SciFi: Two Important Things

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.

The Fiction

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,… you know,… fiction.

Another view separates information and story into truths, lies and fiction.

In this view, fiction is a third kind of information — a story or narrative — 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 facts, truths, 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 must 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.

Breaking this rule specifically makes me really 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.

The Science

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

Real Science

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:

  1. The supernatural exists. Ghosts; vampires; magic powers; all real.
  2. Something that seems “supernatural” turns out to be natural.
  3. 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 post about 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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “SciFi: Two Important Things

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  • siriusbizinus

    This was a delight to read. Definitely breaking the suspension of disbelief is a deal-breaker for all fiction. The best stories are ones where I don’t think much about how it was all made up; it means truths conveyed or entertainment value masked it all nicely.

    I do like your thoughts on Science Fiction versus Speculative Fiction. I have a problem with that myself, as I mentally separate Fantasy from Science Fiction. For me, I don’t like much in the way of spells or magic in Science Fiction.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you; I glad you enjoyed it! I’ve been reading SF literally (and I do mean literally 🙂 ) as long as I’ve been picking my own reading material. It’s gotten to the point where ordinary fiction needs to be something very special for me not to find it dull. (I do like detective stories, though.)

      Like you I definitely lean more towards hard SF. I may have more tolerance for Fantasy — we’d have to compare reading lists to discover that. I’m not interested in “typical” Fantasy, but if it adds something to spice up the stew, I’m in. In fact, my all-time favorite SF books — the ones I’d take to a desert island, so to speak — are Fantasy: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Robert Asprin’s MythAdventures are also a delight. Alan Dean Foster has the hysterical Spellsinger series.

      But, yeah, your standard wizards and dragons and swashbuckling warrior fare? Meh.

      I don’t know if you saw it, but you might like the post What is Science Fiction?, which is one of several companion posts to this one.

  • Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Speculative Fiction? | Amusing Nonsense

    […] This comment over at “Logos Con Carne” has got me thinking a lot about the difference between science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. For me, defining the three terms has been like defining obscenity: I’ll know it when I see it. However, forming such an ad hoc way of thinking about these things isn’t useful for meaningful discussions about these genres. […]

  • Steve Morris

    You have a broad definition of SF, but yes, those two cardinal rules are the ones that must never be broken. May I also add, ‘Don’t make me bored’ as a candidate for a third rule?

    I suppose the thing about Star Trek’s “warp drive” is that it recognizes the speed of light barrier, and specifically creates an explanation for how starships can travel faster – warp drive. The spaceships don’t simply accelerate indefinitely, they have to break a barrier.

    Likewise, In LOTR, only wizards and elves are allowed to do magic, because otherwise it wouldn’t be (magic.)

    If people just do random stuff and the author never acknowledges how or why, that makes me mad – like in the Doctor Who episode we discussed, where the moon gains mass at an extraordinary rate (that cannot be explained by the absorption of neutrinos and cosmic rays!!) and nobody even queries how this could happen. If one of the astronauts had asked how it could be happening and the Doctor had said, ‘”Because [bullshit reason],’ I would probably have not been mad.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh! “Don’t make me bored,” is kind of a life rule, so maybe call it a zeroth rule!

      The thing about warp drive is that breaking the light barrier is only part of the problem. As you saw in my SR series, any form of FTL travel or communication, implemented in any fashion, violates causality. Warping space or wormholes don’t get around that.

      But without it, we can’t boldly explore new worlds and new civilizations, so we allow it.

      Shape-shifters always bugged me. Remember Odo in DS9? When he’s pretending to be a drinking glass so he can sneak into a meeting, where does his mass go? Quark carried him on a tray with other glasses and didn’t notice anything odd (or odo)! And how does a drinking glass see and hear? Odo clearly did somehow.

      That’s just plain old magic, to me, and I’m fine with magic (though it doesn’t really belong in Star Trek). I suppose the biggest rule there is to have well-defined rules about how your magic works. Disney’s Malificent was utter trash as a fantasy work in that regard. Very possibly the stupidest fantasy work I’ve seen in a good long while (pissed me off plenty, is what I’m saying). [On the other hand, not being a 14-year-old girl, I’ve never subjected myself to those Twilight stories, but from what I’ve heard they’re pretty dumb, not just in terms of vampire and werewolf lore, but in terms of being consistent in what they present.]

      You seem certain about the energy available from solar neutrinos. I thought it would be interesting to explore that, so I did some poking around. I know that supernovas emit a huge amount of their energy as neutrinos — to the point where being near one, despite that neutrinos almost never interact with matter, would be fatal.

      Per Wiki, the flux of solar neutrinos at Earth is about 10^11 per sq cm per second, and they can have energies as high as 18 MeV. Cosmic rays are some of the most energetic particles we’ve ever detected (far, far greater than anything at CERN), but the flux varies considerably with energy. Wiki says, “For 1 GeV particles, the rate of arrival is about 10,000 per square meter per second.” I’m not sure how to take it further than that and come up with some sort of mass, but it seems at least as reasonable as FTL to grant it “reasonable SF status.”

      Although your mileage may vary. XD

      “If one of the astronauts had asked how it could be happening and the Doctor had said, ‘Because [bullshit reason],’ I would probably have not been mad.”

      Okay, fair enough. Why is a bullshit reason from the author a life preserver, but seeking a bullshit reason on your own an anchor? One thing I like about Doctor Who is that it lets you fill in the blanks. Having everything explained to me is boring — hence violating our zeroth rule.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      As a separate topic:

      “You have a broad definition of SF,…”

      That made me smile, since I’m often accused of being too narrow, and too absolute, in my definitions. Mike Smith and I had a fairly long debate recently about how SF is defined, and by his definition, mine is way more restrictive.

      It is true that I have rather well-defined areas for Science Fiction, Hard Science Fiction, and Fantasy, but when it comes to Speculative Fiction, that probably is a pretty large net.

  • Steve Morris

    Self Aware Mike recently made a comment similar to this: “an explanation in SF doesn’t have to be scientifically correct, but must convince its audience that it is scientifically correct.”

    That’s true of all fiction – the story must convince. In a rom-com the audience must be convinced that the heroine really would give up her career for love, or whatever the plot requires.

    SF is no different. For example, with FTL travel, nearly everyone knows about the speed of light barrier, but probably not many understand its implications for causality. A hard SF novel might want to explore this, perhaps by explicitly exploring a universe in which causality is violated. Or else, by keeping true to the physics, construct a civilization in which communication between worlds takes hundreds or thousands of years, and examining how such a civilization might evolve. Both would be interesting to a narrow audience. The “new” Doctor Who style has broader appeal, but makes me mad. It’s just personal taste, I guess.

    Footnote – Twilight – don’t go there if you have any appreciation of classical vampire literature.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, totally. “Must be convincing” is another, perhaps subtler, form of the “don’t piss me off” rule. I’ve found it has to work on two levels if I’m to thinking highly of a work. The first level is when I’m reading or seeing it for the first time. The second level is afterwards when I have a chance to chew on it. Actually, there’s a third level: how well it survives re-watching or re-reading.

      Case in point: I watched The Equalizer last night. I generally like Denzel Washington, and I did like the original TV show back in the 1980s. I have a six-point film rating system: Wow!, Ah!, Eh, Meh, Nah, & Ugh! The film is fairly preposterous, but not as bad as many, so watching it I gave it an Eh (which basically means I’m not sorry I saw it, but won’t consider re-watching). Afterwards, thinking about it, it quickly sank to Meh (still not sorry, but can’t recommend unless you have a burning desire to see it).

      And it was because I wasn’t convinced by the story. It didn’t piss me off (which results in a Nah or Ugh! rating), but I had a hard time buying into all that happened. (It’s easier if you see him as a kind of Batman-like superhero, and it is interesting in how they never show you how he accomplishes much of what he does and skip obvious chances for more fight scenes — you only get the aftermaths.)

      Back to SF! Hard science fiction has explored the idea that Einstein was right. Niven touches on it in his Ringworld (and other) stories. It’s instrumental, in fact, to some of what happens in Ringworld. F.M. Busby was known for his “long view” series, and I believe Greg Egan’s Amalgam stories don’t allow FTL. (It’s pretty hard to find a topic that hasn’t been done by someone! 😀 )

      A problem I have with what “most SF fans think” is that I’m generally down with that pre-Star Wars, but post-Star Wars is a whole other kettle of robots. There is, I think, literally two different SF landscapes divided by SW. Lucas showed the bean counters that “SciFi” could earn lots (and lots!) of beans, and he brought the genre into the mainstream in a big way.

      Keeping in mind that I live in a country in which about 75% of people believe in the reality of angels, and probably more in the reality of ghosts, I have a pretty dim view of what “most SF fans think.” Put bluntly, if SW is your favorite SF movie, I don’t really see you as a fan of real SF. If you think it’s the best SF movie ever made, then you clearly don’t know diddly squat about SF.

      Star Wars, for all its enjoyable awesomeness, and for what it did for SF, isn’t really science fiction in my eyes — it’s fantasy dressed up with robots and ray guns. As I’ve said repeatedly, “Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away” is the dead equivalent of “Once upon a time.” Plus you have wizards, a princess, a prince, a knight (with a charger and a squire), and an evil emperor. Total fairy tale. The fact that very little kids love SW is a dead give away. 🙂

      As I said commenting on your post, it’s a shame Doctor Who crossed a line and pissed you off. I think it absolutely is a matter of taste, and all tastes vary. I still think it’s the best SF series on TV, but as I’ve also said, this season hasn’t been as tasty and engaging as previous. I’m still down with it, but I’ll see what the new episodes bring.

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