she blinded me, with science!

Writing Science Fiction requires a knowledge of bolognium, a word author Larry Niven invented to explain inventions SF authors come up with that don’t or can’t exist. Warp Drives and Worm Holes and Time Shifts Oh My!

Your average reader is going to overlook your bolognium if, and only if, it makes perfect sense within the story being told. For instance, Star Trek had to speed through space with the greatest of ease, so Warp Drive was invented. Unless you’re an ubergeek, particle physicist, or my oldest niece (both uber geek and plasma physicist), you’ve accepted the term Warp Drive and equate it with faster-than-light speed, or FTL. Captain Kirk (I’m old school) tells Sulu “ahead, Warp 5.” and we assume the Enterprise is going to flash by the screen with that goofy 60’s special effects noise. They have to get around the galaxy – let’s face it, we’d die of extreme old age waiting for the Enterprise to go from here to Pluto, without FTL travel.

We accept things like that because they’re necessary to tell the stories, and they’re set far enough into the future to allow us the possibility of believing something was invented between now and then that allows the Enterprise to travel like that, and makes it possible for humans to no longer require bathrooms.

Things like this in novels work only when the author understands his or her invented bolognium fully and completely. In soft Science Fiction (my preference) you can get away with simply labeling something and not delving into the mechanics. You need to go from here to there in under a week? “Engage FTL drive, Frank.” “Aye, captain.” If you do delve into the mechanics, be prepared to get called on it if you flub it up.

But – put something more complex in there . . . say, Time Travel and Alternate Universe theory . . . and you’d best have a full and complete two-handed grasp on that bolognium sammich! And I do, honest. I had a revelation before starting this novel and finally, fully understood the whole of this as-yet-impossibility. You may have read my Barney and Wilma post on the blogspot blog.

Trick is, I’ve come to a point in the tale where I must have a much more detailed grip on the condiments that go into this bolognium sammich, and it slowed me down to second gear. Nearly freaked me out, I might add. One minute I’m flyin’ through dimensions and orchestrating time – then I pause to use the bathroom and come back and can’t remember where I put the remote!

It’s all good, though. I found it between the couch cushions and the novel is up and running again. Gotta get it done before the Penman Shipwreck begins in January. That’s when I start my new novel, Ether. Plus there’s querying to be done, edits, revisions, agent searches . . . I’d like to schedule a nap some time around February, if at all possible.

So – fellow Science Fiction penners – what’s your particular bolognium? Do you write soft SF and serve up lunch, or go for the Hard stuff because you’ve spent years studying particle physics and string theory and think the rest of us are dweebs?  😀

11 thoughts on “she blinded me, with science!

  1. My bolognium sandwich is made with so soft white bread. That’s because I have no scientifical background whatsoever. In fact, until you just said it, I had no idea warp drives and faster-than-light thingies were bolognium. I assumed that was all part of the physics class I had skipped out on while reading Larry Niven, Alan Dean Foster, and James Blish instead.

    So my science fiction is more space opera. I give something a name and a brief discription of it and hope I don’t mess even that up. Nothing is based on any hard science because, as I said, I missed those classes while spirallying around the literary universe.

  2. I loves me some space opera ! Unfortunately, I learned just enough in physics classes to make a complete arse of myself if I’m not very very careful. I start researching, but then my mind wanders off into lovely fictional scenarios that pop up as I’m studying, and I set down the text books before reaching that chapter that tells me my ideas are absurd! 😀

  3. Right now? Both, I guess.

    For the current sci fi series: soft hard stuff. Literally soft hard stuff. Bionanotechnology and genetic engineering; if it weren’t for literature and computers, I would have majored in biology. That said, I let the story go first, the science go second and only when necessary. In other words, no yakking on about how to manipulate jumping genes to switch off the one that enforces the Hayflick limit, allowing the telomere buffers at the end of chromosomes to regenerate so that all body cells become immortal which unfortunately is what cancer cells are. I just tell you that the guy was made immortal and if he doesn’t drink this poisonous junk assayed to him by his masters to kill off over-reproducing cells, he’ll die of cancer, probably one of the more aggressive leukemias.

    For the Asian steampunk: loads of very decorative gilt bolognium. One thing I like about steampunk is that it’s allowed to border on fantasy. You are inventing a world with an alternative science, one that almost has to work differently from our own rules in order for steampunk to actually work (steam isn’t going to propel people to the moon). Here it’s actually easier for me to go into the details–a little bit–because you can make the details beautiful and interesting, and draw your own metaphors. Real science is full of crud, even for the experts.

  4. I like my bolognium on white bread with mayo. Maybe a little lettuce and tomato to dress it up a bit and don’t forget the cheese. Hard science starts to make my eyes glaze after a while. Just not my cup of tea. I write fantasy and try to make it somewhat plausible. I strive for what Walt Disney called the “plausible impossible”.

    But I do enjoy reading things like steampunk. Just don’t make my tiny brain hurt.

  5. I go for soft, like TOS (The Original StarTrek), spending too much time on the tech part gets in the way of the story. I don’t need to know how a phaser operates, I just need one so that Kirk can zap the alien computer long enough to deliver a speech about free will.

    There is value in carefully researched technology as it can it help make it sound believable. But unless your story is set in the NEAR future, most of that stuff is just guesswork anyway. Who would have thought back in the 60’s that Star Treks handheld communicators would be able to talk to objects in orbit and have tiny lightweight batteries that would allow them to do so for days were only 40 years away. 100 years ago the idea of flying through air was strictly scifi stuff. If you look at Jules Verne, pretty much the best sci fi author of the era, and how he wrote “Earth to the Moon” he used his best guess for technology and look at how far from reality it was. That tells me that most of what is guessed today will be a long ways from the reality of 100 or 200 years from now.

  6. That’s one reason I put my SF far enough in the future to explain what little techno-bolognium there is. I think sticking too close to the present without doing so much research it’s more fact than fiction is risky, especially for a book that could stick around for generations and become a classic.

    And I think bolognium should be a side dish, not the main course 😀

  7. I think one of the problems with today’s science fiction and the reason I stopped reading it many decades ago, is that the focus has become too much on the “science” and too little on the “fiction.” It reminds me of Tom Clancy novels and other techno-thrillers. They’re big on techno and little on thrills. If I’m reading a novel I don’t need to know that an F16 Tomcat has a Bell and Howell turbojet engine with an output of 15000 foot-pounds per square inch of thrust that propell the jet from a full stop to top speed in 6.5 seconds (I made all that up). All I need to know is that the airplane moves fast and gets to where the plot is interesting.

    The same seems to be what’s happened in sci-fi, everyone wants to dazzle us with their scientific brilliance that they lose sight of the story, of people, of humanity. Reminds me of many modern movies, they’re becoming so obsessed with CGI special effects they aren’t telling us good stories any longer.

    Bring back bolognium, I say, and forget about explaining how it works.

  8. I always had all sorts of bolognium in my stories, and I always wrote them out on paper ahead of time and made sure that I understood how they functioned. Even if they weren’t possible at the very moment, I at least knew how they worked in the context of the story’s universe. But I rarely put any of that into the story. In fact, I deliberatly sidestepped it on some occasions. I’m with Ed. Once Science Fiction got really heavy into the “science” and not the fiction, I started drifting. It was years before I looked up and realized that I wasn’t reading Sci-Fi anymore. Books like the “Red Mars/Blue Mars/Green Mars” series, and a recent World-Settling sci-fi novel that I was sent to review all went unread when they started explaining the science to me.

    I adore science. I spend an inordinate amount of time reading and studying scientific materials, and I love it when I understand. But as much fun as I have figuring out how ten dimensions of existence are possible and how they work, I want a fun story told with that as the background. I don’t need a story that lectures me on it.

    …On the flip side, there are books where they are horribly interesting as long as they’re dealing with the science and technology, but that fall miserably apart when they try to do things like a love story. (And here, I’m thinking of another forever-unfinished book that I lost interest in and went on to read something else).

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