- by Gitabushi
I had a great conversation with PCBushi the other day about Pulp, and some of my problems with it. Learned some things from him, and they stewed in my brain until I ran across a blogpost that made it all crystalize into a thought process I want to share.
Here, let me write a story for you:
A big monster, with so much power he was invincible, attacked a little baby. Just as the monster was about to smash the little baby, the little baby grew a big, yellow fist and smashed the monster. With just one impact, the invincible monster was pulverized into quantum-level particles. The End.
Good SF Pulp story?
Why? It has fighting! It has heroics! It has Science!
But it has no real plot. There’s no real conflict. The characters don’t grow or change.
The baby was about to get destroyed: that’s conflict! It grew a big, yellow fist: that’s change!
Where did the monster come from? How was it invincible? A baby can’t suddenly grow a big, yellow fist, right? And how could the baby smash the monster if the monster was invincible? How can you call this science fiction if the science is this bad?
It has quantum particles in it. That makes it science.
Wouldn’t it be a better story if you explained how the baby could suddenly grow the fist?
Are you trying to say Hard SF is better than Soft SF?!? REEEE!!!!
Okay, that’s an exaggeration on all counts, for effect.
To me, some of the Pulp that is popular right now reminds me of that one-paragraph story. Things happen because the author wants them to happen. There’s no feeling of conflict, no feeling of threat to the protagonist.
Yes, I know, in fiction, *everything* happens because the author wants it to. But a good story makes you willingly suspend disbelief because the author has such a good grasp of human nature and the real world that all actions not only seem possible, but even likely.
A great author can develop a character so that at the key moment in the story, they experience a change of character that, as it happens, seems so obvious that you don’t question it at all, but can actually get choked up at the self-sacrifice for love, or the decision to stride into maturity, etc.
For example, Han was all about himself throughout the movie Star Wars. He was cynical, crass, and dismissive. He was in it for himself, and looking out for number one. But at a point when the tension and drama of trying to stop the Death Star was at its highest, he experienced a significant character change, and risked his life to come save Luke, and with it, the Rebellion.
Now, Soft SF proponents have a point, that I just now realized while typing the previous paragraph: Never once do we see the Millennium Falcon threatened by the defense tower blasters, or Tie Fighters. But the Millennium Falcon was bigger, and thus probably slower, than the snub fighters, and likely would have been the size/type of ship the Death Star’s defensive blasters were designed to engage.
But the point is: even though it happened because the author wanted it to, it was plausible enough to feel satisfying. We *wanted* Han to have a heart of gold under everything, and it made sense that Leia’s regard would be important to him, and it was natural that surviving all the life-threatening adventures with Luke would create a bond between the two.
Hard SF is just another, deeper step of that vital aspect of making a story seem real. The better you model the real world, the fewer jarring aspects there are that will take your reader out of his willing suspension of disbelief.
The most important aspect of Chekhov’s Gun is that if you want to have a gun fired in the 3rd Act to resolve the issue, you’d damn well better make sure people see it in the first, but without drawing so much attention to it that they know the 3rd Act is going to hinge on the gun being fired.
So science matters. Read this:
That’s really just the background for the article I read first:
I think these both are examples of aspects you must consider, as a writer, to make the story more enjoyable. Consider this paragraph:
The basic fighter concept that emerges from this line of thought could be remarkably low tech. The cockpit might resemble the EVA pods in 2001; we are looking at one day habitability. Propulsion is probably chemfuel, with plenty of short term oompf and enough delta v for the sorts of missions we are undertaking.
See how the line of thought regarding space fighters actually helps you realize what a space fighter should like, and how it should perform? If you include a space fighter in your story like the one described here, the reader will most likely think something like, “Huh. Never thought of that, but it makes perfect sense.” You’ve just increased their commitment to suspending disbelief, heightened their enjoyment, and gave them something to think about. Win-win-win. But you just need to make sure you don’t blow it with some other obvious science blunder.
And yet…and yet…
I enjoyed Star Wars. Who didn’t? But they blow away all sorts of science facts, not just Space Fighters. Their ships make sound, blasters are never explained (they aren’t lasers, because lasers are invisible absent some sort of dust or other aerosol that makes them visible), the light-sabers are even less scientific, and then you get the magic mumbo-jumbo of the force.
There are plenty of enjoyable Pulp stories that leave me satisfied, and plenty of Hard SF stories that suck because they screw up some science, and others that suck because they get the science right but the story is lifeless and dull.
So there is a balance. A Hard SF Star Wars might not have been as much fun. On the other hand, a harder SF Star Wars wouldn’t have been impossible, it just would have made the writers work harder, and likely be more creative. And the resulting Hard SF Star Wars would have been praised not only for its enjoyment, but it’s ground-breaking vision of a truly possible future.
At some point, you should read “Heavy Time” and “Hellburner” by CJ Cherryh. Or read the whole “Chanur” series, also by CJ Cherryh. They aren’t perfectly hard science, because they have FTL travel and/or other aspects that don’t make sense according to current scientific understanding.
However, she does develop extremely strict rules for her FTL travel, to the point that those limitations become plot development points. Her description of life in the asteroid belt also has verisimilitude because she addresses the scientific aspects of the impact of life in weightlessness. And her sense and description of interpersonal and political relationships are convincingly accurate.
I don’t really have a thesis conclusion. I don’t actually want to express contempt for Soft SF or Pulp, because I enjoy both, when done well. But on the balance, I think it takes greater skill to craft an enjoyable story using more Hard SF principles, and I do believe that the greater effort Hard SF requires results in a tighter, more believable story.
One final bonus thought: in a bureaucracy in which I previously worked, documents being sent to the organization’s commander had to be placed in color-coded folders. Issues that had to be resolved in less than a week were considered emergencies, and had to be in a red folder, regardless of topic. I selected the appropriate folder cover for the topic (I believe it was green, but it doesn’t matter) and submitted it. It was rejected a few times for issues. I missed proper punctuation once. The next level thought a paragraph was unclear. Yet another higher level thought the conclusion wasn’t supported by the evidence. I submitted the corrected copy 8 days before the decision was required. Someone in the chain was not at work, so it got stuck at that level until the next day. And guess what? At that next level, it was returned to me to resubmit in a red cover, because it was now less than seven days and was now an emergency issue.
The point of that anecdote? The commander set up that chain to check attention to detail. Did the proper punctuation make any difference to the content? Heck, did the folder cover make any difference at all? No. But the notion was that if I missed punctuation, what else might I miss? If I didn’t have the document in the right color cover, what else was I ignoring or being sloppy about?
I think it is the same with fiction. If I get basic orbital mechanics wrong, how can the scientific aspect that drives the plot be trusted? If I screw up a gravitational effect, how can I be trusted to understand how humans think?
But, of course, you have to set the level of science hardness according to your intended goal, in the same way your painting’s detail should be just good enough to evoke the emotional reaction you want. The Mona Lisa doesn’t show any facial hair (most women have *some*) or even pores, but that doesn’t seem to really enjoy anyone’s enjoyment of it.
So to repeat: I don’t have any conclusion that Soft SF is bad, or Hard SF is good. I just had some more thoughts on what you should consider as you write SF (hard or soft) that I wanted to share, hopefully to spark a good conversation.
Have at it. Let me know what you agree with, or disagree with, or general thoughts.