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I've been playing with the idea of writing a sci-fi story that would resemble those written roughly 50-100 years back: Things we normally would laugh out of court today, like Jules Verne's moon trip, moon people or Asimov's Foundation using microfiche.

I'm trying to understand how and why these stories live up so well, and in the face of new knowledge about the world, they still seem plausible. I'm not sure we're just turning a blind eye for the sake of an entertaining plot or story, as it seems it all fits neatly together (and trying to 'update' them would ruin their internal logic and consistency).

Any ideas on how to achieve this type of suspension of disbelief? And is this a legitimate/plausible exercise?

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    Hi Henrygale, welcome to Writers.SE! I really like the question. I've edited the title; I think it makes the question clearer. If you feel like I've missed your intent, feel free to re-edit or revert back to the original. – Standback Feb 10 '15 at 10:41
  • Not at all, I think it's much clearer now. Thank you! – Henrygale Feb 10 '15 at 21:24
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You are overthinking this.

There is Fantasy. Magic, fairies, dragons and such do not exist, yet the suspension of disbelief works without a special effort on the author's part.

There are alternate histories. Utopias. Children's books about impossible creatures and events. Crime stories about crimes that never happened. Fiction with characters that do not exist! All the author needs to do is posit his world, and the readers will make an honest attempt at following him from there. All any author does is say: "A dragon attacked the knight.", or: "John loved Joan.", and – BAM! – there they are! Does he explain the existence of the dragon (or John)? Most certainly not! Because that would make the reader exclaim: "But that is not true!"

Every fictional story is a lie. Hercule Poirot does not exist and every reader knows it. No murder was commited on the Orient Express and every reader knows it. Yet we follow Poirot solving the murder mystery with interest. How does this work? Very simply. The author just says that Poirot gets on a train and that a corpse was found. That is all. There is no attempt to fool the readers into believing these were real events and persons, because that is completely unnecessary. All the author does is tell the story in the same way that she would tell of real events. Or in other words:

All the author does is not explain how dragons did actually exist and why we missed them. Because that explanation would break the suspension of disbelief.

Sure, there are stories that work this way and explain how a secret reality exists inside our own. But these stories must not only make an effort, they must make an extra effort, and their explanations must have no holes, because all the while the reader reads the story he will consider, think, and test, that explanation and try to find how it must be impossible. This is a whole different kind of story, and if you want to write it, your execution must be flawless, or it will fail big.

If you just want to tell the story of how a steam-powered rocket reached the moon, you must not explain how and why we were wrong and missed the truth (as Tommy Myron suggested), because that will only be laughable. If you try to make up obvious fake science that will cause the whole suspension of disbelief to fail. If on the other hand you just write it as if it was the most commonplace thing on earth and does not need any explanation of the technical details, because every kid learns about steam-engine space travel in school, then even physicists will enjoy your tale and suspend their disbelief most willingly.

This is why Donald Duck works. Because there is no explanation as to how a community of talking ducks exists but we have not discovered it. It is the absence of an explanation that causes the suspension of disbelief.


Further thoughts:

There are different kinds of SF. Hard SF, in which science and technology are the topic, will become obsolete as reality disproves those ideas or overtakes fictional reality. But in much of SF the technology is just the romantic backdrop for action, romance, or social issues. In other words: the plausibility of the technology does not matter.

But setting can age, too. PVC had an appeal of modernity to people once, but it seems cheap and ugly to us. Or think of the mobile phone. In Star Trek the wrist communicators appeared as a cool thing that everyone thought would be great to have; today the constant noise of incoming messages is so oppressive to some, that leaving the mobile phone at home is a rare luxury. Or think of wilderness. While a medieval forest was a place where outlaws lurked and people got murdered, robbed and raped, for us today wilderness is a romantic ideal that we yearn for.

This means that certain aspects of Star Trek or medieval romances may mean different things to readers or viewers of then and now. How interpretation will change is not something we can predict. But it certainly will change.

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    Really liked this since it covers something very important for writing scifi: Disbelief is what happens when your explanation fails. While explanations can fail by omission that only happens if the explanation is necessary to understanding the story. If the details of how the thingamajig works are irrelevant, you do not need to explain them, and not having any explanation that isn't ridiculous is irrelevant. Since Asimov never explains why micro-fiche is used, and it is utterly irrelevant to story, implausiblity of rational explanation does not matter. – Ville Niemi Feb 10 '15 at 9:44
  • When I saw the first Star Wars movie in a theater, I was slapping my hands on my thighs and trying not laugh out loud. The reason was that so many things were blatantly impossible, but worked perfectly in the story. It actually added to my enjoyment! As noted, Lucas didn't explain anything - at least not until the second three movies that many wish had never been made. What doesn't hold up for me in very old scifi are the lack of depth of characters and the outdated world views of the authors. That makes them harder to relate to now. – Joe Feb 11 '15 at 2:33
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All fiction is about the suspension of disbelief. Decades ago I read a statement that sticks in my mind to this day. A writer discussing science fiction said that he had an easier time believing that it is possible to travel faster than light than he did believing that Perry Mason only gets big murder cases with innocent clients and always wins.

A good writer sucks you into the story, so that you almost, sort of, believe that this is real. Did you ever read one of those stories that end, "And then I woke up. It had all been a dream." 99% of the time I feel cheated. I was trying to pretend that this was real, and now the writer pulls the rug out from under me and says it's not. Or a more extreme case, I saw a movie once that ended with the camera pulling back to show the movie lights and the edges of the set and so forth, and we hear the director say, "That's a wrap!" I found this to be a very annoying ending. The producers broke the contract with the viewers. Yes, I know that this is just a movie, it's not real. But I'm trying to pretend that it's real, and then you shove it in my face that it's not.

Of course sometimes writers fail at sucking us into the story. They put in something that is so glaringly unbelievable that the reader just can't accept it. I'm sure we've all had times when we were reading a book or watching a movie and we say, "Oh, come on! There's no way this ordinary mild-mannered office worker could suddenly single-handed take on three trained, experienced killers." Or, "How stupid could that woman possibly be that she would agree to meet someone alone in a deserted warehouse that she KNOWS is a serial killer?"

Science fiction stories set in the future have the built-in problem that it is very unlikely that the author will extrapolate future technology exactly correctly. When I'm reading science fiction written decades ago, I often come across examples of bad predictions like that. Like, just a few months ago I re-read Asimov's "Caves of Steel", set hundreds of years in the future, and there's a point in the story where the detective gets an important clue by studying the chemical film used to take a picture. Asimov never guessed that long before the time when his story was set, chemical film would be replaced by digital photography. I found it a little jarring, but it was generally a well-written story, so I just glossed over it and moved on. It was like hitting a pot hole when driving. Yes, it's annoying and distracting, but it doesn't normally ruin your trip.

If a story is generally well-written, you ignore little flaws and move on. If the whole story is filled with absurd technical gaffes, unbelievable characters, and so on, at some point it collapses and you throw the book away.

As others have pointed out here, some fantasy stories are set in an alternate reality where things are different with no pretense of relating them to the real world. When I read a fantasy store where the wizard casts magic spells, I don't say, "Oh come on, how would just waving your hands and saying a few words in Latin make that happen?!" I just accept that as the premise of the story. Sometimes I read a fantasy story and I find it frustrating because the premise is not well developed or explained. Like I'll find myself saying, "How come in chapter 1 the wizard had the power to destroy a city, but now in chapter 3 he's captured by this small squad of soldiers and locked in a cell? Couldn't he have cast some spell to kill all the soldiers? If he could destroy a city why can't he magically knock down the walls of a cell?" Etc. Maybe the author has some idea of how magic works in this world that makes it all logical and consistent but he failed to explain it. Or maybe he's just making things up as he goes along as necessary to make the plot move in the direction he wants. That's where my suspension of disbelief fails in fantasy stories.

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    Thanks for the answer! I just wanted to note that while what you described in Caves of Steel may be like a pot hole, I've recently become intrigued with such things. It seems that the only excuse, as well as advantage, of the author is that he simply lived in the past; I'm sure people will say the same about present day scifi decades from now. I however would like to try and achieve that on purpose, but as if I were writing in the past. Are there examples of present day authors who have done this, successfully or not? – Henrygale Feb 11 '15 at 7:58
  • I'm sure that there's technology described in SF stories today that 100 years from now will be considered equally laughable. Of course I don't know exactly what that is. There's an amusing game there. Some simple technologies have been in use for centuries because high-tech solutions are no better. I read an article years ago saying that an example of a perfect technology was the simple mechanical can opener. Sure, you can make it electric, but that doesn't really help much and it makes it non-portable, etc, he went through a whole discussion. – Jay Feb 11 '15 at 13:50
  • RE deliberately write "retro SF". As someone on here mentioned, there is the whole "steam punk" genre, which isn't exactly retro, but sort of. I recall years ago reading a couple of books that tried to update Buck Rogers by putting in explanations of why the seemingly out-dated technology really would be used in the future, how impossible inventions could work, etc. I'm afraid I forget the titles, but they had "Buck Rogers" in them and were published in the 1980s, I think. I can't think of an example that's really what you describe, but why not? Like many "gimmicks", I think it all comes ... – Jay Feb 11 '15 at 13:53
  • ... down to your writing skill: If you do it well, people will say, Wow, cool, that was a really clever literary device. If you do it poorly, people will say, What a lame literary device. – Jay Feb 11 '15 at 13:54
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Think up an alternate history and develop it logically - or parodically.

Take for example a more serious approach - Steampunk: Electricity never passed beyond "mad inventor" sphere, and world developed finding new miraculous fuels to power increasingly advanced steam engines; external combustion engines got more popular than internal combustion ones, chemistry (including biochemistry) took over in place where now electronic exists.

The flying contraptions and "death ray" devices are believable because our world never took that turn and we just don't know what could have been achievable. It has elegance, it has a somewhat believable background, it has some historical roots - people want to believe it.

Or pick the world of Fallout: the transistor never got past experimental stage. Electron lamps could be miniaturized a lot, but never to the point where transistors got; brains of dogs and monkeys were adapted as control systems of robots. Oil shortages widespread adaptation of nuclear power, including cars, trains, even handheld devices running on ubiquitous fission batteries. The Cold War shifted targets and escalated, but it took the sides a long time to "push the button". The style of 60s in the USA stayed in fashion, and "The American Way" was something the society clung to, fighting external influences.

Again, you suspend the disbelief of "Would people be this callous? With the precarious border between bravery and stupidity would they be capable of erring so far into the side of stupidity?" It's tongue-in-cheek, with consumerism and greedy capitalism drawn in parodistic thick strokes, like purposefully irradiated soft drinks to give them a glow (and kill dozens of "taste testers" before a formula with <1% mortality rate was developed)? It's not as believable, but the sarcastic humor helps to accept the story.

And so, if we take the authors of old, we can see how they believed the world could develop. Only rarely were their scientific theories of what's possible wrong. It's what they didn't foresee - inventions they failed to imagine - that caused our world to diverge and take current shape. Remove these inventions and you have an "alternate reality". By removing them, force progress in directions which are currently underdeveloped. Car engine has changed over past 100 years less than computers change in two or three years. Reverse that trend and you have a new - and believable world. And if it leads to ridiculous conclusions, lampshade them, embrace them, and let the reader smirk.

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This sounds like a fun project --I once had a similar idea, that I never followed up on, to write a story, set in the current day, with accurate modern technology, but as if it was written 50 or 100 years ago.

The biggest problem with your idea is that you can't unknow how technology actually developed. It's hard to deliberately make the mistakes of ignorance. However, I don't see any reason it might not be a good exercise, to try to inhabit that mindset.

As to why old science fiction holds up: The best SF is not about the technology, it's about how people respond to advances in technology. Human nature remains the same, even when the technology changes. If the non-technological aspects of the story feel real, we can overlook the glaring technical errors, because the story remains relevant.

  • +1 for noting that it's really about the characters and human nature - how would "we" respond to those events and circumstances (as we relate to the characters)? – Joe Feb 11 '15 at 2:48
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The number one rule in making things believable is detailing. This applies to outlandish theories just as much as world-destruction type stakes. None of it will seem real without the details that lend it credence.

It is admittedly a bit more difficult with things we know to be false. I think in order to make these particular things seem realistic, you have to ask yourself the question, "what if we were wrong?" Research how we know something is false. Then ask yourself what small detail you could tweak, what small fact you can call into doubt, and how. The bottom line is that you have to explain why we were wrong (or why the impossible is now possible), and/or how we missed the truth (Via new technology, discoveries that 'disprove' the truth, etc. See comment by dmm below for details.).

With things that we know to be false, and indeed just about any kind of stakes, you will have to tweak things a little. Believability starts with the truth, and then uses details to show how the exact right events played out.

Note: Though I find it likely, I do not know if the authors of the examples you mentioned used this technique to build credibility, having not read the books.

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    I upvoted, but strongly disagree with "thoroughly" in your phrase explain thoroughly why we were wrong, and how we missed the truth. If you try to explain thoroughly, you won't succeed, unless you're a super-genius who is about to overturn science. You need to explain, but in a hand-waving manner. For example, you can "explain" FTL travel with reference to warp fields and sub-space, or with gateways/portals, but do NOT try to explain how this gets around special relativity, causality, and the lack of a universal reference frame. – dmm Feb 10 '15 at 19:32
  • ... That is kind of what I meant. I guess my wording wasn't too clear. Thanks for the heads up, I'll edit my answer to make it more clear. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Feb 10 '15 at 22:41
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Tolkien wrote a wonderful essay called "On Fairy Stories" in which he essentially rejected the notion of suspension of disbelief as an explanation of what is going on when a reader reads any kind of fantasy (and science fiction is a branch of fantasy). Tolkien argued that a story is an act of sub-creation (under God's creation). The author creates a world and makes it believable. The reader enters into that world and believes it.

There is no question of disbelief being suspended. It is all about belief in the sub-created world. If belief in the sub-created world ever wavers, it collapses entirely. The reader does not disbelieve and then suspend that disbelief. The reader enters into the sub-created world and either believes or does not believe.

So if you can successfully create a world in which the laws of nature as such and such as you want them to be, and if you can make the reader believe this world, they will believe and the story will work.

Some part of your readership will, of course, be Philistines for whom (to their great loss), entry into sub-created worlds is not possible. Nothing you can do for them, alas.

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I think one thing you are missing in all of this is that at the time they were written these books were the latest science.

Let me give you an example of a few things I have seen in my own lifetime (I am 60):

  • We went from wondering if we might find life on Mars to being assured there was no life on Mars to having the discovery of past life on Mars announced to having that brought in question to having water discovered on Mars to having people now wondering if that might mean the discovery of extremophile life on Mars.
  • We went from not knowing how the dinosaurs died out to knowing it was caused by rock from outer space to now knowing the rock was the straw that broke the dinosaur's back to knowing ? killed them off sometime in the future.

Science is built up of layers of theory that become rock hard fact sometimes. Unfortunately every once in a while one of those rocks become shifting sand and then we have to go back and reevaluate everything we have put on top of it. This is bad for the scientist, but good for the writer.

Want to get rid of a few "known scientific facts?" All you have to do is come up with new theories that knocks them off their pedestals. You do not have to prove these new facts; just make sure they are feasible.

Don't believe me? Look at all the FTL ships out there in science fiction land. Current science gives them a thumbs down, yet we refuse to give them up. They are just too darned much fun. And who knows - we were all supposed to die when they came up with trains that went more than 20MPH according to some scientist of the day.

Also you need to know that about all those books about little green men on Mars that did not get shifted back and forth multiple times, is exactly the reason that old science fiction never gets labeled as fantasy. Once it is in the science fiction section no one is going to move it. Librarians would have a cat fit!

If you want to write an ole time science fiction story have at it. Just fill current theory full of holes because in 2020 such a scientist discovered... and then write your fun story!

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