Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I, Robot

Some of the comments on my previous post have sparked more thoughts.

Oooh! Scary!

If you think about it, a lot of the impossible (to science as we know it, anyway) concepts in sci-fi are never really explained.

There's a very good reason for that: if we had a good explanation then it probably wouldn't be science fiction - we'd be doing it!

As a rule, the more far out the idea, the vaguer any "explanation" will be. Something that's close to existing capability will likely be grounded in plausible science with only a slight extrapolation. But faster than light travel, for example, is usually founded on one of a few basic ideas (such as wormholes, or hyperspace) plus a whole load of hand-waving. Did Star Trek ever really explain warp drive? Or phasers? Or transporter beams? Nope. All they did was throw in a few techie-sounding terms to hide the fact that they honestly had no clue how these technologies worked.

And I think my previous post was, amongst other things, a rant against gratuitous hand-waving. Especially that where the sole aim is to make the writer look sciency and clever.

So, on the past post, Mooderino brought up the example of Asimov's three laws of robotics.

I say this is an outstanding example of exactly what I'm trying to illustrate - and not in a bad way.

The way I see it, Asimov's three laws deal exclusively with the real-world effect of the technology, stuff that people around the robots would be aware of and which underpins everything they do. What they don't do is make any attempt to explain how robots work!

In fact, for all its hard sci-fi edge, most of Asimov's robot stories are a fascinating delve into an alternate psychology. The plots revolve around how the three laws interact with the real world in sometimes unforseen ways.

This is 100% in keeping with the theme of my last post: show me how the technology is used, don't blind me with the science of how it works.

In this case, understanding the three laws is fundamental to understanding the story, so they are quoted repeatedly to keep them top of mind. Where I think Asimov strayed a little (Gasp! Heresy!) is when he talks about the robots' positronic brains.

To the world at that time, anti-matter was a cool and happening thing in science. So dropping a term like "positronic" into the text probably sounded a good idea at the time.

But my scientifically-literate mind now wonders why positrons are such a big deal. As far as we know, they are nothing more than electrons with a positive charge, so why would a positronic brain be any better than an electronic one? Apart from sounding marginally cooler. OK, maybe science will uncover some new property of positrons, or some way of using them, that offers real advantages, but until then the term nowadays dates the story.

Worse, I can't think of anywhere in those stories where the positronic nature of robots' brains was in any way important to the story. In other words, the term was dropped in there to no good purpose.

OK, Asimov didn't belabour the point, so although I think he shot himself in the foot I say it was only a flesh wound. But if he'd gone further and tried to dazzle the reader with details of how these brains worked, and how they actually implemented the laws (something I always wondered, knowing how difficult it is to program computers to do anything remotely non-stupid) then I suspect he'd have fallen flat on his face.

Other comments made me realise that my qualms about explanations apply mostly to technology that is well-established in the sci-fi world. There may be good reasons why some sop to intellectual curiosity might be appropriate.

(1) To keep your reader engaged. If the idea is so barking mad that simply dropping it out on the page and expecting your reader to accept it ain't going to fly, then you need something to stem the intellectual gag reflex. That might include some hint of explanation to bring the idea back into the realms of sanity.

(2) The technology is ground-breaking even in your speculative world. So the characters themselves are either going to have a hard time buying it, or be overawed by its sheer awesomeness. Then a bit of preening and showing-off of kick-ass cleverness might be natural.

(3) You may actually be writing for the kind of audience that says "I'm only reading the crummy story to get at all the cool tech stuff." In which case, I guess my only defence is that I'm not that kind of reader, and that is not my audience.


  1. Excellent example, even from an Asimovian heretic.

    And I am completely going to steal the phrase "intellectual gag reflex" and use it in my daily conversations.

    Thanks for more brilliance!


  2. I loved Asimov - he made me love scifi. And then I finished his books and Dune and kinda lost liking for it.

    But good point. And using the WOW factor is indeed a good way to temper your explanation - either there is a wow factor and then the characters explain naturally (you get that in front of new cars!) or there isn't one, and we're moving on to using the actual damn thing. :)

  3. I used the laws of robotics example specifically because it isn't hard science, but exposition of a conceptual type. The thing is if your idea is interesting or original enough I think it allows you to then expand on it, in fact the readers almost demand it.

    I would agree with your three point breakdown of when exposition is acceptable, although I'm not sure which books I would put in no.3.

    Moody Writing

  4. Totally agree that it's better to show how the technology is used,and Star Trek was pretty clear about this, probably why I enjoyed it without being bogged down. I'm wondering most readers know what all the tech stuff it and I'm the only one in the dark. Have a great day! :)

  5. I've been reading and writing more sci-fi, so this discussion was really interesting for me.

  6. " show me how the technology is used, don't blind me with the science of how it works."

    Love this!

  7. Oh dear, after reading this post I just know I'm going to be looking for all the whizz-bang pseudo-science explanations that crop up in the sci fi books I read... It'll be made all the worse by the fact that I only read sci fi horror.

  8. LOL, Andrew, feel free to plagiarise to your heart's content, my friend.

    Steph, I grew up on Asimov and Clarke and other such authors. And I'd like to think you might see some Herbertian influences in my writing. Dune must still be my one all-time favourite sci-fi novel.

    Mood, I can't think of any actual books that might fit that category either. I really just added it before people started saying "this argument sucks, just gimme the tech!"

    Laila, I think there's a whole industry grown up around the world behind Star Trek, with various hypotheses around the technology amongst other things. As far as actually enjoying the programs goes, though, I don't think you're missing out on anything. I got more fun out of guessing which member of the landing party would get killed, and wondering how many of the 400 crew would be left by the end of 5 years :)

  9. Lydia and Donna, thanks for the interest and welcome to the blog. I've got a few stops to make but I'll be sure to hunt down your blogs and see what you're up to.

    Oh dear, Laraqua, I hope I haven't spoiled your reading pleasure. I know how critiquing has made me alert to all sorts of things, so I often have trouble enjoying books these days. *Slinks away with guilty expression*

  10. Admittedly, I don't read much sci fi (okay, I can't even tell you the last sci fi book I read!) but I did like your last point about knowing your audience. I think that's really important, no matter what genre you write.

    You've got a great discussion going on here!

  11. LOL. Excellent rant. "...intellectual gag reflex..." Hee hee.

    I don't actually read Sci-fi, but I do watch a lot of it. Serenity has to be the best movie on the face of the planet--and we used to stay up every night to watch Star Trek reruns. That said, I get lost in the geek of the written word--as in, it kills my attention span. I want explanations that are single liners or never need to be explained because they just are. This same principle applies to all genres I think--the "yeah right" moment. I love the idea of using characters reactions to soften the audiences reaction.

  12. Well, Jennifer, I don't read many thrillers so I guess that makes us even :)

    But for sure knowing your audience is so important whatever the genre.

    Crystal, I think I mentioned that principle in the previous post. Everything that deals with specialities (even in the real world - hospitals, law, espionage) has their own "geek stuff", and the same principles should apply. In fact, I want to cry out "As you know, Bob" every time I see an episode of "Bones" :)


I love comments. Please feel free to join in the discussion.

I also try to respond to comments. I usually do so during the early evening (Pacific time) which may be many hours away from now!

So if you leave a comment and return some time later and I haven't responded yet, please don't think I'm ignoring you. I'm not. Honest.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...