Gizmodo published an article today called The Physics of Space Battles, by Joseph Shoer. I shared it on my social media accounts because I actually found it fun and enjoyable to read, unlike the vast majority of material written about this topic by people who hold a degree in physics or aerospace engineering.
It occurred to me as I posted it and as friends of mine who also write in this field posted on it to wonder WHY I actually enjoyed Shoer’s take on the physics of space battles, when I normally find most writing on the topic from degree-holding physicists really odious and avoid it like the plague.
And the answer was simple: Joseph Shoer is saying yes.
The vast majority of Shoer’s essay has a positive tone. He is talking about exactly what he wants to talk about–near-future or present-day speculative fictions based on the technology that is either currently available, or easily foreseeable. He is not interested in far future projection or speculating on drive systems which would operate on currently unknown principles of physics–no FTL, no anti-grav, no teleportation or travel through time.
In confining the scope of the conversation he wants to have, he is of course throwing out about 90% of the conceptual playground of SF–time travel and FTL are staples in a lot of SF, not just joyously goofy space opera. But he doesn’t adopt a vicious tone while doing so, and he doesn’t feel the need to kick things that other people enjoy or find meaningful.
What occurred to me as I read his essay, and found myself enjoying it so much more than usual, is that SF stories and critiques are very much like improvisation in comedy, theater, or brainstorming. When you’re asking people to open up, loosen up, engage the creative mind, you’ve got to learn to say yes.
When two improv comedians are trying to riff together on stage, they are both working from a What If, and then continuously proposing ideas, which they then proceed to blurt out as verbal premises or gambits. “What if I mistook the alien coming to abduct me for the Pizza Delivery Guy?” might be the core question, but the actor playing the alien can start the scene in any of a number of ways.
In Improv, the response that you need to have to your partner is “Yes, and–” followed by running with the premise or throwing in your own crazy thoughts. If you shut down your partner’s creative flow by rejecting their overtures, you’re going to kill the scene. People will withdraw, and lose their sense of play–the willingness to suspend their judgments and disbelief and romp with you.
People discussing science and physics in science fiction far too often come at it from the perspective of “NO! AND FURTHERMORE–!”, after which they proceed to berate the audience about how stupid they are for ever indulging in fun thoughts or childish fancies.
And yeah. I have a predictable response to that, as do most people: I shut down and lose interest. I am no longer interested in playing with you, or talking about science with you–I love science, but I find that negative tone such a turn-off that I’m not interested in sticking around for the lecture.
Whatever you want to talk about it–even if it’s gritty near-future hyper-realistic hard SF–stay positive. Ignore everything that is wrong with how other people do things, and get excited about the topics that really interest you. Make it fun.
Give the audience a chance to say “Yes, and–!” to you.