I struggled with much of Lovecraft’s ‘science’ and assumptions of what was possible in that environment, particularly in terms of aviation and human survival. I’m an ex-scientist, who has a professional understanding of the rigours, limitations, and requirements of carrying out research in Antarctica. I understand he wrote according to the knowledge of his time, but he had a deep interest in Antarctic Science of the day. As such, he would’ve had access to articles and reports from Scott’s ventures to the continent some 20 years prior. In addition, aspects of his novella were, in part, based on Byrd’s 1929 scientific endeavours. Byrd, the first person to fly in Antarctica reported his struggle to gain altitude on the Polar Plateau (over 10,000 feet lower than Lovecraft’s intrepid pilots flew!). To give credit where it’s due, Lovecraft embraced the emerging theory of continental drift, a concept considered fringe science in the 1930’s. So, he couldn’t claim to be ignorant of the science of the day, yet he ignored much of it.
My annoyance at Lovecraft’s fanciful exaggeration of what his characters could achieve in Antarctica got me wondering — does speculative fiction need to be factually accurate?
The answer is — not always. If it did, there would be no space for the imagination and the impossible: no monsters, elves, fairies, aliens, warp-drives, teleportation, or magic. Speculative fiction doesn’t need to be scientifically or historically accurate, but it does need to be believable, and any deviations from known truths should be explained. I most definitely do not prescribe to the Write What You Know school of thinking, but I believe writers should do appropriate research when necessary. With such easy access to information, there really is no excuse for making mistakes.
When I wrote the fantasy novel ‘Gods of Fire’ (Currently not available and may never return to the ebookshelves), I set it in the real world in the late 10th and early 11th century. A good chunk of the story took place in Scotland, and it seemed natural to me that the characters would drink whisky. I did some research on the origins of whisky distilling and to my great disappointment found that whisky wasn’t distilled until 1494. My poor characters had to put up with shitty beer and mead.
In my ‘Ghost Assassins of Bijou’ series, I need faster than light travel (FTL) to enable the assassins to travel the known universe. I don’t explain it in any detail, and I don’t have to, because the series sits somewhere between soft science fiction and a space opera. BUT, I did do enough research into the possible physics and mechanics of FTL to enable me to use the correct terminology and have confidence that it wouldn’t sound ridiculous to most readers. If I was writing hard-science fiction, I would expect to include a level of technical information, based on current theories, to keep a space engineer happy.
I think it’s important to know your own limitations. I’m not a great planner and the characters, plot and setting of my stories evolve as I write them. My stories are generally character, then plot driven. The setting, which includes technology, history, society etc, needs to be just enough to make the story believable. I’m just not going to spend a year or more working on the fine details of the technology of a planet or spacecraft. I will never write hard science fiction and I accept that.
If anything, I probably spend too much time on research to the detriment of my writing time. I once spent a day trying to find a word to describe the way a cat’s whisker move forward and spread out when they’re hunting — in the end I wrote “…outstretched whiskers”, it still annoys me I didn’t find something more evocative. Most of the research I do never appears on the page, but what does appear is informed and supported by what I’ve learned.
Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. That’s when we need help. Find a friendly scientist or historian to read your questionable science and history. Don’t be afraid to put out a call on social media for help. I guarantee you, someone you know, or someone they know, knows of a rocket scientist!
So, in the spirit of supporting my fellow writers, get in touch if:
- You need help with understanding marine science, general biology, Antarctica, or farming (sheep, beef, deer);
- You want some advice on writing good sex scenes, world-building or writing emotion.