by Keith Morrison
©2006 Keith Morrison -- all rights reserved
As the title of this column (generously created by Cubist) indicates, I have a predilection for wanting 'reality' in my fiction. Now, this is certainly not to say that I demand the story take place in the here and now with nary a hint of the fantastic or the impossible -- far from it! Realism in fiction doesn't mean every story has to be a documentary; rather, it means that the fictional world should have verisimilitude, a sense of being real in its own terms. Call it worldbuilding, call it simple consistency, call it what you will, but you need this sort of grounding in a reality (however fake that 'reality' may be).
But why? They're just stories, after all.
The 'why' is because you, the author, are asking me, the reader, to invest my time in your oeuvre. As such, there's a simple transaction. I'm paying attention; I'd better get something worthwhile out of it. If you, the author, are not willing to engage in that economic transaction, then don't put your work out on the market.
But just as you can't build the 'perfect automobile' because of the wide range of opinion on what represents simple like and dislike, let alone perfection, it's impossible to craft the 'perfect story'. Reader X won't like it, will think it's flawed or is the biggest piece of garbage to leak out of the human brain since someone started scratching on clay tablets; Reader Y will wonder why that very same story hasn't already won the Pulitzer, Nebula, Hugo and Nobel. So in that vein, recognizing that I certainly don't represent everyone, I can only tell you what's important to me: Where the rubber of the fantastic meets the road of the real.
The critical thing is making sense. Sure, magic or science SpiffyTech can make lots of things possible in the story; but for dramatic reasons, they'd better not make everything possible.
"Your Majesty! The Forces of Darkness under the personal command of Lord Evil are approaching the castle and --"
"-- ah... were approaching the castle... Never mind then."
Doesn't exactly hold your interest, does it? The point is, if you want to have an honest-to-god story that people will want to read, therefore, you have to put restrictions on your SpiffyTech. But however you restrict it, the limits on your SpiffyTech will lead to implications that you have to take into account. Because everything is no longer possible, those things that are possible will have repercussions on those that your change doesn't affect directly.
In three words: Limits have consequences. As a concrete example, let's make one single change in our current world and see where that leads us, okay? Imagine that someone invented a functional antigravity machine. Since it's an actual piece of working hardware, and not some net.kook's fantasy, it's going to have its own particular set of operational characteristics, or limits -- after all, we are playing with limits, remember?
Just for giggles, let's say the mass-produced SpiffyTech Standard Antigrav Unit has lifting capacity roughly equivalent to one of the commercial super-light helicopters, say the Ultrasport 254. That particular model has a 55-horsepower engine, and a total lift capacity (passenger, cargo and helicopter itself) of 260 kilograms. So, using that as a basis, we'll say the SpiffyTech SAU, with an X-horsepower engine, can lift (5*X) kg. Give it a 50-hp engine, it can handle 250 kilos; with a 1-hp engine, it can lift 5 kg; and so on.
When engaged, the antigravity effect causes the mass to have the equivalent of neutral bouyancy -- it just floats there. You apply a force to move it in any direction. Its efficiency falls off with altitude so that at, say, 10,000 meters altitude, which is roughly commercial jet altitude, you need to start applying lift because the antigravity effect isn't enough, and by 20,000 meters you are basically back to flying the traditional way.
So there's our SpiffyTech. How does it affect the fictional world?
Well, for a lot of everyday applications, it doesn't change much. For starters, you aren't really going to have flying belts. To lift an average-sized man weighing, say, 75 kg, you'll need a (75/5 =) 15hp power source. Honda produces an 18 horsepower engine that, with its fuel reservoir, weighs 110 pounds. Not something you're going to want to carry around just so you can bypass stairs. So on the small scale, this antigravity doesn't have much of an effect. Its power consumption is simply too high for small engines.
On the other hand, engine output increases faster than its mass (not to mention using different engine technologies). The General Electric T700 turboshaft generates 1700hp with an engine weight of 425 lbs, or about 25 times the power/weight efficiency of the small Honda. A turbine engine pumping out 1700 hp could produce an antigravity effect that could lift 8500 kg. For 1700 hp it isn't that great, since an aircraft can easily beat that. Which makes sense when you think about it, because we based our numbers on a helicopter, and those beasts are intrinsically less efficient than equally-sized aircraft.
Thus far, our antigravity gizmo is looking sort of neat but pretty useless, isn't it? Just as it isn't going to change the small things, it doesn't look like it will change the big things that much either. Boeing and Airbus aren't going to be facing competition. So where is this thing useful?
Well, maybe it might have military applications. Consider the AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter; it has a pair of T700s. Mission loaded (i.e., with crew, fuel and munitions all 'topped off'), it masses about 7300kg. What happens when you replace the T700s with a pair of SpiffyTech antigrav units? Well, to start with, one of those units is more than sufficient to provide all the lift you need (for gravity negation, anyway), so you can dispense with the rotors. With no rotors, you can streamline the hull, thus allowing higher speeds and a larger load of weapons. What you end up with, in essence, is a fighter jet that's maneuverable enough to fill the role of a helicopter. Aircraft carriers wouldn't need catapults or arrestor gear; combat aircraft could operate from any space that is large enough merely to park the aircraft; and so on and so forth.
In other words: A SpiffyTech gadget that, at first glance, has minimal effect on our daily lives, would completely revolutionize military tactics in the same way the plane and the helicopter did. You could write a rip-roaring Military SF adventure, with antigravity assault landing craft and supersonic fighters with hover capacity that provide fire support, yet much would still remain the same. And it would all be grounded (so to speak) in reality.
At this point, the astute reader will have pointed out there are other options. What if the power source isn't on the hovering bit -- why not keep the generator on the ground, and run a power cable to the antigrav unit? Would that open up some new possibilities? Sure it would! Now the possible applications, and possible changes from our world, seem a bit greater, don't they? More options.
The point of this exercise was to show how a well-defined limitation can actually inspire creativity while still keeping a sense of the real, the concrete. Antigravity was merely an example; you could use science or magic. It could be the existence of dragons or vampires, antigravity or FTL or artificial intelligence. Ironically, this kind of self-imposed limitation makes the writer's life easier and more difficult. Difficult, in that you have to think about the world you are creating, and easier, in that you don't have to think of everything in your world because part of it will already be familiar to the audience. In the example I gave, there's still automatic weapons and missiles and radar and so on, all things the audience will have some concept of.
The bottom line is that it comes down to is thinking. Thinking about the implications, and thinking about what readers will take from the story.
If you want to see what happens when writers don't think, you need look no further than the countless examples provided by the original Star Trek series. When I was in university, 'creative use of the Transporter that doesn't involve transporting people' was a running gag that some of us engaged in, all of it based on things the Transporter had been shown to do in one episode or another and then somehow, forgotten by everyone. Just like, well, almost every new technology or innovation that was the subject of the week and promptly never mentioned again.
On the other hand, Stargate SG-1 showed a lot more consistency. New tech was not forgotten; not only did it show up again, but it showed change and adaptation when it did. The presence of alien technology, and aliens, had repercussions in the political and military world, as more was learned and discovered and examined. Basically, the writers didn't press the reset button at the end of every episode.
Neither is the perfect example -- sometimes Trek remembered, sometimes SG-1 forgot -- but in the end, I have to give the credit to the latter. The grounding in the real world, in my opinion, gave the series a better feel. They showed things changing, people adapting, the world growing. In the first season, a massive space battle would have been incredibly out of place. Later seasons, after meeting alien allies with their own fleets and advancing human tech, not so much. The limitations early in the series did not hamper the writers' ability to tell stories; instead, those limitations allowed them to create a richer world, a world that eventually pulled you in deeper, making you care more as a result.
So, there we are. Realism in the fantastic -- not as strange bedfellows as you'd think.