If I Wanted Facts, I’d Read A Textbook

I recently bought a collection called Star Heroes: 9 Novels of Space Exploration, Aliens, and Adventure‌—‌9 novels for a ridiculously low price. As with anything that seems like too good a deal, I was initially dubious of the quality, but so far I have been pleasantly surprised.

starnomad_lindsayburokerThe first novel in the collection is Star Nomad, a sci-fi adventure by Lindsay Buroker, and it is a very enjoyable read‌—‌lots of action, a fast-moving story, and an interesting cast of characters. I’ve already bought the next book in the series.

When I’d finished it, I popped onto Amazon and read some of the reviews. The vast majority were positive, but, as with any book, there were a few one-stars. Although I personally didn’t agree with these, one of the complaints against the book got me thinking. A couple of reviewers took Buroker to task over the weak science in the book, with one especially complaining about her apparent lack of understanding of how craft would move in space.

That comment made me think of another book I read recently, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves‌—‌800 pages, with about half of them explaining the science behind what is happening. In this book, manoeuvring in space is a precise, drawn-out procedure that can take hours, days, or even longer. Everything moves at a slow pace, because that is more scientifically accurate.

I enjoyed that book, and it was clear that Stephenson had done a great deal of research. There is no way I can vouch for the technical details, but even if Stephenson invented parts of it, it reads like fact.

seveneves_nealstephensonBut it is a very different read to Buroker’s book. Where Stephenson starts with a premise (what would happen if the moon exploded?) and uses science to plot his story, Buroker is more interested in the action and adventure, and putting her characters in different situations to see how they cope. Where Seveneves is serious (most of the time), Star Nomad is escapism.

But I’m also reminded of Arthur C Clarke’s statement that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Today, we can do things with technology that would astound someone from a century ago. We can hold an entire library on a small, hand-held device, or we can travel the globe in a matter of hours. We can control computers with our eyes, and cars can drive themselves. So, in books set in the far future, or in alternative universes or dimensions, who’s to say what can be done with science? Just because something is impossible today doesn’t mean it will always be so.

Both books are science-fiction, but there are two parts to that description. Stephenson is driven by the former, and Buroker is more concerned with the latter. Yet it should be remembered that these books are both fiction. They are invented stories, not factual accounts, and to fully appreciate them we have to buy into the implausibilities. Yes, the way Buroker’s heroine throws her craft around cannot be explained by science as we understand it, but so what? It’s a fun read. It’s entertainment. And it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

When we read (or watch) fiction, we have to give ourselves that freedom to accept the ridiculous. It’s how we can enjoy James Bond films without concerning ourselves over the seemingly indestructible nature of Bond himself (how many lucky escapes can one man have?) It’s how cosy-mystery fans can ignore the implausibility of a Jessica Fletcher character who stumbles across, and solves, more murders over a series than many police officers would deal with in their whole careers. It’s how we can accept, for a couple of hours, that a hero can survive and win, despite being beaten so much that he should be in intensive care (see just about any action film for examples of this‌—‌most fights should be short and brutal, with both combatants soon out of breath or incapacitated from their injuries, not long drawn-out affairs with breaks for witty comments).

So were the negative reviews of Buroker’s book wrong? No. Reviews are personal opinions, not facts. And there is validity in the claim that her book is light on actual science. This clearly bothered some readers, and they would probably prefer something like Seveneves.

And that is fine. There are so, so many books out there. Even a specific genre like science-fiction contains a vast spectrum of books, including Stephenson’s hard sci-fi and Buroker’s sci-fi adventures. Not every book will appeal to every reader.

My opinion‌—‌and that is all it is‌—‌is that Star Nomad is a fun read, and gave me a few hours of solid entertainment. Which is exactly what I was looking for.

If I wanted to understand the science of space, I’d read a textbook.

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