by Peter Wood
“Salting the Mine,” my current story in Asimov’s, took a couple dozen revisions over ten years. Asimov’s Editor Sheila Williams liked the 2017 penultimate version, but said it wasn’t “alien” enough.
I can’t argue with that. The first version she saw was basically The Andy Griffith Show in space with the characters wandering around a Mayberry stand-in light-years from Earth. Alien it was not.
But, Asimov’s raised an interesting point. Essentially the magazine said the story wasn’t plausible enough. It hadn’t reached that tipping point where readers could suspend disbelief. You might rightfully ask: Does a speculative story need to be plausible? Well, yeah, it does, but not to the point that the wonder of the tale is gutted.
My story still isn’t exactly believable. The aliens and the faster-than-light drive aren’t feasible, but I think that by correcting the issues raised by Sheila Williams, the story becomes plausible enough.
There is a subgenre of science fiction called mundane science fiction, which advocates only tales that could exist in our current Universe. No aliens. No faster-than-light travel. No time travel. No stories basically outside our Solar System. Only foreseeable reasonable improvements in technology.
I’m not a big fan of mundane science fiction. Under its anal-retentive rules most of the great science fiction just isn’t possible. Take The Martian Chronicles, a literary masterpiece, but complete scientific bullshit. Who’d want to read Bradbury if his characters wandered around a lifeless Mars in space suits instead of a landscape that might as well be 1950 small town Ohio?
Bradbury understood that the characters and setting and plot of any science fiction story need to be plausible in the sense that characters and actions and plot must be logical under the rules of that story’s world. With “Salting the Mine” that meant the story couldn’t take place in Mayberry.
Now, I’m not anti hard science. Andy Weir’s The Martian tells a great story on a realistic Mars. Arthur C. Clarke knew his science. Hell, he invented the geosynchronous satellite. It’s pretty hard to poke holes in Larry Niven’s Ringworld. And, Isaac Asimov effortlessly slipped hard science into his fiction.
But, let’s talk about how a master weaves scientific gobbledy gook into fiction. Harlan Ellison’s short story, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), is one of the best speculative stories ever written. AM, the Allied Master computer that humans foolishly put in charge of the United States’s nuclear arsenal, tortures the five survivors of humanity over a hundred years after the computer destroyed most of the planet. The story (along with “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand,” two Outer Limits episodes) inspired the Terminator franchise. AM has inexplicable God-like powers and can cause biblical plagues and make humans immortal. It is unclear how it caused the nuclear war or what fail safe devices it sidestepped or why the Department of Defense would create a computer that could bend reality.
Is AM plausible? No. The way the characters trapped by him behave is. Their emotions and flaws are very believable, as are those of the computer. Ellison creates an unreal situation and then dumps a bunch of authentic characters there. The story is about them, not how the computer took over. Wise move.
Compare that story to the movie The Forbin Project (1970) where Colossus, a Department of Defense supercomputer, takes over the world by threatening nuclear Armageddon. The movie unwisely focuses on the computer and its power grab, both of which strain credibility. Toss in a good dose of idiot plot where characters continually make the wrong decisions just to keep the plot going and the film becomes cringe-worthy. We might as well be watching a bad horror movie where every decision is made only to keep the characters in the haunted house. I have seen many angry posts on chatrooms about The Forbin Project where military savvy science fiction fans explain in great detail why Colossus could not take over the world.
If a writer does decide to make some thorny issue the focus of a story, that writer better do his homework.
My short stories are not terribly realistic, but I try to have my characters behave like real people. Often I just wing it with the science and try to imagine how people would react if forced to contend with a particular situation. The dimensional mumbo jumbo in Searching for Commander Parsec (Asimov’s, September 2015) or the giant insects in Butterflies (Asimov’s, January 2016) are story devices, but not the focus.
My most researched story has to be In Flight, published by Perihelion Science Fiction in 2015. I envisioned a future where most of the world suddenly developed a crippling fear of flying. I had three pilots review my manuscript, and I made a number of edits based on their suggestions. That was a story I couldn’t fudge. It’s probably my tightest story.
Sometimes a movie or story has inherent plausibility problems that don’t matter, because the writer chooses not to focus on them or explains just enough to where some conceivable explanation might be out there. The original Planet of the Apes (1968) and Terminator (1984) have some pretty hard-to-explain premises, but are plausible enough movies, because they emphasize the characters and make almost no attempt to explain their backstories. The sequels to those movies are overall mediocre (except for Terminator 2 and Escape from the Planet of the Apes) because the writers tried to explain what can’t be explained. The implausibility is front and center.
If the writers don’t make some illogical issue the centerpiece, we can all just focus on the story. Who’d want to watch Star Trek if every episode dug a deeper and deeper hole as the writers tried in vain to explain the warp drive or the transporter? It couldn’t be done. Instead the show showcased the characters. Most good science fiction does.
Let’s face it. If a science fiction writer could devise a realistic time machine or interstellar drive, he’d be a billionaire, not a writer.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 said it best: “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts, just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax.’”
3 thoughts on “Relax, It’s Just a Story”
Interesting and tightly written! I agree.
Excellent analysis – plus the non-science nerds want the story, not the detailed explanation. (Although The Martian does a fine job of both.)
As Bradbury (I believe) once wrote, the story isn’t about the event (tragedy, Utopia, science elements) but about the characters and how they REACT to the event. Good article.
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