I have a new book coming out later this year: Europa Deep.
It’s a brand-new story set in the early 22nd Century. An expedition is sent to Jupiter to discover the fate of a previous expedition that disappeared under mysterious circumstances while exploring the vast oceans under the ice of Europa. Or rather, the vast oceans that current scientific speculation suggests may exist under the ice of that moon.
It is, by far, one of the hardest books I’ve written, certainly in terms of the amount of research involved. While I consider myself a science fiction writer, I can’t unfortunately claim any great scientific literacy — although, I should add, neither can a great many other writers. If I need to know or understand something in order to write a particular story, I need to spend time getting to know that subject as best I can.
In this case (obviously) I had to spend quite some time reading up on the subject of Europa and Jupiter, with particular attention to the intense radiation that bathes the entire Jovian system. I also had to bone up on deep sea diving, regarding which I knew precisely nothing.
It doesn’t matter how much research you do, though, because there will always be someone out there who judges you entirely by a single, minor incorrect detail. I was reminded of this recently when I came across the following exchange on Facebook between an author, posting about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and one of his followers. It’s a friends-limited post, so I’ll leave their names out of it.
Follower: I just couldn’t get over them having a Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 locomotive operating on the Park Avenue Viaduct. The clearances and weight limitations make that impossible.
Author of post: …That was your problem?
In case you weren’t aware, the film is about a battle between someone called Sky Captain and giant robots invading an alternate, retro-futuristic New York. Yet, at least one viewer considered this the least believable element of that film.
This is partly because the film had intersected with that viewer’s particular area of expertise and knowledge. And when they found that wanting, somehow, giant robots rampaging through New York became unbelievable.
It’s not always the pernickety stuff that knocks people out of a story. I remember, years ago, seeing Kirsty Wark interview Iain Banks on British TV, and I almost certainly misremember the conversation. But, as I remember, Wark suggested that Banks must have spent time walking a particular area of coastline in order to write about it so vividly.
On the contrary, Banks replied, he made it up. He’d never been there. That, he said, is what writers do: make stuff up.
Wark (or so I remember) seemed taken aback by this. Writers? Making stuff up?
And Banks is a man who famously hated doing research. Of course he made up a description of a piece of coastline in one of his novels.
Still: one of the standard things you can do to avoid too many acrimonious emails or reviews complaining that you got the precise gauge of ammunition wrong in a gunfight between two radioactive multidimensional lizards, and hence have no idea what you’re doing, is to write a disclaimer.
It might say something like any mistakes made in the science behind this story are entirely the author’s own. And I’m probably, given the complexity of background detail in Europa Deep, going to have to put something very like that in.
One of my favourite disclaimers is at the start of John Varley’s Steel Beach. It’s a sequel to other novels in his Eight Worlds series but, as he notes in the disclaimer, he wasn’t willing to reread the previous volumes before he wrote this one: so don’t bother him, he wrote, if you spot any inconsistencies.
Such small slips of detail about train gauges and models or whatever — if you can even call them slips — mostly don’t bother me in the least (with one exception: fictional novelists in movies writing shatteringly insightful prose without seeming effort while the music rises. I mean, come on.) Fiction, after all, requires the suspension of disbelief, the very human ability to accept something clearly untrue for the purpose of enjoying a story.
Star Trek often featured aliens who were nothing more than actors with knobbly-looking foreheads. This isn’t because the people writing the episodes believe this is what aliens might actually look like: it’s because portraying something truly alien week after week would be either impossible, deeply impractical, or incredibly expensive. Such shows, therefore, presumably so long as they have historically accurate trains, ask of the viewer that they suspend their disbelief and accept the actors as stand-ins for the truly alien.
In some science fiction, you can suggest that something might be true, one day. Or you can speculate that science might evolve to the level where a particular impossible thing becomes possible. That’s my go-to disclaimer, too, for at least some of the stuff I write.
Anyway, right here, right now, I absolutely guarantee you that I’ll have fucked something up with the research in Europa Deep. And, actually, I don’t mind hearing about it. Just so long as you don’t expect me to apologise for it, because I won’t.