Rules Are Made to be Broken... Except When They're Not

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Confession time: I am a hard-core science and tech nerd. Allow me to expound briefly.

When I was 14, I discovered Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the Science section at Waldenbooks (by the way, the day Barnes & Noble closes its doors, I will shed several tears. I have loved bookstores my entire life).

The book changed my young life. I was already a nerd and bookworm, but I became obsessed with space and the stars. I was going to be an astrophysicist and, if I had my way, discover how to break the speed of light so we could get on with exploring the…well, cosmos.

Along about the second semester of college, I got waylaid. See, the core courses for an astrophysics major consisted primarily of math. Then some more math. The broader university core courses, however, were far more “liberal” minded. And math simply couldn’t compare to grand philosophies and theories of political and social interaction. The stars suddenly seemed very far away (on the other side of all the math), but high-minded historical and political discussions could be had in small, informal classes and even the dorm common room (albeit often accompanied by beer).

Fast-forward an undisclosed number of years. I’m writing a science fiction novel. I’m given license to imagine a world where someone did discover how to break the speed of light, opening the stars to humanity. In short, I’m in heaven.

But wait…how did they break the speed of light? And what about the dangerous cosmic radiation? Gravity on spaceships? The fact that extended time in space wears down human bodies? How do they talk to one another when even speed-of-light communications are quite slow across galactic distances?

Down the rabbit hole I went. And it was fun (for me). I loved immersing myself in physics and astronomy and even chemistry. But it wasn’t getting me terribly far on my story.

In that wonderful way he has of saving me, one day my husband asked me what scientific principles underlie the warp drive in Star Trek. I, of course, pointed out the warp drive bears many similarities to Alcubierre’s theoretical FTL drive, which is the most scientifically viable theory for potential FTL travel…at which point he gave me a look. Not so easily deterred, however, he then asked how Serenity’s engine functioned, and how rapidly Firefly-class ships traveled through space. And how exactly was it Galactica executed its ‘jumps’? Using ‘tylium’ fuel? “That’s nice,” he says.

His point was, as usual, well taken. I weakly argued about how books were different than film and TV, as the written word provided far more opportunity for explanation and exposition – and while technically correct, I was to some extent splitting hairs.

This led to a series of questions every writer worth their salt struggles with if they are writing anything other than a modern-day or historical novel:

What are the rules of my world?Why do they exist? Do I need to justify them? Do I need to explain them? If so, how much?

This post is primarily couched in the terms of science fiction, but the considerations apply equally to fantasy, alternate history or any type of speculative fiction. After much soul-searching (and research and reading), there are a couple of principles I have accepted and even embraced:

Principle #1: Know the rules of your world. Obey the rules of your world.

Even if you choose not to explain the engineering of your FTL drive or laser weapons or the foundations of your magic system in the slightest, you MUST be consistent within your novel.

Do not have it take a week to traverse 10 light years in one scene, then switch to nearly instantaneous travel of the same distance by the same type of ship in another. Do not require twelve hours rest between magic spells at one point in the story (hello, old-school D&D), then allow your hero to miraculously perform five Magic Missiles in a row in the climactic battle (unless they’ve suddenly been blessed by a god, for reasons).

Readers are willing to accept a lot on faith. In many cases they don’t want to read the pages of technical explanation behind what would otherwise be an awesome, fast-paced action scene, or perhaps they’re fully invested in the amazing characters you’ve created and just want to know what happens next. But that doesn’t mean they’re dumb, and they will notice if you change the rules in the middle of the game.

This is one reason why planning is important. Understand the way your novel’s world works. Even if 90% of what you develop never sees the novel’s page, it’s important that there be a consistent structure underlying the world. You don’t necessarily have to understand why the structure exists (unless you want to, because it’s fun), or even how it came about, but you do need to understand what it is, and stick to it.

If you come to a point in the story where the system/rules you created simply aren’t. going. to. work., that’s okay. If the plot element you want to pull off is important enough, revisit the structure of your world, and alter it if necessary. But don’t simply ignore it for this one scene. Your readers will know and will take you to task for it.

Principle #2: Know what you are writing.

Genres are so fungible, and nowadays most novels belong to at least three of them. Still, they exist for a reason. For readers, genres enable them to easily find the types of stories they enjoy and signal what to expect from a novel. As a writer, you need to recognize those expectations.

If you’ve decided to write hard science fiction in the tradition of Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, you’re damn straight you’re devoting pages and pages to feasible and logical extensions of physics, engineering, chemistry and more.

If you’re instead writing space opera (Peter F. Hamilton) or cyberpunk (William Gibson) or singularity scifi (Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge), you need to think about creating futuristic tech which (a) while maybe not directly extrapolated from current scientific knowledge, at least sounds plausible, (b) has cool names and grand, sexy descriptions and (c) adheres to Principle #1. This is the melding of science and imagination.

If on the other hand you’re writing space fantasy (Star Wars, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) or soft/sociological scifi (Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin) (as an aside, isn’t it interesting that Asimov’s Foundation series is considered both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ scifi? Asimov truly was a master), so long as you adhere to Principle #1, you’re free to imagine and create to your heart’s content, without much worry about justifications and underlying principles.

Principle #3: Know what you aren’t writing…but don’t feel constrained by artificial boundaries.

I realize this sounds like a bit of contradiction, but bear with me. Clearly, hard military scifi and space fantasy are like oil and water—they don’t go together, and you’re just asking for frustration if you try. Your novel doesn’t need to be all things to all people. Space fantasy fans not only don’t expect detailed exposition on the physics behind the plasma missiles on the ship, they probably don’t want it—and vice versa.

That being said, if you want to address social issues in your hard scifi, go for it. If you want romance in your singularity scifi, don’t be afraid to do so. Cybertech (or lightsabers) in your dystopia? Absolutely.

The vast majority of scifi novels—and even the authors cited above as examples of their genre—defy easy categorization along rigid lines.

So what am I writing? I’m writing space opera above all (in its modern incarnation, not the original cowboy/campy flavor). And you know what?

  • Technological and scientific advances are logical and plausible and their principles are often explained briefly, but this doesn’t make it hard scifi.

  • Military strategizing and space battles occur, but this doesn’t make it military scifi.

  • Themes dealing with the nature of humanity are an important component, but this doesn’t make it sociological scifi.

  • Humans are augmented and cybernetics play a large role, but this doesn’t make it cyberpunk.

  • There is romance, but romance fits in every genre, because it’s a part of every person's life.

You see where I’m going with this. You should have a consistent perspective and approach which clearly shines through, but don’t feel like there are walls on either side of it you dare not breach.

To circle back to the beginning, I love research. In doing research for Starshine I’ve learned about metallurgy and mineralogy, jet fuels and propulsion, military formations and units, timber and forestry, explosives and weaponry, pharmaceuticals (legal and otherwise), signal transmission, marine life, nanotech, glass and optics, and dozens of other topics. I’ve expanded my knowledge of astronomy and computers and taken them in new directions.

But for the most part I no longer engage in the research in order to be able to write essays on each topic, but rather to ensure I choose the correct word and construct an accurate sentence when it matters.

And if I do it right, you’ll never even notice.