I call myself a science fiction fan, if anyone asks. But secretly I know that in that highly unlikely theoretical scenario, I am fudging my answer, because I am not really a science fiction fan. Not really and properly in my heart.
The reason I say that is – well, it’s a bit hard to explain. In my head, “proper” science fiction is largely dictated by that first word, which is intimidating as hell to me. In the definition in my head, science fiction means hard science: complex physics, engineering, maths, chemistry and biological concepts explored speculatively but plausibly and consistently. It means speculating on big ideas and it may insinuate a sense of wonder, but it also requires the author to understand the physical and conceptual ramifications of this engineering marvel or that tricksy gene therapy. To write “real” science fiction, an author can’t just fudge physics and hope for the best – or rather, she could, but only if she understands the implications of the fudge.
To my distorted way of thinking, science fiction requires knowledge, applied with discipline and challenged with rigour. It might be a bad writer who shows his working – and tediously explains the physics of tethering an orbital platform to a Lagrange point, say – but woe betide the author who hasn’t done the thinking behind the scenes. Loose threads and sloppy science both stick out like sore thumbs, and the internet has taught us that the weak will be torn limb from limb for the crime of showing their weakness.
My point is, while I am pretty sure I could get up to speed quickly to write about some reasonably complex biological processes (as long as there’s no serious maths involved), on the rest of the broad spectrum of science discipline, I am utterly screwed. My maths is feeble and the intersection of physics with everything else baffles me. I tried and failed to follow Hawking. I can’t think about physics in any depth, I struggle to read about it and I sure as hell can’t write about it.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that I am rather in love with a podcast that celebrates science fiction and discusses it in depth: the Coode Street Podcast, hosted by Johnathon Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe. Strahan and Wolfe are obviously lifelong science fiction fans, deeply steeped in the traditions of the form. They are academics and critics well-versed in both current and historical works. And they get the science, or if they don’t, they have mastered the art of sounding convincing.
Coode Street is a weekly podcast discussion on science fiction and fantasy (more of the former than the latter, although they have wide ranging interests). It’s erudite, insightful and fascinating. They grok science fiction, they care about the field and its wider place in literature and society, how it informs and is informed by technological change over time and they like to speculate on where it might go in the future. I don’t consider myself a real fan of science fiction, because basically I don’t feel as smart or as informed as these guys sound. Basically it’s like listening to two awesome teachers talking. Recommended (in particular for Clams).
Next day edit: I sound like I’m putting myself down all through this, which means I should learn a lesson about attempting to write with relentless positivity after midnight. (I won’t). In ideal circumstances I would scrap the whole post and try again, but – eh, it’s out there now. So instead I’ll try to restate my point and see if I can make it a bit better this time.
I should clarify that I see a distinct difference between hard science fiction and the rest of the field. It’s hard SF that I am trying to describe here – the challenging, scientific SF of a Greg Egan or a Stephen Baxter (sometimes) or a Kim Stanley Robinson. And I am not complaining about writing which is dry or overly technical. All three of those writers use very accessible prose and convey their ideas well, and I have no doubt that there are others as good or better.
My problem – and I want to stress that this is a problem with me rather than with the field – is that I feel like I can’t appreciate great works of hard SF. I am acutely aware, when reading a speculative work that proposes some breathtaking concept that I lack the frame of reference not only to figure out what is being described, but also to catch the nuances and to comprehend the broader implications. Stumbling across incomprehensible scientific revelations happens to me all the time. Perhaps I’m not a sufficiently attentive reader (that’s very likely, in fact). Perhaps it’s the author’s job to spell those out, I don’t know, but I would hate to imagine an author hamstringing their elegant fabrications just so scientific semi-literates like me can get the point.
And the thing is, I know that I have a better and broader understanding of science that 95% of the population of earth . I do. I’m well read, I retain at least most of the basic principles I learned in high school and I stay at least roughly abreast of the latest popular science news. I like Big Science ideas. I am intensely interested in what’s coming next and what that means for the human race. I am ravenously sci-curious.
But I don’t feel like I can ever be in that club, because I don’t make the height requirement. Even though I’m probably the only person who thinks there is one.
Further edit: Nope, still failed to be positive.
How about this: I want to love hard science fiction in the Egan-esque vein. Somebody please recommend something great.
 Within my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I am almost certainly in a much lower percentile…