Thursday, May 30, 2013
Today’s blog is both dedicated and offered as an apology to Solara, whose post on Shapeshifter Seductions sparked these musings. Brief recap: she wrote the opening scene of an SF-flavored romance, set on another planet. I grew up reading SF, so I was good with that. What threw me off was what I perceived as a misuse of the term “light year.” A light year is a measure of distance, not time. Same for a parsec. Everybody catch that gaffe in Star Wars? George Lucas, shame on you.
Let’s consider this for a moment. Here’s a story set on an alien planet, one that just happens to have an atmosphere, gravity and, I would assume, foodstuffs capable of supporting human life. And I was willing to accept all that. After all, given the billions and billions (hi, Mr. Sagan!) of stars in our galaxy alone, not to mention the universe, there’s got to be a few with orbiting planets, and at least one planet out there where human colonists could set up shop. So yeah, I’ll swallow the basic premise. Just don’t fiddle with the light years.
I myself have written stories set on alien worlds, and others starring vampires and all sorts of werebeasts. Nobody’s ever yelled at me for it, at least not to my face. Of course none of those beasties exist in real life, but nobody seems to mind. Put a poodle in your story, however, and have that poodle shed on the sofa, and you will get letters. Trust me.
What’s this all about? It’s called the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s the human tendency to willingly turn off our brains and accept what the storyteller’s feeding us, for the sake of entertainment. You can see this phenomenon in full force at any big-budget action movie in any theater over the summer. Plot holes, lapses in logic, inconsistent characterization, we’ll swallow it all, because to do otherwise would wreck our enjoyment, and we paid good bucks for this.
What we won’t swallow is flat-out inaccuracy. It throws us right out of the story, and that really pisses us off.
Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine, to the early days of the 20th century. It’s 1933, and paying customers are running in a panic out of the local movie theater because King Kong just snapped his chains and is running amuck. They believed in the big monkey. Why? Because they could see him on screen, right in front of them, and because he behaved like a monkey, just, well, bigger. Nobody had ever seen a 50-foot gorilla. However, they had seen monkeys at the zoo. People know what monkeys act like. If Kong had acted contrary to what people knew, they would have been laughing and booing, not screaming.
Speaking of apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs was constantly playing fast and loose with science during his prolific career. He set stories on Mars and Venus and created an entire world, Pellucidar, at the earth’s core. The species of apes that raised Tarzan never existed in nature. (Disney fixed this in their version by making them gorillas. But then, Disney set their movie in a magical Africa that had no humans whatsoever until the white folks showed up. At least Burroughs acknowledged the existence of indigenous peoples in his Africa, inaccurate though it was.)
Burroughs was able to get away with this because at the time knowledge of Africa was sketchy at best, and hard facts about the planets even more so. Besides, readers wanted to believe there were giant monsters and half-naked women running around on Mars and Venus and at the center of the earth. But even Eddie ran afoul of known fact. In his writer’s zeal he put tigers in Africa. Tigers don’t and have never lived in Africa. Somebody, I’m betting lots of somebodies, quickly pointed this out to him. And that’s why Tarzan battles Sabor the Lioness and not Sabor the Tiger in the paperback editions.
Strides in knowledge put the kibosh on a lot of science fiction. By the time Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles in the 1950s, we all knew it was fantasy and read it as such. Swashbucklers set on Venus or Jupiter were pretty much kaput. By then we knew they couldn’t support human life, or any life at all. Stories set on Mars or the Moon stayed true to current scientific knowledge. The adventure stories moved out of our now-boring solar system and over to distant, made-up worlds where you could still get away with breathable atmospheres and fighting giant bugs with swords. People still read them, too.
The point is, we the readers will put up with the most fantastical shit you can imagine in a story, as long as it doesn’t violate what we already know. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. You can have Conan the Barbarian lopping the heads off hundred-foot monster snakes, but don’t describe him as wielding a 50-pound broadsword. Even Conan’s not that strong. His arm would fall off. You can have a werewolf in your story, but if he complains about his pet poodle shedding all over the rug, you’ve just lost your readers. Poodles are one of those breeds that don’t shed; that’s why they have to get clipped on a regular basis. Every poodle owner who reads your book will point this out to you. They probably won’t buy your other books, either.
And above all, don’t use “light year” as a measure of time, because it makes people like me write blogs. On the other hand, it gave me a topic this week, so I suppose I should say thanks.
In other words, write your fantasy story, but make sure it sounds real. Yeah, I know. Writing is a strange profession.