How Realistic Should Sci-Fi Be?

One of my Facebook groups always asks — when they aren’t fighting about the original versus the reboot — how something could have occurred In-Universe. The answer is usually because the writers didn’t understand how science works and didn’t devote a lot of time to World Building or consistency. But it does raise a good question.

If you google “How Realistic Should Sci-Fi Be?” you’ll find a lot of thinky-thoughts on this subject matter and I’m gonna try to define mine.

Not surprisingly, there really isn’t a consensus on how realistic Science Fiction needs to be. Some people feel that as long as the story is good, they are willing to ignore glaring plot holes and even conflicting information.

“The amount of ‘suspension of disbelief’ I give must be proportional to the amount of entertainment the artist is providing.”

Others feel that there should be some stricter following of the Laws of Physics and other sciences.

“I don’t like modern scifi that has interstellar travel that doesn’t take decades or centuries. I just don’t think it possible and it strains my ability to enjoy it if the book has things like traveling between solar systems in hours or days or, even more annoying to me, the ability to communicate across light years in real time.

Others just want things to be consistent.

“Having FTL is fine. Having FTL which isn’t entirely understood is fine. Having FTL which is supposedly entirely understood, has hard rules on exactly when it can be used, and then breaking those rules Because Plot is… Less fine.

Likewise, having the rules change (especially in significant ways) without anyone inside the story even noticing is not fine. Yes, we get it, you backed yourself into a corner. But we the readers/watchers dislike wondering if we misremembered key things about your universe.”

Growing up, I ingested a lot of science fiction through books, movies, and TV shows. In my early years, there wasn’t always a lot of World Building, as I mentioned earlier. Most TV shows didn’t know if they would be picked up for an entire season and many movies are based on a book that someone wrote as an existential metaphor on the human condition. Finally, a lot of the stuff I read were short stories that don’t have time to waste on explaining things; you just accept that aliens developed laser pistols similar to our guns.

One of my favorites is Logan’s Run, both the Movie and to a lesser extent the TV Show spin-off. I’ve started rewatching it and I see a glaring plothole in the first five minutes. If people cannot survive outside the City of Domes, and the Runners escape to find Sanctuary, why not just let them? Either they die or they survive, but the end result is the same: one less person consuming resources.

But that doesn’t make for an exciting movie. You need conflict. And the point of Logan’s Run was that overpopulation was a thing we would have to deal with and the solution was, apparently, to kill people before they became too old.

So now about my answer. First off, I agree with Just Dan that as long as I am entertained with a good story, I can willfully suspend a ginormous amount of disbelief. Sleepy Hollow, essentially American Revolution CosPlay, was just ridiculous in terms of believability but the chemistry between the lead actors was so good that it was an enjoyable show.

Second, I do want some consistent and well-thought-out World Building. You don’t have to explain everything in Episode One but you need to leave yourself enough room for things that will come up later. Don’t write yourself into a corner by forgetting something you wrote a few episodes earlier.

Finally, I want my Sci Fi to be as accurate as possible. I’ll accept spaceships that move at the Speed of the Plot and dogfights in space, but let’s think it through. The Expanse is a great example. They explain that the guns used in-ship fire rubber projectiles that can kill a human but not damage the ship.

I’m not asking a lot. Just tell me an entertaining story that has some plausibility grounded in science.



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