Can Hard Sci-Fi Incorporate Fantastical Elements Successfully?

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kered rettop
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I am writing a sci-fi (intentionally, I mean, not just when I make a mistake in a serious discussion!) and I initially wanted to keep it what is called "hard sci-fi", i.e. a story which sticks to the rules of real science. However I also need some serious deviations from known science! Essentially I need to suspend the second law of thermodynamics as well as create a dimensionless psuedo-space to replace familiar spacetime. The two are related.

Now, if anyone is still in the room, I want to say this: I obviously do a great deal of handwaving for the crazy stuff. I'm Ok with that because I use it as a more fundamental theory which underpins "normal" physics. Only sometimes it underpins something very different, otherwise they'd be no story.

My question is really how far can I go with this without 1) making nonsense of any pretentions to hard science? and 2) what sort of constraints should there be to my handwaving? For example, the story's internal theory asserts that spacetime is not fundamental: it's actually composed of what are initially an infinity of isolated "points". These are physical entities and are capable of joining up to form a mesh. The complete lack of any metric in this means that such a mesh is not yet a manifold. However, the theory postulates that "physical laws" are also physical entities, hence they can interact with the mesh and impose a dimension-like behaviour together with fundamental physics. And, of course, the mesh formation doesn't always go smoothly so there's potential for mayhem due to the "unused" links in the mesh.

I don't particularly want to analyse this example, it's just intended to show how I'm inserting a layer of handwaving underneath what is currently thought of as fundamental physics. Of course it's my story and I can do what I like with it, but I would appreciate advice 1) from writers and readers, whether you think this could work as a plot device and 2) from physicists as to where not to go with it if I want to avoid "trespassing" on existing science and scientific speculation.

Any advice or suggestions about how to handle this for a scientifically-literate, but not necessarily professional, readership would be appreciated. It might even be fun.
 
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  • #2
I think this actually belongs in the world- building subforum of writing
 
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  • #3
kered rettop said:
but I would appreciate advice 1) from writers and readers, whether you think this could work as a plot device and 2) from physicists as to where not to go with it if I want to avoid "trespassing" on
..., as both, "No," please don't; it's a gratuitous insult to my intelligence/intellect.
 
  • #4
DaveC426913 said:
I think this actually belongs in the world-building subforum of writing
You may be right. I usually think of world-building in terms of the everyday (in the in-story sense) details. Whereas I was thinking more of how to structure the proper science and fantasy science together. I'll have a look at the forum guidelines to see if it covers this case.
 
  • #5
Bystander said:
..., as both, "No," please don't; it's a gratuitous insult to my intelligence/intellect.
That was extremely rude. What exactly did you hope to achieve by such an unpleasant, but otherwise vacuous, reply?
 
  • #6
Bystander said:
..., as both, "No," please don't; it's a gratuitous insult to my intelligence/intellect.

kered rettop said:
That was extremely rude. What exactly did you hope to achieve by such an unpleasant, but otherwise vacuous, reply?
Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding. I'm sure Bystander had no intention of insulting you.
 
  • #7
kered rettop said:
My question is really how far can I go with this without 1) making nonsense of any pretentions to hard science? and 2) what sort of constraints should there be to my handwaving?
Honestly, the more abstract and ill-defined the new physics, the better off you usually are unless your new physics is codified into something like one single piece of technology or science that makes a sweeping change for the story's universe.

Take, for example, the sci-fi show 'The Expanse'. The only real change in that universe from ours (as far as human technology goes) is that someone invented a fusion-based drive system that is hundreds or thousands of times more efficient than current chemical rockets, allowing sustained high-g thrust for hours or days which let humanity quickly spread across the solar system. The rest of the story takes place in that setting, where a ship can go between planets in weeks instead of years, making that one change both very specific and extremely important. There are no phasers, energy shields, or anything else that breaks the laws of physics as we currently understand them. That one thing, the invention of the Epstein Drive, is the key change.

Contrast that with Star Trek. The universe of Star Trek willingly throws physics aside and regularly breaks all manner of physical laws. There is no one important thing that separates our universe from Star Trek's, but many, many. And it just wouldn't be Star Trek without all of those changes.

Note that the Epstein drive is something you can apply real physics to, at least to some extent. It basically ups the exhaust velocity of its propellent all the way up to a few percent of the speed of light. Given an exhaust velocity of, say, 10,000,000 m/s it is easy to come up with an engine that obeys the normal laws of rocket science and to calculate the fuel requirements for an interplanetary trip of a ship given its mass.

But you can't do that with Star Trek or Star Wars. How does an impulse engine work? No one knows! Warp drive? No one knows! Phasers? No one knows! Sure you have the technobabble and handwavy explanations, but there is no direct link to real physics. You literally can't put numbers to it.

kered rettop said:
For example, the story's internal theory asserts that spacetime is not fundamental: it's actually composed of what are initially an infinity of isolated "points". These are physical entities and are capable of joining up to form a mesh. The complete lack of any metric in this means that such a mesh is not yet a manifold. However, the theory postulates that "physical laws" are also physical entities, hence they can interact with the mesh and impose a dimension-like behaviour together with fundamental physics. And, of course, the mesh formation doesn't always go smoothly so there's potential for mayhem due to the "unused" links in the mesh.
Okay. But what effect does this have on your plot, characters, and universe? Can they drive spaceships around at FTL speeds? Is energy so cheap now that everyone has everything they could ever desire? Have corporations set up a series of generators in the slums that are making people sick with hyperspace radiation? Is difference between this universe and ours only something that a scientist with a big collider could notice?

Both The Expanse and Star Trek (and every other popular sci-fi media) use their breaks from reality to establish a unique universe. What is your unique point(s)? What will be tangibly different from our own universe?
 
  • #8
Drakkith said:
Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding. I'm sure Bystander had no intention of insulting you.
Me personally, no, he was speaking as a representative reader and dissing my writing which he hasn't seen. I appreciate your attempt to pour oil on troubled waters, but if Bystander doesn't want to respond, perhaps it would be best to move on. Thanks.
 
  • #9
Drakkith said:
Honestly, the more abstract and ill-defined the new physics, the better off you usually are unless your new physics is codified into something like one single piece of technology or science that makes a sweeping change for the story's universe.
Yes, good point. As a matter of fact, the handwavy bit is codified as single piece of science. Which makes it relatively easy to put it in a box, more-or-less disjoint from our familiar universe. But part of the fun is to throw out a few nods to real science as well. A region of spacetime, malformed at the level of its fundamental topology, resonates with the idea of cosmic strings - at least to people who have heard of them. So I have a bit of banter where I, the protagonist, get them confused and receive a sharp correction - rather as one does on PF from time to time.
Drakkith said:
Take, for example, the sci-fi show 'The Expanse'. The only real change in that universe from ours (as far as human technology goes) is that someone invented a fusion-based drive system ...

Contrast that with Star Trek...
As I said, it has to be some of each in my case. Which is why I'm keeping the handwavy stuff separate.
Drakkith said:
Okay. But what effect does this have on your plot, characters, and universe? Can they drive spaceships around at FTL speeds? Is energy so cheap now that everyone has everything they could ever desire? Have corporations set up a series of generators in the slums that are making people sick with hyperspace radiation?
Local FTL would be anti-scientific, so no. Cheap energy - goes without saying. Hyperspace radiation - no, the nanobots wouldn't allow it :wink: As a matter of fact, the effects are so radical that they have to be limited, otherwise the story would suddenly end with "and then it arrived and everything." Fortunately there's an easy and highly relevant way to avoid this. The military want to weaponize it, others want to stop them, so the control system throttles everything right back. By the time that's all sorted out, and the benefits are offered to the public, everyone is highly suspicious and nobody wants it.
Drakkith said:
Is difference between this universe and ours only something that a scientist with a big collider could notice?
Initially it takes some specialist kit, but the story is about how it leads, or could lead, to truly immense consequences.
Drakkith said:
Both The Expanse and Star Trek (and every other popular sci-fi media) use their breaks from reality to establish a unique universe. What is your unique point(s)? What will be tangibly different from our own universe?
Most definitely there are such breaks and yes they are well defined and, I trust, unique. Not sure what else to say as I don't want to talk about the plot as such. Me being executed for murder and resurrected by "stray" nanobots for example. But as for direct natural phenomena there's very little. The man in the street would not notice anything.

Good things to think about. Thanks for an encouraging reply.
 
  • #10
kered rettop said:
Me personally, no, he was speaking as a representative reader and dissing my writing which he hasn't seen. I appreciate your attempt to pour oil on troubled waters, but if Bystander doesn't want to respond, perhaps it would be best to move on. Thanks.
To be fair, the thread had been locked until I unlocked it and made my post, so he hasn't had a chance yet.
 
  • #11
kered rettop said:
A region of spacetime, malformed at the level of its fundamental topology, resonates with the idea of cosmic strings - at least to people who have heard of them. So I have a bit of banter where I, the protagonist, get them confused and receive a sharp correction - rather as one does on PF from time to time.
That in itself is fine. As you say, it's done regularly.
kered rettop said:
By the time that's all sorted out, and the benefits are offered to the public, everyone is highly suspicious and nobody wants it.
That seems a bit unrealistic. If there's something that will benefit them, some portion of the people will want it. The closer to realization the technology is, the more people will want it.
 
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  • #12
Drakkith said:
If there's something that will benefit them, some portion of the people will want it. The closer to realization the technology is, the more people will want it.
You would think so, wouldn't you? Perhaps there are other factors at work which I haven't mentioned! (There are. In fact that's really what the story is about.)
 
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  • #13
Drakkith said:
To be fair, the thread had been locked until I unlocked it and made my post, so he hasn't had a chance yet.
Ah, I see how you interpreted what I said, but I just meant it literally, nothing else implied.
 
  • #14
I thought I'd chime in, since I'm facing a similarly stark contrast between the design of my generation ship, which is fairly hard sci-fi so far, and the design of the handheld weapons on board, which is still very much reminiscent of "phasers set to stun". And these two worldbuilding elements are literally not even from the same universe! 😅

The reason I need something like "phasers set to stun", rather than just standard bullets - the danger of them piercing the ship hull, for all I know, isn't really comparable to a bullet inside an aeroplane, since the ship hull must withstand a much more forceful barrage at much higher velocities from outside already - is that everyone on the ship is concerned with preserving human life that non-lethal weapons would be the norm. Perhaps I should simply give everyone tasers, rather than phasers? :smile:
 
  • #15
Strato Incendus said:
Perhaps I should simply give everyone tasers, rather than phasers? :smile:
Phasers and other similar energy weapons are generally a replacement for projectile weapons, and have potential benefits such as increased ammunition capacity, variable yield, increased armor penetration, and many others. Some, such as the hand held phasers in Star Trek, also bridge the gap between lethal and sub-lethal weapons and are very effective at non-military uses like incapacitating people. Which you know of course, as you're considering using them in your story.

One possibility is a weapon that is designed specifically to what your security officers (or whatever you want to call them) will be facing and the environment they will be used in. As such, things like tasers, stun batons, regular batons, nets, smoke/chemical grenades, riot shields, etc would be perfect fits.

On the other hand, lethal weapons are also entirely plausible if justified in-story. Perhaps your colonists just REALLY like their guns or something.
 
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  • #16
IIRC, the tacit 'rules' of 'Hard-ish' SF allow 'One Impossible Thing', plus logical consequences.

So, my 'Convention' can 'Twist Space' using 'Field Poles'. Such permit both absurdly efficient fusion and, via a big 'Double Alcubierre Bubble' using Limacon of Pascal, FTL without nigh-infinite power or oodles of 'Unobtanium'...

One Pole, Null-g.
Three Thrust, Five Fly,
Earth, Moon and Mars,
Nine go to the Stars !!


But no 'Transporters', grav-plates etc, and the fusion is much friendlier if fed an aneutronic mix of D2 & He_3. Neither of which are exactly 'Common or Garden', having a significant resource cost...
And the ambient superconducting arrays of any but the simplest 'Field Pole' may take up to a decade to 'grow', atom by atom...

Several rival cultures use anti-matter fuel, variously produced.
To be polite, you do not want such material near-by, lest 'Dire Lord Murphy' contrive a failure mode...
:wink: :wink: :wink:
 
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