Sane scientists are OK in fiction!

I saw a recent blog extolling the virtues of “mad scientists” to drive plots. How about a plug for sane scientists? There is no reason why science has to be insane to be interesting. That does not mean that science has to be “good”. In fact, scientific knowledge is neither good nor bad; it is what you do with it that counts. Doing bad things with it is excellent plot material, because as my blog has been trying to say, science is not the plot; the plot is what people do. The simplest example I can think of is the murder mystery. For many of them, poison is a key ingredient, and you do not have to be insane to invent poison. In fact nature invented the best ones itself, and surely nature is not going to be termed insane? So, suppose the author is going to introduce poison into the plot. In terms of my previous blog on “explaining”, the question is raised, how far should the author go with explaining the nature of the poison? More to the point, why?

 There are two options here, and the first is to name the poison and describe the symptoms. There is a very good reason regarding plot to do this, because the perceptive detective, or the individual such as Mr S. Holmes who shows up the not very perceptive detective, can see the effects and deduce what has happened. It also allows some character play between those who see the clue and those who do not. Of course a little care here is needed too. The classic identifier of hydrogen cyanide is the smell of bitter almonds, but there is a small per centage of the population who cannot smell it. That too could be a plot element. So, naming the poison could be a good idea, if the author is on top of it. Good research helps! On the other hand, if the author does sloppy research, it shows. So the price of buying into this option is to do good research, and one problem of course, is that if the source of the knowledge comes from the web, it may not be correct, or sufficiently complete.

 The second option could be called “the custard’s way out”. As an example, in my ebook Troubles, I had someone poison the main character with a “white powder” that had certain properties. The poisoner was ordered to do this and was given the powder, and since the poisoner had no idea what the poison was, there was no need to tell the reader. That way you get around the problem of making a mistake. At first sight, this may seem to lose plot opportunities, but I think it can also create some. Back to Troubles, the poisoner is taken to dinner, he leaves the table, returns, consumes some food, then he is shown a small empty vial with traces of white powder. Now, had he known what the first one was, he may have done some research and might know what its taste was like, or something else about it, but with no idea he panics. (This time it was not poison, but . . .) So without knowing what it is, that itself can be part of the plot. Later, once again there was a white powder. Now, the reader is wondering, and very soon a conclusion some readers will jump to is confirmed. So, in my opinion there are virtues in not explaining, provided the non-explained issue is not left dangling. The issue is not poison, but the characters that come into contact with it. In Troubles, there was another issue too. The poisoning was not really the main part of the plot, but rather a small matter at the end to remove certain characters, and to bring the major villain to an end, not due to poison (although that was applied) but rather the main feature was his character defect that got him into the position where he could be poisoned.

Returning to my main point, poisoning is not “good”, but the users were not insane. My personal view is that literature thrives on exploring evil in plots, but I am less happy with insanity. Literature tries to give messages, or even lessons, but by definition, insanity teaches nothing.

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