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Explain Me This

Thomas at Mile Zero takes issue with certain decisions made in science fiction writing: lack of explanation. He cites several authors whom he thinks are guilty of omitting a necessary explanation including Charles Stross, Dan Simmons, Alastair Reynolds, et. al. I’m not sure I agree with the roll call (OK, maybe Stross a little) but I do find the annoyance with lack of explanation to be familiar. Seems like sometimes authors sacrifice the world-building for cool-sounding techy names and concepts. Maybe Thomas has touched upon a key difference between Golden Age and Modern sf?

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

7 Comments on Explain Me This

  1. Cool Golden Age SF always didn’t explain things…and sometimes when they did, I wish they didn’t

    One of my biggest gripes with David Weber (not Golden Age, but in the style of) is when you’re in the middle of the preparation for the Really Big Space Battle (at least one per book in the Honor Harrington series), the author stops everything to drop several dozen paragraphs in on technology, tactics, etc. O.K., I appreciate it, but couldn’t we have done an appendix instead of stopping everything dead in the water?

    I recall in the Roddenberry/Whitfield “Making of Star Trek” a bit by Gene Roddenberry in which he said in effect “When you have a police show, the main character does not stop to explain how a gun works, how the hammer ignites the primer, how the bullet flies, etc. He points the gun and shoots.” They adopted a similar philosophy for ST.

    The question comes, when an author does it, is it sloppy writing (because they don’t know how to come up with an answer due to lack of knowledge or general laziness) or are they using the Roddenberry method? For folks like Reynolds, Robinson, Sheffield, etc., I think they are taking the Roddenberry approach. Heck, look at what Reynolds used to do as his “day job”! Not a rocket scientist, but definately a scientist.For others, definately laziness or lack of knowledge, but I’ll leave it for others to make the call.

  2. Funny how he praises SNowcrash, a book that doesn’t bother explaining how a set of stereo goggles and headphones allow some on jacked into the Metaverse to handle a sword with precision. Is he toggling his keyboard? Does he have a joystick? What a shitty book.

    Fred: There was a book which had a particularly bad war prep scene, featuring an A-Z list of all the weaponry and it’s status. I do not remember the title, but the sequence was used in a session of the Kirk Poland Bad Prose Competition at Readercon once.

  3. Fred: Sorry, I think I didn’t write that very clearly. I don’t mean to say that I’ve got any problems with good, spare writing, and certainly you don’t need to explain how every laser and computer works. But if you introduce a term that your audience won’t understand, one that’s important to the story, I don’t think it’s asking too much to explain it.

    The “light cone” thing just bothered me, and I spun it out to address other authors that do a little bit of the same thing. But Stross is far worse than say, Simmons (whose world-building was very enjoyable, but I thought the writing crashed after the first book).

    Jeff: Interesting call on Snow Crash. I believe Stephenson’s explanation was that the computer “watched” Hiro and somehow translated his gestures–kind of like an Eyetoy.

    I thought there were a lot of points in the book where we could have taken issue with the tech: the sword/latency hack late in the plot always bugged me. But I was always willing to roll with it, because I felt like it was well written. Just a matter of suspension of disbelief, I guess.

  4. Keep in mind that science fiction got its starts (with Jules Verne) deciding to use real scientific principles as a technique to lend verisimilitude to his adventure stories.

    It really was no different from HP Lovecraft lending verisimilitude to his horror stories by, for example, mentioning real books by real authors in addition to the invented books by his invented authors. Ursula K. LeGuin loaned verisimilitude to WIZARD OF EARTHSEA by having her magic rules copy the real beliefs of primitive peoples, who do not reveal their true names to strangers for fear of being hexed.

    Usually a SF writer will put in an explanation for three reasons, depending on the type of tale:

    [1] in hard SF or “nuts-and-bolts” tales sometimes the explanation is added merely because the writer (and, one hopes, the reader) thinks the scientific stuff is interesting in and of itself–for example, I was fascinated to learn that Phobos, the moon of Mars, rises in the West and sets in the East, because the planet rotates faster than the moon revolves.

    [2] in SF of all types, if the plot turn depends on an understanding of the science, and if the writer is not sure whether the reader knows the scientific principle involved, then the science must be explained. This is so whether or not the science is real or imaginary: if you write a time travel paradox story, perhaps you need not explain how terrawatt lasers split apart quarks to release chroniton particle-waves, but you must have some explanation of what might happen if you strangle your grandfather at birth. You have to establish the rules of what your mind-reader character can and cannot do with this psychic power.

    The problem with instance 2 is that sometimes writers guess wrong about how much the readers know. (For example, some SF readers know what a light-cone is: it is the location of all possible points to which a particle can travel in a given time without exceeding the speed of light. If you plot all these locations in a three-dimensional grid, with the time-axis as a line normal to the plane, the shape described is a cone whose axis is the time-axis.) Almost no one these days explains that rockets operate by Newton’s second law of motion, or that a laser is coherent light, or what hyperspace is: SF readers are expected to know the basics of the SF mythology.

    [3] in soft SF the high-tech explanations are a distraction, because in such stories the main emphasis is on the character development or some soft science like sociology, not on the hard sciences like astronomy or physics. In soft SF, you just point your blaster and shoot, and no one stops to explain that a blaster contains a magnetic bottle of superheated plasma ejected by a rail gun, so that it strikes the target and releases the plasma, which collapses into a spray of dangerous high-energy stripped helium nucleons.

    For example, in DUNE, in order to have a swords-and-spaceships background, Mr. Herbert had to come up with an explanation why a spacefaring peoples would use swords. His (brilliant) explanation was partly technological and partly cultural. The technology was “shields” that rejected fast moving objects and permitted slow moving objects: this is pure hand-waving, based on nothing in real science, but a good bit of writing for all that. The culture was one of religious zealotry that had suppressed scientific and technical innovation during the Butlerian Jihad. Even if there were high-tech ways around the shields (such as slow-moving poisoned gas) the suppression of technology deterred their use in war. (One also assumes that something, perhaps the warrior-mystique of the aristocratic class in DUNE, forbad the use of body-armor underneath the shield: otherwise they would have all dressed like jousting knights in titanium-steel.)

    In all cases, the explanations are left in or left out depending on what the writer estimates will lend the greatest verisimilitude. This is true not just in SF, by the way. If you write a short story about a man with car trouble in the middle of Arizona, in the scene where he stops to fix his engine, you need to explain at least enough about the internal combustion engine to make it clear to your reader what he is doing.

    John Wright, whose stories contain large fixtures made of unobtainium.

  5. I might add that sometimes there are valid reasons why an author might omit an explanation. One case might be because no explanation is needed. One of the things I liked about Heinlein was that his inventions were often self-descriptive. Do you really need him to describe what a “slidewalk” is when reading “The Roads Must Roll” or Glory Road?

  6. The problem with instance 2 is that sometimes writers guess wrong about how much the readers know. (For example, some SF readers know what a light-cone is: it is the location of all possible points to which a particle can travel in a given time without exceeding the speed of light. If you plot all these locations in a three-dimensional grid, with the time-axis as a line normal to the plane, the shape described is a cone whose axis is the time-axis.)

    See, that’s what I thought. Thanks very much for the confirmation. But, no offense, that’s kind of an advanced abstract concept, and it wouldn’t hurt to have it explained. Not even mentioning the kind of thing that an author might just make up.

  7. My only point here is that an author has to simply make a guess, on the one hand, how much his readers know about science, and, on the other, how patiently they will endure a lecture about something they’ve already heard Robert Heinlein explain. Sometimes the writer guesses right, and sometimes he guesses wrong.

    For example, in HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL, there is a longish section on how a spacesuit works. Because the main character is a boy who won a used spacesuit in a soap slogan contest, and he is fixing it up in the backyard shed guys-with-jalopies style, the author can insert a fair bit of tech info. (Like Asimov, Heinlein was a master of making little lectures quick and interesting.)

    But in my GOLDEN AGE novels, I never stop to explain how my super-hero’s super-space armor works. I say it has an outer layer of unobtainium and in inner layer of nano-machinery gloop that responds to corresponding circuits in the user’s cyborg-like brain. The readers aren’t going to pay me to go over Mr. Heinlein’s same ground again. Or so I would guess.

    Again, I talk in my novel about neutronium and antimatter without once explaining what these things are: most SF readers know what they are. Or so I would guess.

    On the other hand, since most of the invented worlds of SF are based on unsound, even absurd, violations of the laws of economics (see, for example, WORLD OF NULL-A, THE DISPOSSESSED, THE CASINNI DIVISION, or David Zindell?s brilliant NEVERNESS series), I guessed that most SF readers don?t know much about economics, and so would not would know what Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage is: so I guessed it was safe to halt the tale and explain it.

    Sometimes writers guess wrong.

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