Breaking the law: How fantastic is too far?

by Richard Watson

Breaking the law: How fantastical is too far?
September 20, 2019 Richard Watson

Good stories invoke and involve the imagination of the audience. Whether we prefer magic, futuristic technology or the impossible and inexplicable power of something that came from the shadows, ultimately we, as readers, are accepting the narrative of the writer and escaping the real world to envisage the scenes of their fiction.

In order for the reader to maintain a suspension of disbelief, writers and designers behind fictional universes face many hurdles. In science fiction, one of the most important challenges is determining how things work. Often, this follows the Asimov method, with scientific rationalisation based on existing science and some ‘pseudoscience’ added on top. However, not everyone is a professional physicist before they start creating science fiction. Some decide to go a different way and blend in a little magic or a dose of the supernatural. This is called ‘science fantasy’.

How far is too far with mixing in the fantastic can be a subjective judgement call. After all, we are dealing with a varying threshold of an individual consumer’s escapism. What jars one person out of the story can be different than what another is happy to accept. For writers and designers, it can be a little harder to judge where the border is, particularly when dealing with prior knowledge their audience may bring to their reading or viewing experience.

As a trained scientist, I often find myself annoyed by knowing too much: ‘flux capacitor’ may be meaningless enough to a lay-person that it sounds right to power a time-travelling DeLorean, but to me, it’s a nonsensical mashup of unrelated jargon. The illusion is shattered (note: this doesn’t mean I disliked Back to the Future, only that I was the one jerk pointing out the problems with it).

It’s worth noting that this debate has been part of Science Fiction for decades. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law — ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ — has always been a rationale for writers and designers to make imaginative leaps when considering what might be possible in the future. For some this is made a bit more palatable when these leaps are rationalised as ‘novums’ — a term coined by renowned theorist Darko Suvin in 1979. 

When relevant consultants are brought aboard a project, whether they be physicists, biologists or other specialists, the scientific basis for given premises is strengthened, meaning the pseudoscientific ‘leap’ or novum is based on established theories and the resulting story can be plausible for more people. Advice from an expert in the field you’re breaking the rules in can help you lie believably.

There is also an issue of trying to identify the border between science fiction and science fantasy. Few physicists took issue with Star Wars (except Neil deGrasse Tyson), because the franchise announces itself right from the start as being far from our reality — “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. Star Wars is clearly planted firmly in the science fantasy genre. The Force, lightsabres, and the Death Star are obviously ludicrous concepts, but we don’t mind. So why is it that so many people took issue with that one scene in the 2013 film, Gravity (spoilers ahead), where George Clooney is tragically ejected into space as the protagonists attempt to reach a space station?

The answer comes from the comparison. The premise of Gravity requires it to be real, or as close to our reality as possible. That association is part of its narrative. That means flaws in the premise also invoke greater criticism and a sharper focus on how its story works. 

So, people don’t complain about Star Wars, because when it started, they jumped to ‘long ago’ and ‘far, far away’ — the film never tried to present itself as realistic. That illusion never even began. However, when Gravity bumped off George Clooney, it was a jarring shift from a movie attempting realism throughout its narrative, to breaking one of the most fundamental laws of physics. Of course, this was an issue primarily pointed out by scientists, and those unfamiliar with the behaviour of objects in a vacuum may not have even noticed. 

Here’s a good parallel explanation. Remember those skin-crawling ‘realistic’ renders of Mario from the early 2000s? Despite the fact that those images were ‘more realistic’ than a collection of pixels, they were terrifying. Yet, when we watch an episode of The Simpsons, we don’t feel the same feeling — despite the fact that they have butter-yellow skin and weird bulging eyes. This is the ‘uncanny valley’, a measurement of where we draw the line in visual character representation between unreal acceptable, real/unreal repulsive, and real. The human mind is comfortable with either extreme of the realism scale. Hyper-realistic graphics of modern video games, such as 2018’s God of War, are okay. Absurdly unrealistic animations are okay. Somewhere on the spectrum between those two is an area of unnerving similarity.

It seems hard to place a firm border on when a story leaves science fiction and becomes science fantasy. When a work seems like it could be either, the only real way for a screenwriter or game developer to tell where they are on that scale is to simply test their work and see how it feels to audiences; there is no mathematical or scientific gauge of whether something is uncomfortable or unbelievable. However, the best books, games and films seem to get it right by establishing a few key assumptions ‘like dragons exist’ or ‘time travel is possible’ and then building internally-consistent worlds from there.

The level of attention to detail is important here. It’s easy to tell how much research has been put into something in a science fiction story. The video game Elite Dangerous’ ‘frame shift drive’ is a nice example. As a physicist, faster-than-light travel is a very tricky concept to tackle; it’s widely considered impossible, but much of science fiction rests on it as a premise. 

In this case, even the name of the novum was clearly chosen carefully. ‘Frame shift drive’ is an obvious reference to the theories of relativity, closely intertwined with the universal speed limit. Further investigation into the game’s lore reveals references to the Alcubierre Drive, a real theoretical method of faster-than-light travel. Not only have the developers satisfied the killjoys like me, but also the casual player who simply wants to blow up some spaceships. The balance has been well struck.

The video game series Fallout achieves the rare goal of successfully mixing plausibility and fantasy, and coming out with an enjoyable result. The odd mixture of black-and-white television, nuclear-powered cars, and domestic robot servants is entirely acceptable in the world the developers have created because it’s internally consistent. The combination of the Cold War never really having ended with the transistor never being invented means that, when you look closely, a lot of the games’ world and its odd mix of technology actually makes sense. Radiation-diseased zombified humans? Sure, there are plausible avenues time could go down to give rise to that. Massive glowing mutated bipedal lizards? Fantastical, but fun.