[process] Believing one impossible thing before breakfast

I’m working on critiques for an upcoming workshop at which I am pro’ing. A couple of times in the course of reading these manuscripts I’ve been moved to make an observation that I’ve heard before in genre fiction circles, but honestly don’t recall the source of. Basically, this:

When writing SF/F, you get one impossible thing for free. Everything else you have to earn.

Put another way, you can’t make everything up. Generally speaking, stories have to have enough grounding in the naturalistic world for the reader to relate to them. (There are of course always brilliant exceptions to this and every other rule of writing, but they’re damned tough to pull off.) Likewise, if you’re going to ask the reader to swallow something huge and improbable, a bunch of sweet reason can help it go down.

It’s clear enough this rule isn’t literally true. Plenty of science fiction comes with FTL travel, strong AI and teleporters all at the same time, for example. But in a sense, those are all one thing. Say, the starship Enterprise.

But if you want the full starship package and vampires for the crew, you’d better make me believe in what you’re doing. Because I can buy the starship thing. That’s one of our tropes, what Gardner Dozois calls “the furniture of science fiction”. And I can buy the vampire thing if you’re writing urban fantasy or horror.

But vampires in space is a real (if interesting) stretch. I mean, what about that whole sunlight thing? (And for that matter, what happens to werewolves who go on a lunar expedition?) Vampires on a starship… Now you’ve added too many impossible things. Unless of course you’ve earned it within the story through world building or character or plot.

The other end of this phenomenon is what John Scalzi calls “The Flying Snowman“, where the impossibilities are all being accepted until the suspension of disbelief is shattered by something that goes too far over the top. I believe this is just the same principle written from the opposite direction.

So, yeah. You get one impossible thing for free. That comes on credit from me, the reader. Everything after that had better make sense, at least within the internal consistency of the story being told.

4 thoughts on “[process] Believing one impossible thing before breakfast

  1. True. And the worst way to make this mistake is to hold off on the second magical premise until late in the book. I read a novel a while back that included mysterious stones that emitted an odd form of energy. When, about 2/3 through, one of the main characters also turned out to have ESP, I threw the book into the fire. (Not literally — it was June — but close enough.)

  2. Elizabeth Moon says:

    I don’t do vampires, but…you just about proved that vampires on a spaceship could work. No sunlight IN the ship,if it’s built that way–more structurally sound, probably, w/o portholes. Vampires reputedly don’t need to feed that often, and can use artificial blood; no need to provide a varied diet with balanced nutrients, as for a live human crew. They never get tired of blood. And they reputedly “live,” if that’s the word, long enough for the spaceship to reach more distant destinations. No need for generation spaceships with hospital sections so generations can be born. Hmmm. (Sorry–you caught the writer-mind after a moment of stress and the gears may have slipped.)

  3. Cora says:

    Things like FTL, teleportation, ESP, strongs AIs, etc… are part of the genre furniture by now and therefore easier to accept for the experienced SF reader. But vampires, werewolves, demons, etc… belong to the furniture of another genre. Doesn’t mean you can’t use them, but you have to explain them. Luckily, urban fantasy has stretched the boundaries of how vampires and werewolves work, so you can have werewolves not affected by the moon (which means you can send them on a moon mission) or vampires not affected by sunlight without raising too many eyebrows. You still have to explain though.

    Actually, most occurrences of vampires and werewolves or angels, demons, etc… in SF are usually explained as either some kind of genetic modification or some kind of alien species very much like a traditional vampire or werewolf. Most of the time, this works for me. Simon Green actually has vampires, werewolves and zombies plus all sorts of other things requiring suspension of disbelief in his Deathstalker series and it works most of the time. Oddly enough, the thing that did stretch my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point was the appearance of Santa Claus or rather a guy in a Santa Claus costume.

  4. David Ivory says:

    Vampires in Space? = Blindsight by Peter Watts

    Though it was peripheral to the main story – boy was that guy scary.


    If you’ve not read the book then the presentation may contain spoilers.

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