Fiction Science is Not Magic. Unless It *Is* Magic

I see my brother regularly; let’s call him Yan. Yan is a famous curmudgeon, dissatisfied with just about every movies, TV show, or book he’s ever digested, and we often have long talks about what he doesn’t like about The Entertainments the universe offers him. He’s usually pretty savvy in his criticisms, though I’m more forgiving and can accept imperfection as long as there are compensating pleasures offered and so we don’t usually agree on what qualifies as ‘good’ in TV or movies.

One of the things we often discuss is a tendency by bad writers to view any Science Fiction or Fantasy story as a license to do anything, to toss out the very laws of physics. I’m not talking about magic here, you see – I’m talking about the assumption by hack writers that just because a story is SFnal, anything can happen. It’s one thing to have magic in your story. The Jedi can do just about anything, okay, fine – that gets established early on in the Star Wars world and so when Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp, or when Vader chokes the life out of someone who’s on a completely different ship, well, you just shrug and accept it. The rules of The Force are established and that’s fine.

Sometimes, though, you have writers who decide that just because you have, say, a psychic or a spaceship in the story, well, anything is possible. That if a character has one special power or ability, he or she should be able to sprout new ones whenever the plot requires a solution. Of course, sometimes a character with unspecified abilities can believably display a heretofore unknown aspect of them – take Spock stuffing his soul into Bones McCoy in Star Trek 2 – so to a certain extent it depends on how it’s handled.

For the clearest example of the acidic effect this attitude has on SF writing, I direct your suffering eyes to Highlander 2: The Quickening. The special sauce of this movie is the idea that since it’s a SF story, anything goes! And I do mean anything. Though to be fair this movie apparently suffered from meddlesome investors who took a bad movie and made it indescribably terrible, the fact remains that the writers of this movie heard ‘immortals’ and ‘science fiction’ and decided that whatever batshit crazy stuff they came up with would work.

You can, of course, let your imagination run when writing SF/F work, but there have to be rules of some sort. Especially in serial works when a character has, say, dozens of episodes or novels to develop and display their abilities. Suddenly granting them the one power which would solve your plotting problems will not fly, my friend. But then, my brother and I are bitter, bitter people. For example: I still intend to get my $7 back from the producers of Highlander 2. Oh, some day, they will pay me back. I swears it.


  1. Diamat

    Cinema is a major offender in this regard. Soon, we’ll be sitting around watching UGC on Son of YouTube, and paying for it (god help us), but whilst there is still an industry to observe as it rolls around in its highly theatrical death-throes, we’ll have to endure dreck like ‘In Bruges’ which I saw last night in which the ‘Father Ted’-inspired protagonist has a clip of dum-dums emptied into him… and lives.

    What a crap, crap movie.

    So: you don’t think an amalgam of shaving foam and talcum powder resolving itself in a shake-and-bake neoprene ziplock into an energy-discharging weapon was a good idea, then? I thought it RAWKED, but then I was hopped up on Tanqueray.

  2. jsomers

    I think hopped up is possibly the best way to consume mass entertainments in the future. As for “In bruges”, while I found it entertaining enough, it is definitely one of those films which implies that getting shot is like getting a splinter: You may grimace in pain and bleed a bit, but things like climbing several flights of stairs should be no problem, and you certainly won’t *die*, unless the plot requires it.

    What would have been better is if the Colin whatshisname character had suddenly displayed psychic powers at the end, and destroyed Bruges a’la Akira.

  3. Craig

    Excellent example and I totally agree with you.

    I loved the original Highlander movie. The second one not only stunk but took everything that was cool in the first one and negated it. It especially pained me that Connor was changed to an alien. As far as I’m concerned when it comes to Highlander there was only one — the original.

    To a lesser extent the same thing happened with “Pitch Black” and it’s sequel “The Chronicles of Riddick.” In the original, Riddick is one bad ass convict — in the sequel we discover he’s not a human at all… he’s an alien. What? If he’s an alien then maybe he’s not such a bad ass at all. Maybe among the aliens he’s considered a wimp. Who knows?

    So let that be a lesson Mister. Do NOT turn Avery Cates into an alien. And if he is an alien don’t tell us!

  4. jsomers

    “Do NOT turn Avery Cates into an alien. And if he is an alien don’t tell us!”

    Too late! Book 4: “AVERY CATES IS FROM VENUS, System Cops are from Mars”


  5. Craig

    Well… that explains why they don’t get along…

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