The limits of fiction
Just over a week ago Sidney Perkowitz suggested that film-makers should limit themselves to one big scientific flaw in a film. All sorts of critics have had fun with this. writerJames has posted an interesting response arguing scientific accuracy can enhance a story. I’m going to go a bit further and argue that the one BIG flaw idea is a good idea, for a given definition of BIG.
It’s not a new idea. Brian Stableford made it one of the key points in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He argued good SF introduced one new BIG idea, which he called a novum, and explored the consequences. That sounds limited, and it’s rare you’ll get big crowds shouting for more limits on what they can do. Yet Stableford’s reasoning isn’t that it’s good for science. It’s good for the story. Terry Pratchett came to a similar conclusion when he eventually made the map of Ankh-Morpork. Initially he was against pinning down places because it limited what he could do. He then realised that it’s the limitations that make a story. The Door You Cannot Open. The Path You Cannot Take. It’s the lack of an easy route that makes the story worth telling. Every single murder mystery could be speeded up if the lead character had an app on their iPhone that told them all the necessary details at the start of the programme, along with a GPS route to the current location of the murderer. It would certainly cut out a lot of the faffing about, but the only programme that would be improved by such a device is Murder, She Wrote.
There is a difference between a one novum rule and pedantry for drama. Take for instance David Mitchell’s complaint:
Apparently, if a ship blows up in space, it doesn’t really make a noise. How silly much of Hollywood’s sci-fi output must look to audience members with experience of inter-stellar warfare.
Personally I think it’s exciting when things go bang but it would be a ludicrous waste of the one physical impossibility that Perkowitz permits. You’d need to save that for warp speed or all of Kirk’s adventures would have to happen on the moon.
Pedantry would be pointing out that a ship blowing up around the Moon wouldn’t make a noise either, so inter-stellar warfare is not a necessity. My objection is that sound in space is one of the conventions of the genre. This and other oddities, like simultaneous light and sound for explosions, are simply part of the dramatic tool box used for science fiction. The sort of person who complains about those is the sort of person who watches a musical and asks “How come everybody knows the words?”
If we were having this discussion about Geography it’d be a non-issue. I don’t know much about American geography. I know Chicago and Detroit are in neighbouring states, but I don’t know if you could drive from one to another in three hours. That means a film where a crook picks up the guns in Chicago in the morning and delivers them in Detroit at lunchtime wouldn’t bother me. Would it be reasonable for me to mock anyone who was annoyed as a bunch of spods? ((If Chicago and Detroit doesn’t work for this example, then replace them with NY and LA — which I know are quite far apart.))
I don’t think one novum per film should be a rigid law. FTL travel, in one form or another is a staple of SF, even if it currently looks impossible. It works not because of warps or tachyons, but because it’s necessary for the story. Still, I do support the principle that using science as a magic wand is a bad idea. So do most of the authors that I follow and read. One of the nice things about Twitter is seeing authors asking questions because pulling an answer out of the air isn’t good enough for them. The classic wheeled space station is the result of writers not wanting to magic gravity into a setting, when they can come up with a plausible reason for it. It’s an obvious example of creativity through limitations.
Perhaps a better idea would be to count each novum as a negative mark on a story. FTL drive is a negative, but so long as the place you end up is interesting enough, the net result is positive. Similarly there’s no reason for English-speaking aliens to appear, unless the story is improved by them. Under this rule the magic wand the Doctor uses against the Cybermen in the Christmas special Dr Who vs the Cyberkittens is a bad idea because it’s a big negative and it kills the story.
It also helps if you think about what is or isn’t science fiction. Star Wars is not science-fiction. It’s set in space, but it’s fantasy. The driving motor of the story is about the people and their struggles. It’s set in space, but for the most part that’s just exotic scenery. The Core in contrast is driven by a physical disaster. The reason for the story existing is a scientific problem, which surely makes the science fair game for criticism. The science not tangential to the drama as it is in Star Wars, it is the antagonist. If the peril is as ludicrous as the Pacific Ocean levitating and dropping on the lower 48 states of the USA in the mother of all tsunamis you have a problem. If your solution is getting Bruce Willis to build a giant umbrella before the ocean drops you have a worthy sequel to The Core.