SF105: Living in a Science Fiction World

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Author: Michael Bard

And so we come to the final chapter. Kind of a sad thing, but it had to come... So: Now that you know how to make an SF world somewhat realistically, how do you make it live to the reader?

A science fiction world can be a place of dreams, of magic,[1] a place of hopes and adventure. A place of wonder. Of course, that's what it is to us, the readers. But to the characters in that setting, to those who live there, it's just... the world. And as the old saying has it, 'familiarity breeds contempt'.

Consider the case of a rebel soldier fighting against their rightful British King in 1776. Were he to somehow be transported to the year 2005, he would surely regard any number of mundane items -- a car, an airplane, a jet, a submarine, the computer you're reading this on -- as things of magic and wonder. Why? Because they are utterly new and unfamiliar to him. It would not be unreasonable for our time-lost soldier to gape in awe at (what he regards as) the near-miraculous spectacle of a 12-lane highway.

All well and good -- but when was the last time you just stood and watched cars drive by in wonder and amazement?

Sadly, one of the biggest flaws in written SF, is the sense of wonder that everybody has. A person lives on an L5 colony,[2] and when he first steps 'outside', he looks up at the ground curving above him in wonder and awe...

Nonsense! Why in God's name would an L5 resident be awestruck at what is, to all intents and purposes, his house? He sees the bloody thing every day of his life! Hell, he probably helped build the place!

He might look up and see if the new construction is complete; he might look up to see if the maglev train is running on time; but he would not look up in wonder and amazement. He'd just go on with his day, and that is the biggest tool you have to get the reader to believe that the imagined world is real. Think about it. And compare these two paragraphs in your mind:

"Theoretically every ration taken aboard a Patrol vessel is pre-cooked and ready for eating as soon as it is taken out of freeze and subjected to the number of seconds, plainly marked on the package, of high-frequency heating required."[3]

"Theoretically every high tech carefully nutritionally balanced ration taken aboard a Patrol vessel is pre-cooked and ready for eating as soon as it is taken from the cooling unit and subjected, for an amazingly tiny amount of time proudly emblazoned on the package, of miraculous technological high frequency vibrations not known to 20th century science!"

Yeah, tongue in cheek, but which one do you believe? The first sample was published in 1948, and probably written in 1946: It's a microwave oven. Nothing more, nothing less. And it was just described as matter of fact, part of life.

Of course, now you're starting to panic. But how can I get the wonder and amazement across to the reader if the POV character just shrugs it all off as typical?

Ah, and now you come to the cleverness and joy of writing SF. How to make the world believable, and yet wonderful and amazing to the reader.

There are a number of methods. In many stories, the POV character is a 'fish out of water'; he could be the frozen 20th century man defrosted centuries after he died, the human being taken aboard a timeship and moved into the future... Or, more realistically, an individual taken from one culture to another.

As a sample case, consider a person in the 26th century who lives on Earth, and, for some plot-derived reason, moves to an L5 colony. To him, the fact of living in space in miraculous and amazing. To him, the horizon arcing overhead is a wondrous thing, an amazing creation of technology. He has the childlike wonder that the reader has, and that the author wants to share.

And through him, you can get the amazement across to the reader.

Of course, one does not have to go that way. Anything that the POV character is unused to is a potential source of wonder. If the POV character is the first person to step on Mars, then he will be amazed. If she is the first to step aboard an abandoned alien generation ship and looks up at the brown-green landscape arcing overhead; or he steps out of the envirodome on Europa and looks up at the swirling clouds of Jupiter as though they were about to fall down and crush him; then the sense of wonder is there.

It's a sense of wonder at the environment, the surroundings, at things that humankind, or just him or herself, have never seen or experienced.

That's why I read it and love it. That is the wonder, and magic, of science fiction.

  1. Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
  2. Sing a chorus or two of Home on La Grange and look it up. Consider this an exercise for the reader.
  3. pg 145, Space Cadet, Robert A Heinlein. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948.