The Big Idea: Robin C. M. Duncan

How plausible do you need to be in your speculative fiction? It’s a question that interests Robin C.M. Duncan quite a bit, and this Big Idea for The Carborundum Conundrum, one well worth digging into.


How much does realism matter in Science Fiction stories?

My second novel, The Carborundum Conundrum (Yes, the more I type that the more I think I should have picked another title), is centred on a genetic research and manufacturing facility in Canada’s frozen north, where an unscrupulous corporation breeds hybrid creatures for use in terraforming. But how much does it matter whether this key scientific aspect of my Science Fiction story has any factual scientific basis? I’m pretty lazy, and my proposition in this Big Idea is that accuracy or realism in the science of a Science Fiction story doesn’t matter, at all; not a jot.

My first novel, The Mandroid Murders, features some of the ‘usual’ SF trappings: like household doodads with fancy names that sound just a bit better than the ones you already have, pseudo-AI androids, (near) Light Speed travel, uploaded human consciousness and, perhaps slightly more unusually, a space elevator. Of all these things, the space elevator—arguably—is the most realistic. The idea of the space elevator was advanced by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, and simultaneously by Charles Sheffield’s The Web Between Worlds.

Clarke and Sheffield were not the first to imagine the elevator however—that was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895—but might be credited with popularising the concept. This low-energy transport innovation for reaching Earth orbit has appeared in several novels since, like Heinlein’s Friday, Robinson’s Red Mars, and our own gracious host’s Old Man’s War. Its realisation continues to be pursued in actual science and engineering, with graphene playing a key role in cable design, for example. It’s as easy to imagine the presence of a working space elevator (two actually) as it is subdermal comms tech and subvocalization. 

The protagonist of Clarke’s book is a Civil Engineer, a subject on which I am reasonably knowledgeable after 40 years’ experience and training in that field. Easy enough then for me confidently to assume that space elevator tech is founded on firm enough ground. But do I have any idea about the subject of genetic engineering? Nope, nada, not a Scooby Doo (clue: UK rhyming slang).

As an engineer, the veracity of certain details in a story does matter to me. As a writer however, I want to do just enough research and no more. Most blockbusters eschew scientific accuracy in favour of bigger explosions, and that’s fair, because filmmaking of that type is about entertainment; movie magic, if you will. All they have to do is convince the viewer to suspend their disbelief (arguably not even that, but rather to accept it). Should genre fiction writing be held to a different standard? Some writers consider that it should, and more strength to them, but evidently there is a place for pure entertainment in print as well, and this is the approach I have taken.

In writing my new novel, The Carborundum Conundrum, around a genetic/xenobiological research laboratory, I was starting at ground zero. Yet how much did I really need to know or imagine from scratch? How much does any SF author/artist before creating a xenomorph, sandworm, tribble, or Pierson’s puppeteer? Don’t these creatures—in fact all the most memorable creatures in SFF—take direct inspiration from terrestrial species? Are they not, in the end, designed purely for the purposes of entertainment? I would say they do (some more than others), they are; and that the most important facets of successful creature design are the touchpoints with terrestrial creatures.

How many fictional creatures (or rather their creators) employ tentacles to clutch, squeeze and rend the unlucky explorer? Great Cthulhu, the Kraken and John Carpenter’s Thing for three. And that’s a fear that finds its foundation in Earth’s very real cephalopods. Spindly spider legs, gaping maws, razor teeth, dripping venom, even deadly viruses (sorry) all have their basis in Earthly things that we do not need to imagine. So, maybe the mutation’s the scary thing, and the seat of our fear is in the twisting of rationality into something hideously bigger, stronger, deadlier; just…worse.

A few weeks ago at Glasgow’s Satellite convention I sat on a panel called “It Doesn’t Work Like That,” its basis the following: “Science fiction often takes great care to be scientifically accurate – or at least stick within the realms of reasonable possibility – when it comes to physics and astronomy, but can the same be said of the biosciences? Our panel discuss some examples of highly improbable alien biology.” Next to me sat a computational biologist, a medical doctor, and a qualified geneticist. We explored numerous examples of alien biologies that frustrated, even outraged the learned panellists (that excluded me, of course), and rightly so in terms of scientific basis.

Does the lifecycle of the Xenomorph have to be plausible? Do giant insects functioning in Earth gravity need to be structurally sound? Sure, there are creatures that—either from budgetary constraint or poor writing—grate on the audience’s sensibilities, but my position remains that—scientific accuracy, even plausibility, need not get in the way of telling a good story, with strong characters, exciting plot and thrilling conclusion.

So, where does that leave us? Perhaps with a quotation from the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare himself: “There are more things on Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Is not shocked disbelief the very emotion that we, as authors, rely upon? As writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, our job—I argue—is twofold: (1) not to figure out how fabulous creatures can exist, but to assume they do, then muster our skills to explore the consequences, to the last tooth and nail; and (2) to imagine—difficult as that may be—those creatures that lie beyond our dreams.

And as a coda, a short excerpt from The Carborundum Conundrum itself, specifically, my recipe for velociraptors—because there wasn’t any amber kicking around: Vulture and crocodile, shrike and Komodo dragon, cassowary and kangaroo.”

The Carborundum Conundrum: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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6 Comments on “The Big Idea: Robin C. M. Duncan”

  1. the science BS needs to be appropriate to the story, which is a bit tautological, but bear with me. FTL enabling interstellar sized problem domains is a nonsense, but we are accustomed to it, and there is a body of work going back generations. However, if you have established a more realistic scientific context for your story, you need to respect the rules . Looking at you Ark, which has attracted a lot of justifiable abuse for its scientific howlers, which I will not enumerate here. For those who enjoy a good trainwreck…

  2. ‘Just enough research and no more’ – I appreciate this, having bogged down more than once in SF/F wherein the worldbuilding is so meticulously, voluminously detailed that the story gets entirely lost. :-)

    Anyone looking to create mind-blowing aliens with solid Earth bioscience underpinnings can do no better than to read ‘An Immense World’ by Ed Yong.

  3. It’s an interesting question. I just finished The Swarm, which has tons of research about oceans, oil drilling, biology etc. I did like that I learnt something, and I respected the fact that he’d put so much effort in. It made for a much more solid base. But I’m writing a sci fi novel currently and like you I’m lazy with research. Plus the concept, a parasitic creature that feeds on consciousness, is not really scientifically based.

  4. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that I heard at a science fiction convention. Somebody asked Rob Sawyer why he included long passages of scientific speculation in his novels (especially since they often brought the story to a screeching halt). He replied that that was what his readers wanted. Whether or not the story is true, it does speak to a truth: there is a subset of science fiction readers (beyond the obvious specialists in a given field), that demands scientific verisimilitude.

    That having been said, my suspicion is that that is a small number of readers. I suspect most readers, like myself, are looking for a thrilling story with great characters, and are willing to allow a fair bit of handwaving as long as get it.

  5. Personally, what matters to me is in-book consistency.

    If you’re presenting something as scientifically logical, it needs to at least come across as believable. Maybe not to someone who has a Ph.D. in the subject, but at least to a dedicated reader.

    If you’re presenting it as a romp, scientific accuracy is less important. Create whatever silliness you want in a silly story.

    And for goodness sake, don’t set up a rule or a system or declare a fictional science breakthrough and then later in the book, toss it out the airlock for plot convenience.

    I love some seriously out-there unbelievable stuff that clearly has no relationship to science. I also love the clearly well-researched and meticulously science based stuff. Just commit, and do whichever you’re doing. Don’t change midstream.

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