Day by Day Daily Cartoon by Chris Muir

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The best kind of fiction

When you read a book, you generally want some form of escapism. I mean, can you imagine reading a book that details what you do on a daily basis all over again? Only if explosions or a torrid affair came about in that book would you read it, I imagine.

Which is why some people favour F&SF. It is, after all, no sillier than Mills and Boon, and it is generally nice to fantasise about riding a dragon, or traversing whole parsecs in seconds. At some point in any kind of fiction genre, however, the suspension of disbelief suddenly fails, and the unreality of it all becomes all too apparent.

It can be a fine line to toe, and really, at what point does it stop being escapism and start becoming a Wallbanger? Well, I argue that the line is in human experience and human nature. That is to say, if you set out to change anything or everything else, you must maintain realism in human nature, and if you set out to change human nature, everything else must remain realistic. And of course, if you're not writing about humans at all, then you had better stick to very well-known tropes.

Take for instance one of the worst pieces of tripe ever written in SF-dom, in my experience. I won't give you the title, that's how disgusted I am with it, but essentially the whole plot revolves around space travel that is precisely calculated to the erg, so much so that any unplanned factor (such as a stowaway, say) would make that travel trip an utter failure, and must be dealt with as swiftly as possible to return to the planned numbers. Surprise, surprise, on one of these rescue mission trips, the pilot discovers a stowaway who didn't know the rules and just wanted to go see her brother. The pathos, and indeed the whole thrust of the story revolved around the harshness of the rules, so she had to be jettisoned to save everybody else...

... and while emotionally tearing (which is one of the reasons I don't like it), it's also headbangingly unrealistic. In any day and age, but especially one involving space travel, for goodness' sake. I mean, think about it. Any engineer worth his salt will tell you that in order to build a bridge meant for 2-ton trucks, you first design a bridge that can withstand 10-ton trucks. Generally, you do that because you cannot predict how long your bridge has to last, or what kind of stresses it will undergo, or what will happen to the bridge in the future. Fudge factors and safety calculations like this are second nature to any engineer - and that's just to build bridges! Can you imagine the kind of fudge factors that would be built into something as dangerous and as hostile to human life as interplanetary travel?

Think about it for a moment. Think about the amount of money that was poured into making Man go to the moon. Think about Mission Control. Think about the ridiculous level of training astronauts go through even *today*. Or take more mundane, more run-of-the-mill examples. Think about air travel. How much effort goes into safety and security (whether they work or not is immaterial). How much goes into ensuring that even in the worst case scenario (engines blow up or shut down cold), the airplane can still function as a glider. How much sheer thought and engineering went into it, and the enormous fudge factors used in planning fuel requirements for any flight - including RESERVE fuel! And you want us to believe that all of this was thrown away the instant we met something as inherently unnatural as microgravity and outer space?

The artist behind Schlock's Mercenaries describes this as "the big lie and the little lie". If you want us to swallow the big lie (i.e. space travel), you need to ensure you don't tell the little lie (no fudge factors in engineering).

The author of that short story I mentioned above did not follow this maxim. It spoiled the story for me.