The limits of fiction

Space station

Station V by Les Chatfield

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. Actually the defin­ing factor in fantasy is magic, and the defin­ing factors in sci­ence fic­tion are tech­no­logy and sci­ence. That makes Star Wars either space opera or soap opera, although the story wouldn’t work without the tech­no­logy of space travel.

  2. While Illinois and Michigan tech­nic­ally have a bor­der, it’s on Lake Michigan — to get from one to the other you have to drive through a little corner of Indiana. Three hours would be too fast, but four hours from Chicago to Detroit is per­fectly reas­on­able. But I’m just being pedantic :)

  3. alun says:

    That baffled me. I was sure they had a land bor­der and you could go across the top. A quick check of Google Maps shows I’ve con­fused Illinois with Wisconsin. I shall pre­tend that makes my point about my geo­graph­ical ignorance. :)

  4. writerJames says:

    See, I do some­times com­plain about people know­ing the words in music­als, but it only rubs me up the wrong way when I’m not enjoy­ing the show any­way. I sup­pose if it’s not even enter­tain­ing me, I decide that sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief is not a lux­ury it’s earned.

    One thing I com­pletely for­got to account for in my rant is that some films just aren’t set in the world we live in, and have their own rules. Cartoons are an obvi­ous example, where grav­ity might not kick in until a few seconds after you real­ise that you’ve just run off the edge off a cliff. I can’t bring any examples to mind, but I’m sure I’ve seen at least a couple of films where the repeatedly broken laws of nature have bugged me until I sud­denly went “Oh, I see, it’s meant to be com­pletely ridicu­lous, I get it now” and star­ted hav­ing a much bet­ter time.

    And in the Star Trek uni­verse you expect a few things that don’t make much sense if you think about them too hard, like the Holodeck and the uncan­nily humanoid English-speaking ali­ens. It needn’t count against the story-telling, if that’s the (intern­ally con­sist­ent) rules of the game.

    Whereas, from what I gather, The Core’s world is sup­posed to be recog­nis­able as our own, and can’t really be con­strued as some other dif­fer­ent uni­verse in which the rules are a bit dif­fer­ent (and just hap­pen to match up with the film­makers’ mis­un­der­stand­ing of our own world’s sci­ence). Perhaps if I had more brain­power I could artic­u­late exactly when and why that kind of get-out clause seems acceptable.