When science fiction meets science fact

Recently, when I was researching material for my latest science fiction book, I came across some extraordinary facts about the number of exoplanets that were discovered during 2014. For those of you not familiar with the term, an exoplanet is a planet outside of our solar system.

The first of these exoplanets was discovered back in 1992 orbiting a pulsar. But since the launch of the Kepler space telescope in 2009, there has been a huge growth in the number of discoveries of these planets, with over 850 discovered in 2014. As of February 2015, some 1890 planets in 1189 planetary systems have been discovered.The Kepler space telescope has also identified a few thousand further candidate planets, which are still to be confirmed.

The Kepler space telescope is focused on a relatively narrow field of view covering some 3000 light years of the milky way. It sounds a lot, but it’s not. The diameter of the milky way is 100,000-120,000 lightyears in diameter and contains over 100-400 billion stars.

Kepler found that on average there was at least one planet per star and that 20% of sun-like stars have an earth-sized planet in the ‘goldilocks’ zone similar to earth. This is the zone around a star that is likely to provide planet temperatures that could support life as we know it. That could mean 11-40 billion potentially habitable planets in the milky way. And of course, that’s just one galaxy. The observable universe contains hundreds of billions of galaxies in different shapes and sizes.

So potentially there could be a huge number of planets similar to Earth. But what we don’t know of course is how many of these planets could have developed intelligent life. In later years, new telescopes may be able to detect more about these planets, (for example, whether there water present in their atmosphere). But for now we only have speculation.

The earlier discoveries of exoplanets tended to be super Earths since they were the most easy to spot orbiting a star. However, Kepler has now identified 47 Earth-sized planets. The best prospect so far being Kepler 186f, which is a mere 10% larger than the Earth. The drawback is that is 500 light years away (2,939,249,910,000,000 miles). So even if we sent a message to it at the speed of light it would take almost a thousand years to get a reply.

So maybe Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was right that space is populated by lots of potential intelligent civilisations. But communicating with them or travelling to them would take forever, unless there was a technology that allowed travel or communication at speeds substantially faster than the speed of light.

Of course, in a lot of science fiction, faster than light travel (FTL) is a common assumption, even though the physics would seem a little shaky. But without FTL space opera would not be able to exist. So I for one will still be using it in my current novel.

But in reality such drives would be only practicable for inter stellar distances if they could achieve speeds thousands of times faster than the speed of light. In Star Trek terms, we would need drives that could achieve warp 1000+ just to get around our own galaxy. To get to Andromeda, 2.5 million light years away would require something altogether faster. Even Captain Kirk, struggled to get to Warp 10 without the Enterprise shaking apart.

What makes a good story ending?

Having covered story beginnings and middles in previous blogs, it seems only natural to cover story endings. Whether a story ending is right or not can ultimately only be judged by the reader. If the ending is not consistent with the direction the story is taking the reader, they may well feel disappointed and let down. After all, the reader has invested his time, and emotional energy in the characters of the story.

So what makes a story ending consistent with the direction of the story? Ultimately it depends on the type of story and the expectation it generates about the ending. That isn’t to say the author can’t surprise the reader with an ending (a twist); but the twist ending should be consistent with the type of ending the reader expects.

In Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Booker discusses a ‘universal plot’ in which the conflict in any story revolves around a component of human nature symbolised by a ‘dark power’. How the hero/heroine responds to the ‘dark power’ determines the outcome of the story.  In the beginning of the story a hero or heroine is in some way undeveloped, frustrated or incomplete. In the middle of the story they fall under the shadow of some ‘dark power’. The ending depends on whether the hero learns to overcome his weakness, defeat the ‘dark power’ and reach his goal (positive ending); or whether he fails to change and ends in his own destruction (negative ending). Thus the universal plot is based on moral sense of justice.

The universal plot is easy to identify in many of the tragedies of Shakespeare: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. These were basically noble men whose tragic flaws led to their own destruction. Tragedies are less popular today, as Hollywood seems to have a preference for positive endings. In the positive ending, the hero overcomes his weaknesses, defeats the antagonist and achieves his goal, even if the rest of the cast die in the process (e.g. Alien).

In a recent Blog on Goodreads, many of the participants complained about Hollywood’s preference for ‘happy endings’ in many Sci Fi movies. The consensus seemed to be that Hollywod didn’t understand ‘real’ science fiction. Some eulogised over some of the more depressing endings provided by some dystopian Sci Fi literature. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of this type of  science fiction. But I think the role of science fiction is to entertain the reader and not to prophesy. China Mieville would seem to agree:

“I think the role of science fiction is not at all to prophesy. I think it is to tell interesting, vivid, strange stories that at their best are dreamlike intense versions and visions of today.”

Those movies that I have seen with depressing endings I have found disappointing. Most tanked at the box office (at least Hollywood understands money). Personally, I want to see endings that show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the ending has to be ‘happy’. It may well be sad if that’s what fits the storyline.

For example, in Space Cowboys (2000) Corvin and Hawkins discover that the Soviet Communications satellite that is about to come out of orbit has six nuclear missiles onboard. To stop the missiles re-entering the rockets have to be fired manually. Hawkins fires the rockets and takes them to the moon. He saves the world and achieves his wish of going to the moon, only to die on the moon’s surface. Not exactly a ‘happy ending’, but a sad one, and the right one for the movie.

An author has to have a good beginning, a good middle and a good end to his story to satisfy his reader. A bad opening and the reader will not pick the book up. A bad middle and the reader will put the book down in the middle. A bad ending and he/she probably won’t look at a book from the same author again.

What is science fiction?

Recently, we (the family) were hunting through our DvD/Blu-ray movie collection for one of my favourite sci movies of all time: Blade Runner. Eventually, after going through our collection several times, we found it. But I knew after all the effort of searching that it was time to put our collection into some kind of genre order. After some debate we agreed on the categories: sci fi, fantasy, horror, action/adventure, chick flick, comedy etc. The only problem was that we couldn’t agree on what movies fell into which genre.

My view was that if the plot line crucially depends on some speculative view of the future or some speculative scientific breakthrough then it’s sci fi. ‘Back to the Future’ – time travel – therefore sci fi. “No” was the response I got; “it’s family comedy”. ‘Terminator’ – time travel- therefore sci fi. “No”, was the response I got, “It’s an Action/Adventure movie”. Frankenstein – medical science – sci fi. ‘No’ was the response again; “it’s a’Horror’ movie”. Well, maybe they’re right on that one.

My family’s view was that sci fi is ‘space travel and that weird dystopian stuff’. My view was sci fi covers a much wider range of speculative fiction than just space opera and dystopian futures. Of course, sci fi stories often include elements from other genres: action stories, horror stories, love stories, military stories and even fantasy. What makes sci fi so much fun is that these different types of stories can be told against the backdrop of a speculative new world. It might be a world a thousand years in the future, with aliens, androids, teleportation and mind control. Or it could be something that could happen tomorrow; first contact with another world, or some awesome scientific break-though in artificial intelligence.

The problem is that it’s quite difficult to define the boundaries of science fiction. One of the best definitions of science fiction is Heinlen’s. He defined science fiction as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of scientific method”. But even Heinlen’s definition is not sufficiently wide to capture all the sub-genres of sci fi today. The following is a list from Wikopedia:

  • Hard SF
  • Soft and social SF
  • Cyberpunk
  • Time travel
  • Alternate history
  • Military SF
  • Superhuman
  • Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic
  • Space opera
  • Space Western
  • Anthropological
  • Biopunk
  • Comic
  • Feminist
  • Steampunk

Even this list doesn’t seem to cover everything such as romantic sci fi.  So perhaps, it’s just too difficult to try to define the sci fi genre.

Oh, by the way, we decided to put our movies in alphabetical order by leading actor. It seemed the easiest solution. At lease all the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sci Fi’s will be together.