Combining Science and Fiction

The Science Track’s panel “The Role of Science in Military SF” (Hilton 202, 2:30 PM Saturday) discussed the extent to which science fiction actually uses science. Richard “Hawk” Altstatt, J.L. Doty, Tedd Roberts, and Ben Davis discussed topics ranging from the use of jargon unconnected to science to whether or not faster-than-light travel is possible.

The first question, to Doty, an author, was how deeply he incorporates science when he starts a plot. He responded that he tries to be very careful with the science because writers get in trouble when extending existing science, often coming up with things that won’t work. He suggested that writers avoid real science when extending it would be problematic.

Discussing bad examples of extended science, Roberts, a neuroscientist, author, and Baen website columnist, cited a snippet of dialogue that referred to engrams being wrapped around the cerebral cortex. Engram is an outdated term, and that’s not a possible action. Using jargon not connected to science was an issue.

A pet peeve of Altstatt’s is unrealistically powerful rail guns. He can tolerate their going nine kilometers per second but feels seven kilometers per second is more realistic. In general, lasers are a pain in space, though better than guns.

Doty interjected that he hasn’t seen lasers used correctly in 40 years of reading science fiction.

“They can see it coming,” Roberts pointed out.

Doty added that light takes about 30 to 40 seconds to cross 100 million miles—that it isn’t infinitely fast. His pet peeve is quantum displacement as a mechanism for teleportation. Quantum displacement has nothing to do with teleportation.

Altstatt said guns can be fired in space and will produce a little kick, not throw someone miles away. Davis, a computer programmer who has a degree in nuclear physics and works with robot and conveyor systems, noted that the army considers a weapon lethal if it yields muzzle energy of 20 foot-pounds on discharge. “That’s a push,” Altstatt commented, “not a huge jump.”

When plotting a space battle, how close will the ships be? Altstatt said they need to be fairly close to fire on someone, and if the ships are in orbit, the planet may be in the way. Docking with the International Space Station can take days, and that’s with everyone trying to accomplish the maneuver.

Doty said that whether a story operates on the premise that Einstein was correct about faster-than-light travel not being possible determines some aspects of the story. “I think we don’t know what we don’t know,” he added, noting that new things are discovered all the time.

Altstatt pointed out that 40 kilometers per second is very fast in space. An ion engine can attain that spewed, but not with a sudden kick of acceleration as with a gradual increase over months or even years, faster if there’s no planetary gravity to impeded it.

“That’s about 1/100,000th of light speed,” Doty commented.

Altstatt reminded the audience that a wormhole is only about the size of an atom, “tricky to travel through.” Shifting gears, he added that if opposing fleets start three light seconds apart, a distance he characterized as far, they would have most of the day to see each other’s munitions coming. A one-kilogram shell moving at seven kilometers per second will blow a hole through eight-inch plating, which the thermal expansion then rips in half. With six-inch plating, however, “you’re toast.”

Roberts said he has an issue with military science fiction assuming soldiers are strong, capable, and motivated even though one blow to the chin dazes a person, increasing the attacker’s ability to inflict other injuries.

“Like every superhero,” Altstatt interjected.

Even hardening the bones of a super soldier, Roberts said, is a problem because bone that doesn’t flex shatters. If bones don’t flex, the movement of muscles against them tears the muscles. Even using drugs like testosterone, artificial adrenaline, or amphetamines doesn’t solve the problem, Roberts said, because they disrupt brain chemistry.

Altstatt suggested that future wars will have drones and headquarters feeding information and orders to soldiers on the front.

Doty noted that casualty levels in previous wars reached five million dead in World War II, 38,000 in Korea, and 60,000 in Vietnam, as opposed to four or five thousand in Iraq and Afghanistan, even after 12 years. The difference, he said, is in body armor and medical technology.

Roberts added that casualties in World War II tended to die on the battlefield, with current levels lower because we get the wounded off the battlefield faster. He noted that tens of thousands die in ensuing months, some from mental and emotional issues. He said there’s also the problem that “decent people lack the mindset” to do some things that happen in science fiction. He cited the backstory of Halo, with kidnapped children trained to be warriors, as an example of getting around that.

“Then you could just go with robots,” Roberts suggested, “and skip the kids. Put a cloud of drones around your fleet.”

Citing author John Ringo, Altstatt said that the important part of any story is the catharsis. In the old novels about naval forces at sea, the story might span months, with readers coming to hate or to care for the characters. Then, in the last ten page, the ships went past each other and blew “the poo out of each other,” and many characters died. Readers grieved because they cared about the characters that died. As long as readers care about characters, he concluded, it doesn’t matter whether the story takes place on an oceangoing ship or in space at light speed.

Roberts noted that military science fiction explores concepts of honor, testing the characters’ honor by posing moral dilemmas. Even in big space opera with massive battles, the story needs to be about the people in it and get readers to identify with them, even when the character has to do something dishonorable.

In science fiction, Altstatt commented, readers expected the use of science to figure things out and solve problems. He said the story can be any kind of vehicle as long as it makes sense.

Roberts called the panel’s attention to the current trend of taking a military unit and dropping it into another period, citing Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaires as a prime example. Authors tend to take famous battles from history as their settings, but they have to make sense. The panelists cited David Drake’s Lieutenant Leary, RCN, series is an example of how to make that work.

“The science needs to support the story,” Doty added.

Davis pointed out that a generation of science fiction books, including Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which was not so much about the fiction of the satellite bringing down the germ as about the science of isolating and confining the disease, relied on science as the basis of their plots. He contrasted those stories with those that never explained science.

Roberts pointed out a consistency issue in science fiction, in that some cultures can rebuild bodies but then have people stuck in wheelchairs. Even if the government wants to use the regeneration capacity as a bribe, someone would pirate the tech if it were out there. If a culture has faster-than-light drives but not faster-than-light communications, or vice-versa, that’s an issue.

The panel then turned to the question of whether recent military science fiction is getting away from the science, using technology without explaining how or why it works. Altstatt cited the Lensmen series and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as examples that had the physics of space travel worked out. Heinlein worked out equations on butcher’s paper to determine how much thrust his ships would need to reach orbit and how long that would take.

Doty said he has spreadsheets to deal with time dilation at sublight speeds. He puts very little of the calculations in his books because it’s boring, but he needs to know it.

Roberts cited Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series as using science effectively. When the fleet enters a system, they calculate travel times and communication delays realistically. Altstatt mentioned mini black holes and gravity wedges as science shortcuts, but Doty said he wasn’t sure there were more shortcuts than there used to be. He mentioned Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy and Starman Jones as examples.

“And Have Spacesuit, Will Travel,” Altstatt agreed.

Roberts said he doesn’t like to see stories ignore the human factors, such as the need for food and water in space or the limits on a person’s ability to tolerate zero-gravity environments. He added that moving around in a spacesuit is a slow, careful process, with getting into or getting out of the suit taking two hours and stretching a two-hour spacewalk to six. Astronauts’ exercise is designed to keep them from collapsing when they return, not enabling them to fight. Movement in current suits is so difficult that it just isn’t fast.

Doty added that there are other problems with zero-gravity life. Urination is very difficult without gravity, and astronauts can develop urinary tract infections. Roberts agreed, saying that in freefall, as opposed to minimal gravity like that of the moon, bodily fluid isn’t pulled down to the feet. It redistributes through the body, causing intracranial pressure, congested sinuses, and deformed retinas.

Davis suggested that using acceleration to generate gravity of one G would be a solution, and Roberts said it would be better than rotational gravity, which isn’t proven. Doty said the rotation Arthur C. Clarke used was not fast enough. He explained Einstein’s unsuccessful efforts to develop a unified field theory for electricity, magnetism, and gravity, likening the attempt to Maxwell’s equations from the 1860s. Those equations led the way to manipulating electromagnetism. With a successful unified field theory, manipulating gravity might become possible.

Davis added that gravity is still an enigma, that other forces have a force carrier, but gravity does not seem to have a source. Gravity is a bending of space, not a force as we generally think of them.

An audience member asked whether bullets fired in space would be effective. Altstatt said the bullet itself does nothing, but the acceleration on it creates the effect. He noted that on Earth, with gravity, a bullet drops as it travels, requiring compensation in aim for long-range shots. In space, however, the bullet would travel in a straight line and kick the person firing it back with the same degree of force.

Doty added that there were gravitational forces in space that could affect a bullet’s path, more over long distances than short. Davis noted that a fired bullet generates its own oxygen inside the casing.

Another person in the audience asked whether the panelists had read Andy Weir’s The Martian, and if so whether it was based on fact or fiction. Altstatt had read it and found the science in it to be solid and the story, effective. Roberts found the considerations of nutrition, soil conditions, calories versus nutrition, and water storage well done, with the story addressing the shortcomings of the character’s solutions.

Roberts noted that psychosocial issues for soldiers require different treatment now because while soldiers’ trips home used to take weeks, they can now return within about 48 hours. Two days’ travel doesn’t give them time to process and integrate their experiences.

After a few more questions, the panel adjourned.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.