And then there was one.
Last time, I wrote that my definition of science fiction is fiction with science + imagination. And that the science is freely defined to include guesses and completely made up, if not downright illegitimate, physics. In fact, that’s the imagination part of the equation. The fiction part is also freely defined, but basic story telling rules should apply. The science part must also play by certain rules, even when it’s made up science, even when it’s illegitimate
This article is about how I view the science and fiction in science fiction when it comes to playing by the rules. (Keep in mind that science fiction is art, and in art rules are made to be broken.)
Fantasy lovers take heart; in this case, my definition of science includes magic, the supernatural and the metaphysical. This uses the context of speculative fiction, which includes everything beyond current physics. The fiction canvas is framed by any physics, or metaphysics, the story requires. Warp drive is no more real science than vampires or Norse Gods; all of them are fiction.
Anyway, there are…
Two Important Things (to me) in Science Fiction
The fiction part has to not make me mad.
The science part has to not make me mad.
In the end, it’s that simple; just don’t make me mad. Just don’t force me to recognize that what I am seeing has aspects that are preposterous. My suspension of disbelief is mighty, but not invincible. Don’t cut my cable; don’t take me out of the moment. I’ll do all I can to be a good audience… just don’t make me mad. That ruins it.
It gazes back.
You might object that this a good rule that applies to all fiction (if not all of life). I agree; it does apply, and it’s a bummer when the rule is broken. What might distinguish science fiction is that extension of reality into a not real place. That extension must happen or the story isn’t science fiction. But reaching beyond real physics can so easily put one on shaky ground or no ground at all. Fiction is hard enough without having to reinvent physics!
So, yes, any fiction can go awry, but I think the science part makes it more difficult to get right. Even though science here means speculation and includes fantasy, they all must obey their own internal logic as presented. If they don’t, it’s either cheating or a mistake, depending on whether it was intentional or not. Sometimes cheating is worth it, plus it’s hard to not make any mistakes with imaginary physics, so all-in-all science fiction is tough to write well.
Raquel Welch & other people.
It works the other way, by the way. The presence of the neat new science or fantasy idea can lead to fiction that is just bare scaffolding to support the cool idea (sometimes the scaffolding is ugly). A neat trick concept (like movie special effects) only goes so far. The fiction should be the core of any story.
From one point of view, fiction is a lie. Where fiction lies, how it lies, why it lies; these are all part of the art of the fiction. The lies are necessary to tell the story. We accept the outer lies to appreciate the inner truths. We agree to suspend our disbelief (of the lies) in order to get the message.
And while the text may not be true, it speaks truth. The best fiction communicates truth, even though the fiction itself is, well, fiction.
Another view separates information and story into truths, lies and fiction. In that view, fiction is a third kind of information—a story—that transcends the realm of true and false facts. Fiction contains truth and lies, but is neither. The distinction between information and story is the real distinction; it separates fiction from fact, truth and lies.
NOT the Wizard of Oz!
It is the line between documentaries and movies, biographies and novels, news photos and paintings. The former of each pair is judged as accurate (true) or not true. The latter are judged as stories; they are accurate only unto themselves.
In either view, fiction is highly varied in its creation and reception. This makes it difficult to judge except by general principles and your own tastes. (And, of course, there’s no accounting for taste.) What remains is to discuss general principles. The principle, don’t make me mad, translates as, don’t push my disbelief too far. Much of what follows traces back to this principle.
Here’s some basic rulers I use to measure (science) fiction:
Ruler #0—Breaking a rule creatively is Good.
Thinking Outside The Box™ is highly sought and frequently punished. The idea is to break the rules in the right way, right time, right place. Story telling has rules. Some are general (“Play fair.”), some depend on the medium (rules about narrative, language, typography, color, editing, and so forth). Breaking a rule is just another artist’s brush.
Never Surrender; Never Give Up!
Ruler #1—Use the Right Rulers!
Stories can be entertaining , educational, both, or neither! Art can be just beautiful in execution or form (opera, poems, photos, sculpture, etc.). A cardinal Rule of Fiction is: Judge a story by its own yardstick. If a story sets out to be a “ripping good yarn” then judge on those merits. If a story sets out to send a message or prove a point, use a different yardstick. If the purpose is a moment of beauty, look at it with the heart. If it meant to make you laugh, did you?
Ruler #2—Follows its own Rules.
A story can make up any kind of reality it wants. But the story should play by the rules of its own reality. The story can break almost any real world rule, but it needs to account for it somehow. This is the one about not making me mad.
Great modern SF!
Ruler #3—Breaks New Ground.
I give extra points if a story takes me some place I’ve never been. The new ground can be an idea or a visual technique or a totally unexpected plot twist. Simply put, points for originality. This ruler is the “inside the box” version of the first one. It implies using traditional elements to explore new territory. The Zeroth ruler measures deconstruction; the last ruler measures exploration.
Of course, regarding all the above: the Zeroth (always) applies.
I want the science to not be so preposterous it ruins the moment. It’s really just Rule #2 again: “follow your own rules,” whatever they are. Just don’t make me mad.
Klaatu barada nikto
As with most (but not all) fiction, most (but not all) science fiction takes place in the real world. By which I mean, this world, this universe, this physics. Stories taking place in this reality must obey—or account for disobeying—the physics of this universe.
For example, science fiction stories may require the ability to travel or communicate faster than light. Our physics considers these impossible, but for some science fiction stories, it’s a given. Star Trek has warp speed and transporters; Star Wars has hyper-drive and blasters. We accept that there is an implicit (or explicit in hard SF) explanation that makes it possible.
It’s all good; just don’t make me mad.
Gandalf before it all began
Science fiction stories sometimes have a form of science, called magic. Such stories are sometimes called speculative fantasy or speculative fiction, as that allows the new category, but keeps the potent letters: “S” and “F”!
There’s a fairly hard line between real and fantasy stories. Either the story exists in the strictly natural universe or it exists in a supernatural one. I’ve noticed three approaches:
- The supernatural exists. Ghosts; vampires; magic powers; all real.
- Something that seems “supernatural” turns out to be natural.
- The story remains agnostic and never declares itself.
The first two choices (certainly the first) declare an author’s point of view. The final choice leaves it open to the viewer. I’ve seen good stories told with all three views.
What's not to like?
Speculative fiction has its own wide variety of supernatural stories. Vampires are in vogue now, but SF covers a much larger fantasy territory. Wizards and sword-bearing heroes were once very popular. Some of the best comedy SF is fantasy; my very favorite is Terry Prachett‘s Discworld stories. I’ll explore that later along with other funny science fiction.
Stories that extend reality in bizarre ways are okay. Stories about magic are okay. All I ask is that they follow their own internal logic.
All I ask is, don’t make me mad!