This week, we’re thinking about science and science fiction, and how the two can feed into each other in excellent ways. Polygon’s Charlie Hall wrote about a big update to No Man’s Sky, the procedurally-generated space exploration video game that has been enrapturing and frustrating players for the last two years. While the reviews of No Man’s Sky Next are mixed, Hall zeroed in on one aspect that the update totally nails: biodiversity.
The update includes a new analysis visor, which gives you way more information about the alien flora and fauna you encounter. For Hall, this made the game not only more realistic, but more fascinating to think about. He meets a tiny, armadillo-like animal: “The species is symmetrically gendered, which sends the mind reeling. What does that mean in the context of this planet? And how does their color-blindness play into mating and reproduction?”
Then he finds a strange plant, and “as the oddities begin to pile up, my mind began to try and create connections between them all.” The game goes from being a world to observe to a puzzle to solve, and what got it there was scientific richness.
This isn’t about fact-checking science fiction, correcting the constellations in an alien sky or actually-ing the image of an impossible black hole. It’s about finding the universal laws and systems that are true across planets, across galaxies, and across biospheres. Want to put a giant moon in a planet’s sky? You can ignore the physics of gravity, or you can do something cool with the resulting intense tides—what would that do to ocean life, or to coastal cities?
Want six-limbed animals on your planet, because they look cool? James Cameron did, in Avatar, but he also still wanted four-limbed aliens for his human characters to interact with. Evolution can do that, and in populating the forests and plains of Pandora, Cameron attempted to sketch out an evolutionary logic for that leap. For a scientist’s take on how that went, head over to paleontologist and science educator Katie Slivensky’s blog.
There’s no requirement that science fiction storytelling rely on known scientific rules for its world-building magic. We want other worlds to be otherworldly, after all. But if we think of science not as a set of constraints, but as a system of logic, this opens the door for fictional worlds that feel both utterly alien and totally real, which is one of the most magical storytelling experiences you can have.