Changing the Valves
How to be Memorably Wrong
2003, Bob Billing
rthur C. Clarke, towards the
end of the Second World War, published an article called "Extra-Terrestrial
Relays". In this he described something we now take for granted - the
communications satellite. However this was ten years before the invention of the
transistor. In his subsequent science fiction he described his relay stations in
detail. In both "The Other Side of the Sky" and "Islands in the
Sky" he refers to orbiting stations which are continuously manned. This
seemed to be obviously correct at the time. After all there had to be someone on
hand to change the valves, or in the case of American stations the vacuum tubes.
The great Isaac Asimov was not
immune to this sort of thing. In "Everest" he described the colony of
Martian scientists living at the top of the mountain, where the thin, cold air
suited them and they were ideally placed to observe the human race. Occasional
sightings of the gentle, furry aliens had given rise to the legend of the Yeti.
Because of this, Asimov claimed, Everest would never be climbed. However it
would seem that there is a divinity with a sense of humour. Between acceptance
and the story appearing in print the British expedition made it to the top.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing found no aliens.
The planets Mars and Venus have
trapped most authors since H.G. Wells in the same way. Until science fiction was
prepared to leave our solar system there seemed to be only two really useful
destinations for space travel. Old, cold Mars with its dead or dying
civilisations and its endless, quiet canals really was too good a location to
leave alone. How many readers have stood to drink in the beauty of the Martian
sunset in all its variety? Even knowing that conditions on the surface of Mars
would kill a human in seconds doesn't detract from the sheer poetry of C.S.
Lewis's "Out of the Silent Planet." His description of the planet,
particularly the scenes where Ransom climbs right out of the atmosphere on the
mountain road to Augray's tower, are so evocative, and do so much to awaken the
endless longings, that it is perfectly possible to forgive his quite abominable
Warm, fertile Venus is another
archetypal image that has haunted science fiction for generations. Lewis himself
sent Ransom there and found floating islands in "Perelandra." Heinlein
in "Space Cadet" peopled it with a delightful aquatic sentient race.
Finding out that the real surface conditions are similar to the inside of a
particularly unpleasant chemical process does nothing to subtract from these
There is another way in which
authors can be wrong, and sadly this has afflicted some of the greater names. In
"The Deep Range" Clarke throws away a line about the future of
religion which has most definitely not come true. Similarly in "The Black
Cloud" Fred Hoyle has a very old alien confirm his steady-state theory. To
my mind these are minor flaws in otherwise great books. It's an easy trap for an
author to fall into. When describing a distant future the urge to say,
"...and the author was finally proved right" must be quite
There are of course simple
errors of fact. In the novel "Needle" Hal Clement mistakenly coined
the word symbiote when he meant symbiont. This spelling is simply
wrong but has passed into popular folklore and has been regularly used by other
authors. The spell checker on the word processor I am using to write this
article accepts both spellings when set to American.
So why is it that stories which
contain gross errors become and remain classics? To investigate this I'd like to
look at another of Arthur C. Clarke's short stories. In "What Goes
Up", part of the "Tales from the White Hart" collection, Clarke
begins by telling us that the rest of the story is a lie, then proceeds to spin
the tale so well that it becomes perfectly believable. The story contains, among
other things, an outrageous violation of Newton's laws of motion. The force
acting on the unfortunate protagonist seems to have two completely different
values at the same time.
This is an extreme case, but I
think it nicely illustrates my point.
What we, as authors, are asking
from the reader is not peer review of our science. Even if this were possible
we'd have to live with the fact that theories change as time passes and that all
science fiction must, in the end, fall out of date. If interstellar travel
becomes, as I hope it will, a reality I fully expect that my fictional FTL
drives will raise a wry smile. But at the same time I look to a future in which
my stories will still be read.
In the end I think that the
simple background of the story, the worldbuilding against which it is set, only
has to ask the reader to join in the conspiracy by suspending disbelief. To my
mind worldbuilding must be good enough not to contain inconsistencies that set
off alarm bells in the readers' head. At the same time it most not obtrude in
front of the story that the characters on stage are telling.
If your writing - and mine - can
achieve that level,it will be worth reading.