Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


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Is Gravity Science Fiction?

I just wrote the following response to an article and blog comment on lablit.com suggesting that the film Gravity should not be classified as Science Fiction. I thought I should add the comment here as well.

What’s the beef with science fiction?

There are several issues with Gravity that to my mind make it more Science Fiction than Science Fact. The convenient locations of the various places on orbit is already noted, but there are other operational issues in Gravity which elide the facts to make it more convenient (and survivable) for the characters. These include the amount of time taken to put on (and take off) a space suit, and the amount of time it takes to repressurise an airlock.

But above and beyond all these, is the key science fictional idea that drives the film: Kessler syndrome, the hypthesised debris cascade that would result as space debris hits other satellites causing even more debris, and eventually wiping out everything in low Earth orbit (LEO). Even ignoring the fact that the data linking satellites, TDRS, that are used to link communications across LEO are in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and thus immune from the effect – something the film ignores to add narrative tension – the Kessler syndrome is not something that has been probed to be real. It’s plausible, but it is not a scientific fact, confirmed (thank goodness) by experiment.

To my mind that makes Gravity science fiction more than anything else. Hard SF, for sure, since they try as hard as possible to get everything else as right as they can given the story they want to tell, but SF nevertheless.

I’d contrast this with another film that is borderline SF: Deep Impact. This posits the possibility of a large asteroid impact threatening all life on Earth. Most people would call this film SF, but, unlike Gravity and the Kessler Syndrome, we know that such giant impacts have happened in the past – one wiped out the dinosaurs.

Would you classify that as SF, like most people, or as something different?

I think what lablit.com does is great, and have a couple of things published there, but the site is oddly allergic to science fiction, trying to distance itself from something they have, to my mind, more in common with than differences.

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Book Deal!

Not me – but Al Robertson, upstairs neighbour and fellow writing group member, has just got a two novel deal with Gollancz for his first novel, Crashing Heaven, and a sequel.

I read an early draft of Crashing Heaven and was most impressed, and Al is a great writer anyway – his story Of Dawn was a deserving BSFA award nominee a couple of years ago.

You can read more about Crashing Heaven at Gollancz’s website, and read more about Al on his blog.


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Why does Radio 4 fear Science Fiction?

I’m very pleased to see BBC Radio 4 doing a season of SF, under the banner, and much trailed, title of <a href=”http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02v1q2n/features/about&#8221; target=”_blank”>Dangerous Visions</a>.

But really, is it so terrible to admit that this is a series of science fiction plays and stories?

They’re not ‘fables for our times’, they not ‘dystopic visions’, Ballard didn’t write ‘speculative ficiton’ – it’s all SCIENCE FICTION.

I’m being interviewed by someone from the BBC about science and science fiction tomorrow. I think I might ask them.


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On being Strossed

There is a problem in writing near-future science fiction, which is that the real world is often closer to your fiction than you think. Charles Stross has written a fair bit about his experiences of this when writing his near-future novels Halting State and Rule 34, with key chunks of the plot of the after (and it’s originally planned title) eaten by Bernie Madoff and by rumours about Goldman Sachs (rumours which of course are not true).

I think I may have just had a similar experience, albeit on a smaller scale.

I’m currently working on a short story that has as its core conceit the crowdsourcing of various works to benefit the environment, with rich westerners spending their evenings driving drone bulldozers on environmental construction sites etc.. And now I read that Google is planning to deploy drones as a way of tracking and combatting ivory poachers.

Cool idea, one I now feel I should have had, but it opens some of the same cans of worms as the ones I was working on in my story. Guess I’ll have to work harder on the rewrites.