RogerBW's Blog

Science Fiction Nitpicking 07 September 2017

Why do science fiction fans have a reputation for caring about nitpicky details that no normal person would regard as important?

Because in SF sometimes they are important. One significant strand of SF is the puzzle story: given these axioms, how can that have happened and what can we do about it? Asimov's Robot short stories and Niven's Gil the ARM series are obvious examples, Poul Anderson's puzzle-worlds are similarly focused on this kind of problem, and even something like Clarke's A Fall of Moondust is essentially a story about solving a technical problem.

Where it differs from the 'tec, of course, is that the reader is asked first to absorb a set of impossibilities that may apply only to this specific story, and then to build on them. In the mystery you know that some sort of rules will apply: if someone was shot with a pistol, the gun wasn't five miles away at the time. But as Larry Niven wrote in his afterword to The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton:

Now, how can the reader anticipate the author if all the rules are strange? If science fiction recognizes no limits, then… perhaps the victim was death-wished from outside a locked room, or the walls may be permeable to an X-ray laser. Perhaps the alien's motivation really is beyond comprehension. Can the reader really rule out time travel? invisible killers? Some new device tinkered together by a homicidal genius?

The answer, as he among others demonstrated, is to give the clues, just as a mundane Earth-bound mystery would: put the X-ray laser or the death-wisher right there in the story just as you would the terribly sharp knife, suitably disguised so that it's not obvious what's going on. Even as one gets away from the murder mystery in SF, the same rules apply to other puzzle stories: if you expect the reader to work out some abstruse problem of astrophysics, politics or orbital mechanics, the writer of the SF puzzle needs to lay out the blocks and see if the reader's smart enough to work out how they fit together.

(And, as a side note, this is something that quite a lot of non-SF-readers don't seem to get about SF, particularly the ones who talk dismissively about "the planet Zog": while this is a literature in which anything can happen, that doesn't mean the same is true of any specific story. Ending a story by suddenly remembering the superweapon you left in the cupboard is all very well for Lionel Fanthorpe, but he's not really an example of good science fiction.)

So having established that at least the puzzly sort of SF story needs to give facts and expect the reader to build things with them, I think one should not be surprised that they do so. Lego is not just for making the model on the box, and ideas are not just for solving the puzzle. "But what if we combine this and that?" The invulnerable spaceship hull from another Niven story was put into Neutron Star to make a logic problem; but he found it severely restricted the stories he could write in the universe where it existed, because it made various challenges irrelevant. (And later readers, better at orbital mechanics than him, worked out that Neutron Star doesn't work anyway. At least he admitted it.)

This generates an environment in which any bit of information about the universe is going to be picked up and tried for goodness of fit against everything else that's known. Even if there's no puzzle to be solved right now, maybe there'll be one later, and in any case it's fun to put things together and work out the results. The impossible can be accepted as a convention of the story; the inconsistent is more of a problem.

And thus, finally, the nitpicker. In story A the top speed of the spaceship was given as this; in story B a lower speed is used when answering a distress call. Why wouldn't you get over there as quickly as you can? In the case of TV SF with multiple writers, because nobody wrote a good enough series bible or the writer didn't bother to consult it. In the case of single-author SF, it's rather harder to forgive.

Because although the real world often shows us the appearance of inconsistency, it's easy here to see that we don't have all the information we'd need to pin it down. In an SF story we do, if the author's been playing fair at all. The nature of the form, and its preference for omniscient narrators, primes us to pick those nits. At best, what comes out of inconsistency is a temporary breaking of suspension of disbelief: I can see the steel ribs behind the pretty concrete skin, and I am forcibly reminded that this is a constructed story. At worst, the whole illusion falls apart and one can no longer take it seriously; I've "lost" series that way, not only given up on reading future volumes but felt no inclination to re-read the earlier ones either.

Advice to authors: some of your nitpickers will be quite strange. Find some you can talk to and use them as test readers. When they say "this is wrong" and it seems trivial, consider how easy it might be to fix it anyway; it may be trivial background detail to you, but if you don't fix it you will annoy all of your readers who know about this particular thing. And there are probably more of them than you expect.


  1. Posted by DaveD at 11:40am on 07 September 2017

    "Advice to authors: some of your nitpickers will be quite strange. Find some you can talk to and use them as test readers."

    I can't recommend this highly enough. I've been lucky enough to have the author of this piece do it for me and benefited enormously from the process. Like editors, a couple of people looking for cracks make things better.

  2. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:36pm on 07 September 2017

    The various StackExchanges, such as Worldbuilding are also a terrific resource. https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/

    Telly and movie SF is also guilty of the "Oh they are only SF fans - we don't have to bother with realism" attitude. Like Crime Traveller, where the heroine is a forensic scientist, yet the police utterly fail do do any forensics. Because if they did, the hero and heroine wouldn't need to use their time machine to solve the mystery! Or Outcasts, where the tiny colony is 5 years away from Earth, but the people and the economy behave as if it is Albert Square in Eastenders. The writers forget that when they are not watching SF, the SF fans are watching crime dramas, the news, historical documentaries and so on. They assume we live in an SF bubble.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 01:04pm on 07 September 2017

    But crossover shows often seem to go badly too - Minority Report and Almost Human tried to be Cop Show, But In the Future, but apart from a few interesting ideas the future-ness mostly showed up in the production budget rather than the plots. Frequency and Forever were contemporary cop show plus gimmick (just as much as Castle was, really), which shouldn't be as expensive to make, but still didn't find their audiences.

    I suspect that most of the people who watch cop shows want something predictable (how else can I explain the renewal of Lethal Weapon?) and react badly to weirdness of the SF or fantasy nature. Meanwhile the SF fans don't appreciate the SF being dumbed down.

    So that leads to showrunners thinking of "SF show" as a distinct thing with its own rules and its own fan-base, and at that point it's easy to get into contempt for the audience. I guess…

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