For this post, I’m not really discussing science fiction itself, but books that feature science on some level. These books usually comprise of a narrator or main POV character with a background in a scientific field–oftentimes a field that the author themselves have experience or great interest in. This POV character/narrator generally is considered an expert of some reknown and is relied upon throughout the story to provide explanations both simple and complex of the scientific phenomena that take place in the book. For this post, I’ll be discussing the three big trends I see happening in this type of book and why these trends aren’t always great.
Big Words: Not always useful
The first trend I want to address is the use of large, scientific jargon in these books. This isn’t exclusive to any one field either; this is something I’ve observed in a book about a maritime archaeologist, where the jargon was almost exclusively diving specific. Sometimes authors with a background in the field, or a desire to prove themselves knowledgeable, will use a lot of technical jargon to demonstrate the intelligence of their characters. Unfortunately, this often comes off as clunky and embarrassing–not least of all because sometimes the author, and therefore the character, is wrong. If these words are integrated in the form of exposition, they get rather boring as the character is constantly lecturing the readers and that’s just not fun to read. If the words aren’t explained at all, this can be even more annoying for readers without the background in whatever is being discussed.
Excluding your audience
The number one trap that these types of books tend to fall into is the idea that their only audience is those who already know what they’re talking about. When I read Atlantis last year, I enjoyed it far more than most reviewers had purely because I actually have a degree in maritime archaeology and understood the concepts, theories, and jargon being tossed around. Even then, because I’m not a diver, half of the book proceed to fall apart for me because of the intense focus on the diving aspects. This is the format for how exclusion works in a lot of these novels that incorporate too much science. Jargon, theories, and ideas are bandied about with just enough explanation to seemingly include the readers, but not really.
There’s something occasionally appealing about being part of a select group of people who are enthusiastic about a niche topic. But when writing a book, you have to realize your audience could be wider–you never know who’s going to try and pick up your book. You can’t please everyone of course, and there will be readers that just don’t get what you’re trying to do. However, to create a book about an interesting scientific topic and then pull the rug out from under readers by making it clear only those that have studied the topic at hand are going to enjoy the story… That’s rough.
Introducing new ideas
One of the positives to a book that incorporates a lot of science into its fictional story is that you can learn about new ideas, new fields, and new theories that you hadn’t been exposed to before! When done well, an author can explain these concepts to any reader and pique interest in some. If you’re like me, the kind of person likely to go into a Wikipedia spiral at the drop of a hat, then an author that manages to integrate some new field of research into their book without it being overwhelming or frustrating is also likely to inspire a new interest. When done well, a book like this might even inspire somebody to pursue an education or career in the field being discussed!
I think there are definitely times when using scientific jargon and concepts are effective in storytelling–especially when your characters or plot hinge on such things. But it’s easy to get carried away when incorporating terms, theories, and ideas behind scientific processes or phenomena. And getting carried away can unfortunately lead to your readers no longer feeling like they’re part of the story. I don’t have a lot of patience, personally, for books that seem to just be jamming in as many science credentials as they can. If the book reads more like a manual or a textbook, then it’s no longer enjoyable. But I can appreciate a book that sparks an interest in those topics.