Landscape and Science Fiction

Weird and wonderful landscapes are an important part of science fiction and fantasy stories.  As a geologist, I sometimes wonder, is that landscape even possible within the laws of nature as we know them?

Please comment on your favorite landscape and whether it makes sense taking into account the concepts of base level, erosion, and deposition and various river, shoreline, glacial, karst, wind, and other processes on landscape formation.

For my online class students, the specific story we’re looking at is ‘Boneyards’ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and the landscape on the planet Treffet.

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The Core–The Geoscience

In saving the Earth from a core that has stopped spinning, the heroes of the movie ‘The Core’ encounter a cave deep in the Earth’s mantle.  Does this make sense in terms of the properties of earth materials?  Please include your view on how much that science fiction can bend reality before it enters the realm of fantasy. This discussion is part of the course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer” but please feel free to contribute whether you are part of the course or not!

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The Day After Tomorrow–The Geoscience

Have you seen the movie “The Day After Tomorrow?”  Helicopter fuel freezing in seconds as cold air from the upper troposphere descends to the surface.  Humans freezing into statues where they stand.  Does this make meteorological sense?  Is it even possible?

This is intended as a discussion area for the college course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer”.  Please, everyone make comments!

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Energy imbalances in popular SF

One doesn’t have to look far in popular science fiction to discover earth science processes whose energy balance simply doesn’t work in the real world.  Impossible storms, instantaneous climate change, volcanos spurred by ‘magnetic forces’, and many other forms of complete nonsense.

 So, find one!  Post your thoughts about it.

Part of the Online Course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer.”

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Geological History in World-Building

World-building is an important part of science fiction writing.  You can’t make a world without geographical setting, political environment, socio-historical backdrop, and so on.  What about the geological history of a planet or region?  Back in the 1800s, the discovery of a past that included Ice Ages, Dinosaurs, and pre-life epochs and eons captured world imagination.  But do such discoveries impact modern day stories or events?

 Write a few words on how some component of geological history might be a significant element of a science fiction story. 

This is intended as a discussion area for the college course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer”, beginning in Spring 2016, but, please, post some thoughts for the students to consider!


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Despicable Me–The Geoscience

In the Movie, Despicable Me 2, Gru shrinks the Moon down the the size of an orange causing surfers waves to suddenly collapse.  Let’s comment on the geology of this phenomenon, including considerations of metamorphic reactions with the shrinking Moon, how that might affect the Moon’s mass and density, and how this would affect waves (tides?) on Earth!  This is intended as a discussion area for the college course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer” but, please, others are strongly encouraged to participate!

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The Mars One Initiative–Is it Real?

I’m sure you all heard about the call for volunteers last August (2013) for a one-way trip to Mars.  The call received over 200,000 applicants.  In December, the applicants were weeded down to just 0.5% of that number, a little over 1000 (one of my students made the initial application but sadly didn’t survive the first cut).

Is this exciting mission likely to really happen?  Are the organizer’s even serious?

I tend to think not.  If the organizers were serious, why not start with a colony on the Moon, where the logistics and health challenges of travel are much less, where the upfront cost is lower, and where the proximity to Earth greatly decreases the risks to life and success?  Most of the benefits of a Mars Colony would still be present on the Moon, such as the opportunity to learn how to live in space and the chance to invite tourists to come walk on another world.

You don’t have to travel half a year to get to the Moon, and, in an emergency, you might actually have some viable options.  It’s true that Mars has a very faint atmosphere, which provides a type of weather that you wouldn’t see on the Moon.  But the Moon has the compensating advantage of a living world always hanging in its sky–Earth.  The opportunity to see our world from a distance as the “fragile blue marble” might change us more as a species that a colonization of distant Mars.

Serious or not, the Mars One initiative is certainly exciting.  Does it mean a revival of human hunger for adventure?  It’s been 40+ years since humans traveled to another world–apparently we have “too many problems on Earth” to invest in such matters.  Interestingly, in that time, adventure stories haven taken a back seat to action and thrillers.  Likewise, during this time, adventure computer games never really took off after the initial boost from Myst–outcompeted by a variety of action and combat games.  More than action or thrillers, adventure stories are about discovery, exploration, and simple wonder.   Without a vision for human exploration of our solar system, our hunger for discovery, exploration, and wonder in our fiction appears to have waned.

So what is the destiny of Adventure?  Does the Mars One initiative signal a renewed hunger for discovery and exploration?  Or does its setting on far-off Mars only signal that we like to think we still love adventure, but in reality we choose grand goals which we can, in the end, decline with dignity, even while we leave the reachable Moon hanging in our sky uncolonized?

What’s your thought?

—Dr. C.

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Is it Science Fiction? Or Fantasy?

If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then how in the world can we readers distinguish between science fiction and fantasy?

Everyone has their own definition of science fiction.  For some, classification as science fiction depends on the prominence of science or technology in the story (over, say character or plot).  Other folks focus on the need to “keep it real”–if events are not consistent with current understanding of science, then it’s a no-no (goodbye FTL and time travel).  Of course a favorite definition is that science fiction begins with a “what if” question.  What if we discovered a black  hole in the center of the sun that was growing faster than seemed scientifically possible and that will destroy the sun in a mere 100 years?  What would we do?  How would we react?

I’ve always disliked the reference to “hard” science fiction (ouch, I think I just stepped on a nail).  It makes science sound so, well, hard.  Science doesn’t need to be hard.  What’s more, when I read many hard science fiction stories I often find that they’re not about science at all, but rather technology.  Technological “what if” questions are easier to come by it seems.

For me, science fiction is not technology fiction.  Nor is it drama with lots of technobabble (even if the technobabble is real jargon used in science).  To the scientist (and at least this science professor), science is not about things that we know, or technologies we develop.  Science is the process, and the set of logical tools, we use to figure out how the world around us works.  Facts are like the rule book in a game of basketball, good to know, but good play requires practice, not just knowing the rulebook.  Scientists are the ball players, and science is the art of the play.  So, to be science fiction, a story must be about doing science, not knowing facts or using technology.

This bring us to my definition for science fiction and where it parts ways with fantasy.  The characters in a science fiction story will ask questions about how things work and why they are as they are.  They will seek to answer those questions, find explanations and reasons.  If there are no explanations, or if the explanations are simply not of significance or interest in the story, then that is magic, not science.

So says Dr. C.  Feel free to post your own definitions!  How many can we accumulate in the next three or four months?—Dr. C.

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About Writer’s Corner

Writer’s Corner is a place to consider Earth and Space Science topics of particular interest to writers, like what real Earth Science looks like in a story, what’s in the news, how movies and books get it wrong (that’s always fun),or what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy (always a favorite debate).  Feel free to participate in the discussion!

Your friendly Chief Blogger is Russ Colson (Dr. C).  Russ has taught college geology, planetary science and meteorology for over 20 years.  He has been a science fiction fan since his introduction to Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, and Edgar Rice Burroughs as a teenager, and even dables in writing some of his own stories.  He’s author of over nineteen published science fiction stories and articles including an article in Clarkesworld Magazine that addresses the tragic misuse of Earth Science in science fiction.

Guest Blogger is Mary Colson.  Mary has taught 8th grade Earth Science for over twenty years in Tennessee, Texas, and Minnesota.  Mary reads a lot of non-fiction science for middle schoolers and also plenty of science fiction, mystery, and thrillers.  She was a member of the writing team for the current Next Generation Science Standards.

The artwork at the top of the blog is by artist Steven Stalboerger–a portion of his work “Expedition on Enceladus.”

This blog is hosted on http//, a resource for writers and teachers interested in discussing Earth Science issues.



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