When Sydney Newman created Doctor Who, he wanted the programme to be educational. So, enter two teachers: Ian Chesterton, Science, and Barbara Wright, History. (Of course, they could never go the United States in the 1930s as that’s not part of the curriculum anymore.) It was a clever plan, you have to agree, to have the space and time machine alternate between the future and the past, each affording one of the teachers a chance to explain something. And Sydney didn’t want any bug-eyed monsters. Education was the keyword: in other words, proper Science Fiction.
Of course, in the second story, the Daleks turned up.
Years later, the Daleks’ creator, Terry Nation, gave an interview for the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Doctor Who Special. He said he wanted his scripts to be… ‘educational’, and then baulked at the word. The interviewer suggested the phrase ‘intellectually stimulating’ and Nation agreed that this was a better expression. I bought into that idea, but I now wish Terry Nation had stuck to his initial answer.
I mean here education in the sense of knowledge, culture and understanding, rather than stuffy classrooms, hard desks and stupidity.
There’s a need in writing to get your facts right. None of this Ian ‘if you paint someone gold they die’ Fleming nonsense. I think this is doubly important in SF as the ‘facts’ can be made up.
However, all this drive for purity doesn’t quite work. I agree with Bob Shaw about certain necessary fudges. He called it the ‘Secret Game’ in his book How to Write Science Fiction. Basically, you want to write about an alien world, say one of these exo-planets recently discovered, and why not. But, sadly, your main character will have died of old age before he gets there, so… er, FTL anyone?
Bob’s Secret Game is basically a nod to the reader to say “OK, I know this won’t work, but stick with me and we’ll get a good story out of it.”
Herein lies the problem with CAMRSF (CAMpaign for Real SF), apart from an inability to pronounce the acronym, and it’s in separating our allowable ingredients from impurities.
- Pure SF (‘Hard SF’ has an engineering feel to it and excludes the softer sciences, so I prefer ‘pure’ here). This is straight forward extrapolation, build a satellite in geo-stationary orbit and you can beam messages around the world, stuff.
- Secret Game, which is stuff invented to make the imagined Universe work: FTL drive, Bob Shaw’s Ylem substance used to construct a Dyson sphere, and, I suppose, elements like telepathy. Some of Star Trek’s technobabble fits here. Their Heisenberg Compensators are a nod to the Quantum Mechanical objection to Transporters.
- Gibberish, which is just nonsense. A vast quantity of Star Trek’s technobabble (but not all, see above). This impurity leads to lazy writing: all the character needs to do is spout things with Greek endings and press a button to solve any problem.
- Wrong as in just plain wrong, basically contradictions of known science and pseudo-science. Examples for this would be adding new elements to the Periodic Table (in Avatar that lump of unobtainium must be radioactive, because we know all the non-radioactive substances) and most things in the film Prometheus. I’d include here breaking the laws of established technobabble. If a starship goes at Warp 9 and takes 3 days to go from Earth to Vulcan, it can’t in the next episode go at Warp 9 and take a couple of hours.
Now, I just need to do CAMRSF t-shirts and souvenir glasses.