Science Fiction Repair Shop: Larger Than Life And Twice As Unreal

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-04-28 12:00:00 No comments

My good buddy Steven Savage and I recently (re-)watched Equilibrium — the Christian Bale dystopian gun-fu movie, about which I ought to say something more expansive in these pages — and had a useful insight worth expanding on:

Equilibrium seems to be built on a simplistic premise, but many people base their own lives on shallow ideas. That is what haunted me about Equilibrium – the idea people would hate their own emotions and claim to build a rational world is too real.

I take this as a reminder to be careful when judging fictional settings. They may seem too simple – but forget that some people hold very simplistic views. They may seem overly complex, but life can be complicated. The question is neither simplicity nor complexity, sophistication or crudity – but do they help us think and feel.

Most works of SF&F, for all their worldbuilding details, are not ultimately intended to be forensically realistic. They're essentially thought experiments, what-ifs. This what-iffery can be made more emotionally grounded by having good characterization and thoughtful attention to moment-to-moment detail — "what the air in the airlock smells like", as a friend of mine once put it. But like all of fiction outside of it, they are not supposed to be absolute distillations of life.

There is a line here that is hard to draw, and even harder to walk. "Realistic" fiction is powerful, because it happens to people we feel we might know, and thus we feel it might even be happening to us. But not all fiction has to be "realistic" to be affective; sometimes it just has to be credible. Sometimes it just needs to hold together long enough to work, and to let us fill in the rest of what it's about on our own.

Any kind of fiction can work like this, I think. SF&F is not unique in that it tries to create a world unto itself; any story that invents even a little does that. But it is unique in that its world-building is often meant to be a significant slice of the story. That produces a sense of obligation to create something that feels like it must operate independently of its creator — as if once wound up it could continue on its own, so finely milled are its pieces and so closely do they join.

To what degree those expectations are aroused, and thus satisfied, depends on what the author telegraphs about their work. We don't expect satirical or comedic work to be held to the same merciless standards of reality as something aiming for psychological, sociological, or political complexity. But we tend to be unfair to things that we assume are attempting to be realistic when they are in fact attempting to be impactful. I don't have a problem with some of the plot holes in Equilibrium because most of what people call "plot holes" are not plot holes; they're ways of trying to measure a story against a standard it was never intended to live up to anyway. A story's job is not to be indistinguishable from some other, possibly existing reality, because if it did that, it wouldn't be possible for it to employ the selectivity and the decision-making that all art is about. The more "realistic" something is, the harder it is to tell us anything that only something unrealistic can.

I'm always fascinated by the criteria people use to gauge how "realistic" a story is, because such things are never objective. It's always about the viewer's threshold for how certain suspensions of disbelief work. I think Heaven's Gate is a terrible movie and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly is a great one, in big part because the former's attempts at "realism" are so risible (e.g,. showing us Oxford and calling it Harvard, and that's not even the worst of it), while the latter never gets caught in that kind of pretentious contempt for the audience. But I think there's room to argue for bigger standards, too — to argue for a more charitable way to talk about what a story wants to do and how it wants to do it, especially for stories that have more on their mind than just forensically reproducing things.

A final note. The hard part with all this, as I've noted in the past, is how not to let any of this turn into an excuse for shoddy workmanship. Maybe the best approach is to be charitable towards the works of others but merciless towards one's own, the better to inspire others (you included) to take away the best possible lessons from those works. And this is not meant to be a vehicle for allowing others to excuse your own indulgences, either; there's no guarantee anyone will do it for your sake, if they are honest.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop realism storytelling