The genre of science fiction is hard to define, especially in middle grade. With its wide variety of sub-genres, it’s hard to pin down an all-encompassing descriptor for the science fiction genre. It is often a “we’ll know what it is when we see it” type of thing. One of the better definitions of science fiction I’ve come across describes science fiction as the “literature of change”. Science drives technology and technology drives change, therefore, the “literature of change” descriptor fits almost perfectly for science fiction.
No matter which sub-genre of science fiction, it is important to have a solid foundation in science. After all, it is SCIENCE fiction. This doesn’t mean the science has to be dry, concise and 100% factual, though. That’s more for hard science—the professional, peer-reviewed, journal article publishing science stuff. Even in middle-grade, a scientific foundation in sci-fi simply means the science must be solid and logical. It can be based purely on fact or totally on fictionalized science, but the science must be grounded in the logic of the story and not MacGyver science.
If you’re long in the tooth like me, you may remember the old television show, MacGyver, in which a science/engineering solution almost always appeared out of thin air. Every week, the protagonist would do something like stop the bad guy from blowing up a nuclear power plant (with 0:01 seconds left on the timer, no doubt) by building a manual self-destruct electric override switch from a paper clip, an evergreen air freshener, duct tape, a flashlight and a bologna sandwich found in the glove box of the custodial service truck abandoned in the nuclear facility’s parking lot. This “science” never made much sense—it just dropped into the story to save the day.
The point is, the science in story can be factual, it can be made up, or it can be magical. However, it must keep an internal logic within the story. The science needs to make sense within the context of the story world. It’s okay to present a world of mutant humanoids that rise to power out of an abandoned drought-ravaged African desert environment if it makes reasonable sense.
Perhaps their race has evolved chloroplast-like mitochondria to allow the transformation of solar energy directly into ATP energy to fuel their cellular functioning. The mutant humanoids possess a hybrid plant/mammalian physiology that allows them to survive the harsh conditions. The science explanation becomes plausible and logical for the race; we’ve established a basic fundamental to how the mutant race can logically thrive and prosper in a desert where available food is at a premium.
The science in a story cannot be carried around in a fanny pack only to be used in times of greatest need or when no other solution is apparent. No ‘deus ex machina’ solutions, please.
Middle-grade science fiction is no exception. If you’ve spent time around middle-schoolers, you are probably aware (or are constantly reminded) of the fact they know almost everything.The wool cannot be easily pulled over their youthful eyes. Kids are smart and they have well-honed BS meters. They know when things don’t make sense and will close the book or tell you straight up to “try again”. My idea of science-done-well in middle-grade sci-fi revolves around using scientific concepts they can understand without becoming lost. Scientific concepts which trigger a desire to learn more about the science. In other words, science presented in such a way it “fools” them into learning more.
Fantasy writer and fellow molecular scientist, Dan Koboldt, has put together a fantastic resource to help guide writers incorporating science into their science fiction and fantasy writing. Dan’s blog series is called Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy and brings in professionals to blog about their areas of expertise as it relates to speculative literature. (Note: With my background in molecular biology and microbiology, I’ve contributed two posts to the series, The Science in Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101.) Check out Dan’s blog series if, as a reader or writer, you want to learn more about bringing the world of science and the world of science fiction into a beautiful and synchronous orbit.
Three of my favorite recent examples of using science in middle-grade science fiction are THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH by Jennifer Holm, WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead and the entertaining FRANK EINSTEIN series from Jon Scieszka and Brian Biggs.
Take home message is this: Keep the SCIENCE in science fiction. Use science to enhance your science fiction. The science should complement the story, not overloaded the story to a point of distraction. The science shouldn’t appear from thin air as a ‘deus ex machina’ solution to the main problem. Use resources, like Dan Koboldt’s blog series or simply ask a scientist for information.
Science drives technology and technology drives change, so never forget the science is a vital tool in the science fiction genre, our wonderful “literature of change”.
Dan – Thank you for all you do to bring together science and sci-fi/fantasy. It opens up a whole new world for us stodgy scientists.
Mike, thanks for the shout-outs for me, and for MacGyver. Go team science!