I vacillate, sometimes, on whether it’s easier to do research for science fiction or my rather more comfortable historical fantasy. That may sound odd. Surely, after all, it ought to be easier to learn about events that have already come to pass than those that not only haven’t but in fact may never.
It isn’t. Not exactly. Both, ultimately, run into the same problem: it’s difficult to address gaps in knowledge when we’re not aware that they exist. To write with perfect verisimilitude one would have to know everything–an obviously impossible task. Plan B, essentially, is to be a dab hand with vague abstraction. Observe!
With the first stars in the sky and the palisade’s last stakes firmly in the ground, all that remained was for Legionary Pullo to light the cookfire.
We’re talking about Romans! Gather ’round, and marvel at how accurately we do so. There’s a Roman name in there. There’s reference to the Roman military practice of building forts nightly whilst on the move. Haven’t we done our research? Aren’t we grand?
How is our hypothetical legionary lighting this fire, exactly? We know he doesn’t have a Zippo handy, because history. So, obviously, he must be going at it with flint and steel. Or maybe one of those wooden twirly bits with the bow? What if I told you there’s a half-decent chance that he actually has one of last night’s embers, still glowing, packed with a bit of tinder into a clay jar?
An unimportant detail? In and of itself, certainly. But the trouble with vagary is that it compounds. One may not be able to pin down what precisely is missing from a work that overindulges, but too strong a trust in handwavium leaves a work feeling disconnected from its setting. Conversely, too much detail not only risks overshadowing the dramatic beats, but it exposes all of the things we don’t know to scrutiny. If you’ve ever seen a movie about your profession, and your profession is something other than screenwriter, you’ll know precisely what I mean.
The trouble with historical works is that we’re in some ways more disconnected from the way things were done back in yon halcyon days than we are from the foreseeable future, even taking hypothetical technology into account. For instance, I’d posit that it’s easier to imagine and work through the implications of truly universal connections than it is to truly and genuinely imagine what it would be like to live a life in which vital news like “The Visigoths are attacking!” travels across hundreds of kilometres at the speed of horse. After all, we live in the former reality and no longer the latter. Our networks could stand to work better, certainly, but adapting perfect communication to an insterstellar context seems less of a quantum leap than trying to truly figure out history’s implications.
But that too is an illusion. After all, how do we deal with the fact that light speed is limited? If, by some chance, we do settle multiple solar systems and write about the rocketships that zip between them, won’t we be headed right back to where we started? Data transfer only appears instant because every place on Earth is, in the cosmic sense, directly next to every other. The Space Visigoths will have just as easy a time of it as their terrestrial forebears.
So we do more research, in the hope that we can avoid at least the most obvious errors that might pull somebody out of a story. As is always the case, the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know. And then, once in a while, we are reminded that science is basically impossible and that it hates us.
To wit: apparently, the current theory on escaping black holes isn’t that it’s impossible because they exert a gravitic force equal to the speed of light, but that it’s impossible because passing the Event Horizon somehow changes … I don’t know, dimensionality or whatever, and makes it so that any path we might choose that leads out actually leads back in again*.
What the hell does that even mean?
*Oh, and also: it’s moot because the cosmic radiation will incinerate you.