The Science in Science Fiction

I was talking with a fellow writer working on a post apocalyptic novel where a disease has killed a certain demographic. As a veterinarian, I was interested in the pathogenesis of the disease: how the victims acquire the disease, how the disease behaves in the host, how the host responds. Also, does the disease organism persist in the environment? Do people who are not part of the effected demographic act as carriers? Is any of the demographic immune? When someone becomes a member of that demographic, are they then likely to acquire the disease?

The writer’s response to these questions? “I don’t want to give specifics, because I’m afraid of getting the science wrong.”

I told the writer, “Science geeks, like me, are going to want the answers to those questions. I would be bothered by the lack of answers to those questions.”

In science fiction and fantasy, you have an audience already primed to suspend their disbelief. This is an audience willing to believe that vampires are real, werewolves prowl the night, ghosts haunt old houses, witches cast real magic, elves live in the woods, and dragons fly in the sky, that aliens exist, that faster than light travel and gravity manipulation are possible. This gives you, the writer, the flexibility to create the rules that govern your world. As long as you stick to your own rules, most readers will go along with you.

The Stand, by Stephen King, is a well known example of a post apocalyptic world in which a disease known as the Superflu destroyed most of the population. The rules are clear and established. It is a version of the flu transmitted through the air. If a person contracts the superflu, they die of it, but a very small percentage of the population is completely immune.The survivors never got sick. The question of whether the disease survived was answered when the first children were born. The rules were clear, and stringently followed, and because of that, whether or not the reader questioned if the rules made sense, he accepted the reality as presented by King.

Another novel, which I read so long ago that I can’t remember the name,* featured a disease which killed sexually active men. Men became a rare resource, and some even castrated themselves to avoid the disease. The main character was a rare male who had refused castration and still walked around out in the world. Now, speaking as someone with medical knowledge – it’s very hard to make sense of this disease. What defines sexually active? Orgasm? Penetration? Is the disease able to distinguish between masturbation, nocturnal emission, and intercourse? Does it have to be sex with a woman or are gay men victims of the disease too? And what, exactly, is it that triggers the disease? A hormone? A physiological change of some sort? In the end, though, few of those questions mattered – the writer remained consistent to his rules: sexually active men got the disease, celibate men did not. And so, though I was left with questions about the reality of the science, I still accepted it in the story.

The key to using altered reality in your SciFi or Fantasy is making sure that it’s consistent to itself. It doesn’t have to make sense in our reality as long as it makes sense in yours. If you want to decide that a disease wipes out all the brunette women in the world, be prepared to answer questions such as: if a woman was brunette but is now gray, will she be affected? What about girls who are blonde as children but their hair darkens as they get older. What about dark blondes and auburns, hair colors that are close to brunette. What is it that the disease targets? The pigment in the hair? The genes? Is it a factor of the amount of sunlight penetrating to the scalp through the hair? If that’s true, what about women who dye their hair? Does it have to make sense in our reality? No, it doesn’t. There’s no scientific reason at all for a disease to only target brunette women. But you go ahead – establish your rules, stick to them, and write a good story around it, and your readers will go right along with you.

*If someone does recognize the name/author for this description, please let me know. I’ve been using this story as an example for years and I’d like to give the author credit.

Addendum:
To be clear, I am not arguing for strict rules and blind obedience to them – that is not my point at all. What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t shy away from providing details out of fear of being wrong. You set up the world, you set up the reality, you set up the rules. If you believe in your reality and remain consistent to it, your readers will accept that and go along with you just fine.

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