The Logical Structure Of Science Fiction

I write science fiction.  I also read science fiction—the two go hand-in-hand.  Most of the sci-fi I read has been published by well-known publishing houses, and is reasonably good, though it can vary from very good to mediocre.  But what I want to talk about in this post is one of the things that helps makes science fiction really good, that is, the concept of reasonableness.

In science fiction, the author has to create a fictional world that exists somewhere and in some time.  Some science fiction takes place here on Earth, and while the basic world elements may be that of the everyday Earth we know, there will usually be items that are unfamiliar to us.  Think, for example, about a Star Trek phaser here on Earth.  That one element sets the stage for the science fiction of the story.  Many sci-fi stories take place in wholly fictitious worlds way away from our solar system.  For example, the Star Wars universe.  Any author of these types of sci-fi stories has to make the reader believe he exists totally within this artificial society.  He has to bring the reader into some world the reader isn’t normally a part of.  That’s not easy to do, to which I can attest.

What holds these fictitious worlds together is the concept of reasonableness.  Any artificial world has to adhere to the rules of reason and sensibleness.  It has to be tenable and believable, and consistent and credible.  Such a world doesn’t have to adhere to the logic of our world, but the structure of the world has to be believable.  The real difficulty comes in the details.  It’s always tricky for those of us who try to make up fictitious worlds to keep all the details straight.  (I hope I’ve done that in my books, but we won’t know until they’ve been published, will we?).  Even the best sci-fi writers make mistakes.  One of the biggest false steps in sci-fi that I’m familiar with was the character of Duke Leto in Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Herbert did a magnificent job creating the planet Dune, not to mention the substantial cast of characters who inhabit it.  My copy of the book calls it “The bestselling SF adventure of all time!”  That’s probably true.  He almost certainly had to take a lot of time and care to make the planet and people work together.  But there was one situation which I’ve always wondered about.  The Duke is captured by the bad guys, the Harkonnens, and he commits suicide by crunching down on a tooth in his mouth that contains a poison.  Sounds reasonable until you look at it more closely.  How could anyone live with such a tooth?  Always afraid that with one bad crunch, on a stray piece of walnut shell, say, or a popcorn kernel that didn’t pop, that you’d kill yourself completely inadvertently.  That might tend to ruin your day.  So, even the best SF writer can slip up every now and then.  That just goes to show how tricky it can be to get everything right in a wholly made-up world.

Anybody want to give SF a try?  Be careful.

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