by C. Stuart Hardwick
In a recent, informal poll of Analog fans, I was pleased and a little surprised at the vociferous support for fact articles in the world’s oldest extant science fiction magazine. After all, history tells us that former editor, John W. Campbell originally injected nonfiction into the magazine mostly to stimulate new story ideas, and that was in a very different age.
Since the magazine went on sale in 1930 as Astounding Stories of Super-Science, SF has grown out of the Pulp era and on through the Golden Age, the New Wave, and more trends and “Punks” than I care to mention. Technology has advanced from Tri-motors to Dreamliners, invention from Philo T. Farnsworth (puttering together electronic television after the patterns plowed in his father’s potatoes) to Elon Musk and his bold plans for the “BFR.”
But even as human knowledge has mushroomed, it’s become far more accessible. We’ve gone from Collier’s Encyclopedia and the Illustrated World Atlas to Wikipedia and Google Earth, from National Geographic and Hugo Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter to whole TV networks devoted to learning. Where once there were only brick and mortar schools and libraries, now there’s a burgeoning industry of online courseware, blogs, and YouTube channels that have helped spawn the “Maker Generation.”
So do we still need science in a science fiction magazine? I think we do, and for more than just inspiration.
When asked by Diabolical Plots about the roles of character and science in SF, Analog editor Trevor Quachri said, “Good science fiction has both elements working in concert, hand-in-hand, building off one another. If your story would still work if you largely excised one aspect or the other, you’re either writing bad science fiction or good lit-fic.” I believe that’s true, but I also think the best SF is generally aspirational. Former editor Ben Bova has said, “If you think of human history as a vast migration of billions of people over the landscape of time, then hard science fiction writers are the scouts who go on ahead of the main body and send back reports.”
In other words, we’re what American naturalist and poet, Edward Abbey, called “explainers.” We hold up mirrors to the soul, but also telescopes to the future. Together, both help prepare―or warn―of what may come. Stir in the “gee-whiz” of technological possibility, and you have the three legs of well-balanced SF: the soul, the telescope, and the adventure.
That, I think, is what keeps readers coming back for more Buck Rodgers even in this age of everyday miracles. If fantasy is a rabbit hole through which we seek escape, SF can actually lead somewhere. Along with the entertainment and introspection, we want and need the aspiration, and for that we must first know the world we aspire from.
. . . you’re a little radioactive―thought you oughta know―but I wouldn’t worry. Look for my article in the March/April issue [on sale now] and learn all about it.
For that matter, the real world’s pretty amazing, all on its own. Consider: We are made up of quanta that are neither waves nor particles but act like both and may or may not move backward through time to interfere with themselves. Appalachia once hosted cyanotic mutants who looked like zombie drowning victims unless treated with a common paint pigment. Cats are less likely to be injured by falls from over five stories. If you spill a common rocket propellant in an asphalt parking lot, the ground will burst into flames. I’ll rest my case right there.
Even the least technically-minded reader enjoys and benefits from the wonders of well-written, approachable science, including that which plows deeper or more broadly than fictional exposition ever could.
Take for example my upcoming article, “Taming the Genie: How Fear of the Atom Threatens Our Future.” The genesis of this piece was an online post which led to a little research, which led to a viral furor, which led to more research, which led to the realization that pop-culture and propaganda have given a great many people fundamentally mistaken views about radiation, energy, and the roles of each in our lives.
What I ended up writing starts with Hiroshima and different types of radiation, moves on to misconceptions about where exposure comes from and what effects it has, breaks down the vital importance of energy to civilization, and ends with a survey of new and proposed reactor technology. A story might explore some of these elements (indeed, my upcoming, “A Measure of Love,” does just that, presenting a future in which advanced power plants eat nuclear waste and roll back climate change), but that’s just a scratch in the rhetorical ice. Unless someone wants to Kickstarter me for a two-volume, thirty-five-story anthology of energy-based SF, the article is a good deal more practical.
In a way, such pieces are the antithesis of fiction―the very thing we storytellers try to avoid. Indeed, beginning writers are warned to avoid the dreaded “info-dump,” so much so they often bend their prose into pretzels trying not to tell us what Uncle Jack’s musing about while buying peroxide to get the blood out of the rafters. But sometimes it’s better to just tell us for Chrissake, lest we sit around scratching our collective noggins to variations of “Darmock and Tanagra, when the walls fell.” When the goal isn’t to support a dramatic plot but to inform, an article’s the way to go. But it can still be storytelling, just the story of the world as it is, not merely as it might be.
Does that fertilize the idea garden as Campbell intended? You betcha. But that’s not even half the payoff. Say you read my story and think, “Ah, that Hardwick’s world building is full of hooey.” But if you read my article and think, “I bet he has this wrong,” you’re more likely to go look it up and see that I did or I didn’t, and somewhere over the proverbial water cooler, a conversation begins. Or having piqued your interest, you start digging, and like the little boy who watched Jaws and ended up getting the real-life captain of the Indianapolis posthumously exonerated, you go on to realize the impossible and save a little bit of the world.
And that’s our bridge. Stories inspire, entertain, and move, but fact articles put stories in context. The two work together to get us dreaming, moving, changing, and by us I mean you and me, together, reader and author alike. And that’s why the two belong together. To paraphrase Einstein, science without fiction is lame, and fiction without science is blind.
So, enjoy the stories, the articles, and all that comes in between. It’s proven itself an effective package.
By the way, you’re a little radioactive―thought you oughta know―but I wouldn’t worry. Look for my article in the March/April issue [on sale now] and learn all about it.
C. Stuart Hardwick is an Analog regular, Writers of the Future winner, and three-time Jim Baen Award finalist. Learn more and get free scifi at cStuartHardwick.com.