Willing suspension of disbelief and science fiction tropes

Yesterday I posted about the difference, if any, between Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I got some very thoughtful replies.  The majority viewpoint seemed to be that Science Fiction was based on (to quote Katie) “science-based, can-be-illustrated-by-a-proof phenomenon”.

I can accept that viewpoint, but I’m not sure that I agree with it.  I went looking for top lists of Science Fiction books, and while “best” is an incredibly subjective designation, I found one that was based on a broad fan survey.  So this is a list of books that Science Fiction fans voted as the best and I think while there is plenty of room for argument as to what belongs in the list and what doesn’t, it’ll work for illustration purposes.

(The full list is available here)

  1.  Orson Scott Card Ender’s Game
  2. Frank Herbert Dune
  3. Isaac Asimov The Foundation Trilogy
  4. Douglas Adams Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  5. Robert A Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land
  6. George Orwell 1984
  7. Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451
  8. Arthur C Clarke 2001: A Space Odyssey
  9. Philip K Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  10. Isaac Asimov I, Robot
  11. Robert A Heinlein Starship Troopers
  12. William Gibson Neuromancer
  13. Larry Niven Ringworld
  14. Arthur C Clarke Rendezvous With Rama
  15. Dan Simmons Hyperion
  16. H G Wells The Time Machine
  17. Aldous Huxley Brave New World
  18. Arthur C Clarke Childhood’s End
  19. H G Wells The War of the Worlds
  20. Joe Haldeman The Forever War
  21. Robert A Heinlein The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  22. Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles
  23. Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five
  24. Neal Stephenson Snow Crash
  25. Niven & Pournelle The Mote in God’s Eye

There are two books on the top 25 (Hyperion and Snow Crash) that I have not read, but looking at the other 23, I am struck by the fact that the overwhelming majority of them don’t fit the definition of Science Fiction as being based on observable scientific fact.

In fact, by my reckoning, only three of these, Nineteen Eighty Four, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World can be said to be solidly grounded in real world science.  Interestingly enough, those are the three that are considered the most “mainstream”.

All of the others that I have read (as I say, all but two) involve technologies that violate one or more scientific principles as currently understood.  (Judging from the thumbnail descriptions of the ones I haven’t read, I’m sure that at least one of them does as well.)

This is not to say that current understanding of science is exhaustive or unfailingly accurate–there is certainly no reason to believe that what we think we know can’t be wrong.  It has before.

The point is that there are elements in these novels that are quite simply “magic”.  Faster than light travel and self-aware machines, to name two, are no more theoretically possible now than they were fifty years ago when some of these books were written.  However, they are tropes that are repeated so often in Science Fiction that readers are willing to accept them as being based on science.

Other technologies are exaggerated to the point that the cease to be grounded in reality–genetic manipulation, human/machine interfacing, materials manufacturing, social engineering.

Now, I am not saying that any of these things are not possible–I am not going to go on record as saying that anything is definitively impossible–what I am saying is that science doesn’t tell us these things are possible. 

That’s our willing suspension of disbelief.  We want a good story, and so we are willing to pretend that the elements in the story are possible.  And since we need faster than light ships to get us from one fantastic environment to another, we accept them as part of the author’s universe.

We accept starships in the same way that we accept magic portals–they fill the same narrative function of getting characters from one place to another.  One method of transport is not any more “realistic” than another.

Our cultural preconceptions tell us that blinking lights and brushed chrome look more plausible than arcane symbols set in a stone floor, but magic is magic.  You either choose to believe or you don’t.

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About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Willing suspension of disbelief and science fiction tropes

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    For me the boundary has always been based on what a culture can perceive as possible: tell an Aztec about a musket, it is not extrapolated from their experience so it is magic; tell a man about a portable laser gun, it is an unfeasible extension of their experience so is science.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Actually, history records that aboriginal peoples usually pick up on firearms pretty quickly–the concept of projectile weapons is universal, and the idea of a stick that throws a very small stone really fast isn’t much of a reach. But I see your point.

      • Dave Higgins says:

        It appears history has evolved since I last studied the invasion/civilisation/politically loaded act of choice of native cultures; I will need to find a new metaphor.

  2. In my mind, the difference is in the explanation. Science fiction, if not actually based on science, normally attempts to rationalize and explain its magic with “science”. Ansibles used in Ender’s Game are explained in detail (granted in Xenocide) with “scientific” principles behind them. Faster than light travel has a “scientific” explanation (and in the case of Star Trek, a reasonably realistic one if new science is to be believed).

    In fantasy, I feel there’s both a looseness and critical difference in explanation. When it’s attempted, it is normally based on a more personal/spiritual/natural framework. “Science” doesn’t really play a part. Magic is often fickle, and does not follow “laws.” Why can I summon an earthquake on command? Because I communed with the earth spirit, and he felt like giving me some power today. Duh. No sonic impulse cannon required.

    • Katie says:

      First of all, I love this discussion! I honestly had always taken for granted that science fiction is inherently different, though closely related to fantasy, and now Misha is making me use my brain. I like it.

      In response to this comment, this is pretty much my take on it, also.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I see your point, but I think there are some fantasy authors who have made a serious effort to make a magic system that follows definite laws–Tim Powers and Jim Butcher, for example.

      There are also some science fiction works that play awful fast and loose with science. (All of the X-men films, for example.)

  3. L. Marie says:

    Definitely read Snow Crash if you can. I’m sad, however, that none of the books by Connie Willis or Lois McMaster Bujold made the list!

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Actually Connie Willis’s “Doomsday Book” made the list at number 78. Most of these books are older ones–I was kind of surprised that I had read so many of them, since I’ve haven’t read much science fiction that has come out recently. (By which I mean the last 20 years or so.)

  4. Can I just modify something you said: science doesn’t tell us these things are possible. A truer statement would be to say that CURRENT science doesn’t tell us these things are possible. Even so, they still remain theoretically possible. Remember that it was once thought that humans would suffer asphyxiation at speeds above 25mph. Arthur C Clarke is quoted as saying ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology would appear to be magic.’ Science Fiction describes events that may one day come to be possible – even if it involves alternate realities or time travel…subjects which are now theoretically possible under laboratory conditions. You say that only three of the books listed above are based on ‘possible’ science. However;
    Frank Herbert Dune – distant worlds and folding space – possible and theoretically possible.
    Isaac Asimov The Foundation Trilogy – distant colonised worlds – ditto
    Douglas Adams Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – silly, but aliens creatures and faster than light travel? Why not.
    Robert A Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land – Alien life forms on other worlds.
    George Orwell 1984
    Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451
    Arthur C Clarke 2001: A Space Odyssey – space travel using methods that are currently possible (if expensive) and benevolent alien life forms. Why not?
    Philip K Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – artificial intelligence that evolves beyond its initial programming…why not?
    Isaac Asimov I, Robot – see comment above
    Robert A Heinlein Starship Troopers – humans and alien beings fighting over distant worlds. One day…one day.
    William Gibson Neuromancer
    Larry Niven Ringworld – Dyson’s theories on capturing radiated star matter are sound.
    Arthur C Clarke Rendezvous With Rama
    Dan Simmons Hyperion
    H G Wells The Time Machine. Particles can now be seen to exhibit behaviour that can only be explained in temporal-shifting terms
    Aldous Huxley Brave New World
    Arthur C Clarke Childhood’s End – benevolent alien beings again.
    H G Wells The War of the Worlds – possessive alien beings. Why not?
    Joe Haldeman The Forever War
    Robert A Heinlein The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Man on the Moon. Okay, maybe that was a hoax…but one day…one day.
    Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles – Alien beings.
    Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five
    Neal Stephenson Snow Crash
    Niven & Pournelle The Mote in God’s Eye – alien beings.

    Sure – we can’t expect stuff like this to happen immediately – but weren’t Jules Verne and HG Wells scorned for proposing Lunar Travel? 😀
    Look where we are now – iPads, plasma TVs and MP3 players that would not have been created if not for the likes of Star Trek. Give it a century…then see what we have.
    Toynbee out.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I agree that science is always limited, and I’m not saying that any of these things are not possible. However, they aren’t inherently more possible than elves, orcs and dragons. The point that I am trying to make is that once one leaves the real, all directions are open. Calling something “science fiction” doesn’t make it any more realistic or plausible than calling it “fantasy”.

  5. I’m not a science guy, so when I read science fiction, I ignore all the jargon and explanations (which may or may not be B.S. anyway) All that leaves is the story and characterization (and all the other stuff that makes a good story in any genre).

  6. Pingback: My Top 13 Posts Of 2013 | mishaburnett

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