Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Science is a tough sell in the here good ole USA.

Yes, folks, we’re not much for science here in the nation that was first to the moon, that ushered in the age of electricity and mass production, that invented television, the atom bomb, the cure for polio. Here, the average man or woman on the street is just not a huge fan of the real life equivalent of Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Our national science budgets lag behind those of other developed nations. Our national space program is all but defunct. Our science education in elementary and secondary schools produces results that can only be described as a disgrace when compared internationally.

Part of that can be explained by our national distrust of intelligence expressed as “book smarts”. We much prefer “street smarts” or “leadership skills” or even “people skills”, and we reward those forms of emotional intelligence in all sorts of ways from the time a child first starts to interact with her parents. Oh, yes, “A’s” are awarded for understanding your lessons, but popularity, friendship, social status and all the perks that are attached to those things are awarded for understanding your peers. Is it possible to understand and work for both things? Absolutely. Do most kids in school realize the subtleties of this distinction? Doubtful.

And, let’s face it, science and math are hard work, intellectually. Not that philosophy and history, aren’t, mind you, but the former you can avoid until college and the latter you can get through with a little hard studying. You have to get math and science. Something has to click in the old brain. If the old brain just isn’t up to it, well . . . I think I’ll just go watch TV.

Lest you think I’m an elitist snob who reads Scientific American over breakfast and long ago found no challenge in the Discover brain teasers, I am a proud liberal arts graduate of a small Midwestern college. Because Beloit grouped its degree requirements in broad “intellectual areas”, I managed to swap out philosophy courses for any math requirements, but I still had to take two science courses (astronomy and organic chemistry). I only got through astronomy with the help of a study group; through chemistry with a boyfriend/tutor. It was the math that was the killer in both cases. I loved the concepts. (And still do—that’s why I’m a science fiction writer.) And, not to brag, but I graduated Phi Beta Kappa. That stuff is just hard!

So I don’t blame my fellow citizens for being wary of something they find largely incomprehensible, at least in the details. Because here’s the interesting subtext: they love "bad" science. Warp drive, killer bees, UFO’s, supersoldiers, bioengineered nano-viruses, time travel (in any form), experiments gone wrong (in any form), virtual reality—you name it, they’ll buy it, usually on the screen (small or large), but also in book form. And the further removed from “real” science, it seems, the larger the audience. Because they’re not interested in a treatise on physics, complete with diagrams and formulas. They’re interested in a good story.

Now, of course, there is a core audience for science fiction, particularly literary-style, hard SF, that insists on a foundation of good science. Please forgive me, all of you. I hope you are capable of enjoying, from time to time, a jump through the hyperspace of imagination without your critical calculator, because it can be fun just to enjoy the story, or the characters, or—dare I say it—the special effects! Many real scientists were fans of the original STAR TREK, cheesy effects, impossible science and all. And today, some of the kids who watched the show are grown up and crazy enough to try and make transporters, warp drive and, of course, communicators, happen in this lifetime.

The audience for “bad” science, and, by extension, for the more accessible forms of science fiction, including science fiction romance, is much broader than we tend to think. Screen writers like J.J. Abrams and others have tapped into that audience with LOST and FRINGE, V and EUREKA and CAPRICA. And, of course, nearly every science fiction movie that hits the big screen can be put in the “bad science” category; SPLICE and INCEPTION are only the latest.

The challenge for those of us writing science fiction romance is hooking that audience—the one watching EUREKA because it’s funny and smart or FRINGE because of the relationships between the characters or CAPRICA because it’s fascinating to see how the accidental stranding of a teenager’s avatar in a cyborg body could lead to the development of artificial intelligence for a whole race. They're not watching for the details of tech design or AI theory. It’s not such a leap to think that audience would be willing to follow the story of two lovers caught in the crossfire of intergalactic war or on the run from hunters from another planet or struggling to find each other across space and time.

That audience will forgive you for a little bad science just as long as you give them what they're looking for: a good story.

Cheers, Donna


  1. Well said!

    I skipped out on chemistry in high school. At the time, I thought I was so clever, but ever since then I totally regret it. Ironic, too, since I later became a huge SF fan.

    A good story trumps all, especially if the goal is to entertain as many people as possible. If someone is inspired to learn about real-life science by way of commercial SF/SFR, then that's icing on the cake.

  2. You know I think another problem with science in schools is when you teach to a curriculum. it doesn't lead to free-thinking and experimentation outside the box! We didn't used to be so prescriptive in the UK as we are now. I wonder if that will ahve a knock on effect down the line. less and less people are studying science to a higher level already. Without that basis - what can follow?

    I speak here as someone who was terrible at all sciences except biology! I only 'got' physics once my kids brought their homework back. I think I must blame some of my lack of understanding on poor teaching at a time when girls were just not thought to be science orientated.

  3. Very good article. Except in classing bioengineered nano-viruses as bad science. There's nothing bad about the science of nanotechnology, but it's a nascent technology and who knows where it will go. But as a science it is very much alive and well.

    If a hundred years ago someone had written about building a space station in outer space it would have been called bad science, but they had Kittyhawk and knew man could fly. From there it's just science catching up.

    No one involved in early computers ever foresaw the netbook or Blackberry or Kindle. Or even the Internet, for that matter. But the original differential machines, as they were called in the very beginning, were the seeds to those things. Faster than light travel, time travel and other fringe ideas are bad science, but they are necessary to our stories. In my opinion, if you lay the groundwork in your story, any bad science can seem real.

  4. Poor teaching was, I think, part of my problem.I got good grades in math and sciences until I hit high school. Now this was back in '69 - '73. Women's movement was still making its way into rural areas. I remember I did this aptitude test where you had to look at flattened boxes and pick what they'd be like put together. I did a great job at it and my guidance counselor told me I would be good interior designer. If you saw my house, you'd know how screamingly funny/wrong that was. I don't know what it might have measured, but I'm sure the results and advice were weighted by my sex.

    I also know, when I tried to get help from teachers, I'd get the equivalent of the pat on the head. Maybe I still would have sucked, but I do wonder now.

    I do know, that back then, scholarship WAS admired, though that had changed a lot once my kids went to high school.

    I think we dreamed bigger back then and believed more in taking impossible risks. If you've never watched EARTH TO THE MOON, it was eye opening to me and I lived through it. The innovation that went into putting men on the moon is very inspiring. In particular, the episode on the fire is good discussion on why we take risks.


  5. I find it fascinating that so many of us suffered through poorly-taught science classes in school and/or were discouraged from pursuing science as a field of study and yet retain an interest in the concepts that science explains. As writers, we just found another way to express that interest, I suppose. And I agree with you, P.A., "bioengineered nanoviruses" are not necessarily bad science at all--but who's to say UFO's are either? We simply may not have adequate information at this time to make a determination. ;-)

  6. See, that's the thing with what we "know." It's always evolving, but so many act like its now fixed. It makes me laugh because when I was young, Pluto was still a planet and Uranus was unknown. Anyone who thinks there isn't more to know, more to learn, more to explore, hasn't been paying attention to the past. In every generation, hubris is a problem. (grin) and IMHO.

  7. Maybe "speculative science" would be an alternative phrase, though I don't know that the connotation would be any better in some scientific circles.

    Pauline said: "If you've never watched EARTH TO THE MOON, it was eye opening to me and I lived through it."

    I LOVED that series! As a total space program groupie, I inhale anything involving the history of our space program (and the end result of that starry-eyed fascination is Outer Planets, my near future SFR).

    Science classes were also my worst in high school, not because I wasn't interested, but because chemistry, geometry, advanced math and physics weren't taught in a way my predominantly right-brain mind could grasp. But I took the classes anyway and absorbed at least some of the material.

    I rely heavily on a liberal dose of imagination when writing my SFR novels, but much of the fictional technology I wrote about a decade ago is now either a reality or in the R&D phase.

    Many at NASA or in the technology industries today cite Star Trek as their inspiration, so maybe we should recognize that speculative science is a motivator that leads to real science?

  8. I know in both grade school and high school I was very science oriented. I was even good at math. But like others, I was never encouraged to pursue it. In fact I think I was told there were no jobs like that (I guess they meant for a girl) Back then, a female had to take homeec, there was no option to take shop. So I guess I got the equivalent of a pat on the head and told to get practical training like typing so I could get a real girl's job.

    I ignored them and kept on reading the books I wanted, but I never did go to University.


Thank you for chiming in! We love to see your comments. (All comments are moderated so spam can be terminated!)