It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Searching for Coincidences While Travelling Faster-Than-Light

It’s self-evident that technology has made the job of writing much easier. The word-processor is a far more efficient and effective tool than the typewriter (although, with the advent of in-line spell-checking, you’d have thought the standard of spelling would improve). The Web has also provided a low-cost distribution channel, which gives even the meanest of scribblers access to a potential worldwide audience. And then there’s the access the Web gives to useful information. Of course, you need filters firmly in place – there’s a lot of crap out there masquerading as “fact”.

It occurred to me recently that it’s not just in the “business” of writing that technology has proven a boon. Yes, it has expanded the possibilities for plots, but it has also affected the mechanics of plots. A particular example of this came to mind. Take a story written, or set, for example, in the first half of the Twentieth Century…

In order to advance the plot, the protagonist has to track down the femme fatale. He’s met her, but suspects the name she gave him was false. He can either ask about at the location where he met her, in the hope that someone recognises his description and so provides her correct name. Or, and this is a common technique in stories of this ilk, he stumbles across a photograph of her in the local newspaper’s society pages. A lucky coincidence. And the plot moves on.

Let’s transpose our story to the Twenty-First Century – or even after. Our protagonist could still find his femme fatale using leg-work. Or…

He could search the Web.

It’s not unlikely that the woman should appear somewhere on the Internet. In fact, these days it’s almost certain. Almost everyone is there somewhere – especially a woman who would appear in a newspaper’s society pages… It’s only a matter of defining plausible search criteria for the protagonist to use – a visual search may not be commonplace at the moment, but soon it may well be trivial. Our plot no longer needs an incredible coincidence to advance. Technology has given us a much more plausible alternative. And if this is science fiction, then there’s nothing stopping us inventing even more useful tools. Providing, of course, they’re consistent within the universe of the story, and not too wildly implausible in and of themselves.

The Web itself may not have been foreseen forty years ago – Bill Gates himself famously predicted the CD-ROM would be the “next big thing” in personal computing in the first edition of The Road Ahead in 1995 – but the Web does not contradict what we currently know about our world and the universe. Well, not unless you’re looking it up on the Conservapedia, that is.

Science fiction, however… Well, these days, sf seems all too ready to throw the laws of physics out of the window. It’s not just the sort of stuff that’s been rejected by Mundane SF – i.e., anything that isn’t “a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written”. Media sf – films and television – has given us, for example, spaceships that rumble (sound doesn’t carry in a vacuum), spaceships that swoop and bank in space (so much for Newton’s Laws), not to mention all those alien races which happen to bear a remarkable resemblance to humans.

But does sf really need to adhere so rigorously to the laws of physics? Okay, sound in space is just plain silly. But, to me, the faster-than-light drive is a literary device. It doesn’t have to be scientifically plausible, it only needs to get the characters from A to B, the plot from Y to Z.The distances involved in interstellar travel make most plots set outside the Solar system impossible. Some have tried: William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion posits a slower-than-light human empire held together by agents who travel for thousands of years from world to world, ensuring none stray too far from the imperial template. It’s an excellent novel. Also excellent are Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels, which feature slower-than-light travel. In both cases, the lack of FTL is a world-building choice by the authors.

And so back to my point about googling for the femme fatale. Most people don’t know how a Web search works. It’s black box technology. And there’s no need to explain its workings when it’s used in a story. It’s a plot enabler. It also happens to be real. FTL is not real, but it’s also chiefly there to enable the plot. The same can be said of other non-Mundane elements in a science fiction story. Time travel. Alien races. A statistically unlikely abundance of Earth-like worlds. Artificial Intelligence.

Technology has expanded the range of plot enablers available in science fiction. Or, at the very least, it has provided opportunities to conceive of new ones. We know more about the universe now than writers back in the 1940s did, and yet all many sf authors have done is trick up those old inventions – FTL, and ever more ludicrous weaponry, for example – in modern scientific jargon. Where’s the leap equivalent to society pages –> Google? Science fiction often seems to be a history of discrete ideas – time travel, FTL, the Singularity… And because the focus is on those ideas as ideas, their role in enabling the plot is ignored.

And so the plot mechanics remain unchanged – and the gloss gets glossier, the surface gets more polished, and science fiction turns yet more escapist and less relevant…

(This has been a Monday morning ramble, and may well be followed up at a later date when I’ve managed to construct a coherent argument out of the thoughts which resulted in the above.)