Changing the Valves


Vision 13


Changing the Valves

How to be Memorably Wrong 
in Science Fiction


Bob Billing

Copyright © 2003, Bob Billing, All Rights Reserved


Arthur C. Clarke, towards the end of the Second World War, published an article called "Extra-Terrestrial Relays". In this he described something we now take for granted - the communications satellite. However this was ten years before the invention of the transistor. In his subsequent science fiction he described his relay stations in detail. In both "The Other Side of the Sky" and "Islands in the Sky" he refers to orbiting stations which are continuously manned. This seemed to be obviously correct at the time. After all there had to be someone on hand to change the valves, or in the case of American stations the vacuum tubes.

The great Isaac Asimov was not immune to this sort of thing. In "Everest" he described the colony of Martian scientists living at the top of the mountain, where the thin, cold air suited them and they were ideally placed to observe the human race. Occasional sightings of the gentle, furry aliens had given rise to the legend of the Yeti. Because of this, Asimov claimed, Everest would never be climbed. However it would seem that there is a divinity with a sense of humour. Between acceptance and the story appearing in print the British expedition made it to the top. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing found no aliens.

The planets Mars and Venus have trapped most authors since H.G. Wells in the same way. Until science fiction was prepared to leave our solar system there seemed to be only two really useful destinations for space travel. Old, cold Mars with its dead or dying civilisations and its endless, quiet canals really was too good a location to leave alone. How many readers have stood to drink in the beauty of the Martian sunset in all its variety? Even knowing that conditions on the surface of Mars would kill a human in seconds doesn't detract from the sheer poetry of C.S. Lewis's "Out of the Silent Planet." His description of the planet, particularly the scenes where Ransom climbs right out of the atmosphere on the mountain road to Augray's tower, are so evocative, and do so much to awaken the endless longings, that it is perfectly possible to forgive his quite abominable physics.

Warm, fertile Venus is another archetypal image that has haunted science fiction for generations. Lewis himself sent Ransom there and found floating islands in "Perelandra." Heinlein in "Space Cadet" peopled it with a delightful aquatic sentient race. Finding out that the real surface conditions are similar to the inside of a particularly unpleasant chemical process does nothing to subtract from these stories.

There is another way in which authors can be wrong, and sadly this has afflicted some of the greater names. In "The Deep Range" Clarke throws away a line about the future of religion which has most definitely not come true. Similarly in "The Black Cloud" Fred Hoyle has a very old alien confirm his steady-state theory. To my mind these are minor flaws in otherwise great books. It's an easy trap for an author to fall into. When describing a distant future the urge to say, "...and the author was finally proved right" must be quite overpowering.

There are of course simple errors of fact. In the novel "Needle" Hal Clement mistakenly coined the word symbiote when he meant symbiont. This spelling is simply wrong but has passed into popular folklore and has been regularly used by other authors. The spell checker on the word processor I am using to write this article accepts both spellings when set to American.

So why is it that stories which contain gross errors become and remain classics? To investigate this I'd like to look at another of Arthur C. Clarke's short stories. In "What Goes Up", part of the "Tales from the White Hart" collection, Clarke begins by telling us that the rest of the story is a lie, then proceeds to spin the tale so well that it becomes perfectly believable. The story contains, among other things, an outrageous violation of Newton's laws of motion. The force acting on the unfortunate protagonist seems to have two completely different values at the same time.

This is an extreme case, but I think it nicely illustrates my point.

What we, as authors, are asking from the reader is not peer review of our science. Even if this were possible we'd have to live with the fact that theories change as time passes and that all science fiction must, in the end, fall out of date. If interstellar travel becomes, as I hope it will, a reality I fully expect that my fictional FTL drives will raise a wry smile. But at the same time I look to a future in which my stories will still be read.

In the end I think that the simple background of the story, the world building against which it is set, only has to ask the reader to join in the conspiracy by suspending disbelief. To my mind world building must be good enough not to contain inconsistencies that set off alarm bells in the readers' head. At the same time it most not obtrude in front of the story that the characters on stage are telling.

If your writing - and mine - can achieve that level, it will be worth reading.