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In a sci-fi setting, I was told it was important to follow scientific principles to some extent. Neglecting these principles can create confusion and disbelief among readers or viewers.

For example, if you're depicting spaceships or advanced technology, I was told it's essential to explain how they function and how they operate. Doing so would, however, require me to tell and not show. If I add a scene where the characters talk about how it works, it also feel cliched. Is there some way you can do this, especially in the context where you have fantasy mixed with sci-fi, and which requires you to clearly state what's possible with magic and what's possible with technology?

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    "I was told it's essential to explain how they function and how they operate" - That sounds like one person's opinion, stated too strongly. How many of your favourite science fiction stories, by other writers, contain these "essential" explanations?
    – kaya3
    Mar 15, 2023 at 2:00
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    Are you familiar with Sanderson's First Law? It's about magic, but I think the same applies to fictional technologies in sci-fi.
    – ruakh
    Mar 15, 2023 at 7:46
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    @ruakh: I was not aware of Sanderson's First Law, and I dearly thank you for bringing it to my attention! Mar 15, 2023 at 9:49
  • Liu's 'Death's End' is roughly 30% character exposition and tech detail dumps, it's like reading a rambling Wikipedia article. Pity, as the first two books in the series were much much better. Mar 15, 2023 at 19:29
  • Don't explain magic. It won't make any sense. All you need is something like "The warp drive creates a wormhole and we fall in to it to arrive at the location we want to be." In Asimov's Foundation, he doesn't describe how spaceships move at all, except to say they "jump" and towards the galactic core the values to the right of the decimal start mattering.
    – Tony Ennis
    Mar 15, 2023 at 20:03

9 Answers 9

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There's always the "Star Trek" version. If it makes the drama work, don't sweat it. Just be consistent across your story.

So if "warp drive" works a particular way, keep it working that way. If the "teleporter" works a given way, keep it working that way. Don't worry too much about whether warp drives or teleporters are possible. Or whether if they are possible they are possible that way.

It's pretty difficult to predict how, for example, computer-based intelligence would really work. Even using something like ChatGPT or similar, is probably not all that good a guide. So if you were doing a story about computer intelligence 100 years from now, you have a lot of freedom. Set the rules, then be consistent. If you find you need to change the rules for your dram, go back through the whole story and make sure you are consistent.

Shows like Star Trek or Stargate and so on have a "show bible." This is a description of, among other things, how various tech works and how it is supposed to be described. This is what a phaser looks like, sounds like, what it does if it hits somebody, how many shots, etc. You might need to write at least part of this for your own story. This is how your tech works and so on.

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    It should perhaps be emphasized that, even on Star Trek, the technobabble is still mostly just technobabble. We know, for example, that a phaser beam involves "nadion particles," but that's just about the only thing we know about those particles (aside from various episodes which briefly reference them in some capacity). They are not characterized to anywhere near the same degree that you'd see in, say, an elementary particle physics textbook.
    – Kevin
    Mar 15, 2023 at 0:05
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    Consistency really is important. Otherwise, the writer is tempted into technological deus ex machina to get the heroes out of their crisis.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 15, 2023 at 3:44
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    @RonJohn: on the other hand, an odd, unexplained aspect lingering through the story which the character finally manages to explain -- possibly upending their own understanding and the reader's -- is also a pretty cool move :) "Eureka!" To pull this off well, however, means that the rules were worked out in advance, and just were not exposed due to unreliable narrators, until that point, but some foreshadowing here and there did point out that the narrators were unreliable on that aspect. Mar 15, 2023 at 9:53
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    @MarkMorganLloyd ignoring fandom, consistency is important for bog standard suspension of disbelief.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 15, 2023 at 13:52
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    As a counter argument, I don't think consistency is that important... Look at the Harry Potter stories, one of the most beloved franchises/fictional universes of all time. They are not very consistent... magical abilities are invented in one book/vanish in the next...
    – Questor
    Mar 15, 2023 at 16:17
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In hard science fiction, readers expect the tech to be plausible, or at least explainable. In science fantasy, you don’t have to explain why things work as long as they are consistent. Some explanation is good, especially defining limits of tech and magic and how they overlap. Be careful, though, not to use your technology as a deus ex machina by suddenly introducing a tech solution without any groundwork or foreshadowing.

It doesn’t take much to define the limits. The engineer can do something with a machine and the mage can say, “Damn, I sure wish I could do that with magic. It’s really frustrating that I can’t manipulate magnetic fields.”

Merely mentioning that your warp engine has to be cooled to near 0 degrees Kelvin to work should be adequate to explain why there’s a crisis when the cooling system doesn’t work. You don’t have to explain superconductivity and unobtanium.

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    "Be careful, though, not to use your technology as a deus ex machina by suddenly introducing a tech solution without any groundwork or foreshadowing." If you do this, however, be sure to get a job writing for the next Star Trek!
    – Tony Ennis
    Mar 15, 2023 at 20:05
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    If you do accidentally use your technology as a deus ex machina, simply reverse the tachyon phase polarity and no you didn't.
    – user253751
    Mar 16, 2023 at 0:51
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    I dinna ken hae lang it’ll take to reverse the tachyon phase polarity, Cap’n.
    – Gary R.
    Mar 16, 2023 at 19:48
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In a sci-fi setting, I was told it was important to follow scientific principles to some extent.

This isn't quite right. There is no universal definition of science-fiction, and the border with fantasy, if there is one, is blurry at best. Generally, what distinguishes sci-fi from fantasy is the use of technology and science vs magic and mysticism, but then you reach a point like Star Wars that integrates elements of both sci-fi and fantasy, and it really doesn't matter if it's one, the other, an hybrid, both, or neither.

I was told it's essential to explain how they function and how they operate.

That's patently wrong, or perhaps a misunderstanding.

Think about The Empire Strikes Back. Why doesn't the hypderdrive work? Mechanical failure? Electronics? Fuel impurity? Overheating? Faulty wiring? We don't know, and it's not important to the story. It doesn't work, and forces the heroes to limp to Bespin, escaping a bunch of TIE fighters through an impossibly dense asteroid field. That's what's important.

We're never told how the hyperdrive works in the movies, or why it occasionally doesn't. We're shown what it does, how the stars stretch when you engage it, and that's the iconic image you remember, that's Star Wars.

You, the author, should know the rules of your technology. You need an hyperdrive to go into hyperspace. That's a simple rule. If you want, you can dig deeper. Power, fuel, physics, etc. Or you can leave it at the bare minimum, just mention there's a device that makes your ship go real fast, or that there's a device that makes your ship not go real fast because it doesn't work currently.

The only requirement is your rules are consistent with each other and you stick to them.

You, the author, should then consider your rules and your story beats, and think about where they conflict (if at all), and whether you'll resolve it by changing the rules or changing the story. Then think about what new conflicts that creates, and repeat until you're satisfied you can make a first draft.

Then comes storytelling, which is ironically where you proverbially show rather than tell.

It's perfectly valid to just describe actions and effects without explaining how they're produced, to show how a technology works simply by describing what the observers see or feel, establishing some limitations through plot where relevant, and leaving the details largely unexplained.

It would be perfectly valid to drill down to explore the purpose of every nut and bolt, to explain the science and the equations, show how every piece interacts with the others, but that sounds like the story you don't want to tell. So just don't.

Is there some way you can do this, especially in the context where you have fantasy mixed with sci-fi, and which requires you to clearly state what's possible with magic and what's possible with technology?

I can tell you what I'd do.

I don't know how my technology works. I have some rules about what goes in and what comes out, what happens in-between might as well be magic (and sometimes is). I have a rule about heat as a limiting factor, and another about the precision of calculation as another limiting factor.

I don't explain any of it though. For travel, I explain that there's a bright flash and the ship vanishes. And from the point of view of the ship, there's a bright flash and everything else disappears. I'm not going to talk about heat sinks and heat management because it's not relevant to the plot. The plot is about the experience of the characters, not the machinery.

But, because I know about the heat rule, I can mention the warmness of the engine bay for flavour, or describe a glowing-red piece of machinery when setting a scene. I won't bother with anything more detailed because that's just running the risk of someone pointing out that, um actually, that's not how physics work.

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    you can also mention the thermal exhaust port connected to a very important part of the engine and what would happen if someone were to blow it up :)
    – user253751
    Mar 16, 2023 at 13:45
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    @user253751 It's an interesting example actually, because while telling the audience you need to shoot the exhaust port to blow the whole thing up would be out of place at almost every point of the story, the pre-mission briefing is a good way to bring it up diegetically at the moment it becomes directly relevant to the plot. Mar 16, 2023 at 14:30
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Star Wars does it. It's often called Science Fantasy, as the surface is Sci-fi, but the story is Fantasy (an order of nights with magic powers and swords). In Star Wars, the tech is not explored because it's not important to have the tech make sense, as Lucas opted for tech that looked familiar yet exotic at the same time.

Star Trek works by having certain tech that does certain things, but they don't explain how they work, just what they do when they are working. The Warp Core not working means the ship doesn't go FTL. The inertial dampeners mean that when the ship slows down, you don't go splat against the window. The star date can be used to calculate a real date (as of TNG). They also have a list of particles that, if detected, mean something is about to happen. A surge of neutrinos means a ship is about to decloak. Chronotrons means we have a time travel episode on our hands. In this case, Star Trek tends to discuss it's tech in "like a hot knife through butter" where they will say something technobabble and then translate for the non-technical (the audience) what this effect is like in terms we will understand.

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  • The tech is rigorously explained in very few SF stories, and it's been that way since the 1930s.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 15, 2023 at 6:35
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Neglecting these principles can create confusion and disbelief among readers or viewers.

Let's use Doctor Who as an example here. I'm aware this is not hard science fiction, but indulge me for a moment.

When the Doctor has to tinker with an alien device, there is virtually no detail spent on exactly how the device works or what the Doctor is needing to do in order to get it to do what they want.

That is because the details are irrelevant to the plot. The actual workings of the machine do not add anything of value. What does matter is (a) what the machine does and (b) how the Doctor changed its behavior, and that's all the info that you usually get.

This is often made very clear by having the sonic screwdriver be an invisible interface to nearly everything (except wood. Sonic doesn't do wood) and skimping on showing the Doctor doing some actual physical tinkering (not always though).

While Doctor Who is space fantasy and not hard science fiction, its narrative device still plays by the rules of science, not magic. It just deals with very advanced science and sticks to only explaining the part that connect to the narrative, not the fluff around it.

The key takeaway here is that detail needs to be relevant, otherwise you're just creating complexity with no payoff. There is some leeway to adding lore without narrative justification, but the lore has to be more interesting to read than it is cumbersome to understand.

Doing so would, however, require me to tell and not show.

You're overapplying this advice into dogmatic territory.

Yes, it is more interesting to show things than it is to have a character dryly talk about them. However, that doesn't mean that you can't ever have a character explain anything. There is a common sense boundary here.

For example, if you're depicting spaceships or advanced technology, I was told it's essential to explain how they function and how they operate. Doing so would, however, require me to tell and not show.

Technically everything your story does is telling. Even the actions are being told to the reader. Again, you're slipping into the territory of dogma.
When taken to its dogmatic conclusion, "show, don't tell" would argue that you shouldn't use any kind of written medium or narration and instead only a silent movie would be acceptable.

I would be more accurate to refer to it as "indirect learning". Someone instructing someone else on the workings of a spaceship is direct learning (the reader can infer that the explanation is targeted at them).

Indirect learning would be demonstrated through consequences. Rather than explaining what inertia is, have someone die because a spaceship accelerated really fast.

Don't have a character explain that cargo freights are unmanned specifically so that they can accelerate at G forces that humans could not survive. Instead, have someone sneak aboard a cargo freight and have others either find their corpse or understand that the freight needs to be stopped because it would kill the stowaway.

Spaceship flies using unicorn farts instead of combustible fuel? Have two characters in casual conversation (about anything else) while taking care of the unicorns in the pens. Have some unicorns get sick and unable to fart and have you characters deal with the challenge of less thruster power.

Advanced technology? Don't bother explaining it, they wouldn't understand it anyway. Stick to what people understand: what does it do for me, what do I need to do to make it work, and what can go wrong when misused? The inner working themselves are fluff and not narratively relevant (unless you make it narratively relevant, e.g. if someone is stealing the plutonium batteries from your device because they need plutonium).

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For an interesting example of how "hard" science fiction is mixed with "sci-fi fantasy", check out Adrian Tchaikolvsky's "Children of..." series. I'm thinking specifically of how he depicts space travel, although there are other examples. He focuses on the effects of the technology, rather than exactly how it works. Some examples:

  • The hibernation chambers that people sleep in during a voyage are known to have bad effects on the body, sometimes killing their occupants if they fail. The story involves explaining how people's bodies change or how they died, but doesn't dive into how the hibernation chamber works or why it fails

  • The systems of multi-generation spacecraft fail, and a big part of the "Children of Time" book revolves around dealing with the failing spacecraft's systems and how to save the people on board. Again, it doesn't explain why the systems fail, just that they are all "in the red" and then explores the consequences of this from a human perspective. The reader doesn't need to know that the Giggling Pin in the Quantum Hyperbolic Fluxgate is failing, just that "life support is in the red" or "she stayed awake too long, trying to fix a failing system and keep them all alive"

  • Eventually, we are introduced to chemical computing running on colonies of genetically enhanced ants. Weird. The exact way that the computations take place are never explored, other than as an exchange of pheromones and the like. It's always made clear that computation is taking place and the advent of the computers is a huge plot point, but the details are swept under the rug because they are not important to the story. The consequences of ant-based computing, such as having the keep a colony alive to keep the computer alive, are important and do not require exposition.

Ultimately, I think that Tchakolvsky does a great job of this, and would be instructive to go see how he does it.

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    Ant-based computing reminds me of Terry Pratchett. That is exactly the kind of thing that would be in a Terry Pratchett book - and it would be explained mostly as you have described - the book would off-handedly mention the colony of ants calculating pi or something; some character would make a reference to having to drop in a dead wasp every now and again; maybe something about the amount of floor space used up now that it's gotten to the 1000th digit.
    – user253751
    Mar 15, 2023 at 18:30
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As a reader, I strongly disagree with what "you've been told" and encourage you to find a way to take this kind of point blank advice in a way that leaves you open to your own style.

For example, arguably the "The Dark Forrest" trilogy by Liu Cixin, which starts as relatively hard SciFi, has long episodes were it talks about an almost real past, and seems to keep the countenance of hard, realistic SciFi throughout, turns into totally non-possible, non-hard SciFi pretty quickly, in my opinion, but for sure towards the end. As a reader, I found the trilogy absolutely great, giving us an awesome spin on the topics it treats, which, to be honest, I have not seen in this way before - and I've been avidly reading SciFi for 30+ years. It opens up a whole new way of thinking.

Another author along these veins would be Vernor Vinge. His books usually have a main "twist" where his universe works not only a little bit unrealistically, but totally so. Sure, his changes are in a way that could, very very theoretically be possible, i.e. he is a little more realistic than Liu Cixin, but still. I can imagine that readers requiring their SciFi to be realistic will scoff at some of his central topics, in books which are both incredibly entertaining, and also thought-provoking.

A third, rather prolific author, would be Peter F. Hamilton, especially with his "Nights Dawn" trilogy. While it is somewhat grounded in reality, the parts of it that make it SciFi are very quickly very advanced. While he does describe how it works, occasionally (but not as deeply as other hard SciFi authors), he absolutely does manage to pull it off in a "show, don't tell" way.

The book "Hyperion" by Dan Simmons is an awesome example where you learn very little about how stuff works technically, and where a lot of it is completely impossible, but which also is incredibly entertaining, thought-provoking, and at no point in time was my Suspension of Disbelief challenged.

I could go on and on. Yes, ground you universe in reality somewhat, but no, you do not need to slavishly follow some rule set in stone. Ian M. Banks, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guinn, Adrian Tchaikovsky etc. - all of those write absolutely great pieces of SciFi, sometimes even milestones IMO, and often with very little explanation of how stuff works; expecting you fully to buy in. On the contrary, sometimes an author will go to great length to explain all his advances in great technical detail; and this can turn into a boring mess, and nothing is worse than a deeply self-contained description which then turns out to be either inconsistent, or still with an unexplained "border" which creates disbelief on top of being a boring technical manual.

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No problem going outside reality, as long as you're consistent about it and don't use it to create a situation where things appear magical and massively overpowered, as that tends to destroy the story rather quickly.

For example if you've got an interstellar war where one side has a drive that allows them to jump right into orbit around the other side's planets and invade without resistance while the other does not have it, or any way to counter it, your story isn't going to be very interesting.

It's the old "avoid deus ex machina situations" mantra.

That's why so many sci fi universes mandate that you're well outside of a body's gravitational pull before you can engage your ftl drives, why some go further and define systems of interstellar "tramways" between stars with well known entry and exit points (which can be fortified, guarded, become trade hubs with border checkpoints, etc.), with other interstellar travel being either impossible or prohibitively expensive. None of this is dictated by the known laws of physics, all of it makes sense within the specific universes. Describing the limitations in the stories is a good idea, especially if they're relevant to the story (why is that space outpost in that specific position? Why do we need to fly for 2 weeks out from Jupiter before we can engage the warp drive? etc.).

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It is not necessary to explain how every piece of technology works. It is boring to listen to the details of yet another FTL system. I want to get to what makes your scifi special.

Gloss over the details of the not-quite-warp-drive, if helps the plot. None of the characters know the details. Or they do know and don't feel the need to explain.

Restrict the real heavy-lifting to that special piece of technology that exists in your universe but not in other universes.

Even then, there are different hardnesses of scifi. The lighter kinds don't even bother explaining the new tech. That is simply not what Star Trek is about.

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