Monday, August 1, 2011

Never mind the matter/anti-matter photomultiplier - just give me warp speed!

Mooderino, over at Moody Writing, wrote a great post about being subtle in summarization and backstory. Along the way, this sparked some comments about explaining technology in sci-fi.

My position, certainly for my own writing, is that the technology should be pretty much part of the furniture. Not something that needs a scientific explanation for how it works.

Mood's point, which he clarified further, was that in sci-fi you can get away with rather more infodumping than in other genres.

I'd like to challenge that a bit, and open it up for debate.

The big temptation in sci-fi is to explain things, because it's a neat idea and maybe a clever spin on some scientific theory, and maybe you want to impress other geeks with how clever you are.

If you want folks to stop every few paragraphs in order to pick your explanations apart, then fill yer boots.

If, however, you want people to read and enjoy the story, then I suggest steering clear of anything that gets in the way.

I suggest that a detailed explanation for how a piece of technology works is only required, or even desirable, if the explanation is essential to the story.

Now, remember that how it works is not the same as what it does. The latter is usually important to understand, but can be usually conveyed by showing how technology interacts with the characters.

Here's an example from Ghosts:

Finn took a deep breath and nodded. "Time to pick up her trail." He handed Shayla a thin translucent strip about an inch across and a few inches long. "You know how to use a nose, don't you?"

"Yes, of course." Shayla took the strip and placed it across her eyes. It stuck to her skin and held itself in place. To outward appearances, this might have been nothing more than a fashionable sun visor. Perfectly reasonable in the harsh light up here.

Through the hard but flexible material she could just make out the outline of the path. Her vision cleared when she squeezed the topmost of a row of tiny protrusions at each end of the strip, and a luminous display hovered in her line of sight. Shayla gently fingered the bumps along the edge, tuning the device in to the chemical signature that had been planted on their quarry. This was another secret from the Firenzi materials laboratories, but one which the Insurrection had known about for decades.

"Got it." A hint of fluorescent violet hung in the air in front of Shayla. "Raven managed to plant the tracer OK."

The key point is how the technology is used in the story. There is not a word about how anything works, any more than you'd launch into an explanation of microwave transmission when you place a call on your cellphone.

And here, I suggest, sci-fi should be no more tolerant of infodumps than any other genre. If it's important to the story to understand a piece of technology, then work it in, preferably in a natural and subtle way as Moody so succinctly expressed.

To me, this puts sci-fi technical explanation on a par with, say, understanding political in-fighting in a thriller, or forensic science in a CSI-type story.

And, of course, you'll see I resist the temptation to give technology techno-geeky names. How different this passage would sound if I'd written it like this:

Finn took a deep breath and nodded. "Time to pick up her trail." He handed Shayla a thin translucent strip about an inch across and a few inches long. "You know how to use a micro-fluorescent chemical analyzer, don't you?"

"Yes, of course." Shayla took the strip and placed it across her eyes. "It emits microwave pulses and detects scattered radiation from which it can deduce chemical properties and highlight the presence of a specific compound."

Sorry if this sounds like a bit of a rant, but I think it's stuff like this that gives sci-fi a bad name, and gives the impression that it's only for sad gits in anoracks.

That is a myth I want to bust!


J Andrew Jansen said...

Interesting. Not sure where I come down on this one. Sci-fi (and to a lesser extent fantasy) suffers from the need for "suspension of disbelief".

With sci-fi, if the author tries to throw something at me that is simply unbelievable, I can't continue. I need the author to tell me why I should believe it. I'm pretty willing to accept just about anything, but I need some reason as to why it should work. Faster than light travel? Ok, I'll bite, but you better tell me how you get away with it at some point.

Fantasy writers often fall back on "it's magic!" OK, that's all well and good, but there better be rules to how it works. A "laws of magical thermodynamics", if you will. I make a point of showing what cost the magical power extracts.

Hrm. That could have been a post on my blog!


Botanist said...

Hmmm...some good points, Andrew. Suspension of disbelief is important, so the reader needs a sound reason to want to suspend disbelief. I'll certainly agree there.

In the case of sci-fi, a way-out idea might well require some kind of explanation, and I think that is entirely in keeping with my premise. My rant is against explanation for explanation's sake, and in this case you could have a solid reason for including some explanation because simply keeping your reader reading is a worthy aim.

I say "could", because (a) I reckon there are some established conventions in sci-fi that are well-enough accepted that they may not need an explanation. FTL travel is one of them IMHO. And (b) there are other ways to keep a reader engaged. Foremost is to write such a cracking good story that they'll be way more willing to give you latitude.

In the fantasy realm, I do think some hint of rules is important, if only to establish some limitations on what can be achieved. All-powerful is crushingly dull, after all. But again, a detailed explanation of the laws may not be needed, it might suffice to show how they manifest themselves.

In all the above, I do believe it's a good idea for the writer to have established in his/her own mind how things work. That way, the visible effects can be better portrayed.

Botanist said...

P.S. I guess my views place me firmly at the "soft" end of the genre. Hardcore fans might well beg to differ :D

Cindy said...

I share your opinion about info dumps in Scifi because my type of SF is more character based. I tend to skim too much info, but I will put up with it if the rest of the story is good.

David Batista said...

I love reading hard sci-fi, but unfortunately I'm no scientist so my own work falls in the "soft" category, too. Hey, wait, we're still talking about writing here, right? :)

I absolutely loved your first example, Ian. Wow, we share pretty much the same opinion on this. I, too, believe in not providing overly helpful infodumps for just the sake of explaining something. The "how" behind the technology needs to be teased out, if seen at all.

I guess for that reason my stuff is considered more "adventure" sci-fi--or even "space operish"--than hardcore sci-fi.

And I'm perfectly fine with that. There's a market for it!

Botanist said...

Hi Cindy, I guess that begs the question: if you can skim those parts without losing the story then was the information really important in the first place?

David, I did this little online test a while ago that placed me firmly in the "space opera" category. I, too, am fine with that.

Bazza said...

This is such an important topic in sci-fi (and other) writing.
It is hard for writers to concieve ideas that are more outrageous than those that scientists do! Many of Douglas Adams seemingly daft and impossible ideas were based on real scientific knowledge and some have even come into being within a short space of time since their 'conception'.
However I entirely take your side as shown in your example. To me, it's similar to the notion that a film must be exactly like the book on which it is based; it needs to be a good film first rather than an exact copy of something else.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Anonymous said...

I'm flaky on this one. While I love the geek tech speak, I hate summarization and backstory. The trick is to do it subtly without the reader knowing you're doing it. Ian, I think you do this well in Ghosts.

Laila Knight said...

I agree with not being too specific about technology. For one thing not everyone gets it, and you want your writing to attract a wide range of readers. Not "geeks", VISIONARIES. Too much explaining creates an overkill and shrouds the plot. As a Fantasy writer (and I do toss in a little sci-fi) I find that I have to stop myself from info dump. If I absolutely have to do it then I stick it in short dialogue (no ranting) or make it brief. I liked the first example best. It reveals exactly what we need to know without overdoing it. :) Have you joined the Star Treck Blogfest yet? It looks like it's right up your alley.

Huntress said...

I vote for the don’t-give-me-too-much-detail side. Just get on with the story. Tell me what is happening not how. Say it is a ‘cloaking device’ and leave it at that. I don’t need to know how it works or why just that it hides the sneaky star ship.
Tell me a wizard casts a spell, Superman flies and The Time Traveler returns to his wife. I don’t care how. Because, folks all of it is fiction anyway.
Nope, leave out the nuts and bolts. Just give me the meat.
-visiting from Ellie Garratt’s blog :)-

Botanist said...

Hi Bazza. I loved Douglas Adams, I'm still waiting for science to perfect that instant hangover cure.

Pam, I well know your opinions on anything that gets in the way of the action. Thanks for the compliment - having felt the sting of your critiquing pen it means a lot to me to hear that I'm doing something right :D

Laila, visionaries - much better word I agree. I saw something about that blogfest, but I know how dedicated real Trek fans are and think I'd be a minnow in a pool of sharks.

Hello Huntress, thanks for visiting. I think the fiction I've most admired generally takes that approach too. Unobtanium, anyone?

mooderino said...

Interesting debate (glad to have inspired it). I'd say part of the reason stuff in our world doesn't need explanatin (like cell phones) is because we have used them and know them to work. If you have something in sci-fi that would be impossible in our reality, then how they've got round that in the future or on another planet would be interesting to most readers, i think. Not that you can't get away with not mentioning it, but it helps with grounding your world in reality if you do.

Of course, I'm assuming the thing in question is interesting, as will be the explanation. Hundreds of words of made-up techno jargon isn't going to cut it.

The kind of thing I would point to as a good example would be Asimov's three laws of robotics. Simple, brief and original.


Stefanie J Pristavu said...

I think the way to win here is to make your scifi stuff a natural part of your world - your characters shouldn't treat it as if it's a WOW thing, since they see that stuff everyday. So cleverly inserting everything and acting as if it's supposed to be there gets rid of a lot of explaining, ergo the info dump.

I think you do that nicely, Ian :)

Laila Knight said...

Hi Botanist. If you stop by tomorrow I gave you a Liebster thingy award. It's just a fun way to promote your blog and meet new people. :)

Botanist said...

Ooh, Mood, I think your example may have inspired a whole new post. Asimov's laws are indeed an excellent example, but maybe not quite in the way you meant. I'll have to follow that line of thought through a bit...

Steph, I think the "Wow" factor is a good way to explain it. If it's everyday tech then it should be portrayed as such. Of course, if it really is new and cool in the alternate world then that should come out too!

Wow, thanks Laila, I'll be sure to drop by. Never heard of this award before so I'm now intrigued to find out what it's about.

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