“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
-Arthur C Clarke
Have you ever read a story or watched a movie that was so outlandish it made you shout out corrections? I’m talking full-on 1950s, UFO-on-a-string, space-air-seeping-in-so-activate-space-goggles ridiculousness. Nothing makes sense, and so what was intended to be a serious moment plays as comedy.
Even worse is what happens when we come across impossibilities treated as reality in amateur works. This ranges from bad science to unrealistic relationships to Mary Sues. We don’t just laugh. We rip people apart.
However, I would argue that unscientific star drek isn’t always bad. It’s inaccurate, but it’s not bad in terms of entertainment. Step back for a moment and ask yourself what the point of fanfics and pop sci-fi and so on actually is. These things are for entertainment. It’s okay if they break a few rules. While I expect a fictional story to maintain its in-world consistency, I do not demand that it obeys real world laws. Finding errors in a sci-fi movie is not the same as finding errors in a science textbook. Science fiction is FICTION. It’s okay for a few facts here and there to be conveniently ignored for the sake of the story. And yet, we still hold sci-fi to a higher standard than other literary genres. We expect it to be science rather than free-form asking “what if?”
This is why the fantasy genre can be a lot more interesting than sci-fi – because the author has more freedom. The fantasy audience doesn’t care where the magic comes from or why it works the way it does. It’s enough to accept the in-universe rules of magic. Sci-fi, on the other hand, gets grilled a lot more because it’s allegedly real. We know it’s not real, but we treat it as though the author meant it to be.
Perhaps this is because the original science fiction was meant to be realistic speculation. Jules Verne, for example, drew from what was known at the time and wrote how-to guides for journeying into the unknown. That was meant to be real, whereas fantasy was always fantasy. One would hope that the genre-savvy audience can tell the difference between speculative fiction and the cowboys-in-space genre that sci-fi has become. The pop sci-fi of today falls apart when examined too closely.
Take, for example, time travel. Who doesn’t love a good time travel story? However, “time travel” is always explained either by meaningless technobabble or by “the characters get in their time machine; no further questions, please.” Either is okay, because the point is to get on with the story. If you took the time to actually explain how time travel works, for one thing, it would get boring. For another… how does time travel work in real life?
It doesn’t! At least, not yet, and not in the way we expect it to for an adventure story. There is no logical reason to believe that putting a fish in your ear makes you a language expert, but that’s not nearly as big a problem as having all your characters unable to communicate with one another. I have trouble writing sci-fi because anything I think of is either too implausible to be accepted by a scientific-minded audience, or it’s so plausible that the darn thing exists already. I can explain how a toaster works, but no one wants to read about a toaster. What if it was a magical toaster that could tell the future, burning cryptic runes into your morning whole grain fare? That’d be a good story, but it requires the audience to accept the inner workings behind it as though they were true. It’s called suspension of disbelief, and it’s perfectly acceptable. Save your critical thinking for when you watch the news. Enjoy your toast.