How many paragraphs of hard science can you take?

Discussion in 'Writing' started by vrabinec, Aug 9, 2012.

  1. vrabinec

    vrabinec Registered User

    Joined:
    May 8, 2012
    Messages:
    33
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    I have a friend who's writing a time travel piece. He spent six long paragraphs in the first chapter explaining the mechanics behind the the time machine. It's kind of interesting, but after about three paragraphs, I'm ready to move on with the story, and it keeps going. Does that lose you guys like it does me? (The story's unpublished, so I can't post the paragraphs)
     
  2. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2008
    Messages:
    2,935
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    73
    What is hard science?

    Is any detailed description of a time machine hard science?

    I would suggest A Fall of Moon Dust by Arthur C. Clarke or Antares Dawn by Michael McCollum for hard science references. McCollum is an aeronautical engineer and I found his descriptions of space ships interesting even though I have read it more than twice. Clarke describes lots of stuff in his book which was feasible even if it was not producible in 1961.

    I don't think I would tolerate much of that for a supposed time machine, but I would not regard it a HARD SF either.

    David Weber gets annoying with his descriptions of military hardware which I think is rather unrealistic but he has decent stories. I suspect there is no one size fits all for readers. I don't really regard Weber"s Harrington series as hard SF either but I think some people do.

    http://galvestondailynews.com/story/263598/

    I don't recall Heinlein going into a lot of detail on stuff that was not reasonably realistic. But I might mis-remember. He hand waved stuff that needed hand waving, like his time machine in The Door into Summer.

    psik
     
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2012
  3. Triceratops

    Triceratops Browser

    Joined:
    Nov 29, 2006
    Messages:
    164
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    I can't take many paragraphs of pure core science, and that's why I keep my own science down to a dull roar. Sometimes I think hard SF actually repels the readers instead of draws them in.

    chris
     
  4. JimF

    JimF Registered User

    Joined:
    Nov 16, 2009
    Messages:
    672
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    53
    not having read them i would think 6 paragrapha a little long. unlessthere is some key reason in the story that the reader needs to know how this time machine operates, I think 6 sentances may be too much. That goes double if there is any star trek style technobabble.
     
  5. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2008
    Messages:
    2,935
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    73
    But isn't that what it has to be if it is a time machine story.

    Actually I do have to make an admission on this subject. One time machine story I avoided for years just because it was a time machine story. The Proteus Operation by James P. Hogan. I'm sorry I avoided it but it does not come across like Treknobabble. Hogan describes things but doesn't try to explain the workings.

    psik
     
  6. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2009
    Messages:
    1,313
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    It is CRAPPY hard-science writing to which most of us are allergic, I think. Not the HS writing itself.

    By bad I mean writing that focuses only on the science - which could be ANY science, not just physics or other "hard" science.

    Gripping fiction with lots of science in it focuses instead on the human significance of the science. Does a time-travel twist forever separate your protagonist from a wife/lover/child they love deeply?

    Do we EXPERIENCE events which are affected by the particular science or technology in a fully worked-out scene, or are we merely TOLD about it?

    Say, with the protagonist putting his child on a time-craft to escape a disaster, then running back to get a second child or a spouse or co-worker who is injured. Only to arrive at the craft launch point-only to see it vanish, forcing him to board a second rescue time-craft which can never find the point at which his child was sent, or finds it half a life-time later.

    I'm currently working on a novel with my POV character taking a sub-orbital ride in a spaceship. I'm an aerospace software and systems engineer, so I worked out in detail what that would involve. All that detail went into the book.

    It did not stay there. The first draft of that long chapter was to make sure the tech and science was right. In the second draft I cut out all details except the ones which affected what the POV character would experience. This included the acceleration at takeoff pushing her back into her seat, the coasting phase where she could float about the cabin and play with weightlessness, seeing the east coast at night when all the marvelous web-work of light came toward her and passed below, the excitement of seeing the west coast where she and her family lives coming up and the setting sun seeming to rise rather than set because of the great speed of the spaceship she was in.

    Focus more on the people, less on the science, is my rule for SF.

    This applies to writing outside SFFH, such as police procedurals. Details of detection methods and rules of evidence are important parts of the story. Descriptions of them help the reader feel as if they are right there with the POV character(s). But how that affects the detectives as they are trying to bring to justice a criminal is much more important.

    Or in a Napoleonic sea war story obviously stuff about sails and navigation and cannons are important. But how does this affect the captain and crew as they play hide-and-seek with the enemy and fight them when they find them?
     
  7. Steven L Jordan

    Steven L Jordan I like SF. SF is cool.

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2010
    Messages:
    454
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    26
    "Six paragraphs of science" is NOT excessive science. Not even when it is bunched up in six consecutive paragraphs. However, science downloads can be made much more palatable by simply breaking them up and interspersing them with paragraphs (or even chapters) of character interaction or story development, and ladle out the science according to how it impacts that part of the story and characters at that moment. When it doesn't read like a non-stop lecture, it's a lot easier to get through.
     
  8. N. E. White

    N. E. White tmso Staff Member

    Joined:
    Jun 11, 2009
    Messages:
    6,258
    Likes Received:
    67
    Trophy Points:
    133
    It depends. If it lost you, then maybe your friend needs to either cut it down, re-write it so that the reader understands why it is important to the story to know all this, and/or break it up (i.e. intersperse it throughout the narrative rather than in a lump) - or all of the above.

    Your friend could also get more reader feedback. If more than one person gets lost at that same spot, then the writer definitely needs to do something about it. If not, then it is just personal preference and, well, ya can't please everyone all the time! :)
     
  9. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2009
    Messages:
    1,313
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Probably true for most of us. But it's less a matter of quantity than quality.

    Does the explanation directly relate to the story - at that very moment in the story? Does it have an emotional importance to the POV character - does it (for instance) mean her life is in danger?

    That relates to content of the story: the people, places, and actions happening.

    But there are also considerations of the quality of the writing itself. Do the sentences flow smoothly, or is the rhythm of the writing clunky? Is there excessive technical wordage, or only the absolute minimum?

    And, as Steve and Nila (tmso) mention, is the exposition spread throughout a scene, or bunched up in a "lump"?

    Hard (or soft) science writing is a like any tool - it can be done well, ill, or in-between. And when it is done poorly it can ruin the entire story for many readers.
     
  10. owlcroft

    owlcroft Webmaster, Great SF&F

    Joined:
    Sep 11, 2008
    Messages:
    1,030
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Well . . .

    As you know, Bob, that sort of thing can be very, very annoying. If I am reading a contemporary novel, I do not expect the protagonist to offer his friend a beer, then spend six pages explaining either the thermodynamics of refrigeration or the biochemistry of brewing.

    Someone once did a side-splitting several paragraphs parodying how a science-fiction author would write up two people getting in a taxicab for a short ride. (If anyone knows what I mean and has a link, bless you please post it.)
     
  11. Modern Day Myth

    Modern Day Myth Registered User

    Joined:
    May 23, 2009
    Messages:
    143
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Absolutely true.

    Has anyone else here read Martin Caidin's science fiction novel, Cyborg?

    That is the novel the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man is based on. There must be a good 4 to 6 pages written about the operation that turned Steve Austin into a cyborg after his accident. Caidin had me convinced he knew how to build a cyborg the way his technical jargon was written so well. I found it fascinating and not boring as well. It all depends on how it was written.
     
  12. Steven L Jordan

    Steven L Jordan I like SF. SF is cool.

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2010
    Messages:
    454
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    26
    I have the book, and I'd agree. I've felt the same about most of Michael Crichton's books: Regardless of what you felt about the stories, for me his science downloads were well-done.
     
  13. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,413
    Likes Received:
    25
    Trophy Points:
    173
    Yeah, he wrote science material well, did Crichton, except that it was mostly hooey. The medical stuff he did quite well, since he was a doctor, and he wasn't bad with computers, but the dinosaur origin material in Jurassic Park is pure hokum and the material with his time machine novel is ridiculous. Crichton's stuff was not hard SF. They were thrillers that used some science details as jumping off points.

    Peter Watts, on the other hand, does hard SF and everything is not just jumped off from the science research but built on it (and he'll give you appendices in the back to show you how.) But while he builds a solid foundation for say vampires actually existing in Blindsight, he stretches it beyond probably what is totally realistic. But that doesn't mean that Crichton or Watts' books aren't interesting. I am also fond of Robert L. Forward's hard SF Cheela duology. (He's a physicist.) Those are full of science in a completely different world from ours in every dimension and life form. But they're fascinating and have a lot of heart-rending drama in them too. And a lot of people really liked them -- they were his most successful novels. Larry Niven spends a good chunk explaining the science of how the Ringworld is set up in Ringworld, then abandons most of that for adventures on the world (though you need to know the science for much of the world to make sense.) So whatever they need/want to do seems to work okay and has the potential to attract an audience, quite often sizable ones.

    I was talking with an author friend today who has been quite successful and done about seven novels about the new novel she's working on, a departure for her. She had drafted a first chapter but was concerned about whether the ending of that first chapter sufficiently conveyed the main premise/particular issue of the story to tell what the book was about. I said that wasn't possible because it was leading into a particular scene that did not highlight the premise but set things up for later. Why do you need to have the premise outlined at the end of the first chapter, I asked her. "Don't you have to do it that way?" she said. So I gently laid my forehead against my desk, as I always do in these situations, and then explained that no, you don't. It was partly because she was shifting to one type of story from the other type that she had done, but also it was because authors get told "do it this way" proclamations continually.

    So these surveys always seem to me to suck up a lot of creative energy. If you go on a forum and ask do you like all the science description and the larger group of folk on the forum say no, we don't like the science stuff much and never read hard SF, does that really tell you anything? If you get a larger group on a forum who are devout hard SF fans and tell you that yes, the science is most important and anything else isn't real science fiction, does that really tell you anything either? You aren't going to protect any creation from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

    If you are writing a hard SF novel, you will have to spend some time on the science because the story is about the science. That's what a hard SF novel is. If you're writing a sociological SF novel, you may not have to spend a ton of time on hard science, but you may have to spend a lot of time on describing a society and social factors, as that's what a sociological SF novel focuses on. A military SF novel focuses on the military, so there's going to be stuff on equipment, tactics, aspects of a soldier's life. Comic SF will have jokes. Cyberpunk will have tech, rebellion, and a thriller plot and so spend some time on all of those. An environmental post-apocalypse novel is going to spend some time describing the environment science, and so forth. Science fiction readers usually do not freak out about this.
     
  14. DDCOrange

    DDCOrange Registered User

    Joined:
    Jun 26, 2011
    Messages:
    319
    Likes Received:
    1
    Trophy Points:
    28
    As one of the masses of science ignoramouses out there I acknowledge that I am not nearly as knowledgeable as most of you. However I can't keep my big mouth shut on this one.
    My opinion for what is worth is that to write hard science and be successful the author has to do it in a way that the undereducated, uncaring average reader can grasp and comprehend. In short, dumb it down a bit. Or to put it another way, to do the impossible; make hard science sound cool!
    The author needs to supply his or her knowledge without talking down to the reader or show off how brainy they are. It's one thing to get your hard science right, but quite another for the average reader to understand it. Most readers will either skip ahead to something they can follow or give up completely before going online to research the paragraph they just read. It's sort of a fine line and I suspect alot of authors get away with murder simply because the average reader will buy off any flimsy explanation to get on with the story without really asking if the science is valid. That's why I like this website. The more educated among us are quick to set us straight, keep the authors honest and provide a little illumination to the ignorant (myself included). :)
     
  15. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2009
    Messages:
    1,313
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Stick to essentials

    Rather than "dumb it down" I'd phrase it STICK TO ESSENTIALS. I can write entire books about all the technical and scientific background to any space travel story, because working out and writing reports about such matters was my job for 40+ years. But all that is ESSENTIAL for part of a book might be something like this.

    Often the fewer the details the better. Less chance of getting them wrong. Less chance of washing out the exciting parts of your story. Less chance of slowing the pace.

    And more opportunities to let your readers create the details for themselves. The scene will be clearer and more vivid because the details come from your readers memories and understanding.
     
  16. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2008
    Messages:
    2,935
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    73
    Yuck! Definitely sucks.

    Antares Passage by Michael McCollum

    Much better.

    But it is a question of what audience the author is trying to appeal to.

    psik
     
  17. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2009
    Messages:
    1,313
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Hmm, maybe. But it was written to make a point, not make great literature.

    When you express an opinion it's a good idea to back it up with details and logic. "Sucks" helps no one understand how to do something better. Nor does it help you to make a point. It's the kind of remark that brands you as inarticulate.

    I found the "Antares Passage" quote clunky in flow, unduly wordy, and used too much jargon. Yawn-inducing, slowed the narrative.

    Worse it's all tell and no show, no sensory input to help the readers put themselves into the scene.
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2012
  18. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2008
    Messages:
    2,935
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    73
    That is so grade school

    Might as well read Harry Potter.

    psik
     
  19. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2009
    Messages:
    1,313
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    For Heaven's sake, take a deep breath and be specific. Flinging insults like "so grade school" and "Might as well read Harry Potter" do not make a point. I know you can do better.
     
  20. Seli

    Seli Registered User

    Joined:
    Mar 14, 2007
    Messages:
    317
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    51
    Personally I don't like either, the first is too shallow and the second to dumpy.

    It all depends on the quality of the writing and the integration in the rest of the work. At times one paragraph is too much, for other people whole chapters can be fine.

    Personally I like Neal Stephenson, and I think he manages to use a large percentage of any book for hard science.