I think what everyone is reaching for here is the problem of plausibility, which is a consideration in storytelling of any kind. I know I’ve been beating the drum of “hard” sci-fi for a while, but that doesn’t mean I have to come down on the side of more and better science as the only way to write sci-fi (after all, we write for personal reasons). It just means that, since our audience deals with technology in their everyday lives, and since a sci-fi audience is even more likely to know a lot about science and technology, good sci-fi must be plausible sci-fi.

If, instead, I were writing a drama based in 17th-century Scotland and managed to get agriculture or the Presbyterian Church wrong, it would ruin the story and limit its appeal. Let’s say I right a legal drama and keep mixing up US and British legal terminology or have Antonin Scalia in a wig. That would be a problem. If my cerebral, introvert character suddenly delivers a stirring speech in front of an enormous multitude, I have to explain or show how the character grew and changed. The Futurama scene in which cowboys hunt mastodon from the hover-cycles – that’s supposed to get your attention! It’s wrong! That’s the point!

Science is no different. Firefly/Serenity had no sound in space. That’s good, but 2001: A Space Odyssey had already done that, and they didn’t have gravity carpet, either. A good writer can fill that audible void by using it to set the mood, making a virtue of necessity. How many sci-fi films/TV shows stick lights inside of helmets so we can see the actors’ reactions? If the writers had any sense/didn’t have execs screaming at them, they could exploit the anonymity that comes with a functional space helmet. Who are they? What are they thinking? What is revealed when the helmet is removed?

Plausibility is a function of an audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. They’re the ones who turned on the TV, so they already know it’s not real. How far are you going to push them? Suspension of disbelief, furthermore, is the result of socialization. (What kinds of stories are people used to hearing?) And fiction plays a part in socialization. (They lived happily ever after –> get yourself a husband, girls, and it will all be fine.)

So: know your audience, know their limits, know their plausibility requirements. The quality and quantity of the science in your story logically follow. Violating these rules can be effective with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as in Futurama.

Another licit violation lies in the fragility of human consciousness, but more on that later.


p.s.: Once, I tried to write a screenplay within a screenplay that depicted the events of 2001 – 2005 as inaccurately as Braveheart depicted Scotland at the time of Edward II. I needed some comic relief because the rest of the story concerned a horrific act that was intended to set in motion all kinds of consequences, not the least of which being a pissed off middle-aged lesbian hell-bent on interplanetary, murderous revenge. I love that character. But anyway, I have to admit that it feels good to write stage directions like “A forest of SCIMITARS erupts in front of the SHAH,” or having characters say “look! It’s crashing into the White House,” while the plane smashes into the capitol building instead. Stupid and wrong are funny. Use wisely.