When I was about ten, my grandfather—a researcher for DuPont—noticed my enthusiasm for science fiction and gave me a book: "The Science in Science Fiction." Ever since then, I've read stories with at least part of my awareness comparing it to reality. Stories, whether in print, film, or on television, that depart from known theory in order to tell a good story don't bother me in the slightest. It is fiction, after all. We're not bound by reality. Science fiction as part of the larger "Speculative Fiction" category is fundamentally an exercise of the imagination, and it would be pretty dull if we limited imagination to mere facts.
Often enough, however, authors depart from known theory out of simple ignorance. It's a common observation that science fiction readers as a group have a split personality. There are the technophiles, the geeks, the "early adopters" who not only embrace new technology, but seek it out. Many are scientists themselves, looking to expand the horizons of human understanding.
But strangely, there are also a surprising number of Luddites in the field. Science fiction can appeal to a certain conservative crowd, who may dream of distant futures, but are rather put off by the messy, complicated present. Instinctively, I tend to associate this desire with those who read for purposes of escapism, but of course I have no data to back that up. And, unlike some prominent British authors, I have no problem with a little escapism now and then. Jailers may love escapism and hate escape, but we all need vacations and a little vacation from reality is something we can all benefit from.
In any case, the fact of the matter is this: not all science fiction writers are even remotely knowledgeable about science. Far from Hugo Gernsback's Scientifiction, much of our literature was outdated decades before it was written, at least from a scientific point of view.
Here's another thing to think about: some of the best science fiction being written is taking place in Academia. No, not the writing programs. Here at IROSF we regularly receive accounts of how creative writing programs disparage science fiction. No, the science fiction I'm talking about takes place in the science departments. It's sometimes called "theory."
Dispensing with the awkward romantic sub-plot, these science fiction writers cut straight to the chase. Theoretical physics is a field in which ideas about the universe are cooked up without any regard for evidence or testability. Sure, the new theories need to have a solid mathematical basis, but the connection between math and reality is itself a matter of debate.
The theory of superstrings, for example, suggests that our three dimensions are just the tip of the iceberg, that everything we know about reality is simply the intersection of an N-dimensional universe with the smattering of space-time dimensions we can actually perceive. It solves some mathematical problems of quantum theory and gravity, but it quickly leads into traditional science fiction fare. Solving the problem of "dark matter," for example, some string theorists posit other universes that can communicate with our own solely through gravity.
Even good old particle physics has reached the limit of observation (for now) without finding the so-called Higgs boson, a theoretical particle upon which our current understanding of particle physics is built. Science fiction writers love this kind of thing. The good old tachyon, a purely speculative particle that can only travel faster than light, has established itself as a favorite of science fiction since theoretical physicists first introduced it in the 1960s. Most readers are probably familiar with quarks, currently thought to be the constituents of those particles we can measure. Quarks are critical and necessary for all of particle physics, but they have never been measured. This was a problem for theoretical physicists until someone came up with the clever idea that quarks were "dynamically confined inside hadrons and so free quarks should not be observed." As skeptic Robert L. Oldershaw goes on to note: "Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. If negative results can be circumvented by strategies of this sort, can the theory in question be regarded as testable?" (American Journal of Physics, 1988) It was certainly a successful strategy: quarks still haven't been found, and they're still the cornerstone of contemporary particle physics.
And then there's cosmology. Despite the rather shaky speculative foundations of contemporary physics, very clever people have put an enormous amount of energy into imagining the first moments of the universe. By moments, of course, I mean immeasurably small fractions of seconds. This imagining is, again, a mathematical process. In what may be a victory for this kind of speculation, black holes may actually have been observed. Or, it could be something else causing the astronomical anomalies that physicists have concluded are black holes. They don't know for sure, but they'll call them black holes for now. As for wormholes, about which considerable speculative physics has been written, NASA concludes: "more science fiction than science fact." (NASA)
Physicists have even made a few runs at theories of the universe that support time travel, although they are quick to point out that the cosmological conditions required to enable "closed timelike curves" are not conducive to home experimentation, or the survival of structured matter.
In short, there's a whole world of science fiction out there that IROSF isn't covering. The problem is, we're an English-language publication, and this science fiction is written in mathematics.