Science Fiction in the Art of Storytelling

by Lim Yen Kheng

Science fiction stories that explore the theme ‘what if’s’
Science fiction stories that explore the theme ‘what if’s’

There is a reason why the word ‘science’ appears in the term ‘science fiction’ (SF). Science plays a role at multiple levels of writing, from the story’s conception to the process of streamlining the plot. In this article we will explore how science is embedded in narrative structures, and conversely, how narrative structures can be used in science.

There are varying definitions of ‘science fiction’. For the purposes of this article, an adequate one is a quote by Ursula K. le Guin, who said SF stories are regarded
as ‘thought experiments’1, something physicists are familiar with. Like thought experiments, SF stories essentially boil down to questions of ‘what if’s: What if we are able to build intelligent robots? (Asimov’s robot stories); What happens if we discover an extraterrestrial intelligence? (Carl Sagan’s Contact); What would a government do to remain in power? (George Orwell’s 1984).

In many of these stories, the ‘what if’s are asked, and the stories unfold to explore their logical outcomes. The stories might have a structure as follows:
1) The ‘what if ’ question: At the heart of each story lies a central concept or technology serving as a premise. (Is it about robots? A war story? Space exploration?);
2) World-building: Establishes additional rules surrounding the central concept. (‘Is faster-than- light travel possible in this space exploration story?’);
3) Character and plot: They are developed according to the rules established by the concept and world-building.

This type of narrative structure might feel familiar to physicists; it is similar to how one thinks about a physical theory; take General Relativity as an example. A pedagogical text in physics might have the following structure:
1) The postulates: The central concept or an idea. In the example of General Relativity, gravitational and inertial mass are identical;
2) Mathematical formalism could be the analog of ‘world-building’ e.g., metric tensors, affine connections, etc.;
3) The variables and dynamical evolution can be taken as the analog of character and plot. Here theorists attempt to find solutions of a theory. This is the stage where the black hole solutions were discovered in 1916 by Schwarzschild.

Writers may use the structure provided by physical theories to present a consistent story. Take, for example, Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). Within the first minutes of the opening sequence, the setting and concept are built i.e., the ability to enter dreams. It is established early on that the characters could also enter dreams-within-dreams, along with the fact that a character’s death in a dream results in his/her waking up from it. Having knowledge of these rules, the audience will know the risks faced by the protagonists, thus remain emotionally invested throughout the story.

This shot from the film Inception (2010) is ambiguously teasing and nerve-wracking because we know the rules presented earlier in the film.
This shot from the film Inception (2010) is ambiguously teasing and nerve-wracking because we know the rules presented earlier in the film.

It is satisfying when a character operates within the established rules to overcome adversities, instead of having to introduce arbitrary plot devices i.e., deus ex machinas. To do otherwise would probably render a less exciting story, or worse, lose the audience’s interest entirely. This trick comes handy in preparing classes and presentations. When presenting a certain result, it is usually advisable to use the tools, theories or equations established earlier in the presentation such that the result will be a logical outcome (therefore invites less audience questioning later on!).

Sometimes, the reverse may happen. The characters attempt to discover the rules and ideas behind a story. Take, for example, Larry Niven’s short story Neutron Star2, where Beowulf Shaeffer is sent to investigate why a spaceship was destroyed upon visiting a neutron star. As the story progresses, Shaeffer struggles while making observations and deductions as to what really happened to the doomed ship. By observing the behaviour of gravity in and around his ship, he finally concluded that the culprit was the neutron star’s gravitational tidal force.

In this instance, the ‘what if ’ concept was gradually presented through the eyes of Shaeffer. The narrative structure of the story concept is its scientific analog, the ‘idea’ itself is already a scientific one i.e., gravity and tidal forces. What Niven did was to embed an outcome of a scientific theory under a layer of story with characters in danger, in a way where the audience became intellectually invested through emotional investment.

The similarities between stories and science are not too surprising since, in both areas, we seek the best ways for human minds to internalise streams of information. People have been talking, teaching and preaching to each other since humans learned to gather around campfires. And we will continue to do so with progressively advancing technologies.


[1] Guin UKL, The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace, 1969.
[2] Asimov I et al. Cosmic Critiques: How & why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work. Writer’s Digest Books, 1990.

About the Author

LIM YEN KHENG is a PhD student and teaching assistant at the National University of Singapore. His current PhD research is on black holes and higher dimensional solutions in general relativity. He is also currently writing a science fiction novel. Find out more about Yen Kheng by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian. com/members/yenkheng/ 

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