Should fantasy acknowledge physics?

There’s one last panel I want to elaborate on from Confluence this year (link): “Should Fantasy Acknowledge Physics?

This panel seemed to have a set of speakers who were a little too homogenous of thought. (The esteemed Tamora Pierce excepted, of course, especially since she wasn’t able to get a word in.) That said, the panel concluded with, “Well, there’s gravity, and Jim Butcher evokes thermodynamics.” I found this dissatisfying, but perhaps with my friends—rocket scientists, engineering physicists, and mechanical engineers who all enjoy fantasy—we might have a unique perspective.

Speculative fiction always has elements of the fantastic: in hard science fiction, fantastic science or technology; in space opera, fantastic worlds and aliens; in fantasy, fantastic feats of impossibility.

Let me posit that nothing emphasizes fantastic impossibility better than nitty-gritty reality—and even physics’ nitty-gritty reality has fantastic twists that can spark readers’ imaginations. Even everyday physics—especially the kind related to engineering that physicists tire of—is a lot more wacky and engrossing (and useful for storytelling) than it’s frequently credited.

Here are some common physics topics in the speculative fiction community and ways they’re frequently evoked:

Gravity. Characters stay on the ground. Or magically fly.

Quantum Mechanics. This explains why magic works, because Schroedinger. Frequently. That’s a little frustrating, because whatever’s happening is usually proved impossible via quantum mechanics. I’m happier not thinking about it.

Kinematics. Particularly, conservation of momentum and equal/opposite reaction. Usually, this is after an object has inexplicably acquired the density of a neutron star.

Thermodynamics. Usually, this is the answer to “I made something hot, so it’s cold somewhere else,” which is nice to see in fiction. But there’s a lot more to thermodynamics than that.

There are myriad other topics within physics that aren’t frequently touched on in fantasy and could lend fiction not only verisimilitude but also class.

Electricity and Magnetism. Does your mage shoot lighting? Technically, that should affect all the heat-treated iron (depending on its composition) in the vicinity—which could be dangerous to both your mage’s allies and foes.

Optics. Got a cloak of invisibility? Gee, it must be dark in there. Or maybe the lensing has a habit, while bending visible spectrum wide enough to not be seen, of also focusing higher wavelengths (like ultraviolet) in certain areas. Maybe your characters get sunburned if they’re too close to the edges. (This should have math run to check it.)

Strength of Materials. This is a black hole wonderland, waiting to be explored. As soon as you realize that solids deform under stress, the world gets a lot more interesting—and a lot more frightening. Now, if you have mages who can add matter in certain places from a distance, you can no longer trust your bridges, buildings, swords… Imagine the treachery!

Material deformation is almost as cool as fluids. Speaking of which…

Fluid mechanics. If fantasy is tweaking little bits of how physics works in certain ways, fluid mechanics is fantasy’s other unexplored continent. (Just as fluid mechanics gets to be a big deal in space flight and other microgravity environments, it could be a big deal in fantasy when unusual forces take precedence.) What could your villain do if he could manipulate the viscosity of air? All of a sudden, his enemies’ diaphrams might become insufficient to draw air through their throats. (Okay, trachea. Gettin’ technical, aren’t you?) He could increase boundary layer thicknesses, which sounds like no big deal—until you throw in conservation of momentum: the rest of the flow speeds up in a smaller cross section. Lots of air pressure in a small space. Sounds like a weapon to me—and one that couldn’t be traced.

Or could it?

Well, you’re the writer. It’s up to the mechanics of your world—and that’s my point.

One of the things that unfortunately makes fantasy ignorable as a genre (like space opera) is how consistent the rules (magic systems) are from story to story. Incorporating quirks of physics doesn’t just beat education into your readers—it also distinguishes your story from everyone else’s.

Even better, it opens up obstacles for your characters that haven’t been addressed before, and you’ll have to be ever more creative about how your protagonist uses or overcomes them.

So should fantasy acknowledge physics? If it doesn’t, it may vie for the honor of best tripe. You can do better than that. Challenge yourself.

Use the physics, Luke!

2 Replies to “Should fantasy acknowledge physics?”

  1. One thing I like borrowing a bit from let’s say science in general is that it gives me a few rules within this complex system I’m having to make up. The fuel rules provide some grounding… having to make everything up is quite intimidating, and I’m not sure if it’ll come off well or work. But if I can point to real world science to keep me more consistent, I feel a bit more confident about the system.

    Reading these over, tempted to play more with fluid mechanics now… I’ve already been linking air/water because of currents at the most basic level.

  2. That’s an excellent point! I’m glad you can pull from science to make you more confident about your system.

    Linking air and water as fluids makes a lot of sense. We tend to think of fluids and liquids as being synonymous , but since fluids included gases, too, they’re not quite. Fluids are driven by pressure differences, develop boundary layers, and have a fun property called viscosity, where one section can pull one the section next to it. Because my day job is in a supersonic wind tunnel, the biggest difference to me between air and water is that air is a compressible fluid: with more pressure, it takes up less space–and that’s why we have shockwaves.

    Obviously, I’m happy talking about it if you have any questions or need any sparks of inspiration about fluid mechanics!

    And thanks for commenting!

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