The Science of What If?

The Science of What If?

Even if fantasy is not counted, science fiction is split into a number of fragmented sub-genres. At least one list had 48 separate sub-genres under the heading science fiction. Something I believe they should all have in common is, of course, science.
By holding on to some reasonable contact with actual science creates a feeling of plausibility for the reader that make the suspension of disbelief easier to maintain. Doing this, however, places a burden of the writer to do his (or her) homework. You must start by asking questions such as: Is faster than light travel a possibility? Are their Earth-like planets out there somewhere? What is a black hole? Are there parallel universes? And so on. Then you must find the answers.
Two of my favorite writers were exceptionally good at this. Robert Heinlein asked questions like: Is it possible for man to live forever? What would it be like to settle a new planet? What is the basic nature of man? How can we overcome or limitations? These became central themes to much of his work.
Anne McCaffrey wrote a 22 book series after asking the question: Are dragons possible and how? She also asked how would a human society under extreme duress reorganize itself after being cut off form its past and its technology.
Douglas Adams simply asked: What is the answer to life, the universe and everything? Which we now all know is 42. He also postulated that in an infinite universe anything is possible.
These and other what ifs are the jumping off points to great fiction. But it isn’t enough simply to ask the question. As writers we must find a possibility where the answers also exits. Like Heinlein I like to ask what is next for mankind. When and where will be take the next evolutionary step and what are the possibilities. The answer MUST be based on actual science in order to get the reader to buy in.
This is the quality that drives my good friend and writing partner, Skip Miller, up the wall. Every time he presents me with an idea for what he calls a simple little story, I start picking it apart and asking those irritating questions. It isn’t that I dislike his ideas. It’s simply my job to ask.
So next time you find yourself stuck for a great idea for a story start asking yourself questions that start with “What if?” Then go do your homework and find the answers.