gravity still works, except for dragons. Or rather, it works enough for them that they have to wave their wings to take off and can crash if they fly badly, but not so much that they can't fly in the first place. It's a subtractive explanation, cutting away the bits that get in the way of the desired story.
I'm suspect that if you showed Isaac Newton an airplane, this would have been pretty much his reaction. There's a difference between "something that we don't understand works" and "something we understand doesn't work." Dragons flying and ray guns firing are essentially the same phenomenon.
I'm not sure I follow you on this. If Type A is "we don't understand how it works" and Type B is "we understand how it doesn't work," then your first sentence seems to be telling me Isaac Newton would have thought both dragons and airplanes were Type B. From our vantage point, though, airplanes are actually Type A (Newton just didn't get the physics of it), while dragons are Type B. When you say "Dragons flying and ray guns firing are essentially the same phenomenon," are you saying they're Type B (don't work, and we know why), or that they can essentially be treated as Type A? If the latter, I'm not sure how that's any different from saying "pretend there's a logical reason this works" and spackling over the gaps with magic.
To me, if there's a logical reason it works, it's not magic. *g*
I would suggest that "pretend there's a logical reason this works" is the fundamental basis of all fiction.
I don't disagree -- but that's why I personally wouldn't have a problem with "electricity doesn't work," the example that sparked Mris's post. If you want to tell me that in your world, nobody can build machines that run off electricity, but brains still work and molecules still hold together and all the rest of it, I'm fine with that. As I said elsewhere, in the discussion that started this, I prefer the arbitrary division to lie below the waterline, so to speak: choose some semi-hidden place to break the scientific chain, rather than cherry-picking specific technologies you don't want in your story.
Semantics. Miller's Law. If someone says "X is Y" and that seems false, try reading it as "X1 is Y" and look for some X1 for which Y would be true.
The sort of person who would SAY "electricity doesn't work" is not referring to brains and molecules. S/he is referring to machines that use electricity.
That is how I would read it, yes. And while I freely acknowledge that breaking the chain there is arbitrary, it at least functions like a well-constructed alternate history: you pick your one point of deviation, and extrapolate from there. No machines that run on electricity. Check. But you can still have gaslights and steam engines and gunpowder, without the unspoken assumption that there are light bulbs and telephones and so on just around the corner. I very much prefer that to individually deciding which technologies should be permitted into the setting and which shouldn't, on no particular principle other than "what does the author think is cool?" That's what I think of as "above the waterline" arbitrariness.
Well, nine and sixty processes. Some writers would trust their own sense of cool, write the story, then see if the characters come up with good theories to explain it. (Then go back and tweak details to fit the best theory.)
True. The only actual prescriptive rule in writing is "Do what you're doing well enough that readers are willing to let you get away with it." :-)
Or, "It ain't what you don't do wrong, it's what you do do right."
H/t to Matociqualia et al, in different words.
And what readers are willing to let you get away with will of course vary. I expect there are plenty of readers who think, "Electricity doesn't work," and "Electricity works and also this thing called magic works," are on the same level of supposition. I'm just not one of them.
Whenever there is a panel about having to know things for fiction, someone jumps up to say that you shouldn't worry about what you've got wrong, you should worry about what you've got right, and readers should stop nitpicking and enjoy the story. And I would wager that if I got that audience member to answer questions for five minutes, I could find something that interfered with their enjoyment of a story that someone else thought was nitpicking. Absolutely guaranteed.
I'm sure some fault could be found. But how many readers would reject the whole story because of it? And how much time would the author spend seeking such nits, that could be spent on creating new material that will please many more readers?
Really depends on your audience, yes? If you're writing in SFF and aren't wildly successful, the number of people who are likely to bounce off or at the very least be annoyed by something like "Electricity doesn't work" is probably non-trivial.
Well, a more serious concern might be, how many gate-keepers would be annoyed by it.
I'm not saying "every story is flawed," although that's certainly true. I'm saying that every person who takes this "nits" attitude has things that would throw them out of the story, that they would say were really important, that someone else might not think were important.
If, for example, you had a boatload of British people landing at Plymouth Rock and getting out of their boat and seeing indigenous people living in teepees, and it was not meant to be an alternate history, that's a pretty darned big cultural gaffe. I'm pretty sure I could find people who would say, "Oh, it doesn't matter, because they were trying to give the feel of Indians, and you shouldn't be nitpicky."
And the possibility of it being an alternate history is important. If an author gives people clues and cues that their book is set in an alternate history with the mighty Lakota Empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Rockies, and then it turns out that it's not that at all, it's that that author is completely without clue on the topic of Native American/First Nations cultures not all being the same, that will strongly affect the reading someone who is not similarly lacking in clue will give the book. And it should.
It is perfectly okay for a writer to say, "I don't know anything about science, and I want to say some things about science anyway. I expect that people who know anything about science will be put off my book, but I'm not writing for them." What is not okay is for a writer to say, "I don't know anything about science, and I want to say some things about science anyway. Why are you being so nitpicky?" If an author decides to speak from a position of ignorance, they have to understand that it will not go well with every reader and that it will not be entirely the reader's fault.
Well, I'm not going to nitpick a major premise of your OP.
When authors weigh in on metalwork, they are often really ignorant. And, as a metalsmith, this throws me out of the story, and I start asking myself, "WHY did they not run this by someone who actually DOES such work, to decrease the amount of unnecessary stupid???" etc.
The thing that gets me is that in so many cases, just a quick bit of research would enable the author to avoid some of the really stupid errors. And so when they don't do that, and it's an area in which I know something, it does throw me off.
The answer is the same whether it's metalwork or physics: they didn't think it was important.
We are each allowed to disagree with that assessment.
And to me, "electricity doesn't work" is
cherry-picking specific technologies you don't want in your story.
Whereas "they have steam engines but not light bulbs," is, y'know, sort of how technology works. People come up with stuff at different speeds; people think different things are interesting; people have different inputs, different data sets to reason from. One of the things I loved about truepenny
's last Doctrine of Labyrinths book was that technology was not spread evenly over the world because people don't work like that.
Three things come to mind.
First, I think what bothers me about "they have steam engines but not light bulbs" is the way that people assume the world is going to progress onward to light bulbs -- that technological development is going to happen in more or less the same way it did here. People don't always assume that, of course, but I feel like they tend to do so more the closer the presented time period comes to our own modern moment, such that you can have five thousand years of Ye Olde Medieval Period and nobody thinks it's odd, but five hundred years of Ye Not-So-Olde Victorian Period would have readers asking why they're still stuck on steam tech. And there's some validity to that, in that steam tech was produced by a certain mindset that would probably go on to less cumbersome electricity-driven forms, unless for some reason they didn't work.
Second, this whole discussion would go better if I could cite actual examples of cherry-picking that bug me, rather than hypothetical ones, but I tend to put those books down and so I don't remember them. But I know I've seen things where it's less "steam engines yes, light bulbs no" (which at least is explicable, because you can point to the moment in our own history where A had been developed but B hadn't yet), and more "I don't actually know how technology develops so I don't realize the society I've just put together makes no actual sense." (Which, now that I type that, might translate to me bouncing off the anthropology in place of you bouncing off the physics. That's my waterline, I guess.)
And third, one giant comment thread in, it occurs to me that I possibly wasn't clear enough when I said (back on diatryma
's post that "no electricity" might be a useful and workable dividing line. I would not say outright in the story, "electricity doesn't work." (Especially because who would say that, in a world where it didn't?) I would just decide in my head, okay, I'm developing this world, what tech do I include and what do I exclude, here is the rule I will consistently use to make that decision. Does it need sparks to go? Yes? My characters don't have it, and never will. Let's imagine instead what they might cook up if sparky things weren't the next step after steam.
Kind of like Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters
, where he's imagining what "high tech" would look like in a world where Ptolemy and Aristotle were right. I'm sure there are all manner of finer points upon which his setting would break down if I knew my way better around physics and biology, because a lot of the actual functioning of our world is the consequence of laws that contradict Ptolemy and Aristotle. But he's got a nice, clear rule delineating why tech has not developed the same way and never will
, and that pleases me.
Anyway, I don't know if it bugs you less if I clarify that I think of "no electric tech" as an external rule for worldbuilding, rather than something I'm trying to justify in-story. From your response to the dragons thing, it sounds like less explaining = better result for you, unless the explaining takes into account the knowledge you possess that otherwises pokes holes in the fabric.
And that's entirely fair. Most people who saw the first X-Files movie were not laughing their asses off about the supposed "Dallas" on the horizon of what looked more like West Texas, nor did they later (as trained archaeologists) beat their heads against a table over the apparent Neandertals wandering around that area forty thousand years ago. The aliens don't bug me; the attempt to explain them by means of things that are I KNOW ARE WRONG does.
Yes, exactly: minimal explaining is really much safer.