I really wanted to title this, “Stop doing this one thing!” except I loathe clickbait titles. But something’s been working its way under my skin for a while now, and like my “Star Trek’s not a space opera!” post, I’ve got to get it off my chest, for good or for ill.
I joined a Facebook group of writery folks who like space opera. I lurk, mostly, but they all seem to be relatively lovely people. One thing keeps popping up, again and again when people discuss worldbuilding. I see it a lot in comment sections over at io9 (Y’know, the bad side of the tracks that nevertheless has that really good restaurant.) There’s a certain subset of people who get really antsy about any sort of technology that can’t be explained by so-called real world physics. A writer opined about an economy based on handwavium. Another had worked himself into a tizzy trying to determine if he should include force fields or not, because they currently seemed impossible, but what if NASA announces one tomorrow? Won’t that date his book? And don’t get me started on people complaining about Interstellar‘s suggestion that love was a fundamental force of the universe. (Which is a perfectly tenable suggestion. Theologically, at any rate.) Let’s all push for writing without FTL, because Faster Than Light travel is impossible!
I guess this post has two parts. The first is shop talk; the second is philosophy talk.
Stop obsessing over handwavium, guys.
If you’re not familiar with it, handwavium is a perjorative term for “Stuff that makes the plot go, because fake science/fake discovery/magic!” I don’t know if a concern about this is endemic to all science fiction writers, or if it’s just the circles of science fiction folks trying to craft the perfect story to make it into the public limelight, but whichever it is, folks should just stop obsessing over it. When Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep finally sees the light of day this year, you’ll be hard pressed to figure out how space travel works. I’m handwaving it, because it’s not important to the story at this point. The action takes place entirely on one planet, save for a couple of flashbacks and virtual trips to Earth, conducted via ansible and VR. I actually had an FTL system that I liked (the Zeno drive) and I’m in the process of ripping it out because I don’t want to waste it on a story that’s not using it. It’s not a story about starships. It’s a story about software, personal liberty, and people that smoke like it’s the 1940s. A more famous example is the Prometheus/Alien universe; FTL features, but isn’t touched on. You could change every spaceship in the movie to a slower than light ship, and things wouldn’t change. Or Firefly: I still can’t figure out if it’s one star system with a metric crap-ton of moons, or a bunch of star systems. If the ships are FTL or STL. Either one’s absurd, but we all still love the series.
Now, there are legitimate concerns about handwaving things. It can be a crutch. It can be lazy writing. I’ll argue till I’m blue in the face that Nu-Trek isn’t any less smart than Classic Trek (because pre-Abrams Star Trek hadn’t been smart since at least Deep Space Nine) but those films, fun as they are, are hurt by terribly by handwaving. Star Trek has literal handwavium in the form of “Red Matter.” They didn’t even bother to give it a sciency name, which Star Trek has always done. And this is a weakness that I see in Abrams-created things a lot. Lost‘s Island’s entire purpose is handwaved. Khan-not-Khan-Woops-I’m-Khan’s “superblood.” This sort of laziness is the handwavium you get upset with. It’s stuff that impacts the plot and/or the immersion.
And there are legitimate reasons not to handwave things. I know John C. Wright has stated that he dislikes the use of FTL because it doesn’t do the scope of the universe justice. I can get behind that! John’s written at least one amazing space opera that doesn’t use FTL, and his current series is shaping up to be another. Hard science fiction authors, those who want to write in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke or be the next Andy Weir, are probably going to want to eschew FTL. (Although Stephen Baxter has had some hard scifi with FTL, if memory serves.) What I’m arguing against here is the slavish obsession with making everything as hard as possible, because That’s What’s Real.
Which brings us to part two:
Don’t be afraid to dream a little bit bigger than reality, guys.
When it comes down to it, guys, we’re writing science fiction, not science books. Several years ago there was a movement called “mundane science fiction” whose very existence filled me with loathing: it was devoted to the idea that we will never, ever leave this solar system, that we will never travel to other planets, that we will never contact another alien species, and if we do, communication will be impossible. (And so on.) The sheer narrow mindedness of it should be anathema to everyone who reads science fiction. It elevates the mundane as an alternative to wonder. It mires the dreams of readers in the What Is Possible.
I’m not arguing that we can’t have a scifi novel about an earth-bound humanity. Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are entirely about the Earth, with no aliens. But it’s the idea of fencing yourself in. It’s the refusal to dream, to stretch out, to reach for the stars. It’s the refusal to wonder. Fencing yourself in like this is like refusing to look up into the sky and see shapes in the clouds.
Those shapes aren’t there. There are no cloud rabbits. No space dreadnoughts in our sky. (Okay, yeah, that cloud shape’s probably a little specific to me.) But it doesn’t hurt to look up at wonder about them, to see, for a moment, the glimpse of something wondrous and magical instead of water droplets suspended in the atmosphere.
More often than not, I’m inclined to argue that science fiction is one of the best responses to God’s creation of the universe. It looks up, or down, or in, or out, in wonder at the world. It turns clouds to shape. It sparks the imagination. If we fence it in, because What We Know is all there is, will we ever dream? What if that force field is one daydreaming child and a college education away? What if we deny that child the daydream, or even the tools to daydream, because we’re too concerned with “real?” If your dream is here, if it’s small, if it’s local, please, by all means, dream it. I am just as in awe of skilled carpenters and metal workers as I am of skilled writers. But if your dream is big and improbable, please, by all means dream it. Don’t be afraid to stretch out and dream a little bit bigger than reality.