Sci Fi: When Physics Breaks Down


We don't have the technology (and perhaps never will) to travel faster than the speed of light. Without getting into theoretical physics, for all intents and purposes nothing travels faster than the speed of light, not even (fun fact!) the force of gravity. Yet, people can imagine anything, which is how we created shows like Star Trek where traveling light years in mere seconds is commonplace. 

Sci fi is a fascinating genre because it has to be rooted in at least some realistic physics. If it's not, it instantly becomes a different genre altogether - fantasy. (If you're wondering how you can learn more about physics, and anything else you might need to know as a writer, check out this article from last week.) You can't just make up your own new universe - that's fantasy. Magic can't be the only explanation for how your character was able to cross the solar system - again, that's fantasy. Often, the lines between the two genres are blurred, but sci fi remains more realistic and grounded in the observable world.

So, if you're creating your own sci fi world and don't know where to begin, these are the tips you'll want to keep in mind!


1. Have a basic knowledge of the real science pertaining to what you're writing about. It's difficult to write about interplanetary travel without doing at least a little research on rockets. What ideas have been tried and proven not to work? What is an idea that scientists think could work in the future? What are some of the limitations we'd need to overcome - radiation from the sun, for example? 

It's important to keep your readers from finding out you aren't a visionary. In other words, if they can point to some fact in the book and say "I know that could never happen because [insert reason here]," they're not likely to suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy the story, especially if their point is relevant to the plot. You don't need to write your stories assuming that astrophysicists are going to read it, but you might want to prepare for an astronomy hobbyist.

2. Eliminate contradictions. In the sci fi story I'm currently working on, I recently ran into a problem. There's no atmosphere on my planet, yet there was a sandstorm. Without an atmosphere, there shouldn't be any wind, but without wind, there shouldn't be a sandstorm, either. These kinds of contradictions are relatively easy to spot and should therefore be avoided at all costs. Edit your work multiple times and have others read it to look for errors like this.

3. Pick a few things that follow the rules of the real world. Referring back to the story I'm currently writing, it's currently impossible to live on an extraterrestrial planet. Furthermore, even if it was possible to live there, it's impossible to travel there. And even if both those things were possible, there's no conclusive evidence that there would be anything living there. However, in my story, all three of those things are true. So what makes it sci fi and not fantasy, where I can make any rules I want?

The answer is that some things abide by currently known laws of physics. Sure, my character traveled over the speed of light (or very close to it - much closer than we can get today) without any effects on his perception of the passage of time (contrary to the principles of time dilation). But when he got to the planet, he couldn't just waltz outside with no protective suit. Nor did he experience the same gravitational effects that he would on earth. He drops a glass, and it doesn't shatter. He jumps off the roof of his shelter and doesn't get hurt. 

These things are all accurate according to currently known physics, so they're not completely outside readers' realm of experience. They haven't been to the moon (probably), but in high school they may have done some calculations that told them they could jump higher if they were on the moon, or on a planet smaller and less dense than Earth. This seems intuitive to them. Voila - sci fi, and not fantasy. 

4. Recognize that people and cultures will adapt to a new way of life. Think about how your life would be different if you could vacation to the moon. The Bahamas wouldn't seem quite so fancy anymore! Don't forget to consider the societal changes that would occur as a result of space travel, or whatever other sci fi element you're introducing. 

These changes are already occurring, particularly in the search for extraterrestrial life. Look up some programs that governments around the world have put in place in case of space travel, or in case of extraterrestrial life, or in case of interplanetary wars, and use these as a guide to what your futuristic society might be like.

5. Read up on sci fi novels, watch sci fi movies, and play sci fi games. Science has changed a lot over the past few years, so don't look to From the Earth to the Moon (Jules Verne, 1865) for advice on how to get to the moon. But do look at the amount of technical detail he puts into his writing. If his physics had all been correct, you could very nearly build a rocket based off the descriptions in his book. You don't need to go full Tom Clancy detail, but it is often helpful to find books, movies, and games that do go the extra mile to prove that their theories might realistically be possible in the future.


TL;DR: Do your research, don't throw out all realistic elements, and don't forget to account for how life may have changed in a futuristic society. And don't be afraid to get creative! Real physics might seem like a major limitation, but you can create anything you want outside the box as long as you don't forget the box exists.

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