Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A mission of (anti-)gravity

More than sixty years after its first publication, Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement (the pen name of Henry Clement Stubbs) remains one of SF's premier examples of world-building. Clement, a chemist, gave much thought to the physics, chemistry, climates, and biology of the fictional world Mesklin.

And a wondrous place Mesklin is, too. For valid -- if unusual -- reasons, its surface gravity varies from about three times Earth normal at the equator to hundreds of times Earth normal at the poles.

A classic
Mission of Gravity is also a great adventure yarn.

Last year's movie Gravity was very popular, widely praised, received ten Oscar nominations and just recently was awarded seven Oscar wins. It is, without doubt, an exciting tale. The cinematics are stunning. The crafting was meticulous.

The science, alas, is atrocious. You needn't take my word for it, since Entertainment Weekly has it covered. See, " 'Gravity': Panel of astro-experts on the science behind the film." I weep for the science adviser (whom, I suspect, is relieved to have gone unmentioned on the screen credits).
The ISS: it's BIG

Most fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelieve -- my own stories, too, doubtless -- but that's hard to sustain when the underlying premise of the movie (a chain-reaction debris storm of space junk, big enough to destroy the International Space Station) is so jarringly improbable. The ISS is longer than a football field. It masses about a million pounds. Its critical systems are replicated.

What the scriptwriters might call stage-setting, we SF authors call world-building. That's a use of "world" in its broadest sense: the overarching context. The "worlds" SF authors build encompass such story settings as artificial environments (e.g., spaceships and space stations), alternate histories, imagined futures, and, yes, planets and moons.

Let's shift to world-building in that describe-a-planet sense. How many ways are there to mess up that sort of world-building? Lots, of course. Here is io9's stab at answering that question: "Blunders People Make in Inventing Fictional Alien Worlds."

(io9 also offered this advice to the aspiring SF author: "10 Things That Every Brand New Creator of Science Fiction Should Know." The first tip -- "You're still just telling personal stories" -- might seem to downplay the emphasis of this post. Not so. Personal stories and SFnal background are complementary. Both are vital to the genre -- as this top-ten list gets around to at item 9: "Doing your homework is half the battle."

So how does one get the science right (besides heeding the science adviser one has hired)? Perhaps through learning by example. Check out (from Astronomical Society of the Pacific), "Science Fiction Stories with Good Astronomy & Physics: A Topical Index."

Lots of good reading there ...


Anonymous said...

shane~aka p.h.
nice shot on the science fact article june 2014 analog
nothing to add.
good bibliography
hard work noted

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks, Shane.

For anyone puzzled by Shane's telegraphic comments ... my contribution to the June issue of Analog (a magazine's cover date indicates when an issue goes off sale, not when it comes on) is the latest in my essay series about the science behind common SF tropes. This latest installment deals with what has been called, variously, ESP, psi, and the paranormal.

- Ed