(This is what a writer who’s down in the dumps about his spell of low productivity does, Gentle Reader: Instead of writing, he writes about writing. At any rate, it strikes me as preferable to wallowing in my old fan mail. -- FWP)
We who write in the speculative genres – i.e., science fiction, fantasy, and most horror fiction – are often torn over questions of consistency. This is a subject with iceberg-like proprtions: only a few percent of it shows above the waterline of auctorial consciousness.
A storyteller starts with a story to tell. Why does he want to tell it? Perhaps it strikes him as a good bet for increased revenue. Or perhaps he thinks it will illuminate an important truth about Mankind. Or perhaps, still more imperatively, his wife has threatened to poison his Chianti if he doesn’t get his ass into gear and finish the series of stories she’s come to love. One way or another, he has a reason to write it. But he has a problem.
To make the story come out the way he wants, he needs an element that’s implausible under current circumstances:
- Science Fiction: Faster than light (FTL) travel, time travel, mental powers, and the like.
- Fantasy: Magic, magical creatures, pantheons at war with one another, etc.
- Horror: Monsters of some sort.
This is the speculative-fiction writer’s special challenge, one that “mainstream” writers don’t face. His “what if?” isn’t just the premise for a plot line; it’s a request for an alteration of the rules of reality as they’re enforced between the covers of his book. To make it play requires the reader’s willing suspension of his disbelief. And Mankind is sufficiently various that there are millions of readers willing to make that suspension, for which God be most profusely thanked.
But the problem isn’t limited to the writer’s opening premises. It also embraces the plot itself. Some plot developments require the amplification and extension of the unreal premises. That’s where consistency comes in, and with it the problem of realism.
My first science-fiction novel, Which Art In Hope, made a “conventional” suspension-of-disbelief demand upon its reader: He was required to allow for:
- Psi powers, including telepathy, telekinesis, and clairvoyance;
- The possibility of a sentient entity whose body is an entire planet.
These are known motifs in science fiction. Thus, many who’ve been reading SF for a very long time are familiar with them and ready to allow them. However, newcomers to science fiction would have to “swallow hard” to get past them for the sake of the story. That willingness to suspend disbelief determines whether one who’s never read science fiction before can “make the jump.” (Alternately, you have to get your story out of reality’s gravitational singularity before you can engage the FTL engines.)
One of the things I didn’t ask the reader to swallow in that first book was the possibility of faster-than-light travel. I didn’t need it; indeed, the existence of FTL would have contravened one of the essential conditions of the story I wanted to tell. But when reader demand made me contemplate a sequel to that book, it became a requirement.
That forced me to think about the challenge involved in making my science-fiction setting internally consistent. How realistic would it be to have FTL developed by this colony world of pacifistically inclined anarchists?
I pulled it off in Freedom’s Scion– at least, I think I did – but it took a fair amount of hard thought. The technological base of the Spoonerite society of Which Art In Hope would not support ab initio the development of an FTL drive even if it were physically possible. So my realism problem went beyond the physics of the thing.
Magic-based fantasy has a version of the problem that isn’t immediately apparent to most readers. Broadly, it goes like this: Magic must have a basis in the laws of the universe. It must be available on certain conditions; it must be powered by something; and it must observe certain limitations. Those requirements imply that magic must have one of the following inner natures:
- Magic is either a property of the magician, which arises from certain characteristics he possesses that others do not; or:
- Magic is available only by persuading non-human entities with greater-than-human powers to act on the magician’s behalf; or:
- Magic, in Robert A. Heinlein’s memorable formulation, is merely “something Western Electric will build once Bell Labs works the bugs out” – in other words, a matter of science yet unexplored and technology yet undeveloped.
(In the above partition, I’m omitting the tiny subcategory of fantasies about omnipotence. I contend that such stories are inherently unappealing, since there are no rules – the protagonist can arrange to have whatever he wants, on any conditions he wants. Thus, he faces no problems that present non-trivial difficulties to be overcome. As a plot premise that’s undramatic and unsatisfying, and anyway, God doesn’t approve of such stories.)
One way or another, all magic-based fantasy will fall into one of those slots. By implication, whatever the protagonists do must conform to the overarching rules of its sort. That allows for problems that even a sorcerer will have difficulty solving – and that’s at the core of all drama.
Realism is ultimately a matter of sticking to the rules, whatever they happen to be. The writer must decide upon the rules before he sets forth. He must make them plain to the reader early in the game. Thereafter, he must adhere to them rigidly, for to depart from them would reduce his story to a kind of RoadRunner cartoon.
Realism is quite as important in speculative fiction as it is in any other sort of entertainment. Failures to abide by the requirement for realism result in implausible, unsatisfying stories. Which is why so many writers who attempt to write in a speculative genre eventually find themselves muttering that “this is harder than I thought.”
(Cross-posted at my op-ed site.)