A few blogs ago I began talking about science in science fiction. My three levels of science "hardness" are as follows:
Last blog I argued that Hard Sci-Fi is still imaginative. Today's category--Imaginative Sci-Fi--is interesting because it is the classification under which I would say most of our favorite sci-fi stories fit.
Mr. La Forge, You're Waving Your Hands Again...
What do I mean by "imaginative" sci-fi? Isn't it all imaginative?
What I mean by "imaginative" is in contrast to the "hardness" of Hard Sci-Fi. The imagination in this case goes wild with the science of the story in question.
But not too crazy.
The folks at Writing Excuses (a creative writing blog that I HIGHLY recommend for any spec fic writer) tacked this term to the practice: handwavium. Listen to the podcast below for a fuller discussion (9.8, "When Is Your Handwavium not Good Enough?" Feb. 23, 2014)
Urban Dictionary defines handwavium thusly:
a term used when a science fiction writer "waves his hands" at reality and hard science for the sake of the plot. Refers to all unrealistic or impossible technology, such as faster-than-light travel, teleportation, artificial gravity, etc.
Handwavium is extensively used in movies, more so than in literature, due to the need to mass market movies to a scientifically ignorant public and because filming realistic space travel is relatively expensive.
- Technobabble: Prime example--Star Trek: TNG. Here's a video with some notable examples of its use of jargon and scientific words to cover up the implausibility of particular story concepts. Warp fields, subspace, space-time distortions--all of these are imaginative inventions by the writers to create an illusion of plausibility where little-to-none actually exists.
The excellent game design writers at Extra Credits did a great video explaining technobabble and its strengths and weaknesses for the prospective writer.
Interestingly, the video also offers an alternative taxonomy (science fiction/future fantasy). For our purposes, their "Science Fiction" category is our "Imaginative Sci-Fi" category.
The other type of handwavium is mentioned in the video, too.
- Explanation Avoidance: According to the video above, the suspension of disbelief is stronger when the rules of the fictional universe remain more or less unexplained. This avoids revealing your lack of scientific knowledge, but can also strengthen the reader's engagement. If the characters in your story don't question the technology, why should the reader?
Haters Gonna Hate
If you watched the Extra Credits video, you probably also noticed that there was a clear bias against stories that upend science. The very word "technobabble" has a negative connotation. If it's "babble," it's bad, right? "This joker doesn't know anything about [insert scientific theory here]!"
As I mentioned in the blog about Hard Sci-Fi, there are a lot of people out there (readers/gamers/etc.) who believe that the hard stuff is the best stuff. Anything that eschews real science is sub-par. And really, there's not a whole lot you can say to such people.
While any story can become tedious and just plain lame (like if it focuses unduly on its technology/magic/etc.), what is important is that the technology and scientific accuracy of the story should accommodate what the author is trying to argue. Remember how all fiction is an argument?
I love how my creative writing teacher put it this past semester: "What's the engine of this story?"
The hardness of [spec fic] is, in reality, whatever way the author subordinates certain elements in order to highlight others. For writers of Imaginative Sci-fi, the science is just less important than the human/relational/societal/psychological elements.
More to the point: Is it an external conflict, or something internal? Ideally, it should be both. Which means that science/technology and complex human characters/relationships have a place in the best speculative fiction! The "hardness" of the story, practically speaking, is whatever way the author subordinates certain elements in order to highlight others. For writers of Imaginative Sci-Fi, the science is just less important than the human/relational/societal elements.
I asked at the beginning if Imaginative Science Fiction is the best form of spec fic. In my opinion, it's certainly the most versatile because it loosens the knot that ties some Hard Sci-Fi down. It allows for the implausible in order to explore the subtle realities of the world to which we return after putting down the book, the controller, the e-reader.
Just look at the most popular speculative fiction movies, TV shows, and books over the last century. I bet that most of them will fall into this category.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments or on the Facebook page.
Which brings us to the infographic! In researching this series of blogs, I decided it would be helpful to have a visual that could sum up what we've been talking about. Here's the piece for Imaginative Science Fiction, with some examples of books, TV shows/movies, and video games.
Do you have other examples not on the list? Tell me in the comments or on theFacebook page. And if you haven't yet "liked" it, go there and "like" it right now.
Click the infographic to view it full size.
You may download and share it, but please acknowledge that Jedd Cole/Electric Didact is the author.
Jedd Cole is a professional writer and author of short speculative fiction. He resides in Ohio where he is completing a degree in Rhetoric & Professional Writing, crafting short stories in every time-nook he can find, all while frequenting the pages of imaginary worlds with his wonderful wife, Heather, and no pets. None.