Physics is a Harsh Mistress

There are those who think that writing science fiction or coming up with fantasy settings is easy since you can ‘do whatever you want.’ The thing is, though, that this isn’t really true at all. You can do whatever you want in the same sense that you can do whatever you want in any genre, from upscale/literary fiction all the way through bodice rippers. Yeah, you can write your entire novel without proper nouns. Certainly you can exclusively write in present tense using a second person POV. Yes, you can stop your novel halfway through, leave an ellipsis, and call it a cliffhanger. You can do all of those things.

That doesn’t mean doing those things is a good idea.

The trick with science fiction and fantasy is this: you suddenly have to care much, much more about realism than you would in a different genre. You have to care about it more because you are willfully and knowingly violating it on a regular basis, but must do so in such a way that the audience accepts such a violation as reasonable.

Now, fantasy and science fiction do this in different ways. Specifically, fantasy is involved in making the impossible seem possible (Magic? Goblins? Fairies? Sure, I’ll buy that!). The whole world needs to be constructed so that nobody looks sideways at the surreal and/or if they do, there is documented reasons why. You, essentially, create your own history, science, mathematics, and physics to go along with everything. In scifi, however, you are involved in making the possible seem plausible. In other words, science fiction is obligated to extrapolate upon known scientific concepts whenever possible. It doesn’t create its own laws of physics; it takes the existing ones and imagines their theoretical applications beyond what we can currently achieve. You can’t break the rules without spending a good amount of time explaining how.

You are, furthermore, in both genres, obligated to explain how, no matter how obliquely. Fantasy can often get away with the whole ‘it’s a different, alien world’ angle (though not always), but science fiction is held to a higher standard, since it’s operating in the ‘real’ world. Works of speculative fiction that don’t do their due diligence in justifying their concepts suffer for it, since the audience has to work pretty hard at suspending their disbelief all the time. If you want to say, I don’t know, that all electricity has ceased to function (a la Revolution), you need to make sure things are internally consistent.

I’m reminded of a pitch workshop/session I attended wherein the group was going to have the opportunity to do a group pitch to an editor from Del Rey books, one of the big SF/F publishing houses. The editor was not sparing in her critique of each author’s pitch, but one guy got raked over the coals so hard it made the rest of the room blush to hear it. He was a kid (still in college) pitching an Arthuriana scifi epic in which the descendants of Mordred took over the world and rule the earth from what would have been modern day New York City, save for the altered timeline. The editor proceeded to ask him a couple mundane questions:

Why did they move to New York? Why not London?

What happened to the Native Americans in this timeline?

Were there ever Nazis in this world? Did World War 2 ever happen?

So, it’s been a thousand years, right? Why do they still use swords?

The guy could supply no satisfactory answers to any of these questions. His world crumbled around his ears when placed under mild scrutiny. At the end, the editor said “I don’t think you have any real idea what’s happening in your own novel,” and left it at that. Harsh? Perhaps. But I think she was right.

Please don’t try to explain to me how this thing works. Just don’t. We all know it’s a ‘magic amulet’ and it pisses me off.

This, of course, brings me to Revolution. I watched the pilot last night; the characters are good, the acting is okay, the action is fun, and the conflict seems engaging. The premise, though, makes no damned sense in the least. It would be one thing if somebody destroyed the grid (somehow), or if the earth were bombarded by EM so intense that it consistently scrambled all electronics. That, though, isn’t what is shown as happening. Electricity is just gone, as though by a David Copperfield illusion. One character remarks ‘physics went haywire’. This elicited a grunt from me – yes, it would have to. However, you aren’t allowed to do that. This story takes place in the really-real world, man; physics just doesn’t ‘go haywire’. I’m not a physicist, but I have a serviceable grasp of the basic concepts, and nothing they portray in that show pass basic muster. No electricity doesn’t mean no cars, it just means cars that need to be cranked in order to start. No electricity doesn’t mean the permanent collapse of infrastructure, it means a reversion to steam power. Guns still work; there is no godly reason you’d revert to muzzle-loading muskets and crossbows. Colt invented his revolver and Maxim perfected the machine gun in pre-electrical times, folks. In short, the world portrayed isn’t the one that seems likely to develop fifteen years post-blackout, even if we do accept the nonsense idea that electricity ceased to function (as though the movement of electrons were some kind of ‘technology’ and not a basic physical property of existence).

Nevertheless, I might still watch the show. That was a reasonably cool swordfight, after all.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on September 19, 2012, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed the pilot, though just about every step in the plot was given away by one commercial or trailer that I’d seen. So, I had nothing left to be surprised on. Hence I’m looking forward to episodes where I will know much, much less.

    The premise is remarkably similar to a book series by S.M. Stirling, though, wherein physics do indeed just suddenly stop working the way they should. For them, though, even guns don’t work anymore–burning gunpowder doesn’t explode, it just fizzles. They try reverting to steam power, same problem. I stopped reading after two books, but from what I understand it did boil down to “magic!” and no one had amulets that made things work like a few people in this show seem to.
    (Book one, if you’re curious: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dies_the_Fire)

    I’m willing to let them play out the explanation here, though. So far, anyways, we’ll see how it goes. I do like Kripke a whole lot though and his five seasons of running Supernatural were great.

    Plus, Billy Burke as a badass is pretty awesome. 🙂

  2. This is why I read so very many David Weber books, especially the Honor Harrington series. His science is well thought out, consistent and reasonable based on what we currently know, which means I never really had to suspend my disbelief. Even though almost nothing was familiar to me, it was all so reasonable that I had no trouble grasping it.

    Of course, there’s a downside. Now that I’ve been exposed to world-building based on such meticulous research, (and it’s all documented in the appendices!), it can be quite dissatisfying to read sci-fi that only pays cursory attention to scientific consistency. 🙂

    • Very much agreed. Once you start reading hard science fiction, it’s hard to go back to the fluffy stuff and not roll your eyes. The Honor Harrington series has its flaws, but the science behind it isn’t really one of them.

  1. Pingback: Posit your Sorceries, Oh Human, and Unfurl Thy Universe | Auston Habershaw

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