Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Comic-Con 2005 Science in Sci-Fi Panel Discussion Notes

I've been procrastinating on the Comic-Con writeup because I wanted to spend some time really thinking about the sorts of things that I heard and saw. Also, because I put my notebook down in a weird place and didn't find it again until today. So! Without further ado, here are some observations about Comic-Con 2005!

First, I made a list of comics I wanted. This is always an exercise in optimism, since the amount of comics for sale at Comic-con is so enormous, and the organization of those comics so whacked, that the odds of you walking out with what you wanted when you walked in are quite low. Essentially, I was looking for Lone Wolf and Cub, Grey, Shi, Vampire Miyu, Dirty Pair, Gunsmith Cats, GI Joe European Missions, GI Joe vs. Transformers, Racer X, and anything in German.

I did get a few comics, and some of them are nearly the same as what I had on my list.

Here are my notes from the Science in Sci-Fi panel discussion.

Does it really matter how good the science is in science fiction? Hard Sci-Fi requires the technology to be more correct. There is the concept of Tech-Fi vs Sci-Fi was raised. When technology is the point of the story you have ceased writing Sci-Fi.

With regards to what is known as Comic Book Science - the more you try to explain Superman, the more you end up destroying Superman. Comic Book Science is just good enough to set the stage for the human relationships that the story is "really" about. I had the same reaction to the Mitichlorians explanation of "The Force" in Star Wars. I remember being and still am totally offended that The Force was reduced to some sort of genetic mutation. This made it impossible for The Force being something that a person could train to do, and made it less mysterious, special, and human. Even though DNA is the essentiality of being human, reducing such a magical thing to something easily identified in the bloodstream made me fume. Perhaps my reaction stems from a resistence to things like being a Jedi as deterministic things. I like the idea that a person can strive and achieve, and that simple genetics isn't the underlying reason. Another example that I thought of while sitting in the panel was Peter Pan and the magic of Neverland.

Characters trump the technology. For example, Heinlein. There is a fiction of science, and you should pick your battles when you write sci-fi. Some things are not and should not be addressed in order to move the story along. When you pick up a book, there are things you accept at face value. This is just the way good stories work, and there is not anything wrong with it. When it doesn't work well, is when you are asked to accept too much at face value, or asked to accept things for little or no reason.

The question of placing your story in time came up. Events will overtake you, so choosing something in the distant future is an easy way to avoid the problem of your particular work looking dated or silly if it's too close to the present, and things don't look like what you envisioned when we all get there.

"What is your string theory story?" The next question examined was that of whether or not significant scientific discoveries make good stories. String Theory, while really cool, doesn't have (to the panel anyway) much to offer readers. Writing a story about the science often devolves into a story about Cool Toys, or a story that runs like Frankenstein - in other words, the risks or danger of technology. These stories often are simplistic and don't result in a good book. Sometimes Sci-Fi can result in things that are indistinguishable from fantasy.

A useful element in Sci-Fi is "handwavium", which allows you to make things happen with having to go into gory detailed explanation. Examples are faster than light travel, unlimited energy sources, and the like. It can, however, be fun to play with limits. For example, the new Battlestar Gallactica has limits on energy, water, and speed.

The science, no matter what, does have to be there. But, plot and character is the reason for reading. Staying ahead is a challenge, in a world where things change very rapidly, and technology almost immediately devours scientific discoveries and churns them out in the form of commoditized products. If the reader starts to pick apart the details, then you start to have some trouble no matter how good the science is. Realistic near-future writing is like trying to stand on slippery sand. Putting a story farther in the future somewhat excuses things.

The next thing discussed was the strength of science as inspiration. Graphical simulations of real physics can produce something amazingly aesthetic. For example, worlds colliding or enormous explosions. Droplets of planets reaching out to touch each other, then splashing together to create the Earth/Moon system. Imagine Mars vs Earth. The odd things that happen all over, the crazy beautiful things that make science addictive.

Mistakes and contradictions in your writing can be productive. Stretches creativity.

Good quotes from the panel

"Look at all this vertical space, unused!" when talking about the crowding in the room.
"Well, thanks. that was really helpful." Sarcastic rejoinder to the singularity question vis a vis technology speeding up to the point where it destroys itself.
"In 50 years, we might be looking out over a 150 different species of human!"
"Aren't we already?" asked another panel member, indicating the enormous variety of different looks and clothing.
"Answer for the entire industry please" moderator posing comic book question to the panel.
"Dear Diary. Stumped Marv." moderator after waiting a few moments with no response from the giggling panel.
"I have no clue about how our government works" one panel member pronounced.
"Neither does George Bush," quipped another.

Biology was considered to be by the panel where the really cool stories will be.

"All of us have politics in our stories" said the panel. This was unchallenged, which was interesting considering Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen, and Jerry Ackerman insisted that politics had no place in sci-fi. I found the two different presentations to be really interesting. Is the place of politics in sci-fi different for these two panels due to age, experience, or something else?

Forecasting politics in sci-fi is often wrong. Writers almost never get the processes and such of politics correct. A little bit of research goes a long way.

Then, one of the authors said "I went to my WWI discussion group with this question..."

I sat there and thought "This guy actually attends a World War I discussion group?" I was impressed.

He said something along the lines of government collapsing at the wrong time. I wanted to raise my hand and ask if a government could collapse at the right time. However, we moved on quickly to talking about how government handles conflict, friction, and diversity of viewpoint. Violence is not so useful as a plot device because it's a simplistic way of presenting government action. This has implications for a project I'm thinking about working on.

Deal with the results, not the process. Products of sci-fi are the characters that are impinged upon by the science.With the idea of technology singularly causing change, you have to present change in a believable manner. People rioting in the streets just isn't really that believable.

Zones of change, manipulation of one group by another, rapid changes that leave whole subcultures out of the story, and conflict between various groups with axes to grind is always more complicated than knee-jerk violence.

The panel noted that sometimes it is difficult to predict the future, yet pointed out that CJ Cherryh failed to back up a supercomputer in one of her books, which is a process that has been around in data management since before the written word.

Biotech and the moral/ethical dilemmas make for great stories. This is the hot zone of writing for the future, according to this panel. All fiction is about humans.

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