I heard a lot about information dump, don’t do it. The first thing that came out of Toni’s mouth was she is a fan of the info dump. In her words, “…give me the effing science. Be specific and get to the point.”

Gray Rinehart, her General Slushmaster, had just said in another panel not to info dump. He was sitting next to her as she said this and gave her the ‘are you kidding me’ look. I had to laugh because I’m sure they had a talk about that later.

A colorful, larger than life woman Toni was eff this and eff that for a while until she stopped and apologized. Editing and publishing induced “passionate” feelings in her, she said.

The panel touched very little on the science versus the story angle but I do like a well written sci-fi story, especially a good space opera. It’s important so we will talk about it.

So what did they discuss? There was a lot of discussion of how important it is for the science to be believable. The entire panel agreed the science has to be right but there is some leeway.  As long as the science is at least plausible the audience will stay with you if you’re consistent throughout the story.

Much of the discussion centered around the credentials of many of the authors who write science fiction. Some of them have jobs as real scientists. For instance David Brin is a scientist and Gregory Benford is an astrophysicist. I have not read their books so I can not comment on them.

David Weber is a good author and I like his fantasy books but his sci-fi books are swoosh! Right over my head. Those books are a good example of when science steals the story. His Honor Harrington books are very popular but I just can not read them. They are so techie I get a headachie.

In his sci-fi books, science drives each scene similar to the way sex drives each scene in a book of erotica. There’s nothing wrong with either of those type of books but they’re not balanced and in my opinion they’re hard to read. Too much of a good thing, as it were.

Some of my favorite authors are C.J. Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey, Greg Bear, Elizabeth Moon, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Melisa Michaels, and Catherine Asaro. These authors keep the science in check and tell a good story.

In C.J. Cherryh’s Hammerfall I swear I was on my feet shouting, even though I’d just had surgery on my foot, at the end. The characters and plot drive the story, not the science, and the book is better for it. In fact it’s excellent.

Balance is the key. Of course, there’s always exceptions but science should punctuate the story, explain it, and enhance it. It should not drive it unless you’re a techie or robot and you get a, uh, charge from it.

Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers came up in this discussion as it did in many of the panels. The book came up so much I went and bought it. Now I need to read it. One panelist stated this, “The story is not on the page, it is what the reader produces in their imagination.”

The point is well taken but it’s easier said than done and I can’t help it, I want just a bit of description. At least enough to get me going. Maybe the book will change my mind. I’ll let you know.

So who is your favorite sci-fi author or book? Do you want more science or more story? Do agree the story is not on the page but in the reader’s imagination or do you want some description?


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jenny Hansen
    May 25, 2011 @ 00:48:48

    I love, love, loved “The Disposessed” (sp?) by Ursula LeGuin. I also love Futuristic books like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and J.D. Robb’s “In Death” series.


  2. Diane
    May 25, 2011 @ 01:01:44

    Your first 4 favourite authors are some of my favourite authors. I have read a lot of H G Wells when I was younger but never collected his books. I don’t know the other three, but they possibly never got published in Australia. Also love Modesitt, Jnr (both SciFi and Fantasy), Robert Jordan, Tara Harper, Mecedes Lackey, Lisanne Norman, etc. I have at least 4 of David Brin’s books and I love the science as he portrays it. I am sure there are more authors I love, but can’t think of them just now.

    As for description, I am sure I said this before, but … I need enough to visualise the stage, but I can add more if I need to. Such as, brown pants and shirt is enough for me to imagine how the char is dressed. I can add light brown or dark brown, course or fine weave cloth, sleeves rolled up or not, buttons missing, stains, wrinkles, etc. if they are not important to the mood of the scene. If stains or any of the other details are important then the author had better include those details. If they are not important, they don’t have to be included. Remember, Holly said “describe what is different.” We can imagine what is normal.

    I am techie so I understand a lot of the computer side of things and when I add in science I can imagine all sorts of far out stuff, so I am drawn to those stories.

    Is Stellacon on every weekend? Is it a local writing group or a web talk? Lucky you getting to listen to the authors talk. 🙂


    • curiocat
      May 27, 2011 @ 18:25:13

      You like Lisanne Norman, too? I didn’t think she was ever going to come out with that last book.

      All the panels at Stellarcon took place in one weekend. I went on Friday from 3pm (when it started) to 9pm, Saturday from 9am to 9pm and Sunday from 9am to 3pm. A very long weekend but well worth it.

      I made notes while I was there and came home and made even more notes. I’m just about at the end of everything I learned from there. I enjoyed sharing and hope I’ve at least given food for thought.


  3. Tiffany A White
    May 25, 2011 @ 14:04:20

    I hate to admit that I’m not big on sci-fi at all. The only semi-sci-fi that I’ve read is James Patterson’s When the Wind Blows. It’s about children who can fly, etc…but it’s based around a mystery.

    That said, too much science can clog a girl’s mind, well my mind anyway. Information is good, in small doses…as long as the author creates the picture of the story he/she is trying to tell, they’ve accomplished what I’m looking for in any novel.


    • curiocat
      May 27, 2011 @ 18:34:48

      Science Fiction isn’t for everyone and at that some of us have ours limits. Some writers I’ve talked to invent their own warp drives, build miniature ships, etc. Wow, if that’s what you want to do but make sure you put as much effort into the story, too.


  4. Damian Trasler
    May 26, 2011 @ 11:32:37

    Ok, here’s how I break it down. There’s Sci-Fi and Hard Sci-Fi. Sci-Fi for me is fun stuff, like Harry Harrison (The Stainless Steel Rat Series) and Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s guide). They have science in them, but it’s not vital – we know the Guide is updated over the sub-ether network, but do we need to know how that works? No. When a minor character is introduced as “spending a year dead for tax reasons” and is described as being on a “death support system” is there an intricate explanation of the revival process? No, because it’s not important to the story, it’s a throwaway gag. Similarly, when Jim Di Griz needs some advanced weaponry and gadgets, he opens a small box that seems to contain models of the items he needs and connects them to a device. This device, he explains, has removed 99 out of every hundred molecules from the items, laving them miniaturised. By replacing those missing molecules, he can ‘inflate’ them back to their regular size. This simultaneously makes sense and is complete and utter hogwash.
    For hard sci-fi, I would go to Asimov. His short stories, particularly the mysteries are wonderful, combining good characterisation and excellent plotting with hard science. The explanation for his characters deductions are solid and supported by science, yet still understandable by the layman thanks to the clues helpfully slipped into the early part of the narrative. Oops, gotta dash, job interview!


  5. curiocat
    May 27, 2011 @ 18:43:00

    Gulp. I have not read Asimov. I know he’s a sci-fi icon but for some reason I just keep skipping over him. Maybe it was 2001 A Space Odyssey that just made me think he was way over my head.

    Hope the job interview went well.


    • Damian Trasler
      Jun 01, 2011 @ 18:15:09

      My introduction to his work was a recommendation to read “The Caves of Steel” which isn’t a bad way in. I also read at least two of the “Foundation and Empire” books, but they got to be a bit heavy going…. His short stories are brilliant though, even if they feel a bit dated. Funny how stories of the future can be dated, isn’t it?


      • Angela/Curiocat
        Jun 04, 2011 @ 19:34:07

        Yes it is but it’s even more amazing that many of them came so close to getting it right. I’ll look up the The Caves of Steel and see if I can read it without my eyes crossing. Lol. Thanks for the recommendation.

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