I've been a sporadic reader of science fiction since high school, with a more intensive period during college when the genre provided an escape from the intensive reading in my science and math classes. Not all science fiction is created equal, however. Some writers ground themselves more firmly in the "science" part of the name, while others pay greater attention to the "fiction" part. In my eyes the best writers are those who have a deep understanding of science (especially physics), as well as an artist's eye for plot, character development, and imagination.
You don't have to read science fiction to notice the interplay of these two elements. A fair number of movies fall within the sci-fi category, and like books, they span the continuum between hard science (with a poor story line) and a ripping good story (with a poor science foundation). Here's a curious thing ~ perhaps because film is a visual medium, even though the best science fiction movies contain both science and fiction, many films ignore essential physics in favor of enhancing the story, and get away with it. Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Avatar, Serenity, Pitch Black, and John Carter are just a few made within the past few decades that play fast and loose with the principles of science. An example ~ we all know that real life astronauts live in zero-gravity, floating freely within their spacecraft. Yet in the movies people in space are nearly always seen walking, feet on the floor, as though gravity were somehow present. It's not weird enough to distract us ~ in some ways it can enhance the story by providing a touch of seeming normalcy in an otherwise alien environment. But what if all those movies had been presented with the characters in zero-G? I think that would have been just as much fun (though probably much more expensive to film).
To expand upon this theme, here are 10 Myths about Space Travel that Make Science Fiction Better (click on the link for a fuller exploration of each myth ~ and be sure to read the comments beneath the list) ~
- Faster than light travel
- You can have artificial gravity without spinning the ship
- You can stop and start without worrying about inertia
- Ships traveling faster than light can communicate with other ships or planets
- Objects in space are bunched together
- You can communicate with aliens
- Ray guns can actually disintegrate someone
- Cheap energy is readily available
- You can travel at the speed of light and no time passes elsewhere
- You can travel in space without dying of radiation sickness
Call me old school, or call me someone who thinks laterally, but I think that a century from now (assuming we haven't destroyed Earth first), those who look back on today's crop of science fiction films will be just as bemused by our awkward efforts as we ourselves are, when we look back on space travel as it was depicted in early 20th century movies. As a Yale astrophysicist put it, "The bottom line is that although many topics in astrophysics are ideal for science fiction settings, the universe is stranger and more wonderful than anything authors could imagine."