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To meet one noted science fiction author and share their wisdom and insight is always a privilege. To have three gathered together is a rare honour. Please join GeekChocolate as we meet Iain M Banks, creator of the wildly successful Culture sequence, Ken Macleod, author of the Fall Revolution and Engines of Light series, and Charles Stross, writer of The Atrocity Archives and Saturn’s Children in an event organised by the Edinburgh International Science Festival and Blackwells Bookshop.
In the relaxed atmosphere of the Edinburgh’s Pleasance Theatre, the panel were happy to discuss their adherences and diversions from established science, how it informs their writing, and sometimes hampers them. Having warmed up with a drink at the bar, the three writers and their host moved upstairs to begin the discussion.
Ken Macleod began, responding to the topic of how important it is to get science right in science fiction, and the difficulty of maintaining consistency even in his own writing.
"I think it’s important to get science that readers can check right, but beyond that you just have to be plausible. I once set up a situation in The Cassini Division in which there was a wormhole, essentially for interstellar travel, and as some plot point I had established that you have to be under acceleration to pass through this wormhole, but later in the novel the protagonist’s space capsule passes through quite clearly in free fall, and nobody noticed that."
Iain M Banks admitted that he avoided many such issues "I think one of the advantages of writing something set in the far future is that you’re never going to live long enough to be told you’re wrong. Because the Culture novels are set in what is effectively a far future, it is uncheckable science," but went on to say there are those that do not appreciate his enjoyment of this liberty.
"I think this is a sin I have committed with having faster than light travel. You’re kind of throwing Einstein out the window, you’re kind of abandoning the pretence of veracity. I’ve actually used at least three different types of FTL. You talk to proper physicists and they look like they’re trying to stop themselves from smacking you in the teeth."
Reflecting Macleod’s admission, he also pointed out a more basic error in the first edition of his most recent novel, Surface Detail, though did say it had been corrected for the recent paperback edition.
"There was a bit where the chief bad guy is sitting in a boat in a lake of mercury, and he’s got an ingot of gold and he drops it overboard to watch it sink, and eventually it comes back up again, and a chemist wrote to me and said it would actually react with the mercury, so I had to change it to copper."
Charlie Stross was on hand to offer reassurance to his friends that their revisons were not unique. "I’d like to cite the embarrassing case of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. You have a world in which people have teleportation, from phone booth sized teleport booths, and it opens with our protagonist Louis Wu having extended his 200th birthday by teleporting around the world ahead of the terminator so he can have a forty eight hour birthday… and he got the Earth revolving the wrong way." His advice on avoiding such pitfalls was simple: "Wikipedia is your friend."