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So, in my post-apocalyptic novel, the world was caught up in an international war (basically WWIII), and all the world's nuclear superpowers launched their warheads and killed much of the global population. Ambient radiation from the nuclear fallout has caused humans to develop supernatural abilities.

And that is not science.

I totally get that radiation just hurts/kills people, it doesn't give someone the ability to manipulate life force or become pyrokinetic like I assert in my story. That's not scientifically possible.

But does my story need to be scientifically accurate or plausible? Will I lose readers because all they can think of is "that would never happen"? Can a story like mine with inaccurate/nonexistent science still be appealing?

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    Of course you will lose some potential readers, because you lose potential readers with every choice you make. But I cannot imagine why you would even ask something like this when the most popular sci-fi franchises today have endless amounts of fantastical elements without any hint at a scientific explanation. (To further explain my downvote, the question is opinion-based and, in my opinion, nonsensical.) – PoorYorick Mar 10 at 18:17
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    If you've gotten such critique you should review your critique group and the way you market your book. Do you make it obvious to the beta readers that you are writing a non-scientific post-apocalypse superhero fantasy novel? Maybe they just expect something different or are used to some different genre. – Secespitus Mar 10 at 18:25
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    @bruglesco The way it is phrased, I do not find it a valid question. There are plenty of high-profile franchises that do not have any scientific explanations, like the whole Marvel universe or Star Wars. A good question would have addressed why the asker thinks that in their case a scientific explanation might be more important, or it would have asked on a meta level what the advantages of rigorous hard sci-fi are over a more fantastical approach, or something like that. I doubt that the answers here will tell weakdna something about this question she didn't already know. – PoorYorick Mar 10 at 19:38
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    The whole Fallout Franchise wouldn't work if stuff had to make scientific sense. – Polygnome Mar 10 at 22:15
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    corsiKa's "Really Rule" - if a SE title says "really" in the title, you already know the answer. – corsiKa Mar 11 at 15:04

14 Answers 14

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Without reading the other answers, my answer is that your premise is fine as long as you set the contract with the reader.

The reader is fine with your premise if you do not promise a science-based story.

Imagine this. Imagine you start your novel with the story of the navel-lotus of Vishnu. Or the bush that burned but was not consumed, of YHWH. Or the tale of Icarus, the young woman who aspired to greatness by flying too closely to the sun, and fell to the depths below when the heat melted her wax.

There is truth in mythology. There is a truth in story. Science is distinct, but you can start your story with a commonly held 'truism' that is not scientifically based.

After you establish that you are speaking in layers, within your story, you say something (contract-driven like): Sometimes truth lies not in the facts, but in the ideas beneath the facts. CHAPTER 1.

This sets you up to have a story that is not science-based.

What you do not want to do is promise science... and then deliver nonsense.

Story is a distinct quality of being human that predates the human experience of the scientific method. It's been told from the dawn of language. Hard science fiction, if that is what you're aiming for, has less allowance for nonsense. If you are writing hard science fiction, then you must approach this problem differently. It sounds as though you are not aiming for hard science fiction, so the answer to your problem is straightforward. Set up the contract to fit your story.

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    @Miech then it's the writer's task to make the contract clear enough. Ultimately there will always be people who don't click with the premise, one of the writer's jobs is to minimise that through Good Writing. – Ruadhan2300 Mar 11 at 9:20
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    I like this answer, I just want to add that, as an avid sci-fi/fantasy/bullshit reader, what I find irritating is not usually in the premise itself, but in how the story sticks to it. You have a super-strong flying man that shoots lasers out of his eyes? Fine, but then be careful when he moves the Moon out of its orbit to put it in front of the Sun, because THAT will cause all sort of science-related reactions. – ChatterOne Mar 11 at 11:27
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    @ChatterOne Also, don't have that super-strong flying man get defeated because he forgot to tie his shoe, unless you've put a lot of effort earlier in the worldbuilding making it perfectly clear why that works. – JMac Mar 11 at 14:52
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    @Miech This is how you start a religion. – aloisdg Mar 11 at 15:17
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    I like this answer. I would personally add that if something doesn't make sense scientifically, the author shouldn't try to convince us that it does. I've read books with very elaborate scientific explanations that are utter nonsense, even at my (non-scientist) level of understanding. Including something that isn't real or scientific is great, trying to convince me that it is real physics is really annoying. – Patrick Mar 11 at 22:24
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Spiderman was bitten by a spider and developed spider-like abilities. Superman is from a different planet and afraid of a glowing rock, even if this human-like creature can shoot lasers from his eyes. The Incredible Hulk is... Hulk...

If you are looking for a non-comic example take a look at the Metro series. Post-apocalpyse after the nuclear war. Everywhere there are creepy mutants wandering around and people are living from pigs and mushrooms in the Moscow Metro. When reading it I wasn't thinking about realism - I was thinking about the interesting story and what the auther did with this unrealistic premise.

I could list dozens of books I have read that don't have a realistic premise. Especially once you introduce superpowers nobody will care. Your readers are not the ones to complain about non-realistic stuff if that is your premise. Nobody can force you to stick to reality.

Heck, I am currently reading something about a great war between dwarves and dragon-riding elves. My dragon army will grill your "physics" :D

There are lots of genres out there that don't care a bit about realism. Post-apocalypse radiation superheroes are definitely in one of those.

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    Just remember: if you're going this route, don't try to come up with a scientific-sounding explanation for things. It's probably the biggest mistake you could make. – Mark Mar 12 at 21:42
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    @Mark You mean like how Star Wars tried to explain The Force (basically Magic) with really tiny nanobot-like things that are in everything and we'll call them "Midichlorians"? – Secespitus Mar 12 at 21:47
  • Y: The Last Man offers a half dozen explanations for why every male mammal on the planet died at the same moment, from "science experiment gone badly wrong" to "monkey plague" to "ancient magical curse", but never fleshes any of them out into something you can say is scientifically grounded. And any of the characters that think they know for sure are probably wrong. So, just accept that it happened somehow and enjoy the story :) – Ross Thompson Mar 13 at 20:18
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No, people won't say that, not even full time working scientists (like me). I know a great deal about genetics; I've published academic articles about it. That did not prevent me from enjoying the TV series "Heroes" for several seasons. Supposedly, their super-powers were due to "genetic mutations" (including immortality, time-travel, psychokinesis, irresistible "command" voice, fire-starting, invisibility, etc.)

That's B.S. to the power of infinity, but I get it: you need an explanation for your fantasy universe, and "radiation" and "genes" are a stock answer, like "quantum" anything.

Personally, I'd embrace the magic. You are writing a fantasy, and in fantasy magic generally exists without explanation (rules of magic are common, magic systems are common, but where the actual "magic" comes from is just an assertion that something exists, like "life force", or "the force" in Star Wars, or whatever). You can do the same; just use your imagination and make something up. Meaning, the radiation isn't causing genetic mutations; it just released some kind of magic into the world and now some people are learning to use it. Maybe all the magic was used up, and now (due to the nuclear explosions) there is a fresh supply of it.

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    Heck, maybe all that was needed for the magic to get free was the massive drop in human population. That would make it easy to tie your post-modern fantasy setting into the myths of old - the fewer people there are, the more powerful the magic. In the olden days, magic was common - as people multiplied, it started to wane and by the time of the scientific revolution, magic was so weak it couldn't be distinguished from mundane reality. And then all the people died, and magic came back... – Luaan Mar 11 at 9:17
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    @Luaan That's a very workable idea! Knock the population down by a factor of 100, from 10 billion to 100 million, and the background influence of magic that was always there is increased 100 fold. the link below shows estimates of world pop since 1 AD (170M), we crossed 500M sometime in the 1500's. Maybe more than 350M or so (1400 AD +), magic is so faint it cannot be used (with perhaps a very few exceptions). I.e. a minimum amount is required to have an effect at all, so magic gets turned off. That's a very good idea, Luann. Link: ecology.com/population-estimates-year-2050 – Amadeus Mar 11 at 12:40
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    @Luann You know what else we could do with that, is also make it partially dependent on local human density, so less magic in cities, more magic is seen out in the field. That seems to be a rule in about half of fantasy anyway; you have to leave home to find magical dragons and devices and people; the magic and witches and wizards prefer the forest, the wilderness, the wild rivers, caves and mountains. So magic can be diluted both globally and locally; the more civilized we become and gathered into cities, the less magic we get. – Amadeus Mar 11 at 15:09
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    @Luaan. I can totally see this idea becoming a generic stock element that is assumed in fantasy works at some point in the future. – Mad Physicist Mar 11 at 21:27
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    @Amadeus All I'm saying is that even well-established, and sometimes wildly successful scientific theories simply posit that something fundamental exists, without needing to explain how it exists. I'm just reinforcing your point that there's nothing crude or wildly irrational about asserting something exists without explanation. It's perfectly conceivable to have a world in which we observe magic, without anybody being able to explain where it came from. It may not even be necessary to explain where it came from, to fully understand how the world works. – Bridgeburners Mar 12 at 21:27
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There is no need to justify your explanation scientifically. But. You must not, under any circumstances try to scientifically justify anything else. In effect, by making a scientifically implausible claim to establish your world, you've shifted from SF to fantasy.

However, fantasy does not have to include unicorns or vampires, or anything else. Just establish your world and get on with the story.

As an example of something very much along the lines of what you're talking about, but even more so, try finding David Drake's "Men Like Us", about a post-nuclear war world, with 3 characters roaming the country making sure that nobody resurrects nuclear power. The trio are ultimately revealed to be immortal, and they got that way by being caught close to a nuclear blast.

So, that's not remotely science, but the story's pretty good nonetheless.

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What you're writing appears to me to be "science fiction".

There are at least two kinds.

Hard science fiction:

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy.

Soft science fiction:

Soft science fiction, or soft SF, is a category of science fiction with two different definitions.

  1. It explores the "soft" sciences, and especially the social sciences (for example, anthropology, sociology, or psychology), rather than engineering or the "hard" sciences (for example, physics, astronomy, or chemistry).
  2. It is not scientifically accurate or plausible; the opposite of hard science fiction.

Soft science fiction of either type is often more concerned with character and speculative societies, rather than speculative science or engineering. The term first appeared in the late 1970s and is attributed to Australian literary scholar Peter Nicholls.

There are good examples of both kinds in the world.

As a reader of SF I've read and enjoyed both kinds (and Fantasy too).

I tend to have favourite authors (as an avid reader if I find a book I like I might read everything by that author).

But does my story need to be scientifically accurate or plausible?

I don't think accuracy is as as important as with "historical fiction" -- I mean of course the world is imagined, even when it makes an effort to be hard-science (perhaps as a way to make it more interesting to people who are interested in science).

Even supposedly-hard science fiction requires some "handwavium" a story which introduces space elevators to earth orbit, or linear accelerators on the moon, introduces a concept but ignores real-world practical difficulties. It's fiction.

If there's not much science in the book then I'd hope there's something else.

Will I lose readers because all they can think of is "that would never happen"? Can a story like mine with inaccurate/nonexistent science still be appealing?

For example one book I read once was like the one you suggested: i.e. a world with mutations. Society was rural/agricultural, no longer mostly-urban, and any mutants were killed. So anyway, there, some children were travelling alone somewhere with a "great horse" -- a huge horse, a cart horse, I forget whether it was mutated or just bred, a big breed, but its being so unusually big meant that the people in the lands they were passing through would kill it if they found it, so they were trying to stay hidden. And I wanted to know more: about the children, the horse, the land they were travelling through, what would happen, and so on.


Edit to add: it turns out that I was remembering The Chrysalids. The post-industrial characters don't really know what causes the mutations:

The inhabitants of post-apocalypse Labrador have vague knowledge of the "Old People", a technologically advanced civilisation they believe was destroyed when God sent "Tribulation" to the world to punish their forebears' sins. The inhabitants practise a form of fundamentalist Christianity; they believe that to follow God's word and prevent another Tribulation, they must preserve absolute normality among the surviving humans, plants and animals, and therefore practice eugenics.

The scientific cause of the tribulation is hinted at for the reader's benefit ...

Though the nature of "Tribulation" is not explicitly stated, it is implied ...

... but knowing (being told, or seeing from the characters' perspective) that it was "God-sent" makes me dial-back the scepticism and get on with reading the story on its own terms. I guess I was sophisticated reader at the age when I read that, but when the author effectively says, "this is a Deus ex machina") then as a reader I know to treat that as background scenery -- like people watching a play know that they're meant to not see the Kuroko.

It wasn't even a plot-point, it was a fait accompli, past history, no need nor opportunity to explore that premise any further.

  • I guess a difference between "It's science!" and "It's fantasy!" is agency -- i.e. if it's "science" then there isn't some magician out there creating mutants and possibly other doing things, being a character a character in the story. – ChrisW Mar 11 at 20:39
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As a general rule, if there is any portion of your premise that you do not want your audience to concern itself with, you need only avoid bringing it up.

This is especially true for fantasy and soft-sci-fi. We never got explanations for light sabers, the TARDIS, dilithium (handwavium) crystals, or infinity stones either; and that very restraint has benefited the respective series that they belong to. So no, you do not have to explain it; just take care not to also question it.

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    Though it should also be noted that it's a good idea to set up rules for how this unexplained phenomenon behaves. Otherwise people can get quickly fed up with problems and solutions that are pretty much deus ex machina. Before you use a rule to create or solve a problem, make sure you introduce it earlier in the story in a different context (Chekov's Gun). Just pulling a "magic explanation" out of nothing is usually seen as betraying your readers :) Needless to say, you don't have to do this for something that happens early in the story, when the world is just getting established. – Luaan Mar 11 at 9:23
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    Describe what it does, not how it does it (except in the broadest strokes) and allow the fanbase to go around and around for years on the technicalities. – Ruadhan2300 Mar 11 at 9:26
  • See also: writing.stackexchange.com/a/36989/14704 – Galastel Mar 11 at 10:56
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No.

You can have unrealistic elements as parts of your premise but you need to introduce them to the reader as parts of your premise. Otherwise the reader will not understand your premise and things will go downhill from there.

People do not generally care about lack of realism. What bothers them is not being able to understand what is going on. Realism or verisimilitude just happens to be what readers use to understand what is happening unless the author has already told them that it works different.

So just tell the reader how it works in time for them to understand it when you use it. This is not a scientific explanation of how it works. It is an explanation of how it works in the context of the story. It may include pseudo science or even real scientific speculation but its function is to help explain how you use it in your fictional universe. The rules you, the author, follow using this element when telling the story.

The rule against unrealistic elements is actually that you should not have them unless they are part of your premise and the reader knows it.

Note that if your premise starts with "a fantasy world with magic and elves and dragons and.." you can get away with lots of unrealistic elements.

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Science is all about establishing rules that helps us understand how the world works. If your work is set in a different world and things in-universe work in a different way, that's fine. But here's the important point: if the science is different, the readers need to understand how the in-universe science works. When authors violate this principle, and have the hero pull out some new trick that has no basis in the existing narrative in order to fix things, it feels like the author is just making up random crap.

Especially if we're talking about the hero's powers, what you need most of all is a consistent explanation. The reason why is Sanderson's First Law of Magics: "An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."

In laying out the principle, Brandon Sanderson actually uses radioactive superheroes as an example. While the in-universe explanation may not be "magic," from a writing standpoint it does the same things that a magic system does, so the same principles apply:

Narratively, superhero magic tends to be rather specific and explicit. (Depending on the story.) We generally know exactly which powers Spider-man has and what they do. He 1) Can Sense danger 2) has superhuman strength and endurance 3) Can shoot webs from his hands and 4) Can cling to walls. While in the comics, he does sometimes gain other strange powers (making the system softer), he does generally stick to these abilities in the movies.

Therefore, we’re not surprised when Spider-man shoots a web in a bad guy’s face. We’ve established that he can do that, and it makes sense to us when he does it.

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If your story is not scientifically accurate or plausible, I would recommend to not enter too deeply in explanations. That would be a way to explain why it's not believable, which you may want to avoid.

After this caveat, stories that are not scientifically accurate are fine. Some really great stories enter in that category. Frankenstein, the Fantastic Four, Fallout... Those stories are not accurate scientifically.

  • Ok, actually I only added the Fantastic Four because both movie attempts tried to explain the origins of the superpowers, which made the movies really hard to believe and greatly contributed to their failure, in my opinion. – Alexis Dufrenoy Mar 22 at 17:14
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No, you don't need a scientific explanation (unless you want to).

I think your discomfort comes from your desire to mix two subgenres: Post-apocalypse (which is usually soft sci-fi) and Superhero genre (which is usually non-scientific fantasy). Superhero genre tends to use Technobabble to explain things, and you are, of course, welcome to use it.

If you want superheroes in your book, you would lose the readers who don't like them and gain readers who do like superheroes. Scientific basis here is unimportant, but logical coherence is.

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Obviously, super powers aren't scientific, so your readers will not expect a fully scientific explanation.

But what they do expect is this thing called suspension of disbelief. It needs to be close enough to be believable/realistic that in their minds they can make the jump without too much effort.

So as long as radiation mostly is bad, as it is in reality, you can add some mutants as exceptions and get away with it.

It is not about being scientifically correct. It is about serving the readers and their imagination and not stretching it too far with absurd challenges.

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As long as your work is fiction (specifically science fiction), absolutely not.

The plot is about a war which is as serious as WWIII, which has not even started. Therefore, you have assumed a deadly future war. Now, adding sci-fi elements to it won't do much harm because who knows if such weapons are developed after centuries which might cause certain DNA mutations in human beings and turn them into superhumans!

But, obviously, you can't add such theories to plots where no fiction is involved or the war has a purely realistic description.

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Of course you don't need to...

Most fictional characters in movies today have zero science basis and further, grossly violate multiple laws of physics. So it's better to go ahead and make-up something interesting rather than trying to explain the science behind it.

...but you can.

Just make-up a fancy name for a wide-spread chemical used along side with your nuke war and due to the experimental chemical you have the plausible basis for science too and such thing can also become something quite deep into the storyline if you decide to at a point.

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Peter Parker got his powers from a radioactive spider bite.

The Hulk got his from gamma radiation. In Kimba the White Lion, it makes grasshoppers gigantic.

Fiction doesn't have to be perfectly realistic. It just needs to be consistent with what it chooses not to be realistic about. If the spider bite or gamma radiation wouldn't have turned most people into a superhero, explain what makes Parker or Banner different in the event somebody were to try and fail to do the same. Don't just dismiss it if it comes up again. If your story is a long-enough series, don't forget to bring it up at some point also.

Reality itself is pretty unrealistic. Lots of wacky things happen. Who would have thought a man could literally fly in a lawn chair attached to balloons? Who would have thought My Little Pony would have developed such a largely adult male fanbase? Who would have thought anyone would see Megumin as a viable option? People will suspend their disbelief, but they ask that you don't make them need to pause and unpause that suspension too often. Keep things consistent and you should be fine.

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