Patty Jansen gives us food for thought on the notion of credibility in science fiction. Wrapped in explanations on the nature of communications and distances in space she highlights the importance of writing convincing stories and encourages us to consider the implications of the scenes we set. Treating her post Communication in space as the beginning of an always relevant discussion, we’ll expand on her theme with some minor variations.
Consistency is important in any story. In science fiction (and probably elsewhere) a phrase often used is ‘internal consistency’. The word ‘internal’ refers to the fact that the story must be consistent within its own universe. But the universe of a science fiction story is not the universe we live in. No matter how similar or overlapping. If they were the same universe then it would cease to be science fiction. Science fiction or speculative fiction is founded on flights of fancy.
Having said that many science fiction stories are based in a universe very much like ours. Sometimes they are set in the world and times around us as if you step out into them everyday. But even so there is always something unreal or speculative about them that makes them science fiction. So if we set a story in space do we have to comply with the rules of relativistic physics? Only if we want to. What happens if we don’t? As Patty suggests in a comment below her post:
“I think FTL [faster than light] communication is fine, as long as you let the reader know how it happens.”
If the story’s universe is based on the one we live in we need to know when we’re breaking its rules and then possibly persuade our reader that our new rules make sense within the boundaries of the suspension of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief is the life’s blood of science fiction. If we lose it the story dies because the story becomes too incredible to take seriously.
So do we have to justify or explain every unreal or imagined thing in our story? No. We’re relying on the suspension of disbelief. So what do we have to justify or explain? That depends on our story and on our audience. There can be no hard and fast rules here. The way we set up the universe in which our story lives will impact on how far we can go with our readers. But each reader is different and has their own breaking point. We can never satisfy them all. Maintaining the suspension of disbelief is part of the art of writing science fiction or any fiction really.
The point is that our stories must be convincing. That is something we and our audience will determine together. To be convincing they must be internally consistent but they don’t necessarily need to be externally consistent, i.e. they don’t always need to be consistent with the universe we live in.
These are the humble, if somewhat presumptuous opinions of an inexperienced student writer.
This aside is included here simply because it’s a cool subject to talk about. Patty says that physics tells us that faster-than-light communication is impossible. This is not completely correct. It is true in the case of relativistic physics, i.e. the physics of the world of things atomic sized and up. But in the world of sub-atomic physics all the rules change. There are theories of ‘quantum entanglement’ about photons and sub-atomic particles that exist as pairs that have an instantaneous connection no matter how far apart they may be. A science fiction writer could conceive of a universe in which scientists have figured out how to use these particles to communicate instantly between galaxies. Perhaps scientists are imagining this now.
‘Whatever happened to one particle would thus immediately affect the other particle, wherever in the universe it may be. Einstein called this “Spooky action at a distance.”‘
Amir D. Aczel, Entanglement, The Greatest Mystery In Physics.