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Believability in Science Fiction is a Myth

This is a reproduction of a guest blog post for ReadingCafe on Dec 5, 2021.

Much has been written about believability in science fiction. We live in an age where everyone writes and publishes and there is no more gatekeeper to the digital world than a keyboard and momentary inspiration. There was nothing new under the sun long before the internet, and now a million people prove it every day. We live in the golden age of the derivative. So perhaps it’s time to dispel of one great myth about good speculative fiction–that it has to be believable. It does not and, honestly, I can think of nothing less interesting.

Speculative fiction traditionally comprises science fiction, fantasy and horror, and perhaps magical realism. All fiction is, in some sense a lie; you’re telling a story about something that never happened, never will happen, and probably couldn’t happen. With speculative fiction, the lie is bigger; in science fiction, you might have to accept that spaceships might someday span the vast space between stars; in fantasy, that elves exist and are magical; and, in horror, that monsters might be real.

What makes us read these deceptively woven threads of impossibility is not that they’re believable, but that we want to escape to a world that is far from this world–another place that does not exist, where different rules apply, and we can run through fields of man-eating plants as werewolves howl at the twin moons in dismay and confusion and alien satellites burn across the darkling sky. It is not believability we want, but a lie told with elegance and respect for our intelligence so that we feel transported rather than merely deceived.

This is pretty obvious if you think about it. No one watches Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien or even Arrival because they believe they’re based on scientific reality. The Force is just magic by another name, beaming is suicide combined with impossibility introduced for budgetary reasons (and don’t get me started on Tricorders), the face-eating alien might as well be a demon for all the logic of its behavior and  indestructibility, and a language for time travel? Wondrous. Glorious.  But as far from believability as feldspar is from gold. Also…spoilers?

Even if you read Hail Mary and love the hard-science wrappings, Mark Watney v2.0 is still flying around in a spaceship discovering new civilizations and saving them by being Space MacGyver. It’s cool, compelling, smart and fun reading. But believable? Not so much, and it doesn’t have to be because it’s brilliantly true-to-expectations. Which is more than good enough.

And that is really the truth of good speculative fiction; it delivers on readers’ expectations as framed by the genre and the promise made on the book cover and blurb. In the case of science fiction, this means a well-constructed world or universe based on at least passingly explained technology wherein characters behave in a manner consistent with that world. In other words, it’s not believability we seek, but consistency, credibility and wonder. Nothing is really explained in Annihilation, and who cares? It’s a wild freakin’ ride.

If you read hard science fiction, credibility is based on detailed explanations of technology and how it applies to the world occupied by our main characters (e.g., The Martian or Jurassic Park). In softer science fiction, it’s about the feel of a world defined by new but less laboriously explained technologies (e.g., Star Trek or The Broken Earth).

For sub-genres, credibility depends on more specific expectations. In time travel books, you’d better explain how traveling through time is possible and make at least a passing nod to paradoxes (e.g., Looper). For space opera, there needs to be vast political intrigue constrained by the limitations of future technologies (e.g., Foundation, A Memory Called Empire or The Interdepency). When you hear the term “true to genre,” it’s not about writing a formulaic novel by a set of rigid rules; it’s about delivering the reader what they expected, or close enough to feel you’re respecting their needs as a sentient human being. Or, and this is a rare thing, subverting those expectations with such grace and brilliance the reader is grateful for the ride (e.g., most Cormac McCarthy books, but especially No Country for Old Men or The Road).

If you look at the best science fiction of the past and today (The Time Machine, Frankenstein, Stranger in a Strange Land, Foundation, Childhood’s End, Dune, Ringworld, Broken Earth, Annihilation, etc.), literally none of it is even close to believable–it would be boring if it was–but it’s compelling, internally consistent and tells a great story. Credibility is a measure of how well you draw the reader in and keep them there, not whether you can explain how genetic engineering works in Blade Runner (hint: it makes no damn sense…and almost no one cares).

So stop trying to make your books believable. Instead, ask yourself what the reader expects, think of them as intelligent beings looking for escape and enlightenment, and then write a book that shows them respect, gives them joy, and every once in a while causes an exclamation of surprise or bark of laughter. Preferably both. If you do this with a compelling world and empathetic characters, you’re already delivering more than most speculative fiction today.

With regard to respecting your audience, nothing, and I mean nothing, will destroy your reader’s confidence in your world and writing more than inconsistency or blatant disrespect. Game of Thrones was never believable even as fantasy, but it was hella compelling as a TV series until the showrunners forgot about the rules of the universe–and the very spirit of George RR Martin’s books–and drove the show off a cliff. In contrast, The Expanse is (so far) consistent, the characters are real-ish people, and I’ve never once felt forced to swallow something absurd or ignore a glaring plot hole. Fingers crossed for the last book and season six (Please don’t screw it up. Please don’t screw it up. Please don’t screw it up). GoT lost its fans by the millions because HBO stopped caring about the story, and started caring more  about how to suck money out of its nominally captive audience. So, you know, don’t do that.

Instead, write for the smart and curious child inside every reader that wants to escape to an incredible new world for a few minutes or hours, learn something new, imagine things never before seen, and generally not care whether it’s all believable or not. I don’t believe the sand worms in Dune are even vaguely plausible, but god I love that they exist on the page and in my mind. I’ll be forever grateful for that.

And my only hope is that sometimes I write well enough to make a few readers feel this same joy and gratitude for even a fleeting second of the time they’ve given me. When I wrote Beasts of Sonara, it never once occurred to me to that it should be realistic or believable. These things can’t happen. The world just doesn’t work like that. But wouldn’t it be awesome if it did?

This is a reproduction of a guest blog post for ReadingCafe on Dec 5, 2021.


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