Pedantry in Sci-Fi

I am currently reading a comments page discussion about the legendary Asimov story “Nightfall”, about a civilization collapsing because the sun goes down for the first time in 1000 years, and I admit that I find myself shaking my head.

Much discussion revolves around Asimov’s science. Would the nightfall really cover the whole planet at once? Would it last the same length on every part of the planet, as Asimov said? What about the people sleeping through it, or indoors?

To which I answer: Who cares? In what way would slavish scientific accuracy improve the story? How would accounting for those details make he story better? Nightfall is basically a myth. The characters have little personality, but this is unimportant. The important points are what the stars represent and what the reaction of the unnamed species represents (Clearly they aren’t totally human – Asimov writes that they react even to ten minutes of darkness with extreme terror).

“Nightfall” is a myth. It uses typical mythological symbols (the stars, fire, the sun, darkness) and the peoples’ reactions when they discover the universe is full of stars is not meant to truly reflect every person’s reaction to darkness but rather to the reaction of people learning that, not only are they not the most important thing in the universe, but that they’re supremely unimportant, insignificant, like ants. The stars are merely symbolism for that.

Asimov cloaked his myth in scientific language, but it was a myth all the same. And maybe that’s not how Asimov intended it. But I would argue that it’s the best interpretation of the story – and arguments about scientific accuracy miss the point entirely.

My rule of thumb with scientific accuracy: I ask myself, “Would making this more scientifically accurate improve or weaken the story?” If the answer is weaken, then I’d rather the story stay as is. The dust storm that occurs at the beginning of Andy Weir’s “The Martian”, an excellent book, would technically be impossible in the real world. But Weir included it to strengthen his theme of man vs. nature; if it were taken out and replaced with a mechanical failure, the story would be weaker for it, even if only slightly weaker. And so, the dust storm stays, and the book is better for it.

Don’t even get me started on the pedantic nitpicking of Nolan’s masterpiece, “Interstellar”.

I find this rule of thumb to be incredibly successful, and I suggest everybody try it. It’ll save you pointless headaches.

Of course, it won’t work in EVERY case. For example, if the big twist in your rock-hard sci-fi novel about surviving alone on Mars involves the stranded astronaut learning that the laws of gravity are absent (Note: Not what happened), then you’re in hot water. But that’s why it’s a rule of thumb and not an immutable law. Use at your own risk.

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