A while ago, I wrote my sci-fi writer’s manifesto: five simple statements intended to guide my writing. In case you missed them, here they are.
- Write only about what is real, or about what can reasonably be foreseen based on what is real.
- Be honest about what is real and what is not real.
- Do not write if you have nothing important to say.
- Write in a clear, simple style, so as to be understood.
- Look forward and outward from where we are to where we might one day be.
At the time, I promised to elaborate on them and it’s about time I made good my promise. Since my elaborations turned out to be rather lengthy, I shall present them one at a time over the next few days. Remember, I’m not saying these statements should apply to everyone, only to myself.
1. Write only about what is real, or about what can reasonably be foreseen based on what is real.
This first injunction is as applicable to literary fiction, crime fiction, romance, or any other genre, as it is to science fiction. I mean it, above all, to refer to what is real about people, about our psychology. I also mean it to refer to what is real about the Universe, about the physical reality of which we are part.
It seems to me that the most important aspect of any work of fiction is that it explores the way people of particular types, with particular backgrounds, might react in circumstances the author invents. The whole point of this exercise is invalidated if the world in which the characters find themselves is not physically possible, or if the characters and the society they inhabit are not psychologically possible.
The first case (the world is impossible) is not quite so bad. The use of impossible worlds entitles the reader to ask, “So what?” If we cannot be shrunk to the size of microbes – and we can’t – what is the point in exploring our reaction to it? It will never happen, so it doesn’t matter.
The usual argument is that it is just fun to imagine such situations, and the reader gets to play a little ‘what if?’ game with the author. I don’t really mind this, and, of course, it can be fun if done well. Lord of the Rings was fun. But such writing, because it doesn’t deal with reality, will always be at the trivial end of the spectrum of speculative fiction. This, for me, includes all worlds that include magic, or supernatural beings of any kind. It does not necessarily include alternative worlds. An alternative world where the laws of physics are the same as our own (or plausibly different) but where people in the past have made different choices, seems as reasonable a speculation as any future world does.
The psychological reality of the characters in a story is a far more serious matter. Every writer worth their salt will strive to make their characters as ‘believable’ as possible. Without psychologically valid characters, psychologically valid societies, without real people reacting believably in relationships that make sense, a story is a waste of time. Worse, it is a travesty and a distortion that should never have been written. Sadly, a lot of speculative fiction (like so much at the ‘pulp’ end of all genres) is of this sort.
A special problem here for science fiction is when it deals with aliens. I am happy to suppose that intelligent aliens exist elsewhere in the Universe. On current estimates by astronomers, there may be between 10 billion and 80 billion Earth-like planets in our own little galaxy. Given this, I would be surprised if sentient aliens did not exist. And, allowing for faster-than-light travel (see injunction number 2, coming soon) I’m happy to accept the physical plausibility of stories in which people and aliens meet. It is the psychological plausibility of aliens which is such a problem because we simply cannot know the mind of a creature we have not yet encountered.
Or can we? I think the answer is yes, to some extent. We know, for example, that any replicant is subject to the laws of evolution, that any living creature must obey the laws of thermodynamics, gravity, and so on. These physical laws place enormous constraints on what kinds of aliens are possible, how they will be adapted to their environments, how their senses will work, how their locomotion can be achieved, and so on. While the constraints are massive, there is still plenty of room for speculation, but, when dealing with alien minds, it is incumbent on the sci-fi writer to ensure he or she does not invent something that would violate those constraints.
To see the difference between unconstrained, unreal speculation and constrained, reality-based speculation, consider the freedom the fantasy writer has. Creatures of magic (vampires, werewolves, gods, fairies, demons, and so on) aren’t necessarily subject to physical laws, evolution need not touch them, sensory and psychological limitations need not apply. (In fact, it is remarkable that, given this freedom, creatures in fantasy works exhibit such human psychologies!)
Finally, the bit in the statement about “what can reasonably be foreseen” is to do with predicting the future. A sci-fi writer should be as constrained by what is real here as he or she is elsewhere. The future is not a magic realm. Future technologies might indeed seem like magic were we to encounter them, but they are not. They are technologies which have been developed from the ones we know, and have emerged from sciences which themselves have developed from the ones we know. They will be constrained by the same laws of the Universe that we now experience. It is too easy to conjure up technologies that bear no relationship to the science we now know. (I remember reading a sci-fi story in the sixties, where a character with a hand-held laser weapon sliced right through the Earth with it! It’s true that lasers were new and exciting then, but the laws of thermodynamics weren’t.)
I believe it is a useful constraint for the sci-fi writer to place on his or her self to ensure that future technologies are either predictable from what we now know, or are at least consistent with reality as we currently understand it. Our science may have moved beyond Newtonian mechanics, but objects still move in a straight line at at constant speed unless acted on by a force. We simply have a better definition now of what a straight line means! To give oneself more freedom than that is to risk crossing the line into unrealistic and magical invention, invalidating the primary purpose of the work.