Quixotic Quest: Science Fiction as Discovery Fiction

For some time I have been on a quest to get more science into science fiction.  I was reminded recently of how quixotic my quest truly is when I came across a publisher’s website that said they publish only fantasy and science fiction and so every story “must have some element of either magic or cool technology.”  Since when did technology become a stand-in for science?  Science is about the process of exploring how things work through observation and reasoning, not just the technologies—or culminating theories—that arise from that exploration. Technology can create a fine avenue to explore social science issues, but why don’t we have more physical science discovery and exploration in modern science fiction?

I have always thought that ‘my kind of story’ must be hard science fiction since I have such a passion for science in my stories, but I’ve begun to realize that hard science fiction is even more focused than other science fiction on cool technologies and fantastical theories rather than the process of discovery that exemplifies real science.  Even my favorite authors who have a great deal of expertise in science, like Alistair Reynolds, tend to drop science in as interesting facts about space, speculative theories, and amazing technologies to which humans must adapt.  Given that adventure stories are about exploration and discovery, and that science is about exploration and discovery, it seems that there should be a lot more synergy between the two in modern science fiction.

After growing weary of the ‘hard’ in science fiction, I recently decided to read some fantasy.  I chose The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson.  Imagine my surprise to find more real science in those stories than I’d found in the hard science fiction!  Although the fantasy world is not quite consistent with the science world that we know of in ‘real life,’ there is a distinct effort to make things ‘make sense’ and to find reasons for why things behave as they do—key elements of science.  For example, in book 2, Words of Radiance, one passage involves the protagonist figuring out that a block of stone-like crem has been recently broken.  The crem accumulates during storms in a series of thin layers and the protagonist could see the layers in cross-sectional view, meaning it had to have been broken, and if it had been broken for very long those layers would be covered up by new layers of crem.  The protagonist solved the puzzle of when it was broken by considering cross-cutting relationships, a key investigative method in my own discipline of geology.

Wow!  Not only science, but geology!

Why can’t we get more of that investigative observation and reasoning into science fiction?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the science in science fiction trends toward amazing theories and technologies rather than the process of discovery.  Despite the urging from national science standards (in the USA), most science classrooms—and assessment tools—still emphasize facts that students know and theories that they explain more than the practice of science.

If you are a science fiction writer, you can play a part in making science education better!  Consider writing stories that focus less on technologies, theories and facts of science, and more on the exciting adventure of science discovery, the process of observing and reasoning to make sense of the universe!

I hope that my own science fiction novel, The Arasmith Certainty Principle, offers ingredients of real science as the protagonists discover what is going on through the use of observation and reasoning, although there are also elements of the fantastical with the unlikely theory of the Certainty Principle.  Science fiction doesn’t have to be all science, or even all realistic, but a bit more exploration and discovery through observation and reasoning would be good!

Dr. C

(Russ Colson)


You can read more of my essays on real science in science fiction or the classroom at

Putting Science back in Science Fiction

Assigning Blame for Public Science Skepticism

Is it Science Fiction? Or Fantasy?

At What Point Does Science Fiction Turn Into Fantasy?


Teaching Science and the Lost Adventure Story

Practicing Science: What does it mean and how can we do it in the classroom?

Science Teacher: Conveyer of Information or Practitioner and Mentor?


You can also check out our science fiction for the science classroom at http://earthscienceissues.net/fiction_for_the_classroom.


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