I’ve just gotten back from Launch Pad, a week-long astronomy workshop sponsored by NASA. The idea is that, since the American public seems to pay little attention to actual scientists (resulting in many, many misconceptions and outright falsehoods gaining traction), they’ll work through people who might have more of an impact — i.e., people who use science to entertain, like science fiction writers, prominent science bloggers, science comedians, and the like. The workshop helps those people get the basics right.
“But wait!” I hear you saying. (C’mon, play along.) “Aren’t you a fantasy writer? You don’t use science!”
Au contraire, mon strange doubtful random person. (I’m practicing my French for Anticipation.) First off, I’m not purely a fantasy writer. Like most writers, I do a little bit of everything. I’ve had science fiction stories published in a number of places, and I’ve even gotten an Honorable Mention in the latest Year’s Best Science Fiction. My first few novels, including The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, are fantasy — but the next project on my slate is a YA cyberpunk novel. I’m a writer who likes fantasy, not just a fantasy writer; the difference is mostly academic, but important.
But beyond that, who the heck says fantasy writers don’t use science? Some of my favorite authors — C. S. Friedman, in her Coldfire Trilogy; Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels — set their fantasy tales on planets settled by colonists from Earth. And while the distinction between magic and psi-power is a matter of considerable debate, there’s no doubt that these books are equally loved by readers of both genres. Frankly, looking at these writers’ careers, it seems clear that science fiction/fantasy blends can be very successful if handled correctly. So why wouldn’t I try? McCaffrey’s work accurately (for the time) explored genetic engineering and the sociological impact of planetary colonization in a time of crisis. I think that made her readers more willing to accept the frankly non-scientific dragons who couldn’t possibly fly in anything resembling Earth gravity. Friedman tackled evolution, introducing a unique ecosystem that adapts itself to intrusions (read: colonists from Earth) in non-Darwinian ways (read: magic). Understanding Darwinian evolution is crucial for the reader because in Friedman’s world, the most powerful magic users are those who manage to impose Earth rules on this fundamentally alien system.
All of these very fantastic novels are rooted in real, hard science, without which I believe they simply wouldn’t work as well. Nobody wants to read fantasy these days — if they ever did — in which Wizard X simply waves his hands around and causes Magical Effect Y. Readers want structure, plausible chains of cause and effect, conservation of energy and mass, consequences. Mercedes Lackey and other authors have been paraphrased as saying that any sufficiently complex magic/knowledge is indistinguishable from technology, and this goes for science too. One of the most effective recent fantasy novels I’ve read is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, in which the magic system is modeled on the principles of metallurgy and metals’ atomic structure. You don’t have to know inorganic chemistry to follow the book, but it makes for a more interesting experience if you do.
So I’m looking forward to incorporating astronomy into my fantasy in the future. I’ve dabbled in it a little already; one of the characters in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms can turn himself into a black hole at will. I had to research one scene, in which he transforms in order to destroy an oncoming army, by figuring out exactly what would happen if a 3-solar-mass black hole hit a planet. Unfortunately I didn’t discover this guy until after the book was done, so I think I got a few details wrong. Oh, well.
Next time, though, I’m totally going to get it right. Because nothing says fantasy like spaghettified unicorns!