Why not explain.

Suppose you write a story that introduces “science” or magic that has to be there for the plot to work.  Thus in the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried must help Gunther win Brunhild for the plot to progress. Now, in a contest of strength watched by all and sundry, Siegfried cannot be seen doing it, hence the need for a cloak of invisibility. Star Wars would not be the same story without the force. Star Trek would be quite different without teleportation and warp drive. One issue facing a writer is, when should one try to explain what underpins these devices?

One possibility is, “never”. Thus for centuries, people listed to the Nibelungenlied without worrying a jot about how the cloak worked; it was magic! The Star Trek “science” is slightly different. Teleportation in the sense used there was not really important other than as a means of getting on with the story, so as long as the story was good, who cared? It just removed the need for tiresome issues with shuttles, and it was accepted (or not) without further discussion. Warp drive was something slightly different. Again, that was needed to get the story moving, and to permit the crew to return to Earth, but it has an interesting side issue. According to relativity, or more particularly the representation of space-time in relativity, moving faster than light requires moving through time in a negative direction so you can arrive before you set off. As far as I am aware, this peculiarity was never made use of.

This introduces another reason not to explain: the explanation is just too complicated. Think of going back in time through warp speed. This depends critically on the concept of space-time, without which the equations of general relativity are sufficiently difficult that they beat Einstein (who, at first, thought “space-time” just plain wrong, but he later adopted it because there seemed to be no other way of making progress). The author does not need to get bogged down into that discussion! For example, one view might be that just because the maths are more easily solved using space-time, it does not mean that spacetime is a physical object. Think of the geometry problems you solve by making a construction, or a differential equation using a substitution. Making a construction on a sheet of paper does not make it real on whatever the diagram represents! It just makes it easier to solve the problem. Similarly, modern quantum mechanical problems are addressed through using something called Hilbert space. Nobody I know has suggested that Hilbert space is a real thing, and if it were, it is not really compatible with relativistic space-time. See why you do not want to get involved? Why dig a hole for yourself and lose readers?

Notwithstanding that, there is a problem with ignoring it. Thinking of warp drive, you can either do what Star Trek did and use it as a way of getting from A to B to shorten travel times. Now you are incompatible with relativity, so no explanation is a good idea, but you consign the concept to the “convenient” and turn your stories into the “ordinary”. Be careful, or all you end up with is a space western, and the author has lost a huge number of possible plots!

Take another reason. Think of the force in Star Wars. I remember watching the first three movies, and I, along with everyone else I know, accepted that, in these movies anyway, there was something called the force that a very few could access after a lot of training. I did not care what caused it. But then, a number of years later, Lucas made three more movies, and explained the origin of the force. In my opinion, the explanation was ridiculous, and it only detracted from the movie. To summarize what I am suggesting, sometimes it is better not to try to explain something. Details can add to a story, but silly details subtract from it.

. Science in fiction (2). The role of “devices” in SF, and a readers’ quiz on the cloaking device.

Comments on my previous blog made the excellent point that science fiction should not be about “stuff”, but that nevertheless, “stuff” should contribute to the plot in some way. I would now like to take this a bit further, and consider some well-known TV programs, specifically “Star Trek” and “Blake’s Seven”. These are  two classics, and before I go further, I must emphasize that I really enjoyed these, and I regard the reason they are classics is because they had good script writers, and good actors who could show character. But let me consider whether “stuff” is relevant to the plots, and to do that, I ask, could the story, with a change of “stuff”, fit some other genre?

 Space ships get between stars/planets while weapons like phasers were simply weapons. At this point, the stories could be simply pirate stories and while the “stuff” made the settings, it did not critically alter the story.  Teleportation was more interesting. The reason for that was that the programs were of forty-five minutes duration, and getting to the surface of a planet in a shuttle, then concealing the shuttle is both time-consuming and repetitive. In such a short time, you do not wish to waste ten minutes boring the audience in the same way every episode. Warp speed had no function whatsoever, other than to return to a place and meet the same people.

 More interesting was the Klingon “cloaking device”. The cloaking device is one of the oldest devices in literature, but the question is, what is to be done with it? Star Trek did not seem to know what to do with it. Klingon ships could appear from nowhere, but they had to appear to do anything. It could have involved plots to steal this technology, but I do not recall that being done, and in much later series when there was peace, the cloaking device seems to have been forgotten. Don’t get me wrong. Star Trek was somewhat unique in its early days by having some of its scripts written by well-established guest authors, and generally the scripts were of high quality, which suggests that stories that critically depend on “stuff” are somewhat hard to write. Authors can dream up these wonderful magic devices, but they still have to do something with them, and that is harder.

 Now, a little question for readers. Can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? If so, let us know and award yourself an imaginary chocolate fish. The one I am thinking of is extremely well-known, although probably very few have actually read it, which is something of a pity. I shall leave this question open for a while to give readers a chance.