Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Some Simple Rules for Science Fiction Authors Looking Not to Annoy Me (Part 1)

There are a number of unwritten rules about science fiction and fantasy which generally require adherence in order to make the story acceptable to an audience. These rules are different between the two seemingly dissimilar genres, but it's consistent application of one set or the other that helps a reader (or watcher) understand the universe he's learning about. For fantasy, nearly anything goes. An author may, at his whim, dictate any rule he so desires and give it no more explanation than "because that's the way it is." Who does this and does it well in the small sampling of his books that I've read? Terry Pratchett. His Discworld series is zany, wacky, inexplicably weird — and it doesn't matter. Whatever he says goes, and that's good enough for the reader. That doesn't mean that a fantasy author is required to invent all sorts of crazy rules; it just means that they're free to.

A word of note: in fiction, the author has absolute say over what happens. It's his universe, his characters, and his rules. What follows is my opinion of how best to structure some of those rules so as not to annoy me. I don't consider myself an author, I don't have the patience to learn to write, and I respect those who try. I also acknowledge that every one of the "rules" I am about to write is a guideline that absolutely may be broken at the author's discretion. But I implore you to please take the time to give a really good reason for it. Don't just do it because it's convenient for the script. If you want to make arbitrary rules of how your universe works then you may want to consider fantasy writing instead of science fiction. There's plenty of fantasy that looks like science fiction (ever hear of this little series of movies, TV shows, books, comic books, and cereals called Star Wars? That's classic fantasy (unexplained arbitrary rules and all) if ever I've seen it.

The problems that I've found with storytelling arise when science fiction authors try to invent arbitrary rules that conflict with common sense, science, experience, etc. For example, the arbitrarily small and finite number of universes in the abysmal Jet Li movie The One. It doesn't make any sense that the multiverse is composed of some finite small (I forget, but I think it was around 25) number of universes. The most rational explanation for multiple universes is that each one is different from the others in at least one small way, but since our universe is so big, it only makes sense that there be a ridiculously large number (infinitely, actually) of immensely tiny things to change. For example, the only difference between our universe and another one out there at this point in time is the direction that a single particle in the upper atmosphere of the earth moved. Now, that difference will chain-reaction into many other differences. That particle will now interact with different particles in the two universes. The differences will branch out as all of those particles are interacting with different particles causing a completely different configuration of atmosphere particles in the different universes. This can cause different weather patterns in the future, meaning that perhaps hundreds or even thousands of years after the initial microscopic change, a macroscopic difference can be observed between the two. Now imagine all of the air particles in the atmosphere and all of the different directions that they can move at any given time. Then imagine how there's a universe spawned for each of the possibilities of each of those particles every instant. Then imagine that at the same time, there's a universe spawned for each pair of possibilities, each triplet, and so on. Then take it a step further and think about every single particle in the entire universe. Every instant. While you were comprehending the meaning of the period at the end of this sentence (something that usually takes a practically immeasurably small amount of time), an uncountably infinite number of so-called "alternate" universes spawned which are visually identical to our own, aside from the uncountably infinite number of ones which spawned that are macroscopically different. This is only considering the universes which spawn off of our own, of course. Remember that each of the universes is spawning its own uncountably infinite number of universes every instant. Is this absolute observed scientific fact? No, but it's the only rational (albeit dramatically simplified) explanation of multiple universes that I've ever read. If you're going to have parallel universes in your story that's fine (this is fiction after all), but don't arbitrarily dictate that there's some finite number of universes out there without giving a really good explanation for it.

More importantly, one should realize that there's absolutely no practical way to, by human means, revert the changes. How is it that you can force all of the air particles in Universe B (the universe that isn't "ours," but is the "alternate" universe in question) to have the exact same configuration (position, orientation, velocity, and energy) as Universe A at corresponding time-points? Any attempt at meddling is sure to only exacerbate the problem leading to more profound and macroscopically observable differences. This shows up in time-travel stories. I want you to consider something: when your characters travel into the past (or send something into the past, or somehow affect the past), they're either going to affect the past or they're not. What they're not going to do is affect the past, then fix it somehow so that nothing's affected. As a trivial example of a story that (in its own way) did this right, I give you the first Back to the Future movie. Marty went back and screwed everything up. Then he tried to fix it, but in the end, the universe that he ended up in was fundamentally different than the one he came from. It turned out that the differences were pleasant for him, so he liked it. The story offers that it was plausible that he be able to fix everything to be exactly the same as the universe he came from, but we know that's impossible because Marty's presence in the past caused, if nothing else, the configuration of the atmosphere to be different. No matter what, the universe he would go to would be different than the one he came from. Another story that dealt with time-travel in a very good way (in this critic's humble opinion) is the Millennium trilogy of Deep Space Nine novels by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. In there, characters from the future affect past events, but they're present in the "first incarnation" of past events. Thus, they don't change the past because they're always elements of the past. Similarly, in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the main characters go into the past and have a conversation with themselves. But this doesn't change the past, it fulfills it because the conversation was first observed from their past selves.

There's more I can write on this topic (I have many many things I can tell you about ways you can avoid annoying me, whether you're a SciFi author or not), but I think this will do for now. Please, take this, digest it, and start to think about some of the stories you've read or watched (or written?) in a more critical light.

This post brought to you by the terrible atrocity that is The One and the annoyance it has generated in me which has persisted for the past seven years or so.


Dessert Sage said...

This post makes me wonder whether you actually have any other science-fiction writers who read your posts.

TurboNed said...

None that I know of.

radium226 said...

Interesting take on SW, I hadn't thought about it being fantasay and not SF. I submit a system for differentiating the two: Both take place in alternate universes but Fantasy explores "how," whereas SF explores "why" (the "how" is incidental, as a property of the universe)

A prime example of Fantasy is LOTR. If you've watched the howitshouldhaveended version of LOTR, you know that that story is farm more complex due to how it unfolded.

In terms of SF, I think of Star Trek. Those stories tell of human problems and reactions. How things unfold are usually incidental (we go to warp, we use a transporter). The story isn't about warp speed, it's about -why- we went to warp.

So, is this Article 1 of a 16-part miniseries on how to not annoy Turboned? (Next article: split infinitives ;)