Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Portrayal of Science in YA Spec Fic

So, a (very long) while ago, I wrote a post on human cloning (which I put a lot of work into and think you may benefit from reading! :D *hint hint*) and promised a follow-up regarding my thoughts on science and YA spec fic.

Lest you think I'm a fiction-hater, let me say up front that I adore reading fiction, particularly fantasy. I love spec fic and think that imagination, creativity, and emotional resonance in stories are all important and valuable.

But I also love science and the way it allows us to understand the universe as it actually is, rather than viewing it through superstition or wishful thinking. In case you couldn't tell from my human cloning post, I am a big fan of rational thought.

Sometimes these two things come into conflict because people often confuse fiction for fact. I am all for writing about unicorns and elves and colonies on Mars,  because people, for the most part, do not confuse those as applicable to our reality. They're not going to read a book and start believing that we really do have unicorns and elves and colonies on Mars (at least, not yet), and that's why I'm perfectly ok with incredible, non-existent technology and other fantastical elements. But less obviously fictional elements can be more problematic. When fiction influences people's attitudes toward existing technologies or scientific concepts in such a way that contradicts reality as known through science, that's when I get annoyed.


Last year, I read a YA sci-fi novel and barely blinked at the alien or currently-non-existent technology. What really bugged me was when the author presented erroneous information about how mutations and genes work in a context that is relevant to issues today. (This really stuck out to me because, in college, I took a course on genetics and liked it so much I made it the emphasis of my molecular and cell biology major.) Not only was the explanation about how genes work not very relevant to the main plot, but it can be misconstrued as being scientific fact, thus encouraging unfounded fear of existing technologies. And this, to me, is both unfortunate and irresponsible.

And I'm not the only one who noticed this in the book. Here's a great post by Sean Wills about the importance of getting the science right, and I am in full agreement.

What intrigued me, though, was that the author chimed in in the comments section to say she didn't get anything wrong. Her statement of "genetically modified corn caused widespread sterility," as expressed in her novel, struck me as unscientific and incredible, so I was very interested in seeing her justification of her statement.

Ultimately, though, I found that her defense doesn't hold up to scrutiny. While the concepts she referenced were scientific, stringing up a number of truths does not necessarily mean that your conclusion is therefore also true and scientific, especially if each step in the argument is incredibly implausible and there are several missing steps.

If I were to do the same thing, here's how it'd look: "First of all, electromagnetic waves can affect the brain! Especially solar radiation. And frequent flyers are often exposed to solar radiation. And guess what, there's an area of the brain called Wernicke's area that controls use of speech! THEREFORE, in my sci-fi story that takes place in a future world where everyone's a constant jetsetter, it is TOTALLY PLAUSIBLE that a whole generation of people were exposed to excessive solar radiation that affected Wernicke's area in the brain, so they all got Wernicke's aphasia and walked around talking in a way that sounds totally nonsensical to us."

I hope that illustration conveys why her argument fell flat for me. All my links are "real science" too, but that doesn't make my conclusion any more scientific, due to the many gaps in logic, especially the lack of conclusive studies. While it is true that there are likely to be some risks to both genetically modified food and radiation exposure due to frequent air travel, negative portrayals of existing technology based on simplistic, implausible, and ultimately unrealistic cause-and-effect scenarios aren't helping anyone; rather, they merely spread misinformation and encourage unfounded fear. (No, you're not going to get Wernicke's aphasia through radiation exposure from frequent flying or become sterile from ingesting GM corn. Doesn't mean those things are perfectly safe (what is?), but there's no conclusive evidence about the negative effects. No reason for knee-jerk reactions, either.)


The funny thing, though, is that sometimes I don't even catch all the science!fails in novels. In another YA sci-fi novel, the author had character A give an explanation that defied the laws of physics and had character B accept it, no questions asked.

In my defense, it was incredibly obvious (to me) that there was no way any explanation character A gave at that point would actually be true, despite the fact that (or maybe because) it was set up to seem like a BIG SHOCKING REVEAL. (Due to my experience as a reader, I recognized that the reveal had to be fake for there to be somewhere for the plot to go for the rest of the trilogy. Plus, this novel in particular had an especially predictable plot.) So it's kind of funny that I didn't realize how unscientific the explanation was because I'd already dismissed it out of hand from a story perspective. It's possible the author meant for that exchange to showcase the lack of formal education/incredibly gullibility of character B, but I rather think that the author, like me, knew it was a fake explanation and so didn't think to check for scientific accuracy.

But still, fake science = BAD, because although I didn't notice it, a lot of other readers did, and for some of them, it interfered with their enjoyment of the book. And although it's not as horrible for people to have mistaken ideas about space travel as about genetic engineering (given the difference in exposure in most people's day-to-day life), it would kind of suck for some teen to get that wrong on a physics test, haha. (And yes, this author also had, ah, interesting ideas about genetics, and that bothered me WAY MORE than this physics slip up.)


So, even though it can sometimes be fun/funny to read about the fantastical science of writers' imaginations (recent read: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake — not YA, but her ideas about genetic engineering are hilariously absurd), and sometimes most people don't notice, it's important to get the facts right. Most people can't tell fact from fiction in books and movies (I'm not always so great about it, either), and given the terrible state of science literacy in the US, I can't stress enough that I wish writers would be more conscientious about presenting science and technology as accurately as possible so as not to propagate unfounded fear/disgust of advancements.

Controversial scientific subjects like cloning and genetic modification should ideally have their merits and risks addressed scientifically and not according to writers' runaway imaginations. Fiction affects people's attitudes and thoughts, and I wish writers would take their ability to influence reader opinions more responsibly by not promoting counter-factual ideas (not to mention it really takes me out of the story when I notice scientific inaccuracies). Feel free to make up things and talk about technology that doesn't exist today if you're going to be all like THIS IS EVIL AND BAD in your book. (Also, read Sean Wills' post on genetics if you're going to be writing about that — yup, I discovered Sean Wills while researching for this post and I'm now a fan.) Fiction, creativity, and imagination should be celebrated and valued, but let's not be responsible for propagating lies and falsehoods about science and technology, mkay?

7 comments:

  1. This is basically why I write fantasy and not science fiction. I wish I had a stronger understanding of science, which is a little ironic because I probably have an above average understanding as compared with the general populace. I know enough to know I don't know enough. But like you said, the state of scientific education in this country is appalling (as evidenced by recent news), and unfortunately a lot of writers don't have the same concerns. So the cycles of misunderstandings continue, helped along by the media's terrible "pop science" and fiction masquerading as science.

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  2. I just wrote a comment but can't see it - so hope I don't repeat myself! Wanted to say that I completely agree, where the science exists then an author should make an effort to research that and make it real. Where it absolutely is impossible, then you have the freedom to make it up. All too often however I think the situation is somewhere in the middle - the science takes us so far, but we haven't made that 'next leap' yet and the author is imaginatively taking it. This perhaps then necessitates some extrapolating - and it's how far that goes I guess and how much it then stretches the science underneath.


    Came from twitter as v. interesting and off to read CLONE post.

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  3. I absolutely agree with your post. There are so many books that twist science in ways that are utterly inaccurate, and those pieces of fiction can have a wide range of influence.

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  4. The funny thing is that, according to Clarke's third law, fantasy isn't actually all that different from science fiction! :P "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," so if you want to levitate someone, in fantasy you might have a spell (wingardium leviosa!) whereas in (soft) sci-fi you might press a button on a handheld gadget, and in neither explain the details of how it actually works. And I think that's fine; it's only when people are wrong about existing science that bothers me. But yeah, you're totally right -- it's scary how easy it is for people to mistake fiction for truth, and then there just ends up being a ton of misunderstandings and urban myths floating around.

    Also, I think it's awesome that you're interested in learning more! I think it can definitely be fun and rewarding to understand how things work, so I hope you're able to find a particular field that captures your interest and gain more knowledge in that area. :)

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  5. That's true, it can be difficult when it's in-between. I think that's the situation where you'd need the most research, because then you'd have to understand the science well enough to grasp why we haven't bridged that gap yet, and then invent something that can bridge it plausibly. It's possible the invention is just hand-waving "it works because SCIENCE," and that's fine, but it's usually a good idea not to directly contradict any laws of science. :P

    Thanks for the comment! :)

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  6. The funny thing is that, according to Clarke's third law, fantasy isn't
    actually all that different from science fiction! :P "Any sufficiently
    advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," so if you want to
    levitate someone, in fantasy you might have a spell (wingardium
    leviosa!) whereas in (soft) sci-fi you might press a button on a
    handheld gadget, and in neither explain the details of how it actually
    works. And I think that's fine; it's only when people are wrong about
    existing science that bothers me. But yeah, you're totally right -- it's
    scary how easy it is for people to mistake fiction for truth, and then
    there just ends up being a ton of misunderstandings and urban myths
    floating around.


    Also, I think it's awesome that you're interested in learning more! I
    think it can definitely be fun and rewarding to understand how things
    work, so I hope you're able to find a particular field that captures
    your interest and gain more knowledge in that area. :)

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  7. Thanks, Eagle! Yeah, definitely with you that fiction can influence the real world in a lot of ways, both good and bad, and I really hope that authors and screenwriters would use this power more responsibly!

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