How important is accuracy in fiction? If you’re writing about something ‘real’ based on real information, experiences, or events do you have to stick to the facts?
If I spot a mistake in the use of science in fiction, it can throw me off course. I feel that the universe set up by the writer is flawed. If the writer can make one mistake, then perhaps others have been made too. Should I continue to believe in this universe?
And I’m more likely to be on the hunt for mistakes if I suspect that the author is using science for reasons other than telling a story.
For example, some authors appear to use science to bolster their authority. Ian McEwan does this in ‘Enduring Love’ with his use of quasi-medical papers to give a scientific ‘explanation’ for the way that one of the characters behaves. Others use science to provide pretty-sounding metaphors. Quantum physics and relativity seem to be particularly popular. The first line of ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood is
‘Time is not a line but a dimension…’
After I read this oxymoron (a line does have a dimension), I very nearly didn’t read on.
And yet. A desire for accuracy can shade into pedantry. The narrator of ‘Cat’s Eye’ is an artist. She’s not likely to understand the finer points of general relativity, and more importantly, she doesn’t need to for the story to work. All she, and therefore the reader, needs to know is that her brother has become a physicist and is removed from the hum-drumness of daily life (This depiction of an egg-head scientist seems somewhat clichéd but that’s another matter).
Too close a reading of the text in an effort to check its accuracy can stop the reader from appreciating the multiple interpretations that are always possible. When I first read the following lines from the poem ‘Carnal Knowledge’ by Rebecca Elson;
‘Performed the calculus
Of the imaginary i…’
I took the ‘imaginary i’ to refer to the square root of minus 1, which is depicted as i in maths and is the foundation of all so-called imaginary numbers. It took several re-readings of the poem for me to realise that this imaginary i could also be a person, a body. (I don’t know why it took me so long, the whole poem is about bodies…)
My knowledge of maths perhaps led me to assume that there was only one meaning of this phrase, and this actually prevented me from getting a wider appreciation of what the poem could offer. I might also have made this assumption because I knew that Elson herself was an astronomer and much of her writing is about astronomy, and science.
So I think there is a danger of being too proprietorial about knowledge. It shouldn’t be off-limits. If writers make mistakes which the vast majority of their readers won’t spot, then what does it matter? They have at least stretched their language to encompass new ideas.