Too much Science in your Fiction: A distraction waiting to happen

I was recently reading a book – a debut science fiction novel released a few years ago. The title and author shall remain nameless for the purposes here, as they are not of importance. Black hole, Interstellar, MCD, Harry Tuttle

What I am curious about is how we perceive technology, or science in general, in a story. In particular, when does science and technology take over a story? And how much does it depend on the reader?

We can consider films as well as books if you like. Indeed, if we take a couple of recent and popular films, then we don’t have to worry about ruining the career of a new author. Two recent movies have generated a lot of discussion; Gravity and Interstellar. “Experts” came out and told everyone in great detail, how the films had got it wrong, i.e. the basic science was flawed. I love science fiction and have been enjoying the resurgence in popularity for film and tv as well as books.

So I ask you, what is wrong with suspension of disbelief?

Let’s focus on Interstellar for a moment. Black holes have been popular fodder in science fiction as mechanisms of destruction as well as time travel. In Interstellar they worked hard to get the science right, having one of the worlds leading experts (Kip Thorne) involved all the way. One of the problems that created quite a bit of discussion were the special effects used for the black hole – the details of which are even less important here than in the film. Apparently the film decided to ignore certain aspects of the scientific modelling to make something that they thought the audience would find more believable. I am not a specialist/expert in astrophysics, so for me, this is simply the most intelligent thing that they could have done and any experts complaining about this should just go back and read another text book. Sometimes we perhaps need to be reminded that they are telling a story, not reporting on scientific progress.

Like black holes, quantum physics and things like entanglement, teleportation and Schrödinger cats are difficult to understand. Nonetheless, most people that have heard about them have usually also picked up some intuition about how they work – in most cases through some over-sold, over-simplified, anecdote that scientists are forced to produce and put into a press release that is later poorly presented in popular science news blogs and journals… (/rant sorry about that). Now, the person telling the story has to adapt how they represent these and make sure that it will be close to what the audience will expect. We do not want to jolt the audience out of their suspension of disbelief.

It is not the role of the story teller to be scientifically accurate and I find it one of the most absurd demands that the “expert audience” places on writers.

Having said that, if, as a writer, you choose to go into the details, you really need to make sure that your research is up to it. You should probably also try and get a beta reader that is an actual qualified expert in the area you are writing.

Why do I say this? Let’s go back to the book that I don’t want to talk about. There are a lot of references to ideas, technologies and concepts, from modern quantum physics. Now, here is my concern. I have a PhD in quantum physics – I think I’m probably too close to the concepts to casually suspend disbelief. I was too busy talking to myself about how absurd things were and how the author had got something wrong, to actually focus on the story. I kept losing track of the story. Admittedly, the start was rather dense and there were a lot of characters and concepts to introduce, but I was distracted by the technology, by the science.

I know that this sounds like I might be contradicting myself here, but unlike the interstellar producers, rather than remove detail and simplify, the author here, chose to go into a lot details that were perhaps not necessary. For the expert, the attempts were awkward and it felt forced. For the non-expert they failed to leverage the knowledge, (popular) intuition and expectation of the reader, and I suspect most would have also been jolted out of their suspension of disbelief.

There is a nice quote from Paul Franklin (special effects god) in a Wired article about this how they visualised the black hole in Intersellar

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of breaking the rules of reality, … And those rules are actually quite strict.

Have you had similar experiences? Do you have to not read books that are too close to your expertise?